SXSW Interview: Director Mike Mills on his film, ‘Beginners’

The Beginners director talks about Ewan McGregor's accent training, shooting in continuity and how you cast a dog!

Mike Mills‘s latest film, Beginners, is an incredibly personal one. Based on events in his own life, the film is the story of a graphic designer (Ewan McGregor), whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out at the age of 75 after his wife dies.

I talked to Mills (Thumbsucker) in a roundtable interview at SXSW where he told me that since McGregor is basically playing him, he wanted Mills to record all the dialog for him so he study his voice. Mills agreed, “as long as you’re not gonna imitate me,” he said. After all was said and done, Mills thought McGregor did an “amazing job.” And once you see the film, you’ll think so as well.

Check out the interview below where he talks about his writing process, shooting the film in continuity and how you cast a dog.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

There’s a lot of different challenges when you’re making a film but is there any one thing that sticks out to you as being the most challenging for this film?

Mike Mills: To be honest, like by the time I got to like shooting the film, if that’s what you mean, that’s easy, shooting the film was fun, easy and great, and the thing I like to do most in my life. It’s the thing where I feel the most alive and what I was meant to do, and I adore it. And the hardest part is getting through writing, it’s really hard ‘cause you’re alone, and I’m not really a writer. I love writing, but it’s just a long dark tunnel, and then trying to get your film made, hearing ‘No’s’ so often, hearing it be repeated back to you in the worst way, hearing it be described and  misunderstood in the worst way, hearing people just not be interested for years is the worst part.

What do you think is the most difficult thing? To get the money, to get people to believe in the movie or to take everything you have inside and write it down?

Mike Mills: Everything. Taking everything I have inside and writing it down is difficult but it’s a joy. It’s lucky. How lucky am I to get to do that? I’m not a great writer, I’m good enough that I can do it. I can make myself kinda happy writing. Going around and trying to get money and trying to get people, knowing you’re trying to get actors, and you’re trying to get money. You don’t just go and meet the actor, you don’t just go and meet the money person. You meet like the agent, the lawyer, the manager, the other agent, the other lawyer, the other manager, someone who just knows them, someone who met them at the coffee shop. And even that is not, like, I’m excited to fight for my movie in any way. But often when you’re doing that, in Los Angeles, you’re bumping up against the worst side of capitalism, which is brutal and unkind and it’s just like trying to get a loan from a bank, basically.

At what point did Ewan and Christopher pop into your head for the parts?

Mike Mills: I don’t write with people in my head at all. And then I get done writing and I’m very confused ‘cause I have to like get into this world and find people, and it’s really hard. And with this, I really wanted to cast the dad after I casted the Oliver character ‘cause I wanted him to look right. And there’s so many great actors, but if they don’t feel like a family, then it wasn’t gonna be good. So Christopher was always in my mind, and would obviously be awesome.

And then Ewan, for a while I was looking at different ages and I didn’t know what I was doing, and then when Ewan came up I just, it’s like a pipe dream, we’re like, “Oh! Crap!” Another great idea that’s not gonna happen, and luckily he read it and luckily he liked it.

They all worked for scale. They put they’re hearts into it, they did it for their great reasons, they worked for scale but they didn’t act like that at all. So, Ewan wasn’t obvious to me ‘cause I didn’t know he would do a movie like this. Doing smaller movies like this in this day and age where like, from 2007 till now, is not the most popular thing in L.A.

You got some great performances in this film and I was wondering, in this personal movie, are there some things about you that you feel no actor could re-create or be able to justify?

Mike Mills: Well, the main thing I said to all of them, I said, “don’t copy me. The idea is not that you’re mimicking us, you have to find a way to make it your own.” And they’re both so smart about that, in different ways. Like Plummer knew, he’d be like, “Michael tell me another story.” Like, “I wanna steep myself in your father.” But then he knew how to be himself, he knew that he had to make it a story. He knew he had to go connect to people through the lens.

Ewan is so casual and easy-going and like I adore him. And he, it was never a ‘copy me’, it was never, the weird thing is we were the exact same size in everything. So, he does wear some of my clothes, just out of poverty, just ‘cause we didn’t have enough money to make the movie.

But it was like, it looks so much f*****g better on him, it was sort of embarrassing and depressing, and that was kinda what it would like the whole film in a funny way. But I think Ewan and I do share some like emotional frequencies, or we share, we’re a similar kind of emotional guy. So, I think he was like, and being a straight guy, which is the most privileged thing to be, blue eyed, European descent, straight guy, there’s still some unsatisfying parts to it if we wanna be emotional, if you wanna be vulnerable, if you wanna be that, you can get sort of boxed in. I think both if us experienced that, and both of us really happy that there was Oliver to play around in a more emotional, vulnerable way.

