What would you do if your father came out to you at the age of 75 and began to live a happy, gay life until his death a few years later? In writer/director Mike Mills’ case, the answer was obvious – make a film about it.
The result is Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer as characters Oliver and Hal, more than loosely based on Mills and his father respectively. Hal’s revelation, told in flashback, frames Oliver’s own experiments with falling in love and working out what’s true and what isn’t.
So what convinced Mills, already established as an artist, graphic designer and all-round creative person (he directed the video for Moby's Run On), to draw on his inescapably complicated family tale for this, his second feature film after the more light-hearted Thumbsucker (about a young man’s attempts to break free of his addiction to – you guessed it – thumbsucking (2005)?
“First and foremost, it was a great story,” he remembers. “I’ve always been interested in those turning points in people’s lives where they go off in a completely different direction, and this was obviously one of those times.
“As a result of my mother’s death, and my father coming out at the age of 75, we were able to have these most amazing, adult conversations that I’d never had before, and I just wanted to share them in some way, too.”
So is the affable director now “okay” with how the dynamic changed in what had been his traditional family unit?
He laughs. “Well, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a prototype, but what I can say is that, along with the challenges it brought, it brought amazing opportunities for us to understand one another better, in a way that had been closed to us before.”
What about his mother? “Well, it was obviously very complicated between them in ways that I wouldn’t claim to understand. All I know is that I loved my mother very much, and my father certainly did. That sort of connection goes beyond too much analysis.”
Obviously, the analysts would have a field day with all this, including the need to share on the big screen what must have been excruciating at times, but Mills shrugs it off:
“This wasn’t my therapy session. All the work I needed to do on redefining my relationships with my parents had been done. And the characters weren’t completely my father and myself. I reserved the right to be a bit creative in honour of telling a better story.
“Plus, Christopher and Ewan are so clever at putting their own stamp on these characters, that first and foremost I just felt privileged that I was able to turn up with the right material for them.”
Beginners is at cinemas from today 22 July.