Interview: Mike Mills, film director

A blend of tragedy and romance inspired director Mike Mills to film the extraordinary story of how his gay dad's last few years inspired him to live fully

• Mike Mills and his wife Miranda July. Picture: Getty

IT'S AN amazing story. A 75-year-old man becomes a widower. He and his wife were married in 1955 and had been together for 44 years, often happily, often less so. After his wife's death he sits his 38-year-old son down and tells him he's gay – and now he wants to go out and do something about it; meet men, have sex, fall in love, go on Pride marches. So he does, for a few gloriously happy, messy, lovestruck years. It's a kind of second adolescence and the relationship between father and son deepens. And then just as he has begun to live it, his second life ends: he is diagnosed with lung cancer and dies at the age of 79.

The story behind Beginners, in which Christopher Plummer plays the gay father, Hal, and Ewan McGregor the grieving son, Oliver, would be a gift for any film-maker. But for Mike Mills, this beautifully rendered, melancholic tale – of beginnings and endings, life and death, joy and tragedy – happens to be true.

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"My parents really were married for 44 years and my dad really did come out after she died," the indie writer-director, now 45, tells me in London. "It's a very cinematic story but it's all true."

While his father, Paul, was dying in 2004 Mills sensed he would write about it. Art is how he has always dealt with "life's curve-balls". But he also knew he wanted to tell more than his father's story.

"He was so Zorba the Greek-like – battling external obstacles with such aplomb," he says. "I couldn't just write his story. What I really wanted to write about was this conversation we were having about love, from his perspective being born in 1924 and being gay, and from mine, born in 1966 and straight. I learned a ton with my new gay dad and it was this big, thick, hot conversation that all of a sudden stopped because he died. But I wasn't done with it."

Beginners is shot through with grief in all its heightened and inarticulate rawness. It's not surprising to hear Mills started working on the script just after his dad died and wrote for the next three years. In many ways Beginners is a meditation on grief and memory. It has an artistic, almost scrapbook sensibility and is split into two sections – Oliver grieving for his dad while properly falling in love for the first time with Anna (Melanie Laurent), and Oliver caring for his dad through his illness. Mills shot the two sections chronologically so the characters would have real memories of the first section. Then he intercut them.

"Grief and memory go together," he says. "After someone dies, that's what you're left with. And the memories are so slippery yet so rich. After my parents died I would suddenly be flooded by them. It was very hard to stay in the present. And so that's where the structure of the film came from.

"The littlest thing can have the strongest connection when you're grieving. Your Proustian, poetic nerve is turned up to ten. When I started studying memories I didn't realise what fictions they are – so blurry, fluid, incorrect, like little made-up stories. As a filmmaker, closing your eyes and trying to make scenes out of them, it's like there's nothing there. Some of my memories, like the moment my dad came out to me, I remember in shot and reverse-shot even though that's impossible. I think lots of us see our pasts in film language."

Mills, who even in a suit jacket manages to look a bit like an overgrown skateboarder, is open and articulate talking about his experience of grief, both in Beginners, which had me weeping from beginning to end, and here in this hotel. He insists the film is not actually the story of his own life, any more than he is actually Ewan McGregor. Yet so much of the truth did go into the story, from his parents growing up in the 1920s and 1930s to old photos and things his dad really said, that our conversation dances back and forth between real life and fiction.

"Neither Christopher (Plummer] nor I were interested in imitation," he shrugs. "I just wanted him to take this story and the fears and desires and make them his own. And that's why Christopher liked it. He didn't care if it was real or not. I wanted him and Ewan (McGregor] to talk to the audience, not to me. But it turned out both of these guys share an awful lot with me and my dad. Ewan and I are very different – I'm from Santa Barbara, he's from Scotland, he was married with three kids by the time he was 30, I was nowhere near – but we laugh at the same things. And the first thing Christopher said to me about my dad was, 'Thank God he has wit.' I find Christopher very funny too and enhanced that in the film. And he has so much cultural worldliness, knows so much about theatre and art. So it was perfect for him to be playing an intellectual like my dad."

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Did Paul, a retired museum director, change when he came out?

"He started falling in love with people. It was this huge flush of love, filled with mistakes and human error, but ultimately beautiful. It was a great lunge towards life."

It wasn't that his parents were unhappy or that they didn't love each other, he adds, more that they ended up playing roles they didn't quite fit.

"When I was 18," he continues, "my oldest sister told me that my dad was gay. None of us ever discussed this." So how did he react when his dad came out decades later? "I was afraid he was going to die after my mum went," he replies. "He felt very old to me. I was holding his elbow when he walked, teaching him how to cook. So this was a move in the opposite direction. It was about saying 'I want'. And my dad never said that. He was very self-denying; that whole generation was genius at suppressing their desires. So from the get-go I was amazed to see him really wanting something. He was hungry for it. He got younger. He got a trainer. He started wearing all black. I worried about him less. And the gay community in Santa Barbara embraced him. It was great."

Filming the scenes when Hal dies must have been difficult for him. "No," says Mills without a pause. "It was never like that. I was making a film. You know, my dad was on a ventilator, and that was a really hard thing to go through in real life. I still have nightmares about it. But making a film about it? Different thing."

Beginners is Mills' second film. His first, the indie gem Thumbsucker (the cast of which included Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reeves), was also quietly personal and revolutionary: about a teenage boy trying to understand the story of his parents and take the thumb out of his mouth. Mills wrote it while he was mourning the death of his mother (grief has clearly been a kind of catalyst for him), a woman he describes as "a deeply unconventional rascal – I told Mary Page (Keller], the actress who plays her, to just be Bogart. My mum loved Bogart."

He is also known for his offbeat music videos and deceptively simple, David Shrigley-esque graphic design (for Air and the Beastie Boys). All of his work is suffused with a kind of romantic melancholy and rueful comedy. In Beginners Oliver, also a graphic artist, is working on a history of sadness, and spends much of the time in conversation with his dog.

"I'm into people's emotional lives and relationships and the complications of living," says Mills. "That's my turf. I'm writing something now about people trying to be in love. That seems to be my thing."

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Mills is married to fellow artistic polymath Miranda July (director of the film Me, You, And Everyone We Know) and they're basically the Brangelina of the indie film world. They met when their feature debuts were competing at Sundance. He says he fell in love with her when he sat in the audience of Me, You, And Everyone We Know, then watched her do a Q&A. "We share a ton," he says. "But Miranda's work is more metaphysical and braver in many ways. She's a lot more punk than I am." He grins.

Was his own love life transformed as much as Oliver's in Beginners? In the film, Oliver – a standard-issue commitment-phobe – can only truly fall for someone after he sees his father's bravery in embracing love. And Mills, it's worth noting, got together with July after his own father's death.

"It was a case of really falling for someone," he says. "I really met my match with Miranda, someone who can call me on all my shit and who brought up all the love I could have. But also my dad really did teach me something about love. I think I was more deeply ready. My relationship with Miranda showed me that real love brings up all of your ghosts. It isn't just a euphoric high. It makes you meet your demons again… all these parts of yourself that no other part of your life exhumes in such a way. Love does that," he says, returning to his twin themes of romance and sadness. He smiles ruefully. "And so it became part of the story."

• Beginners is on general release from Friday 22 July

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