In this Q&A, “Beginners” writer/director Mike Mills talks about the intersections of his personal and gay history, and the film about his father.
PGN: How hard was it to write the character of Hal/your father? Did you dredge up all your emotions? MM: It wasn’t difficult. Dad died six months before, so I was already in a tough place [emotionally]. Packing up your dad’s stuff and concluding a whole chapter of your life is hard. Writing about it didn’t make it worse — it didn’t resolve anything — but it allowed me to process it and churn on all this incredible stuff that happened. Some of the memories are sad, but I was sad anyway. The emotions are vivid and raw and intense.
PGN: How did you work with Ewan and Christopher on their characters? MM: They were characters — that’s the key thing. I wasn’t asking them to imitate them. I told them to take their predicament and make it their own story. There’s so much overlap in terms of Christopher and my dad in terms of cultured-ness and with Ewan, I told him to work out something on his own to make this real to an audience.
PGN: You make your personal story universal. What made you decide to tell this story? What were the risks about telling this story? MM: Risks — I feared that it’s going to be a narcissistic, self-pitying, navel-gazing memoir. But I’ve loved so many personal films that are more communicable than private. “Persepolis,” for example. That was so real and specific, and I have no idea about being Iranian. This was my way of talking to people.
PGN: Did you have an inkling that your father was queer while you were growing up? MM: In real life, the story is different. I have two sisters that I didn’t include in the film. One of my sisters, when I was younger, said my pop was gay before he was married. But being a good American family, we didn’t talk about it. But to be honest, during my adult life, before he came out, he didn’t seem very sexual. He was very polite and proper. His gayness was not surprising — and yet, what was surprising when he came out was his lusting after men and really wanting to have sex at age 75.
PGN: There is a scene of Hal and Oliver talking about rainbow flags, and other bits of gay history sprinkled throughout the film. Can you discuss why you included so many images and elements of queer history? MM: I was trying to show how my gay [knowledge] and my parents’ history intersected. I showed my parents’ 1955 wedding photo, and 10 blocks away Allen Ginsberg was writing “Howl.” The rainbow flag sticker scene was something out of my sister’s experience. But I didn’t know the flag’s origins, so I was lucky to get the footage of [flag designer] Gilbert Baker. A lot of the film is tracing back history — not just gay history, but even the dog’s history. Oliver is doing that himself, asking, How did I get here? Where did I come from?
PGN: Do you still have your dad’s dog, and do you talk to him? MM: I have a Border Collie mutt named Zoe. I talk to her all the time. But I did inherit my dad’s Jack Russell. He passed away two years later.
PGN: What do you think was the best lesson you learned from your father? MM: I think my gay dad taught me a lot about love — how uncontainable, how uncontrollable and how messy love is. And you have to go through that. His gay years — not just his relationships, but his community — gave me a new model on how to accept people better. And his willingness to risk is pretty contagious.
PGN: With this being one of the few films about gay parents and straight kids, who do you think is your audience? MM: I wanted to reach out to people when I was writing it. I wanted to communicate the inspiring energy my dad had. I didn’t think of a gay or straight audience. I have been so happily surprised that gay and straight, old and young viewers find different connections to the story. What surprised me is that I’ve met so many straight kids of gay parents!