Beginners: Director's Statement

Director Mike Mills shares his personal insight on the film Beginners including early letters to actors Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.

Beginners started when my father came out of the closet. He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny, and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty, and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away 5 years later to cancer he was energized, reaching out; he wasn’t in any way finished.

This script was developed with the belief that something this personal can become universal. The concrete details of my father’s life, the real struggles, and all the real humor gave the film an authenticity that I hope will make it more powerful and more emotional for all kinds of people. The historical sections of the script connect these characters to our larger shared history. 

The basic action is like a two-way street: Hal is teaching Oliver how to love Anna, and Oliver's love with Anna is showing him things he never understood about Hal. Hal's story is very modernist, the obstacles are big and external: 1950s conservatism, homophobia, old age, and cancer. Oliver and Anna are post-1960s children and their love story is truly contemporary. Their obstacles are internal; they are haunted by the contracts, compromises, and the hidden sadness, of their parents. To Hal, hiding his real sexuality behind the mask of a traditional marriage was acceptable and necessary to combat the external obstacles of his historical moment. To Oliver, the negatives of this agreement - its toll on love, and the abandoning of what’s true for his parents – are unbearable. Ultimately, Hal teaches Oliver how to undo the locks and lies that he himself created.

The experience I'm most trying to communicate with Beginners is that of an adventure. The feeling of breaking something open. While this film has illness and death, it’s about beginnings, change, and how deeply funny life can be in its most serious moments. While this story is specific, I did not approach it as a “small” film, and definitely not a “quirky” film or even an “indie” film. I only get to tell this story once, so I wanted it to be bighearted, for a big audience, progressive and innovative, and like my father – deeply wanting to connect with people.

I wrote letters to Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer asking them to be in the movie. Here is a little from each of those letters.

 [to Christopher;]

Having hidden from the gay world for his whole life, he was at 75, like a teenager: anxious and excited to join, naive about all the cues of gay culture, and very susceptible to the emotional upheavals of new love. While he was very shy as a young person, and he was deferring and self-sacrificing through his adult life, he exposed himself to risk over and over at the end – he risked by coming out to me, my sisters and his friends; by trying to catch up with the contemporary gay social scene; and, most of all, by falling in love. While his illness came only five years later, he’d tire all of us out with all the things he wanted to do.  I have tried to make a portrait of him that is filled with love but not sentimental or afraid to show his selfishness.  I do not seek to create a replica of my father, but a version of his desires and problems that is real for you and me and the other actors as we make this story real for an audience. As a director, I’m never locked into the words that I’ve written, or my preconceptions about a character or a scene. I believe in the energy of the moment and being surprised. I plan to rehearse for two weeks, and in general I’m trying to create an atmosphere of play and exploration, where we get to nuanced moments that none of us could have predicted.

[to Ewan;]

When each of my parents passed the grief wasn’t all downward and heavy. There was sort of an explosion in me, an overwhelming feeling that life is quickly rolling by. All that I wanted but haven’t tasted became crucial. For me, this was to find someone, and to finally stay with someone. So, I couldn’t sleep, I needed to do everything right away, I was funnier, and meaner, I took more risks, and I was willing and able to change. 

-- Mike Mills