Beginners, which opened in Berkeley on Friday, is by turns moving, sad, and funny. Its director, Mike Mills, has roots in Berkeley. He was born in 1966 at Alta Bates Hospital and lived in the Bay Area for a few years before his family moved to Santa Barbara.
The movie — which is Mills’s second, his first was Thumbsucker — tells the story of his father, Paul Mills, who, after many years of marriage, came out to his son as being gay after his wife had passed away. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It stars Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent.
Mills spoke to Berkeleyside on Friday June 17, the day Beginners opened in the East Bay, about his early years, including his mother’s endeavors to preserve some local architecture, his personal style as a filmmaker, and about why none of his three leading actors are American.
How close to your own life is the narrative of the film?
Well, I had to turn it into a story and have it talk to an audience, but many of the elements are from my experience. My parents really were married in the Swedenborgian church in San Francisco and the map shown in the movie is right in that they lived very close to where Ginsberg wrote “Howl”.
What did your father do?
He was director of the Oakland Art Museum from 1954 to 1970, and oversaw the construction of the current building designed by architect Kevin Roche in 1966. He went to Graduate School at UC Berkeley and studied art history there. They were formative years for him, and my parents were always really fond of Berkeley.
I left the movie wanting to know more about your mother. What was she like?
My mother studied architecture and was very involved in buying old, dilapidated buildings and restoring them. She renovated a row of very ornate Victorian buildings with a restaurant at Bret Hart Boardwalk in Oakland — almost under a freeway. I don’t think they are there any more.
She was a pretty elliptical figure. But the movie is about my father. There are only so many characters one can have in a movie.
Your three leading actors are British, Canadian, and French. Did you deliberately choose
European non-American actors?
The actors fit the spirit of the film. My family didn’t really fit the American box. Me and my dad were never really normal guys. My parents were born in 1924 so they don’t fit wonderfully into contemporary life actor options. So the three actors fit the sensibility of the movie. Also, I have several European-American couple friends which influenced my choice.
Your filmmaking technique uses a lot of still images and artistic elements. Does this come from your experience as an artist as well as a filmmaker?
It’s a natural way for me to tell a story. I went to art school not to film school. The broken down film language looks naturally graphic and I think stills are as valid a method as moving pictures.
Would you be upset if your film is referred to as quirky?
Yes, because “quirky” sounds disparaging. The movie has a playfulness and a sense of humor, but it’s about the big things and finding humor in them.
How’s the movie doing?
It’s had its third weekend and it’s going very well. I’m lucky, very fortunate, because it’s a pretty weird film; it’s very personal. Who would think a movie about a 75-year-old coming out would succeed?