Skip to main content

'Beginners': A Son's 'Love Letter' To His Gay Father

The movie Beginners stars Ewan McGregor as a young man who learns that his 75-year-old father, played by Christopher Plummer, is gay. The movie is based on filmmaker Mike Mills' own life. Mills explains what happened when his own dad came out.

37:55

Other segments from the episode on June 2, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 2, 2011: Interview with Mike Mills; Review of Craig Taborn's first solo recording "Avenging Angel;" Review of summer reading list.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110602
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
'Beginners': A Son's 'Love Letter' To His Gay Father

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's recovering
from laryngitis.

Our guest today is filmmaker, graphic designer and artist Mike Mills. He
wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film "Beginners." It's
based on the period shortly after his mother died, when his father came
out as gay at the age of 75.

This revelation was quite a surprise to Mills; his parents had been
married 45 years. In the film, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, comes
out to his graphic designer son Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor. Hal is
thrilled he's finally able to embrace his sexuality and experience life
as a gay man.

In this scene, Hal calls his son, giddy with excitement after going to a
gay dance club.

(Soundbite of film, "Beginners")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (as Hal) Oliver?

Mr. EWAN McGREGOR (Actor): (as Oliver) Yeah?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) I'm not sorry I woke you. I went to Akbar(ph)
tonight.

Mr. McGREGOR: (as Oliver) You did?

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yeah, oh, they had some wonderfully loud music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) What kind of music's that?

Mr. McGREGOR: (as Oliver) Probably house music.

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yup. House music, okay. House, house music.

DAVIES: But Hal's actively gay life doesn't last long. He's diagnosed
with cancer, and Oliver has to care for his now-ailing father, who's
often surrounded by his new gay friends and his boyfriend.

After Hal dies, Oliver enters into a new relationship with a young
actress, Anna, played by Melanie Laurent of "Inglourious Basterds," and
he realizes his parents' troubled marriage has made it difficult for him
to commit to a relationship.

The film, which goes back and forth in time, all the way back to
Oliver's childhood, is about memory, grief and love.

Mike Mills wrote and directed the 2005 film "Thumbsucker," based on a
Walter Kirn novel. He's also directed documentaries and shorts, as well
as videos for bands like Air and Pulp and commercials for The Gap, Nike
and Volkswagen.

As a graphic artist, he's designed artwork and album covers, including
the Beastie Boys' new CD, "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2." Terry spoke to
Mike Mills last week.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Mike Mills, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Great to have you back.

Mr. MIKE MILLS (Filmmaker): Thank you so much. Yeah.

GROSS: I want to talk about the opening scene first because I really
liked this, and I really related to it. The main character, Oliver,
who's kind of your surrogate character, is throwing things out in big
trash bags and flushing pills down the toilet, and you don't really know
what's going on for a second.

And then you realize his father's died, and he's throwing away his
father's stuff. And I think for anyone who has ever had someone close to
them die, they've gone through that awful experience of going through
their loved one's possessions and deciding what to keep and what to
throw away and just seeing some of that person's life tossed into Hefty
bags and thrown into a pile. And it's really upsetting.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, especially if you father was like a paperholic,
basically. You have a lot to go through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: But it was upsetting for sure, but it's also - in my
experience, at least - I've done that twice, and the second time, I was
with my second parent. So it's really both parents' stuff or your whole
family's stuff in a way.

It's this weird summation of everything. It's this weird sort of
biography of the person through all their debris, through all their
things that are both important and totally unimportant. And discerning
what's important and unimportant becomes really sort of a rabbit hole.

There might be something like a little matchbook that, you know, you can
tell it's from a certain time and a certain moment in that person's
life. That becomes very important, where like a photograph, you might
have so many of them that you need to throw some of those out.

But yeah, I literally had that big pile of trash bags, and you look at
it, and you're like: Wow, there it goes. There goes someone's life.

GROSS: How soon after your father's death did you start writing the
film?

Mr. MILLS: It's about six months. A little bit more than six months.
But, you know, even when he was alive, toward the end of his life, he -
I knew I wanted to do something. I didn't know what it was. I didn't
know if it was going to like be a documentary.

In my head I had this title, just to kind of loosen it up. It was like
"My Father Has a Crush on the King of Spain, and My Mother Wants to be
Humphrey Bogart."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And I thought, like, that gave me some entry or permission.
It gave me like rude permission to do the unspeakable thing of talking
about my parents, you know. And so I didn't know how in the heck I was
going to do it. So I was thinking about it even while he was still
alive.

GROSS: I like the way you said was rude and unspeakable. Did your
parents basically tell you not to talk about them in public?

