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BEGINNERS

About The Production
Only Time

"When my Mom passed away, there suddenly was this new person, this new Dad.” That's how it was, and that's how it felt, for writer/director Mike Mills. Before there was a movie, there were those real-life events. His recently widowed 75-year old father had an announcement to make to his son; in whatever time he had left on this earth, the elder Mills wanted to live as an out homosexual man.

"He just started living this explosive new life,” marvels Mills. "He became more emotionally alive than I'd ever seen him.”

Mills looked on with surprise and admiration as his father dove head first into the gay culture of Santa Barbara. The elder Mills dressed, acted, and lived as a man at least 20 years younger than he in fact was.

"I had so many gay friends and teachers that I admired,” says Mills. "So coming out was, I'd say, less of an issue for me than it was for him. But his gayness, this side of him, was still something mysterious to me. I found myself asking, who is my Dad? I wanted to know more. And then he was diagnosed with cancer.”

As much as one might expect the disease to slow Mills' father down, the effect was just the opposite. His father maintained what was already an active social calendar – actually hosting more parties than before; continued to see his trainer; and maintained a strict health regime. Mills senior remained aggressively positive, all but repudiating the illness that would kill him.

"He told me that when they got married, my Mom took off her Jewish badge and he took off his gay badge,” remembers Mills. "When he said that, it was like a light going off in my head. I said ‘I'm writing about that.' As it was happening, it just felt so big and real. I felt I had something to report.”

Five months after his father's passing, Mills sat down to write, motivated at how crucial it was to capture that emotional state of "a kind of a fireworks-y exhilaration. Our time here is short. It's going to be gone fast.

"You must voice it all. Whatever you're afraid of. Whatever you haven't done. Whatever you haven't been honest about. Whatever you haven't really bitten into. I felt like it was the only time to do it. I don't know if I would have been able to write Beginners if I hadn't been in mourning.”

Mills reflects, "For me a lot of grief is like running in the dark in a forest, sprinting forward, trying to get to something. I hope that's what we captured in the movie, this mad grab for life.”

 

Meeting in the Middle

Over the course of developing the script for Beginners, many things changed, shifting in and out of focus – but one aspect remained constant; Mike Mills knew he was telling two stories, not one.

One thread follows father and son – Hal and Oliver Fields – as they come to grips with Hal's new identity and illness; the second balances Oliver's emotional regrouping from Hal's death and his burgeoning relationship with Anna, a vivacious French actress.

Mills remarks, "I always thought of it as two stories. When someone you love has just died, the past is such a river running through you. It's not a containable set of memories as much as it's waves of conversation that are still alive in you. You're always feeling it, processing and running it over in your head. I never imagined the ‘past' as flashbacks. It was always going to play out as a simultaneous, completely contained storyline.”

Ewan McGregor had been sent the completed script but had not yet read it. So the first the actor actually heard about the project was while sharing a ski lift with Mills' agent at the Sundance Film Festival – who seized the moment, pitching the actor the project while the lift moved slowly up the slopes. As soon as he got home, McGregor plowed through the script, read Mills' personal note to him, and within a week was meeting with the writer/director.

"I immediately took to Mike,” McGregor recalls. "He is quite open, emotionally, and I'm a bit like that. It felt like we'd known each other for a long time. "I'd seen his previous film, Thumbsucker, and liked it a lot. But once he sent me some of his shorts, art and graphics, videos and commercials, I realized that I was familiar with his work without having known so.”

As they discussed the project's unique structure, Mills and McGregor came to the same conclusion; the two stories should be shot separately, back-to-back in continuity, to ensure dual layers of emotional honesty. This was key because McGregor is the only actor in both stories, as Oliver carries the experiences of one into the other. "It was so helpful to me,” notes the actor. "Playing scenes where Oliver was entering into the relationship with Anna, I could remember back to the scenes I'd filmed of Oliver with his father Hal.

"There is a convergence that makes Beginners very rich and complex. It's a film about losing, about accepting – in this case, accepting your father for who he really is, accepting the fact that someone who is living life to the fullest is going to die, and then coming to terms with such a loss while falling in love.”

For the role of Hal Fields, Mills had his heart set on an actor who possessed the gravitas, wit, and charm to command every scene he was in – and who would be keenly felt and missed in his absence. Christopher Plummer had read the script, and Mills was quick to follow up with a personal note to Plummer. The Academy Award nominee's commitment to the role came nearly as swiftly as McGregor's had.

The writer/director found that both actors did harbor initial reservations about how someone who had lived through the events that inspired the story might respond to their interpretations of the characters inspired by real people. To that end, there were also candid discussions about whether creative constraints would be placed upon the actors. To the contrary; Mills made clear to McGregor and Plummer that he was counting on them to bring a collaborative spirit to the project.

Both actors wanted to get closer to the emotional truths by taking on aspects of Mills and his late father. Mills remarks, "Before he died, my Dad wrote a new version of Jesus' death. I gave it to Christopher – and he had his own ideas of how it should be written, to make it sharper. You might think I would find that to be sacrilege – but I told him to go for it, to write something that he feels strongly about, that has his authorship; this way, our story becomes a public story, not a private story.” Mills also encouraged Plummer to infuse his performance with plenty of the actor's own personality.

McGregor asked Mills to record the script's dialogue in order for the actor to capture the cadences of his voice and how he would express himself. Once these recordings were internalized and fully absorbed, McGregor was encouraged by Mills "not to limit himself.”

A key component of Mills' vision for the project was to make the audience question the line between autobiography and fiction – to root around between the way things really happened and the way we choose to remember them.

"None of my conversations with Christopher and Ewan had the tenor of ‘Here's how we did things,' or ‘Here's how it was,” clarifies Mills. "It was more like, ‘Here are these verbs and actions that my Dad and I experienced. Go live them out now in a way that's real for you, so it will be real for an audience. Take away all the proper nouns and let it be your thing.'”

Accordingly, McGregor "didn't feel like I had

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