Interview with Beginners Director Mike Mills


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by Focus Feature Films
12 Tuesday 12th July 2011

Prior to Beginners, your last feature film was 2005's Thumbsucker; how long did it the take from scriptwriting to filming? Why was there such a long delay?

I started writing Beginners back in 2005 and it took a year before I felt it was good enough to start showing people.  It took a long time to get the funding in place before I could start to approach the actors, and making films like this is freaking hard! There was rejection after rejection, even after I had Ewan and Christopher on board. We shot the movie in the fall of 2009 and I’d finished editing it by summer 2010 but the film festival circuit and approaching buyers took a long time. Or it took a long time for me! [laughs]

From what we’ve read about Beginners, the film has strongly autobiographical elements to it; how much of it is based in reality, and how much is completely creative license?

It’s a story, but a lot of the stuff about Hal is based on my Dad. It’s a portrait of him, my version. I have two sisters who aren’t in the film but they were there in real life - that’s just the beginning of how it’s my 'abstraction'. But in other ways it very much did happen; Dad did get scars from the radiation; he did love the cookies in the canteen. By the time Christopher was on board we were filming on location and all of these other elements came into the mix, it became very much just a version.

It’s a funny thing – if I were selling it as a memoir then I’d be afraid; it’d be erroneous. But all the ’55 stuff is completely true. I liked setting my parents in their historical context and mixing their story into a larger setting. I tried really hard to make an emotional version of what went on, but my Dad’s version would have been very different to my own, and to his friends’ version and to my sisters’ version... It’s true for me though.

Do you think your parents would have liked the film?

Everybody asks that question. I find it really weird because they’re not here and they’re not coming back and so I can never ask them that. I made the film with the deep desire to learn about them more,  to think about them and remember them and to understand them from a broader perspective of their historical context. I think that’s all just an expression of love really. I think they would feel that. My sisters like it. To them, it wasn’t as personal as everyone would think it is. They understand it’s my version. Christopher isn’t our Dad. That wasn’t our house. From our perspective it’s sort of least personal.

You talked about having “a wee midlife crisis” about ‘who you are' whilst making the film; was the final production a satisfactory catharsis for you? Or are there elements you're still working on beyond the film credits?

When your second parent dies and you’re 38 years old and you’re not married and you did a film that didn’t do that well then you start to really question yourself, you know? “Who am I?” You've lost that barrier between you and the death horizon line; suddenly you’re next.

So you were facing down your own mortality?

Exactly. There was a lot of fear... When my Dad came out for the last five years of his life, I was left with a lot of questions; who was he? Who is my family? Who am I? There was a real confusion about my own sense of self and that was the ‘crisis’ rather than a ‘mid-life’ crisis. A lot of that played itself into the film. Once I finally got to make the film I was actually quite happy - I felt like I was on track; at least I was trying; at least I was being productive. And of course I had such a good time directing the film and editing it too. So it steered me through it I guess.

What’s interesting when watching the film is that whilst Oliver comes to terms with his father’s ‘double life’ as a married gay man for nearly 50 years, there’s still a question mark hanging over his mother... There seems a real sense of sadness there and on a level, it feels like perhaps we get to know very little about Georgia. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

When my Dad came out we started having these new conversations about love and they were much hotter than before. He got much more into my business. And it was nice; I had a much more emotionally engageable father. Our conversations crossed the ‘sexuality gap’ and also the ‘age gap ‘(my Dad was born in 1924 and I was born in 1966) and that’s what the film is really about for me. As a writer I was trafficking that conversation about love. But I couldn’t talk about ‘my Dad and me’ without a piece of my Mom. I knew from the get-go she’d be an elliptical, mysterious character; you don’t really get enough of her. When Oliver is young, you get all of these memories of Georgia and none of his Dad. But they’re just impressions, she’s nothing more than an impression. When Oliver’s older, Hal is very frontal. So Georgia’s less explained, but still really pivotal to the story.

That’s interesting; it feels very much like Anna plays a similarly parallel role to Georgia in that she tells us a lot about how Oliver feels (like his mother) rather than her own story.

I believe that relationships in life are repeated; the relationship with your parents is always going to be repeated somewhere in your own life. Anna always had a lot of ties to Georgia, but then these weird things started happening. For example, when Anna ‘shoots’ Oliver? That was completely improvised by Melanie and by that point I’d completely forgotten that Georgia ‘shoots’ Oliver in the scenes where he’s a child. All these little puns started happening. It was really strange.

At one point in the film, Oliver sprays in giant 3ft lettering "You make me laugh but it's not funny" onto a blank billboard, echoing a phrase on one of your Humans brand ribbon designs. It looks like you had a lot of fun with that, similarly the illustrations Oliver creates in the film...

It’s the line from the ribbon yes! That’s part of the crisis thing; for a long time it didn’t look as though I’d be able to make the film, so when it was green lit I put all these things that only I can do into it, my Humans collection, the graffiti I did and the drawings (especially the firework drawings). I felt like “this is my last film” or “this is the film I’m never going to get to do”, so when it went ahead I wanted to put as much into it as I could. As it took me five years to do the film, I started researching fireworks for Beginners and I got really into drawing them. I did a book on them for Nieves and that was published, and the slow process of the film kept going in the background. The same for another project where I hand drew a thousand rainbows and researched Gilbert Baker and the original 1978 Gay Pride flag; all the research set off these independent projects and I included these in there too, sort of like a ripple effect. There’s a lot in the film.

Beginners is released in the UK from 22 July 2011. Check your local cinema for listing.

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