Mr. MILLS: Well, when my dad came out, he was a very different person,
and we talked about everything all of a sudden. But for the first 33
years of my life, you know, you don't talk - they didn't talk about
their interior lives hardly at all, you know.

And they were born in 1924 and 1925 and were very much of that mindset.

GROSS: So the main story in your new movie is based on your father
coming out at the age of 75, after your mother died. And in the film,
you have him say: I loved your mother. Now I want to explore this side.
I don't want to be just theoretically gay. I want to do something about
it.

And I love that theoretically gay. Did your father say that to you?

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, well, I mean, in this - I kind of like to describe is
as a - the film has other parts to it, too. There's a love story between
Oliver and Anna, between Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent.

But the dad's part, I do like to call it a portrait because I feel like
the word portrait sort of implies this subjective nature of it, you
know, and it's sort of my version of my dad.

But a lot of it was built up of memories, and I do remember my dad
saying those exact words. And it's so my dad to say that. You can kind
of get a taste of the art historian, slightly intellectual man this is.
I don't want to be just theoretically gay. I want to go do something
about it, aka, I'm horny. You know, like I want to go have sex now,
please.

GROSS: And he was 75.

Mr. MILLS: He was 75, and he was widowed.

GROSS: It's very hard to think of your - it's usually, I think, hard to
think of your 75-year-old father as having sex but particularly kind of
crossing sexual orientations and having a kind of sex he'd never had
before. That must have been really hard to assimilate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: That's a good word. Yeah, and, you know, it's all - I've been
doing a lot of talking about this. And people say: Weren't your shocked?
Or why isn't Oliver more angry and more shocked?

And the truth of it is, my mom passed away six months before my dad came
out, and that's really the headline in my family and even to my father.
They were married for 44 years, and they knew each other since junior
high.

They went on a date in 1939 to see "Gone with the Wind," you know.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. MILLS: And they had three kids together.

GROSS: That really puts it in perspective.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, right. More perspective, my dad's dad was in the
cavalry in World War I in Germany, on a horse, with a sword. You know,
so that's his father, if you can imagine that.

So in a way, my mom's passing was the big headline. My mom's passing was
the big, present, huge, impossible-to-understand change that was in the
air for all of us. I have two sister who I didn't include in the story
for the sake of their privacy, and for my dad, even, you know, that was
a huge change.

That was his oldest friend, in a way, his longest friendship, his
longest relationship, and so his coming out - you know, I was just so
worried that he was going to die himself, you know, or pass away or that
he was fading or that - you know, I was teaching him how to defrost
food. I was helping him buy clothes, you know.

And he was a widower, and so, you know, it was - it's so hard to explain
to people, but it was in the - this is - in the wake of these huge
changes, him coming out was actually quite small. Him coming out, it was
like this gesture or this way of saying: I want life. You know, I want
more life. I want something.

And this was a man who was so self-denying for so long, this very
polite, kind of quiet man and very proper man. So that it was sex, that
he was, like palpably horny. It was just all the more lifelike and
actually quite easy to embrace and kind of quite a relief.

GROSS: How did he come out to you?

Mr. MILLS: Much like in the film. The day before, he said: Michael,
tomorrow, I'm going to throw you a ball, and I hope you catch it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And I was like - it's very my father, and you can see now
how easily I could cast Christopher Plummer to play my father. And I was
like: Oh, no, he wants to move in with me, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And at the time - and which was dear to me, too. I really
love my dad, and I really felt for him, but I was like 33 at the time,
and I didn't totally want my dad to move in with me. So the next day, he
said - you know, we're sitting on the couch and he said: I'm gay.

I forget exactly how he said everything, but he basically said, I'm gay,
and he said the line I don't want to just be theoretically gay, I want
to do something about it.

And he did want to make it clear to me that he loved my mom, and I think
that's a very complicated thing to try to - I still don't know how to
totally digest all that. But yeah, we were sitting on a couch.

GROSS: Were you shocked, or did you know, could you sense that he was
gay all those years?

Mr. MILLS: Well, the film isn't, like, totally one to one to my life.
And I do have these - I have two older sisters, Katie and Meg, and
they're 10 and seven years older than me. And as in many families, so
often, you know, the oldest sibling has all this magical knowledge, you
know, about the family that no one else knows.

And when I was younger, my sister, my oldest sister, did mention to me
that our dad had gay experiences before my parents got married. But it
seemed like something that was in the past, or it seemed like - you
know, it was definitely I ever spoke about with my mom or my dad for the
rest of our time, until my dad came out.

And, you know, now I know that, like: How can that just be in the past?
But, you know, at the time, I conveniently let that happen. And to be
honest, my dad felt much more like a stodgy man in a suit from - born in
1924 and didn't want to have sex with anything, you know, and voted for
Reagan. How can you have sex if you voted for Reagan, you know?

