As he welcomes an interviewer to his table at The Mansion on Peachtree, “Beginners” director-writer Mike Mills has a request: “May I film your handwriting? It’s very nice. I’d like to do an entire documentary just on how people write.”
It is this precise attention to detail that makes Mills’ critically acclaimed new film so emotionally affecting, frank, funny and ultimately such a moving movie-going experience in a summer filled with flying robots and 3-D pirates. The autobiographical project starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and luminous French actress Melanie Laurent opens in Atlanta Friday.
The script for “Beginners” first began to write itself 12 years ago when Mills’ father came out as a gay man at age 75 and how his heterosexual son came to terms with a father suddenly experimenting with house music and a younger boyfriend. Five years later, Paul Mills was gone at age 80 from terminal cancer. The basis for “Beginners” was Mills’ own grieving and the revelation of the true origins of his parents’ unique marriage that appeared to him as he slowly peeled back the layers of their relationship.
Since unveiling the project last year at the Toronto Film Festival, Mills has been going city to city, hat in hand to introduce the deeply personal film to audiences at word-of-mouth screenings. “For a filmmaker, you don’t ever really get to see and talk to the people who see your movies,” he explains. “And that’s kind of why you spend all that time making movies in the first place. It’s a nice carrot at the end of the day when you get to go to a screening and hear what people think. It’s food a filmmaker needs to go on with his work. It’s wonderful to communicate with strangers and to have their attention for 100 minutes in a dark room. It’s a weird honor that is very important to me.”
The filmmaker, who first made waves in the indie film world with the lovably kooky comedy “Thumbsucker” in 2005, says it was never a question that he would make a film about the profoundly odd curveball thrown in his personal life. “I didn’t have much of a choice with the way I make things,” he admits laughing. “Of course, I’m going to make a film about this! I needed to capture on film how crazy those last years with my dad were. Crazy in a good way. ‘Thumbsucker’ found an audience but it wasn’t like people were calling and saying, ‘What’s your next movie?’ I didn’t know if there would be a next movie. It allowed me to be brave and say ‘[expletive] it, if I only get to make one more film, this is going to be the one.’ I put everything into it. It was the last five years of my dad’s life rubbing off on me. He was emboldened. It was punk. I enjoyed remembering my dad while working on this and I enjoyed the weirdness of trying to write from your parents’ perspective. I’ve enjoyed this high stakes game of ‘Did I get it right, pop?’ “
You read it here first: Christopher Plummer will be on Oscar’s short-list for Best Supporting Actor next year for his fearlessly funny portrayal of Hal, the suddenly gay dad who’s posting hilariously explicit personal ads online. McGregor is equally brilliant in his role of Oliver, Hal’s stunned, emotionally stilted son. To get both gifted actors on board his modestly budgeted film, Mills began by writing letters to both.
“The act of writing a letter is very personal,” Mills explains. “It was me putting everything on the line and being open and real about why I wanted them to play the roles. Thankfully, it worked because they met with me.”
While younger actors might hesitate about a role that required you to wear an ascot and engage in intergenerational same-sex kissing, Mills says Plummer, at age 81, dove directly into the character. “He’s very cosmopolitan and he speaks very progressively about the gay people he’s known in his life and their struggles. He’s a very worldly man. It was never an issue. And as Hal, he knew intuitively how to go back and forth between something potentially dramatic and sad and then merging it with wit. He got that those moments aren’t mutually exclusive. That they can pile up on one another. Forget that it was my dad, Christopher had a deep, thorough respect for the character and that’s why it works.”
Of the very early Oscar buzz for Plummer’s role, Mills says: “It’s incredibly sweet and a honor that anyone is saying that. He completely deserves it in a million ways. But for me, that’s beyond amazing that anyone is talking like that.” Mills pauses, beams and adds: “And I will just be quiet about it.”