Mike Mills didn’t really know his father until he came out. When the director’s dad came swooshing out of the closet at the ripe age of 75, after decades of being married to a woman, not a moment was wasted. He lived freely, wildly and, most of all, gayly. And then he died.
Mills’ father lives on, though, through the director’s very personal, deeply emotional “Beginners,” which casts Christopher Plummer as out-and-proud Hal and Ewan McGregor as his son, Oliver.
When we met up with Mills in Los Angeles, sitting in a Four Seasons suite, the filmmaker spoke candidly about his dad-inspired dramedy – from dressing him in gay apparel to the gay porn they watched together.
How did you manage to portray the gay character, Hal, in such a non-stereotypical way? Did it have something to do with the fact that the character was very real to you?
Yeah – and Christopher didn’t think of him as a gay character; he just thought of him as a man in love with another man.
Ewan said the other night, because people were asking him about that since he plays so many gay people, “I don’t think of it as a gay character, because how do you play that? What would that be?”
How much of your father is actually in the movie?
A lot, and then also not very much. Christopher and my dad are pretty different. Hal is my semi-autobiographical father who’s really a part of my personal life and connection to larger American history like Ginsberg and Milk. The film came to me because my gay dad and I would have these wonderful arguments, just more intense conversations about love. We were talking a lot about why I wasn’t married, and I would ask, “You want me to get married and you were just married for 44 years to the wrong person?”
Do you always refer to your dad as two people – the gay one and the straight one?
Yeah, I have a gay dad and a straight dad, and they were pretty different people.
When your dad finally came out, how much did you have to school him in gay culture?
(Laughs) He jumped in real fast. And I think he wanted to have sex with a lot more guys than he had sex with, but he had a wonderful community of friends who really took care of him. I’m a straight guy, but I have a lot of gay friends and I lived in New York for 15 years during the ’80s, so there were some things I knew.
That gay pride flag scene happened to my sister and him. He had a bumper sticker on his car and he goes, “You know, that means gay pride.” My sister’s like, “Yes, Dad.” He was pretty surprised, because he’s so used to living in such a codified gay world. It was totally underground, and I remember he had this leather bracelet ring, like an S&M thing, and I was like, “Pop, you do know what that’s for, right?” I’m still not sure if he knew. (Laughs)
What did you learn from him about the gay scene?
I think I knew this but it wasn’t a part of my life: him being 75 and having crushes on all these younger guys and they were almost never reciprocated. It was really heartbreaking to watch.
He was trying to relive a part of life he was never able to live.
Or, like so many gay and straight men, we like the younger ones – especially in the gay scene, which is pretty ageist.
Elderly gay people are rarely portrayed in film. By having one in your movie, are you making some kind of statement?
I wasn’t. I was just talking about my dad. I’m really happy to have the gay history in the movie and to have a gay-positive film, but as a straight guy, I wouldn’t feel like I’d have the right to make a gay movie unless I had some access or something to report that was specific. So I love that it’s really cool that I have an older gay guy in my movie – it just happens to be my dad, and that’s how I got there. That it’s even more unseen makes me all the more proud.
But you’re gay adjacent.
I feel very gay adjacent. I moved to New York when I was 18. I had so many friends who were gay. So many teachers I admired were gay. All my classes were about heterosexism, so I felt very gay adjacent for a long time.
You mention how the movie makes historical references to gay culture. And to complement the film, there’s your book, “Drawings from the Film Beginners,” that documents many queer moments in history – including a favorite: the Anita Bryant pieing. Why did you include all these historically gay moments?
I wanted to have some queer history in there. To me, the history of love has to include the history of the gay struggle to be part of our understanding of love. And I love everything about the Anita Bryant pieing. It’s such an amazing American moment.
What do you remember most about your dad being gay? Is that in the movie?
My parents were very frugal, Depression-era kids, so I would upgrade him to, like, the Gap. Then when he came out he’s all Club Monaco and French Connection. I remember all his friends a lot. All of a sudden the house was full of all these guys and there was a party every night – movie night, dinner club night, book night.
Did you hang around for those?
To be honest, I loved all my dad’s gay friends and they were inclusive, but as the straight son I was a little out of the loop. My dad had such a hunger to talk to and be mirrored by other gay men, and it was amazing to see – and it was slightly non-inclusive, so it didn’t always feel like it totally made sense for me to just be hanging out during movie night. (Laughs)
But I saw some movies – I wish I knew what this movie was. It had this crazy sex scene with this guy in a full latex S&M suit with a plug and all that. It was a pretty intense sex scene with this guy in a suit, you know, getting sodomized. And me and my dad and all his friends were watching it and having, like, lemonade. (Laughs)
When Hal came out, Oliver seemed genuinely happy for his dad, and he processed it so well. Was that how you dealt with it, too?
Yeah. It’s not easy to have the person who was married to your mom for 44 years change his identity – and not because he’s gay, but just because you’re like, “Whoa, what happened? Who were you?” My dad got so much more interesting and engaging and involved.
What were the most important real-life characteristics or moments for Christopher and Ewan to get into the film?
It’s the energy, and Christopher had it from the get-go. I never had to tell Christopher anything about being gay. I would tell him lots of stories because he liked them. Everybody likes stories about my dad. But it was never with a goal of imitating or being like him. Christopher had said, “Tell me one of your stories. Let me steep myself in your father.” And that was a really good word, because that’s what it’s like – you get infused with the energy, but he was still his own entity.
The thing that I most wanted them to get was just how much this guy went for it and how brave he was in lots of ways – not just with coming out, but being 75 and having a huge crush on this guy. So just being a 75-year-old guy in love, that’s a lot right there. Then overcoming all the fear and self-loathing that he internalized from our culture about his gayness, those are things that were super key.