GROSS: But then he wanted to have sex.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, yeah, and so when he came out, it wasn't totally a
surprise to me, and, you know, he was an art historian who wore cravats
and bought all my mother's clothes. So on some levels, you know, it's
not totally shocking.

But yeah, wanting to have sex. It's just weird, to think of your parent
that way. But also on a deeper level - wanting. You know, this is a man
who sort of defused himself, who tamped down his desires and was very
sweet, very kind, very conscientious father but kind of vague and
distant. And when he came out, it was the beginning of his becoming so
much more vivid and hot and like really present, which was all quite
often messy but always wonderful.

GROSS: Since your father knew he was gay, and your mother knew he was
gay when they got married, do you think either of them thought that he
would, quote, either be cured or overcome it, or like she could change
him?

Mr. MILLS: Oh, yeah, that was the idea. As he says in that scene - and
this is all stuff that, you know, I asked once my dad came out. I got to
finally ask him all these questions and really kind of drill him about
stuff.

And so to the best of his knowledge and my version of his stories, you
know, my mom proposed, and my dad at some point told her that he was
gay, and she said: I'll fix that. And my dad definitely - and it's so my
mom, too. It's so my can-do mom, Depression-Era mom. And my mom's a very
strong, somewhat bohemian, not passive woman at all, very determined.

She was like the first woman to graduate as an architect from the
University of Washington. She was training to be a pilot in World War
II, and the war ended before she became a pilot. She was a contractor,
an architect, you know, and she didn't - she was her own complicated,
strong, strange person.

And we could just talk forever about what it was that made them get
married, but my dad really did go see a psychiatrist who told him that
his gayness was a mental illness and that it could be cured, and that
was very much the line of that time, of the '50s.

GROSS: Do you ever thought he was cured, so to speak?

Mr. MILLS: Oh, yeah. I think he - you know, he deeply wanted to be
straight. He wanted to join the mainstream story. He didn't want to be
gay. You know, he was terribly afraid of it and for very good reasons.

You know, trying to have sex in post-World War II America in Portland I
don't think was very fun for him.

DAVIES: Filmmaker, graphic designer and artist Mike Mills, speaking with
Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with filmmaker Mike Mills.
He wrote and directed the new semi-autobiographical film "Beginners."

GROSS: So you became much closer to your father after your father came
out, and that's in part because I think most people become closer to the
surviving parent after one parent dies because you become so much more
necessary as a friend, as a support system, as - yeah, as a help-mate
because often the surviving parent is pretty old and needs assistance of
some sort.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: So yeah, you must have learned things, in addition to your father
being gay, you must have learned things about him that you never knew
because you became closer to him.

Mr. MILLS: Well, that to me really sticks out more when he got sick. You
know, when one of your parents gets sick, you get so intimately tight
with them, to like, you know, when you're, whatever, changing their
clothes, helping them get up, giving them medicine, doing things more
explicit than I'll say on the radio. You know, that is intense.

Like you change roles. You become sort of the caretaker. But, you know,
when my mom passed away and my dad came out, he went from being like 75
to being like 40, you know.

And he got a trainer. He lost a bunch of weight. He really physically
changed and became so much more young. He was so hungry, and of course
he had crushes on all of the younger guys. And so he didn't feel - for
the first, you know, until he got sick, he actually became so much
younger and became so much more independent and became - he had this
whole new world.

So I feel like the part of, like, that new connection with the left
parent, with the parent that's still with you, really kicked in more
when he got sick.

GROSS: You know what I found a little confusing to me was that the
father in the film, when he comes out, his boyfriend and several of his
friends don't seem near him intellectually because, like, the father in
the film has directed a museum, as your father did.

And so, you know, one assumes that he traveled in this world of people
who loved art, who probably bought art, who were probably wealthy, too,
because heads of museums tend to have to know wealthy people.

There's this whole, you know, support system that you need to keep the
museum going and so on.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: But when he comes out and goes into the social world, the
friends, particularly the lover who he has, just seem to be like
wonderful, open, lively people but not nearly his intellectual
counterpart.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I was wondering why that was in life or in the movies.

Mr. MILLS: Well, in life, this part of my portrait of my dad, and Andy's
definitely my creation or sort of pieces of lots of things I saw. And
the key thing I saw...

GROSS: Andy's the boyfriend in the film.

Mr. MILLS: Andy's the boyfriend, yeah. And the key thing that I saw is -
so, yeah, my definitely feels, like, born in '24, feels almost
Victorian, like his energy, his nature. He is sort of - you know, he
went to Reed. He's a fairly fancy-feeling intellectual man but a little
bit stodgy, a little bit polite and proper, a little bit tie-wearing, a
little bit shy and very aesthetic.