I saw that this was shot in continuity. As an actor, that’s gotta be awesome, but as a director is that…

Mike Mills: That’s awesome. Makes my life easier, ‘cause we’re all experiencing the story together. And it makes you just think differently. I also insist on 2 weeks of rehearsal, which kinda blows everybody’s mind.

I thought it was very interesting, and it worked, that you use the dog. I think the dog symbolizes a lot. Was it always definite that you were going to have a dog?

Mike Mills: Well, yeah I gotta say like I owe a lot to my dad dying, sounds so weird, but it’s true because that grief time, when you’re like intoxicated and braver than you normally are, I was like f**k it, there’s a dog in this movie, he talks. Cause I do that all the time, I talk to my dog, and I inherited my dad’s dog, and they’re there looking at me writing, and I talk to them and I’m talking to them about script, and I just talk all day long to them. So, I’m talking and then I just start, “oh f**k it, I’m just gonna put that in,” and that was a great thing that grief enabled in me, it was like go for it, do whatever you want, and kind of believe that that will work.

How did you cast a dog?

Mike Mills: It’s like a human, there’s canine actors. They have a resume. They have trainers. Cosmo’s worked on a lot of films and so they all came in and then I met Cosmo, and it’s really the combo of the dog, the canine actor and the trainer.

Cosmo is just a deep soul, that guy’s like a thousand years old, and he really just looks at you, and I think Jack Russell’s do have a thing when they stare at you, it’s like part of their breeding, and he does that, he just like look you in the eyes for a very long time, and it’s a unnerving, great thing.

Can you compare the experiences of when you did Thumbsucker to now? What did you learn about filmmaking?

Mike Mills: I learned a ton during Thumbsucker. Maybe the thing I learn the most or the thing I enjoyed the most was the actors, and creating an environment where an actor can do things that surprised themselves and you. Creating an environment that’s inviting and unpredictable, it’s inviting of reactivity to what’s happening in the moment. And that I can do that, I can provide that. Something about me I don’t know why, I just, I can, I’m good at doing that or I can, I like it, put it that way, I like it, and they seem to respond and I love that. I’m formally, I’m a very shy person, you know like very, I’m not shy anymore, but I used to be very shy, and so what an actor does blows me away. When they’re doing it and when they’re really free over there, I’m like probably their best audience in the world, like I am just so impressed, and I, I’m so envious, I wish I could be like that, I wish I could, that seems so fun and free and mind-blowing, how do you do that? And so, creating that environment is maybe what I learned last time.

And this time I think it’s being braver about trusting that you can tell a story that’s really concrete and specific in that it will be shareable. And trusting that it could be funny. Like, I feel in this one I embrace that my family’s funny, I can be funny and like trying to just be more comfortable about that.

You recorded the dialogue for Ewan?

Mike Mills: To get the accent, which I thought he did an amazing job on. He asked me to record the whole script. And I said, “as long as you promise me you’re not gonna imitate me, ‘cause I do not want you to get locked in.” So I would do like a line, and the microphone, and I go, “Now Ewan, do not say it like that, ok?”, and I would say a line and I go, “Ok remember don’t…” And I just kinda make all these jokes as I was reading it about not doing it. But I think that’s how his sound coach works, or dialect coach is to get a specific voice and to study something specifically rather than just have this abstract idea of what an accent is.

His voice is amazing.

Mike Mills: Yeah, yeah. One time, like he was having problems, and he has a heavy Scottish accent and we’re doing monologues and it was the only time where it kinda came up, that he was sort of tripping up on a sound. And then she would do this thing where she’d say the sound back to him, ‘oh, ah, ee’, and she had these sentences that was like little mnemonic things. And at the end of the shoot, I was like, “How do you do it?” He goes, “Well, I don’t think about it, it’s like playing the drums, if you think about playing the drums, it doesn’t work. You lose it, so I just have to let go and those little sounds…”  He just says the sounds a couple of times and just goes back to playing the drums.

When his not doing the scene, does he go back to his normal accent?

Mike Mills: Yeah, yeah. In between takes. But Tilda [Swinton] did the same thing in Thumbsucker, she’s also, she’s much more high-British accent. But same thing, and my father came to Thumbsucker…the set. He’s watching the monitor, and she’s doing American, and then he met Tilda, and she’s got this very fancy British accent, and he came in to me and he goes, “What, there’s 2 women, they look exactly the same.” And I was like, “No that’s Tilda…”

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