So many directors describe their movies as “personal” that the sentiment becomes commonplace, even cliché.
Not so with Mike Mills — the “Thumbsucker” director, not the R.E.M. bassist — who drew on intimate details from his private life as the starting point for his powerful new drama “Beginners,” which opens June 10.
Sure, he changed the names and embellished the timeline — Mills, 45, says he never intended to make an autobiography, much less portray close friends on screen without their blessing.
But in his real-life story, fraught with unexpected revelations and profound self-realizations, the director saw a unique opportunity to connect with wider audiences.
The opening-night selection at this year’s San Francisco Film Festival, “Beginners” began to take shape the moment Mills’ father, at 75, came out of the closet. After 45 years of marriage, of fiercely protecting his true self from a conservative America in which homophobia was pervasive and largely unchallenged, dad was ready to step into the open and pursue his heart’s desires.
Five years later, he died of cancer. Mills describes his metamorphosis during that period as confusing and deeply inspiring, a self-choreographed quest for liberation that prompted the director to confront his own internal obstacles — the hang-ups and inhibitions nurtured in him since childhood. So, of course, he began to write.
He also reached out to two actors, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, in letters, explaining to them his temperament, both when his father reinvented himself after his mother’s passing, and after his death.
To Plummer, who would portray his father, he recalled the irrepressible energy of a man who, even in his final years, worked overtime to catch up with the contemporary gay social scene and, ultimately, fell in love.
To McGregor, he made assurances that “Beginners,” while not always lighthearted, would neither be weighed down by a self-pitying protagonist struggling to come to terms with his father’s freedom.
Instead, both Mills, like Oliver, his on-screen alter ego, adopted his dad’s passion for living, determined to experience the things he’d previously kept at a distance — namely, a committed relationship.
“The experience I’m most trying to communicate is that of an adventure,” Mills says now. “The feeling of breaking something open. The movie has illness and death, but it’s about beginnings, change and how deeply funny life can be in its most serious moments.
“I only get to tell this story once, so I wanted it to be bighearted, for a big audience, progressive and innovative, and, like my father, deeply wanting to connect with people.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes
Correction: This article was corrected on June 1, 2011. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the opening date of the movie. The movie opens June 10, 2011.