And it was really - I don't know how to describe it, like very kind of
bittersweet and heartbreaking to see, when he came out, not just in
terms of, like, romantic affection but just in terms of his friends and
his gay community that he had, he would often be, like, really drawn to
these people that are quite different to him, that were like hot and
messy and kind of unlikely and very emotional and very explicit and
exposed and unaesthetic.

And watching that as his son, I was like: Oh, it's so beautiful. He
wants that. He wants to be like that. He wants more. And so I kind of -
and somewhere in the writing, I came up with that line, you know, I like
where Hal says: I like Andy because he's not like me. He's fun, you
know.

And I basically needed to create an Andy to fill that line, to like make
that line make sense.

GROSS: What did marriage look like to you, considering your parents'
marriage?

Mr. MILLS: (Makes noise), right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: I'm glad they were to having a conference call with my
therapist because she needs to hear about this, too. Well, obviously,
marriage is really strange.

And my parents' relationship is still really perplexing to me because in
a lot of ways, it was really committed, and in a lot of ways, it was
very kind, you know.

And also, let's be frank, they had me when they were 40, 10 and seven
years after my sisters, like after they made their children. I was an
unintentional birth, you know, an unintentional child.

I am their strange love child of their - you know, I'm the product of
their recreational sex. So they're very complicated. But to me, marriage
and seeing their marriage, there were these big voids that you couldn't
point out, that you couldn't put a name to.

There was this strange loneliness that went unspoken, that went
undiscussed but very much felt by me, especially as a kid. And I do feel
like, you know, kids are the perfect psychic investigators of their
parents, and kids understand their parents' unconscious better than the
parents ever do.

So there was this on the surface, it all looked good, and underneath,
there was this impossible to describe loneliness or these kind of holes.
And I feel like that ended up in the film, in a way, in that there's
this constant questioning of what is real. And if I show you something,
if I show you a representation in the film, I feel like the film's
always questioning, you know, is this real.

Or even, like, there's that quote from "The Velveteen Rabbit," in the
film, which is very key to me, which is all about what is real.

GROSS: So were you afraid of getting married?

Mr. MILLS: Nah. No, I always wanted to get married, you know. I loved
the idea of being with. And I loved - you know, I got married when I
was, crikey, 43. But all through my 30s, I was deeply desiring to get
married.

Maybe I didn't know how to get there, and I didn't know I didn't know
how to get there, and I think that, you know, in my parents'
relationship, you didn't see a lot of models of how to actually deal
with, like, a real relationship and all of its lumps and bumps and
turbulence and paradox and ambiguity. It was kind of this strange play,
you know.

And my dad's gay life, just in his friendships, even, and in his
romantic gestures, I got a much richer model of, like, how bumpy and
imperfect a real relationship is. And I think that helped me a lot. But
I always wanted to get married. I wanted - you know, I'm quite bourgeois
and sedate in many ways, you know.

GROSS: Instead of the graffiti and the skateboarding and, you know...

Mr. MILLS: Well, it all goes together. But, you know, I really wanted my
house and my dog and, like, maybe the kid of those parents really wants
comfort in the sense of real, grounded connection. And maybe that kid
doesn't know how to get it, but he really wants it.

DAVIES: Mike Mills, speaking with Terry Gross. He wrote and directed the
new film "Beginners." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

We're listening to Terry's interview with filmmaker, graphic, designer
and artist Mike Mills. He's written and directed the new film
"Beginners," in which an elderly man comes out to his son after his wife
dies. The film is based on the story of Mike Mills' father who came out
at the age of 75.

GROSS: In the movie the father says to the son even though I was gay I
wanted to be married because you kind of needed to be married then, and
I wanted the things that you need in marriage to get - the nice house,
the job that I wanted.

Mr. MILLS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: He doesn't mention children in that.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah. Yeah, I know. Or the mom.

GROSS: Or the mom.

Mr. MILLS: Right?

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

Mr. MILLS: He says I wanted my life. I wanted my job. I wanted this
house.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILLS: And then Oliver says and Mom, you wanted Mom, right? And I
definitely felt that anger towards my dad. When he came out, he so
rushed into his new gay life. I often felt like where's the mourning?
Where's your mourning for Mom?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLS: That seems very funny too because I originally wrote that
much shorter. It was really much more about Oliver being angry at how,
but it was very elliptical and very un-packaged. And Christopher was
talking to me and he was like and he started saying - he calls me
Michael too - Michael, I need to say more here. I need to defend myself.
I have so much to tell him. And I was like well, that's really interest,
I love that you're saying I. And to me that's like the trick of the film
to get Christopher and Ewan to say I about these characters. And I was
like well, what do you need to say? And he was like well, I loved her
and I need to - like how did I get married? I will need to explain to
him how I got married.

