Death doesn’t necessarily give you the final word in an argument. That’s what Mike Mills discovered in the course of writing the script for Beginners. In the R-rated film, which Mills also directed, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) learns who his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), really is after his dad comes out of the closet at age 75, before dying of cancer five years later. Mills happens to be an expert on the subject: He went through the same experience with his own father, Paul, who died in 2004. ”He just became so much more hot-blooded and engaged,” the filmmaker says. ”It became a much more interesting and real relationship between me — his straight son — and my new gay dad. We would have these amazing conversations about love. And then when he passed away, that conversation wasn’t over in my mind. So the script started where the conversation ended.”
The movie, which debuted to positive buzz last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, unfolds in non-chronological flashbacks from Oliver’s point of view. We see memories of Oliver’s parents’ unusual relationship; Hal’s revelation of his true sexual identity; his terminal illness and eventual death; and the numbing period of grief Oliver endures while mourning him. That last chapter coincides with Hal meeting a woman he slowly falls in love with. Since opening in limited release June 3, Beginners has been earning rapturous reviews — perhaps because it’s the rare summer movie whose appeal lies not in superheroes and one-upmanship through razzle-dazzle special effects, but in its stirring performances and universal themes of memory, loss, and the mystery of love.
Mills, 45, a graphic artist-turned-filmmaker — he directed the 2005 oddball indie Thumbsucker — sensed there might be a film to be made of his father’s coming-out story after he asked his dad how he ended up with a woman in the first place, especially since she’d been aware all along that he was gay. (The two had known each other since junior high school.) ”What he said to me exactly was ‘She took off her Jewish badge, and I took off my gay badge, and we got married,”’ Mills recalls. ”I was like, aha! That was the night I could see how to talk about this. It isn’t just a narrow memoir, but actually reflects back into a larger historical conversation.”
That said, Mills is quick to point out that while the movie does borrow directly from his own life (down to Hal’s Jack Russell terrier that Oliver inherits), Beginners isn’t strictly autobiographical. For instance, Oliver romances a quirky French actress (Inglourious Basterds‘ Mélanie Laurent), while in real life Mills is married to American artist/director Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know). He also has two sisters who don’t exist on screen because Mills didn’t want to encroach on their privacy. ”They would have a different version of this,” he says. ”My dad would have a really different version. My dad’s friends would have a really different version. I knew that when I started, and maybe that’s the only way I could tell this: knowing that I’m not writing the all-encompassing version of my dad and that people aren’t that simple. Life isn’t that simple. It gave me permission to blur the lines between fact and fiction.”
Part of that blurring meant allowing Plummer to create his own character, not an exact replica of Paul Mills. ”Mike very wisely said to me, ‘You can’t imitate my father, because you never knew him — I barely knew him.’ He guided us very well, but he did leave us our freedom to do what we wanted,” says Plummer, whom Mills first approached about taking the role by writing him an impassioned letter. (”A delightful letter,” the actor laughs. ”I should have it framed and hung from my neck.”) ”He was so supremely confident,” Plummer says of Mills’ on-set demeanor. ”He’s so bright, with such a modern take on everything. I felt as though he’s been in a director’s chair for years.”
The creative collaboration that Mills had with his actors resulted in a film that the director is pleased with, and one that he hopes his mother and father would approve of: ”It’s already a strange thing, writing about your parents,” he says. ”They’re gone, so I kind of felt like I had permission. I felt like I was doing it out of love and curiosity. I was trying not to be sentimental.” He pauses. ”If I ever see my parents again, that’s what I’m going to tell them.”