Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mike Mills Talks - Beginners

Over the course of the summer KCET is hosting a Cinema Series at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Nine special nights showcasing eight new movies before their theatrical release along with one classic Johnny Mercer scored film. Each screening will also include a Q&A immediately following the film with actors and filmmakers hosted by film critic Pete Hammond. The first film of the series was "Beginners" written and directed by Mike Mills who was nice enough to attend despite having a very busy schedule. Checkout some of the highlights from the insightful Q&A below...

"Beginners" marks Mike Mills second feature narrative. His first film was "Thumbsucker" which opened to moderate critical acclaim. Beginners was picked up last year at Toronto Film Festival by Focus Features something that Mike Mills said he, "kissed the ground" as soon as he found out. Director Mike Mills has every reason to be thankful because there isn't a whole lot of money for independent film these days. Studios want the next big franchise and to have two movies made in this kind of environment is something to be happy about. Focus Features is initially releasing Beginners in 5 theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday June 3rd something director Mike Mills said was, "a pretty standard independent release." Expansion into further cities is expected.

In "Beginners" Oliver's father reveals himself to be gay at the age of 75 and also that he has terminal cancer. The drama is actually based on Mike Mills real life father. Mike said, "It was weird to turn family into characters," but the writing helped him with cope with the loss. Pete Hammond asked Mike Mills what it was like writing such a personal film. Mike said, "all that grief made me braver." He was able to look directly at the events of what happen and tell them directly. Mills did note that he has sisters and that this film is his account of his father and what happened at the end of his life. He believes his siblings accounts, "could be much different." His siblings are also completely left out of the film.

Mike Mills revealed that he shot the movie in 30 days and it was shot in sequential order even though the film doesn't follow the same pattern. Mike said he felt shooting in chronological order was easier and added that it "allowed the cast to experience the emotions as they happened." He refined his answer by saying it helps to "make things happen." One question that popped up was how Mike Mills wanted Ewan McGregor to handle the performance of Oliver. Remember McGregor is after all playing the guy directing him. Mills was very clear that he did not want McGregor to mimic him. "It is important to guide the actor but not control," Mills said. Oddly enough, throughout the Q&A I kept thinking to myself, "Ewan really nailed Mike Mills persona." All the mannerisms and the tone of voice Mike Mills had speaking to the crowd with were exactly what I had just previously seen while watching "Beginners."

Speaking of casting, a good portion of the Q&A went to explanation about landing such an amazing cast including the scene stealing Jack Russell Terrier. Exactly how did Mike Mills get both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer? Mike Mills told the audience that he wrote "personal letters" to both actors showing interest in having them in the film and after reading the script both actors wanted in. Both actors also met with Mike before committing to the roles. Mills reflected by saying Christopher Plummer told him his script had, "real wit and a sense of humor." Plummer also told Mills that Hal's "sense of no self pity" played into his accepting the role. Everyone in production also noted how close McGregor and Plummer actually looked. Mills said remembered that late in casting process he had their two pictures on his desktop side-by-side and noticed their resemblance. Even McGregor and Plummer acknowledged their closeness on set with McGregor telling Plummer he looked "like an uncle."

As far as dog, Mike Mills said they saw over 10 dogs before deciding on Cosmo for the role of Arthur. Speaking of Arthur, the dog talks with Oliver through subtitles. As previously noted, the Jack Russell Terrier is something of a scene stealer and when asked how he came up with the idea of Arthur talking through subtitles Mike said, "some ideas just pop-up. Like a submarine to the surface." Mike Mills added that McGregor's time with Cosmo on set left such an impression on the actor, he went out and got a dog from a local Los Angeles animal shelter for his own.

Lastly, fans of director Mike Mills will be pleased to know that he is currently working on something new, but he doesn't know "exactly what it is yet." The director eluded that he has a different approach for writing and his is only in the early stages. We should cut him some slack after all the director is still in full swing of his publicity and promotional tour not to mention about to fly to Europe to premiere the film overseas.

Stay tuned for further coverage from KCET's Cinema Series through summer as well as my full review of Mike Mills' "Beginners" later this week.