And so it was a really weird collaboration between Christopher's desires
as an actor or his intuition as an actor, and then I filled in some
facts from my real life. My mom did know my dad was gay. My dad did have
many of those sort of sentiments that I express in that scene. But it
kind of gets to pointing to how this is, yeah, very much based on all
this real stuff and this real portrait, but then had to become a story
or had to become this weird collaboration between me and Christopher and
Ewan.

GROSS: When you were casting the film did you say to your casting person
get Ewan McGregor to play me?

Mr. MILLS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: Because I'm that handsome. I need someone as handsome as I
am. No. And I'm not that powerful of a director at all, right. I don't
come - I just can't see that.

GROSS: You had one film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: That didn't do so well.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MILLS: That didn't do so well. So it's not like that's actually sort
of like one nail in the coffin, you know, "Thumbsucker," to be honest.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILLS: And the film industry and market has shrunk since then and
it's become more risky for big actors to be what is called indie films,
because they cannot get distributed, even if they're good, even if they
have stars. And if you're a whatever you want to call it, a movie star
and you're in a film that doesn't get distributed, that's a huge
negative mark, you know, on your career. So...

GROSS: Not only that, it's a lot of time spent for nothing.

Mr. MILLS: Oh, yeah, right. Exactly. But I think even more than the time
spent for nothing it can really mess with you in terms of your finance
ability. It's like a real detriment.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLS: So it's a real different climate than when I made
"Thumbsucker." It's, like, actually much harder. So you do not, if
you're me and if you're at all sane, you do not come out of writing a
script thinking I can go get Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.
That'll be easy, you know. And so...

GROSS: Well, how did she get them?

Mr. MILLS: Well, it's a long campaign of a lot of my producers and
people saying to me go for it. Try it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And me kind of like going I don't want to break my heart.
Stop it, you know. And then you meet all their agents. You meet all
their managers and you - it's kind of like running for president. You
got to just keep selling your story or why, you know, telling them why
they're uniquely perfect for this.

But then the strange unlikely thing is that, I mean I could talk about
this forever. When my agent said Ewan's reading it, I was like oh my
God. Well, of course, he's going to hate it, you know, and it won't work
out. And I get the next call, Ewan liked it. Oh he's lying or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS:...you know, your mind, it's the last thing your mind wants to
believe is that it's actually going to work out. Go meet him at this
coffee shop. He's going to be an ass or he'll like it but he can't do
it, or we can't afford him and he won't be available, your mind - that's
where I'm going.

And then I walk in to meet him and he's like the most down-to-earth
sweet guy. He likes it for all the right reasons. We have this sort of
kind of really easy wonderful conversation. He's just very humble and
very sweet. And then you're like lord, you know, maybe this will work
out. And he's willing to do it. You know, money isn't an issue and I
can't tell you - I'm still surprised. I'm still weirded out that it all
happened.

And the same thing with Christopher. Sent it to him. He read it. He
liked it. It's actually quite simple. He wants to play the part. He
doesn't care if it's my dad are not and God - that's the way I wanted
it. God bless him for being like that. And he just liked the character,
he liked the role.

I meet him at a hotel, we have lunch, we have a great time. First thing
he says to me is - he said two things that really made me feel this is
great. He said thank God, there's not a drop of self-pity. I was like
oh, that's so - you so are born before World War II, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: That's so that generation. And the next thing he said was
something like and thank God he has wit. I was like oh, I'm so glad you
grabbed onto that part because it is true. Like it's so key to me that
while this man is passing away and all this, he was very subversively
funny at some of the darkest times. And there is this real levity and
this real sort of jubilance and Christopher had such an intuitive hold
on that.

GROSS: So there's a dog in the film who's your father's...

Mr. MILLS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the father's dog and then becomes the son's dog after the
father dies, and it's a great Jack Russell terrier. And the trainer was
the same trainer who played the dog Eddie on "Frasier."

Mr. MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: So what did you learn about dog training from having this great
trainer on your set?

Mr. MILLS: Well, it was really interesting because her name is Matilde
Halberg and she's amazing and she's French. And I met like nine or 10
dogs and I'm a huge dog lover so I got like my and the most amazing
casting couch with all these Jack Russell terriers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: ...where it's like literally, it was like laying on the couch
like who loves me best? Who's going to lick me best?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And it was pretty disgusting it's like, but I was in heaven.
And I really do, I just adore dogs. I was really having a great time.
And Matilde and Cosmo, that's the dog's name, were some of the last
people to come. And animal trainers are often quite sort of rigid or
kind of strict and you have a lot of rules and they're not always fun.
They're not unlike puppeteers, to be honest, puppeteers are strangely
similar.

