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Mike Mills Interview Part 2: Beginners

Posted by Alex Moshakis,

In the second part of our conversation with multi-talented hyphenate Mike Mills, whose new film Beginners is causing a bit of a stir, the designer-turned-director talks about what it’s really like having Ewan McGregor play him in a movie, about his many diverse references, and about the importance of saying “dibs”…

It’s Nice That: One of the things we get to do as kids, maybe as adults too, is to speculate over who exactly would play us in a film. But you got to actually do it, and you picked Ewan McGregor, a Scot!

Mike Mills: There’s actually no Americans in the movie. Christopher [Plummer] is Canadian, Mélanie [Laurent] is French, and Goran [Visnjic] is Serbian. My family never fitted neatly into the American box. You know those Americans who love Europe and love everything non-American, I’m one of those guys. But Ewan, you know, is such a good naturalistic actor. He’s not afraid to be emotionally sincere and authentic on screen, and to really reveal a part of himself. And I could see him doing the sort of graphic designer – this kind of shy, kind of restrained guy; someone who’s thinking a lot, and who has a humour, but who’s not this big extroverted character – I could see him doing that.

How does it feel to work with someone who’s playing a character whose experiences are so similar to those you’ve had?

It’s not as personal as everyone thinks. It’s fun. I love being a writer-director, and I loved being with Ewan – he’s an adorable, charming and really easy-to-be-with man. But by the time I was working with him there was already an abstraction, which comes from the process of writing. Scripts, even those as weird as mine, have scenes with their own beginnings, middles and ends – they are turned into drawings, and by that point they aren’t my experiences anymore. And then of course you have the film crew, and you’re filming at locations that aren’t your house, and there are actors…

The goal was never for the actors to mimic us. I was lucky – I always pushed actors to use their instincts. When they asked a question, I’d ask a question back. When they asked, “How should I knock the lamp off the table,” I’d say, “Well, how do you think?” It’s pretty much how I direct. And nothing Ewan did made me think, “Oh, that sounds horrible.”

You mentioned (in Part 1 of this interview) that film to you is like a box in which you can put all of these different things – graphics, photography, music, “cathartic, emotional scenes”. Where do your references come from?

So many places. I’m doing a blog at the moment, on the Focus Features website, which includes everything that influenced me for the movie. Obviously there’s Godard, who actually influenced me a lot when I was a graphic designer, before I was making films – I think he’s one of the best graphic designers there is. And there’s those Charles and Ray Eames films; those very didactic, educational films. And William Carlos Williams, who’s so concrete and small but who then seems so huge!

And Charles Bukowski is the same, who we know is an influence…

It’s the way Bukowski talks about simple life in a way that’s just magical. Then there’s an artist called Hans-Peter Feldman, a German artist who did a whole load of little books of different things: sequences on women’s knees, for example, or un-made beds. And Sophie Calle and Christian Boltanksi – the way they use objects and stills. And the film, The Perfect Human, by a German guy called Jørgen Leth, which is so expositional and didactic that it becomes lyrical and strange.

How much of an influence is your wife Miranda July? We can’t imagine what your household is actually like…

It’s weird – we don’t talk about what we’re woking on a whole lot. It gets old after a while, and we have to say, “OK, no more talking about work for the next two hours.” Of course we’re together all the time, and we see the same things, but we’re different enough. We do things really differently, and we work in different ways. Miranda writes in bed, likes to take lots of breaks during the day, and needs to pretend like she’s not working. I have to start at 8.30am, go through to 6pm, and work through lunch and not take any breaks. I’m programmatic. So it’s not like we’re this little art house.

We do have this thing where, if someone comes into the room and falls, for example, we’d each shout “dibs.” If something good like that happens, or like if a balloon flies past, we each have to claim it – we have to say “dibs” first if we want to write about it!

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Posted by Alex Moshakis

Alex originally joined It’s Nice That as a designer but moved into editorial and oversaw the It’s Nice That magazine from Issue Six (July 2011) to Issue Eight (March 2012) before moving on that summer.