A designer turned music video director turned filmmaker, Mike Mills’ latest movie, Beginners, is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s father coming out at 75 years old, after 40 years of heterosexual marriage. Exploring time, growth and most importantly memory (particularly its limitations), Beginners is a sometimes cathartic but never overly sentimental retelling of personal experience. We asked Mike to tell us more…
It’s Nice That: We know Beginners is autobiographical in parts, but how much of a true story is it?
Mike Mills: I have two sisters, who aren’t characters in the movie, and what’s strange is that they probably have completely different versions of these same events, from their perspective. I’m sure if we discussed it we’d argue about it. I’d say something happened in one way and they’d say, “No, it happened like this!” I don’t really believe in objective reality, and, in a way, that’s what the movie is all about. It questions what’s real. There is a lot of true stuff about my dad, lots of facts. He really did have tattoos on his chest from the radiation registration, for example, and it’s in the movie. But when I try to remember that actual moment there are so many holes in the visual: Where was the machine? Where was the chair? Were the lights on or off? It’s like a still. There’s no motion, just one angle. Memories have all these limitations. They’re like little movies. Bad little movies. And I see the film as being more like a portrait, which implies how subjective it is.
Why did you decide to tell this story?
It was more like: How could I not? My dad coming out is an incredible story. And doing it at 75, risking so much, embracing life and love and his own vulnerability… For me, especially in my genre, it’s the perfect story. I didn’t set out to make a memoir, or a therapy piece. I meant it to be a story, and it was the best film I could imagine doing.
Why, given that you work in so many different ways – as a designer and an illustrator and a photographer – did you choose to use film?
At the beginning I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just knew I wanted to make something about my parents’ decisions; how love and sex and relationships are historical; how the personal is political. When my dad died, I became so interested in their marriage – why it happened, how the fuck it happened. And film, to me, is the biggest box I can use. I can put graphics in there, and photography and music and then these cathartic, emotional scenes.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
You know, films take so long to make it’s hard to actually like them when they’re finished. Me and Miranda [July, Mills’ wife], and all of the filmmakers we know don’t actually watch our own films much after we’ve made them. There are lots of things I could have done better. Sometimes I think, “I wish I’d done this.” Or, “I wish I’d shot that scene from that angle,” you know? But mostly I feel fucking lucky; lucky because of how it worked out as well as it did, lucky because of getting to do all the things I got to do, lucky because of the audience it’s reaching. Of course I want to do better, and I feel like I can do better, but by and large I feel both grateful and lucky I’ve actually been able to do it.
Read the rest of our conversation with Mike on It’s Nice That tomorrow.