And so when I met him Matilde she pulls into the driveway she has Cosmo
and she has all these Chihuahuas and this amazing collie all in this
truck. She hands one of the Chihuahuas through the window to me to help
herself get out of the door. I'm like okay, this is totally unlike any
animal trainer I've met. And I remember saying to my assistant, I really
like her. I'm whispering to my assistant as she's there, I really love
this woman. Has she done anything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: Like, is she professional? And she's like, oh yeah. She did
"Frasier" for like 11 years. She's done everything. Like and literally
Matilde, "Frasier" is like just one piece of her resume.

And then Cosmo is really what you see in the film in many ways. He's a
very open, gregarious, sweet thousand-year-old soul. And he really looks
at you. He really makes you wonder what he's thinking. He jumps up on
strangers laps, you know, he's the guy in the movie. He's an amazing
little person.

GROSS: Well, what did you learn about dog training?

Mr. MILLS: Well, one thing that's kind of interesting, one technical
thing is they feed the dog during the day. They don't give him treats.
They give him his normal food and they sort of parse it out during the
day. And you feed him, you put the little piece of kibble up between
your eye - the actor does, like so Ewan McGregor would do this, you put
the kibble up between his eyes and then you give it right into his
mouth. And that way the dog gets tied to Ewan and the dog looks at
Ewan's eyes, not his hands.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MILLS: Isn't that interesting?

GROSS: Nice. Yeah.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah. And, but I have to say they really developed a really
real amazing relationship. And Ewan didn't have a dog when we started
the film. And as we were about to end, he was like oh my God, I have to
get a dog. I can't imagine leaving Cosmo. And so he got a little rescue
poodle that's about the same size and color as Cosmo and they pretty
much have the same relationship as Oliver and Arthur in the movie...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: ...now, in real life.

GROSS: So one more question. When was the last time you did graffiti?

Mr. MILLS: Oh, it was a while ago. But, you know, I was in my 30s.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. MILLS: And I, you know, I think a real graffiti artist would
rightfully call me quite the poser, you know, because I just do it once
in a while. And my graffiti has much more to do with like May 1968 than
the Bronx or, you know, like hip-hop culture, and that's sort of what
happens in the film.

And I have some friends who are very great, amazing, brave, real
graffiti artists who are very nice to me and include me on some of their
hijinks and taught me and I was very much the dumb, passive follower
drafting off their knowledge.

GROSS: What have you written in graffiti?

Mr. MILLS: I did a - this is slightly embarrassing. I did one that said:
the cops are inside us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: Very subversive, very intense, very political. I did one –
and then I did all this in grief too. This kind of shows you how
intoxicating and weird grief is. It really puts you in a strange place.
You're not your normal self. I did a billboard, big and you had to – and
it was really terrifying. You had to climb up this like 35-foot
billboard no ladders on the side with no extra railing, and I did, love
is worth it, which I don't think I would do again but that's how I was
feeling.

GROSS: Who were you grieving?

Mr. MILLS: At that time it was my dad and how I was feeling.

GROSS: But you said you hadn't done it - when did he die?

Mr. MILLS: Oh, you're right. It was my mom. I guess it was my mom.

GROSS: Because you said you were in your 30s. So...

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, I know. You're right.

GROSS: Oh, I guess that was, yeah.

Mr. MILLS: I'm putting it together. Yeah.

GROSS: You're in your early 40s now.

Mr. MILLS: My mom passed away....

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah. My mom passed away when I was 33 and I'm putting
together some pieces of my - people I knew and what and where. So I
guess it was after my mom died.

GROSS: Right. I see. Okay.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. Okay.

Mr. MILLS: And I did on the side of a – should I say this? Okay, let's
go. On the side of Paramount in Los Angeles, it's like a huge compound,
I wrote: surrender.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And that was gone within like minutes. I wrote at like three
in the morning and me and my friend went back at like eight in the
morning to take the picture of it and it was gone, you know.

GROSS: Well, somebody noticed then, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: Oh yeah. They have...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: It was perfectly painted over. You didn't see a drop of paint
on the ground.

GROSS: I think it's too late to arrest you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: But I don't think I'm getting a film distributed through them
soon after I said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: Well, I have to say, repeating all that to you right now is
quite embarrassing. I'm not sure I would do any of that again.

GROSS: But it was important to you at the time to do it, right?

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. MILLS: It's very fun. Breaking law is tremendously fun. And I do
feel - I really believe in graffiti. I believe that the public sphere
shouldn't just be owned by all these companies and we would tend to just
do graffiti on sort of large company's property.

