by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
I found writer/director Mike Mills' Beginners - starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent - to be nearly perfect. The story of lonely artist Oliver (McGregor), the movie weaves together disparate strands of narrative, going from past to present. It follows our hero's love affair with beguiling yet wounded French actress Anna (Laurent) while also showcasing his emotionally surreal relationship with his elderly father (Plummer), an esteemed art historian who has recently come out of the closet and is fighting cancer.
I sat down with Mills and McGregor to discuss the film while they were attending the Seattle International Film Festival. While our wide-ranging conversation touched upon a number of topics, our time together was much too short.
'This is where my parents met,' said Mills. 'They went to Garfield High. I keep thinking that [Beginners] kind of started here, in a funny way. But I was born in Berkeley, California, and we lived in Santa Barbara, so I moved the story to L.A. because that's where I live and where I know.'
Much of the script was inspired by Mills' relationship with his own father, who came out to him as Gay after the death of his mother and proceeded to live the kind of life he'd denied himself up to then. But while the inspiration sprung from reality, that doesn't mean events in the film paralleled Mills' life in absolute symmetry.
'The body and soul and psyche and spirit and energy is actually pretty different,' he admitted. 'Christopher [Plummer] isn't my dad, and that was never the goal. It was more to just take this man's predicaments and desires and fears. Christopher is a bit more grand. He customizes in some very nice ways, and actually helped me tell a better portrait of my dad.'
'There's this scene where he's telling [Oliver] how the mom proposed to him and how [she] knew, and that scene was really short [originally]. Christopher came to me and said that he needed to tell more because Oliver was being mean and judgmental and he felt he needed to defend himself. He just kind of roughed it out and I filled in some of the facts, and I loved that when it got to that kind of place, I knew I was getting somewhere.'
Due to the nonlinear narrative and how much is going on (and the fact there's a talking dog), there was potential for Beginners to lapse into melodramatic sentimentality or overindulgent whimsy. Yet the movie never does that, a fact the director is quite proud of. 'I remember saying [to the cast], 'Oh my god, help me keep this from being a narcissistic, self-pitying, sentimental memoir,' laughed Mills. 'I was like, 'You guys have to do it now. You have to own the characters, take it over, make it your own story, and communicate with the audience.'
'I was afraid of it being sentimental. I didn't want it to be. I love films that are naturalistic and organic, where you feel that the truth of life is in there but hopefully not manipulative. Ewan and Christopher really have something very alive between them and I kept trying to put wood under that fire so [the film] wouldn't be just my family and my stuff.'
'You're very kind to say that,' interjected McGregor, 'but also it would never be that way [overly sentimental] because the writing wasn't that way. What you see was more or less on the page. It didn't ever come across as sentimental or self-pitying. It was never like that.'
'And maybe a piece of that is [due] to my real dad's energy,' concluded Mills. 'That's the first thing Christopher said: 'I love that it has no self pity. Not a drop.' And I was like, 'You would say that, Christopher, because you were born in .' That is that generation. You don't complain, you don't whine, you keep going forward. Especially when my dad came out, he was even more that way, going for more of [what] he wanted and never looking back.'
For McGregor, being a part of Beginners was an easy call. While the actor has appeared in projects big (Angels & Demons), small (Miss Potter), and culturally significant (the Star Wars prequels), his process of picking scripts hasn't changed much since his Danny Boyle double-whammy days in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
'I don't get my pick of material,' he admitted. 'I rely on what comes my way. & I read scripts as they come in and generally I don't know very much about them [beforehand]. It's what grabs me. This one grabbed me.'
In Beginners, Mills refuses to patronize, refuses to give his characters an easy villain to blame for their misfortune. At the same time, the director does find a few places to point some fingers, and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not he's justified.
'There is a villain,' Mills admitted, 'and to me, that is American history. There's the psychiatrist who says [Hal's] Gayness is a mental illness, and the way the vice squad is in the film, that's a real institutional villain. It's quiet and it's in the background, but it is there. Even the anti-Semitism that's in the story with the mom who gets kicked off the swim team for being half-Jewish - it's that history that they're all up against.'
'In terms of love, the villain would be these old stories, these old fears. There's this monologue towards the end where [Oliver] says we finally stopped the stories in our heads and I could see Anna in 2003 saying, 'I love you,' crying, talking, and all of that. For me, these are all the more insidious villains because they're internalized; they're the villain we half-help crush us down.'
'It's all those things, right? My real dad I don't even know. What was his commitment to my mom? Was it all self-sacrifice? Did he really love her? It's so ambiguous. One day I can feel one thing; one day I can feel another.'
Tackling these contrasting themes and making them resonate was important to McGregor, and although the film itself presented plenty of challenges, the actor wanted to dig into every one of Oliver's cells. The trick he and Mills came up with to help with this was novel, and made the actual shooting of the picture much more engaging and energetic.
'We shot two films,' explained McGregor. 'We shot the father-son story in its entirety, and then we stopped and rehearsed. After that, we shot the second film, both more or less in order. My looking back, my remembering stories that took place with my father while with Anna, I was literally able to do that, I was literally able to recall those moments because we'd shot them already.'
'And we shot them differently,' added Mills. 'Christopher and Mélanie are so different, so it kind of changed the whole tenor. It's like me and Ewan went and met all these other people. We sort of had this traveling show, shot the dad's story all blocked off and in very careful tracking shots. Theatrical. But the stuff with Mélanie was handheld and in the round. I'd always encourage people to not block it off and to go anywhere they wanted, especially with the love story. I didn't want them to be controlled. I wanted them to be wild.'
Looking back, McGregor was reticent to state which characters have been his favorites or which films have meant the most to him. At the same time he understands where he has come from, looking to challenge himself and improve as an actor while not shying away from the performances he's given in the past.
'They all have meant something,' he said proudly. 'They all have to mean something. Different degrees, I suppose, but if you're connected to what you are doing - and god hope you are - then you're always exploring elements of your own life. I don't know which one meant more or less, it's difficult to say because when you make a movie it's for people to watch so it is up to them.'
'Some of the films obviously changed my life. A film like Trainspotting changed the course of my life because it was the film that kicked me into people's consciousness in a more international way. But there were other films that were really important to me that other people didn't take much notice of and that's fine. And I don't wish that they would have gotten [more acclaim]; it's just the way things are.'
'It can be disappointing if people don't see them, but it doesn't matter to me so much because people come up and talk about all of them at some point or another. A film like Velvet Goldmine, which didn't do much business, is probably one of the films people talk to me about the most. It maybe didn't work 100 percent as a film & but it was a great attempt at something different.'
'Or like The Pillow Book, which was so important to me. I can see how it defines me as an actor, that film. It was my second movie, and I remember it being like this beautiful dream. & What we achieved in that film is so beautiful, and I love what it is about and I learned so much.'
With potentially five films coming out in 2011, one might wonder if overexposure is something McGregor worries about. 'I like to work,' he said with a grin. 'I really do. I like to make films. I've had a nice run of it, and it happens from time to time when they all sort of jam up. As long as you like what you're in and you feel it is worthwhile, then it really doesn't matter.'
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