GROSS: And did you have the language of art to describe it too, because
your father, you know, being a museum director, could you think of it as
well, it's an installation piece or it's, you know, it's like public
sculpture or...

Mr. MILLS: Yeah. I don't need my dad to be pretentious. I have my own
art school education to give me the tools to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. So how did you describe it to yourself?

Mr. MILLS: I – well, I was having fun and I was playing with my friends.
And I was enjoying doing stuff that I don't normally do and being sort
of out of my box. And then I do do so much work that's in the public
sphere. And part of the reason I love being a graphic designer is
because I'm not in the art world and that I'm out in the street and I'm
in part of the entertainment industry. And if I feel like if I do
anything weird or strange or subversive in that context, it's like twice
as interesting as if I did it in an art context. So it's in that nature.
Like, I've been working with those sorts of ideas for years and years.

So it was sort of a different way to do graphic design. I wasn't invited
to work on Paramount's building or that billboard but it's actually the
same place that I do a lot of my other work.

GROSS: Right, because you do album covers and you do ads...

Mr. MILLS: Yeah. I do billboards. I do all these things. Yeah.

GROSS: ...billboards. Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I see.

Mr. MILLS: So it was fun to work in the same context in a much more
illegal way.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

Mr. MILLS: Yeah, thank you. It's really a huge honor to be on your show.

GROSS: Thanks. It was a really, really great to have you back. I really
appreciate it. And good luck with the film. I really enjoyed it.

Mr. MILLS: Oh great. Thank you. Thank you.

DAVIES: Mike Mills wrote and directed the new film "Beginners." It opens
in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow and in other cities throughout
June. Some Mike Mills' drawings and sketches featured in the film are
also being released in book form, aptly called "Mike Mills: Drawings
from the Film Beginners."

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead on a new jazz piano album. This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
136499797
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110602
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Craig Taborn: Investigating The Piano

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Jazz pianist Craig Taborn has made a name for himself playing
rambunctious music with James Carter, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne and
William Parker, and he's made a few punchy records with his own groups.
Now Taborn has released his first solo album.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it goes in another direction.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The piano is an inviting instrument. That's why
drummers, bassists and blues guitarists all record as pianists, and even
non-musicians will trinkle a few keys when no one's around. The piano's
easy to get a sound out of, and on the keyboard, you can see all the
tonal patterns laid out in black and white. You can approach playing it
as a visual puzzle, connecting the dots. You don't have to be a virtuoso
to get a rhythm going, or set the wooden box of wires humming. And every
piano has its personality to discover, pliant or not so much. When you
improvise, the instrument can show you where to go if you're listening;
it'll lead you to its best sounds, its secrets.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Now, if it's a very responsive piano, and you're the virtuoso
Craig Taborn, and you can maintain that blank-slate willingness to let
the instrument lead you on, that can be a beautiful thing. Taborn says
he's less about transcending the piano's limitations than exploring
what's possible within it, treating the contraption as a pure sound
source.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: On his new solo album, "Avenging Angel," Craig Taborn often
falls into patterns: repeating rhythms or phrases, or arcs of upward-
reaching chords. He likes to layer one idea over another as his two
hands pursue their own agendas. Those dialogues are polyrhythmic
callbacks to West Africa, boogie-woogie and vintage Cuban music.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Craig Taborn says he doesn't worry about the great piano
traditions when he improvises, but he can't ignore everything he learned
on the way up; the blank slate he starts with can only be so blank. So
in 30 seconds of "Neverland," you may hear echoes of Thelonious Monk's
blues "Misterioso," composer Darius Milhaud's Brazilian solo pieces and
old man Bach's fugues. But Taborn puts it all in his own voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Neverland")

WHITEHEAD: In other folks' bands, Craig Taborn plays a whole mess of
piano, giving leaders their money's worth. Solo, he has room for stuff
he can't usually get to on a bandstand, like wide-open spaces between
notes, and very quiet dynamics. At times on "Avenging Angel," he pushes
the music toward the threshold of hearing. When he brings it way down,
it's nice.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: This is the rare jazz piano album to remind me of Brian Eno's
"Music for Airports," background sounds that seep into your
consciousness. But Craig Taborn's "Avenging Angel" isn't ambient; it's
music for listening. He makes you lean in to catch every note.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. His new book
is "Why Jazz: A Concise Guide." He reviewed Craig Taborn's new album
"Avenging Angel," which will be released Tuesday.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan has some summer reading picks set in the
past.

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
136885703
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110602
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Summer Reads To Transport You Back In Time

(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has been indulging her love of American
history lately. She says the three books she's chosen for her summer
roundup - a narrative history, an old-fashioned historical novel, and a
biography about fading frontier life - would stoke any reader's
curiosity about the past.

Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Summer, when I was a kid, meant weekend road-trips in
our family Rambler to sites of historical interest. We'd pack up
deviled-ham sandwiches and Cokes and make pilgrimages from our apartment
in Queens to Teddy Roosevelt's house on Long Island or Washington
Irving's house in Westchester. Sometimes there were longer expeditions
to Valley Forge and, once, Williamsburg. I'm not sure how much history I
absorbed; I mostly remember a lot of candle-making demonstrations. But,
forever after, summer, to me, has been the season for traveling back in
time, either by hitting the road or, happily, hitting the books.

David McCullough is about as dependable as they come if you're in the
mood for a narrative history that sweeps you, through luscious detail
and anecdote, into a bygone age. His beguiling new book is called "The
Greater Journey" and it departs from works like "1776" and "John Adams"
in that it digs deep, not into a historical event or personage, but,
rather, into a cultural trend. Between 1830 and 1900, scores of young
Americans with ambitions to be painters, architects, doctors and
scientists sailed to the Old World to soak up the education the New
World couldn't offer.

Or, as McCullough puts it: Not all pioneers went West. Specifically they
traveled to Paris. Some, like Mary Cassatt and Oliver Wendell Holmes,
are familiar names; others, like the educator Emma Willard and Mary
Putnam - the first American woman to graduate from a French medical
school - are revelations. McCullough evokes a vision of early 19th-
century Paris crowded with restaurants and gambling houses, but his
greatest achievement is the realization he gives readers of how new
America still was back then, sans medical schools and serious art
academies.

He writes of American travelers in the 1830s seeing their first glimpse
of the medieval cathedral at Rouen. The Americans were agog, McCullough
notes, because the largest building in the United States at the time was
the Capitol in Washington. Even the most venerable houses and churches
at home dated back only to the mid-17th century. So historic a landmark
as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was not yet a hundred years old.

McCullough's book is essentially about building civilization. Jeff
Shaara's novel, "The Final Storm," is about destruction on an almost
unfathomable scale. "The Final Storm" chronicles the Pacific campaign
during World War II; it's the fourth in Shaara's series about the war
and works both as a standalone novel and as the conclusion to that
series. There are no postmodern literary tricks here; instead, Shaara is
a master - in the Herman Wouk, Kenneth Roberts mode - of the kind of
character-driven, plot-heavy page-turner that most of us think of when
we think historical novel.

In his introduction, Shaara reminds us of some of the staggering numbers
of the Pacific Campaign: the two-week assault on Saipan resulted in
14,000 American deaths; Iwo Jima, 26,000 American casualties and only
300 Japanese prisoners taken alive out of the 20,000 defending the
island. "The Final Storm" is a vivid literary addition to the HBO series
"The Pacific" as well as films like "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags
of Our Fathers" - all of which underscore the peculiar brutalities and
sometimes under-recognized sacrifices of the War in the Pacific.

My last recommendation is a potentially annoying one because readers
will have to sit tight for a couple of weeks before they get their hands
on Dorothy Wickenden's alternative Western called "Nothing Daunted."
But, I promise you, it's worth the wait. Wickenden, who is the executive
editor of The New Yorker Magazine, has written a superb biography that
charts the adventures of her grandmother and her grandmother's best
friend - society girls and Smith College graduates - who, in the summer
of 1916, set out to become schoolteachers in the isolated settlement of
Elkhead, Colorado.

Relying on photographs and letters that the women sent back to their
anxious parents in Auburn, New York, Wickenden summons up the last
moments of frontier life, where books were a luxury and, when blizzards
hit, homesteader's children would ski miles to school on curved barrel
staves. David McCullough may tell us that not all pioneers went West,
but some unlikely ones sure did, and "Nothing Daunted" also reminds us
that different strains of courage can be found, not just on the
battlefield, but on the home front, too.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
She reviewed "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" by David
McCullough, "The Final Story(ph)" by Jeff Shaara and "Nothing Daunted"
by Dorothy Wickenden. You'll find details of Maureen's historical book
recommendations at freshair.npr.org. And look on the NPR's books page
for Maureen's summer crime and mystery picks as well.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
136650194

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Rep. Adam Schiff weighs in on the raid at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home

Schiff reflects on the significance of the top-secret documents seized from Trump's residence. He led the first impeachment and serves on the House's committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

34:53

Robin Thede wants her sketch show to open doors for other Black voices

Thede's HBO series, A Black Lady Sketch Show, is the first sketch comedy show solely written, directed and starring Black women. "It is a nonstop job," she says of the various hats she wears.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue