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In 'Beginners,' A Gay Man Comes Out Late In Life

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. Mill explains what happened when his own dad came out.


Other segments from the episode on November 18, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 18, 2011: Interview with Mike Mills; Review of the film "The Descendants."


November 18, 2011

Guest: Mike Mills

DAVE DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Our guest today is filmmaker, graphic designer and artist Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film "Beginners" which is just out on DVD. It's based on the period shortly after his mother died, when his father came out as gay at the age of 75.

The 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.



EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Oliver) Yeah?

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

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver) You did?

PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yeah, oh, they had some wonderfully loud music. What kind of music's that?

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver) Probably house music.

PLUMMER: (as Hal) Yep. House music, OK. 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. 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. As a graphic artist, he's designed artwork and album covers, including the Beastie Boys' latest CD, "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2." Terry spoke to Mike Mills in June.

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

MIKE MILLS: Thank you so much. Yeah.

TERRY 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.

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

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

MILLS: It's about six months. A little bit more than six months. But, you know, even when he was alive, towards the end of his life, 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."


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.

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

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.

TERRY 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?

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 that says: 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.

TERRY GROSS: And he was 75.

MILLS: He was 75, and he was a widow

TERRY 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.


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.


MILLS: And they had three kids together.

TERRY GROSS: That really puts it in perspective.

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 sisters 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 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.

TERRY GROSS: How did he come out to you?

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. 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.

TERRY GROSS: And at the time - and which was dear to me, too. I really loved 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 a couch and he said: I'm gay. I forget exactly how he said everything, but he basically said I'm gay; 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. Were you shocked, or did you know, could you sense that he was gay all those years?

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 nothing 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?

TERRY GROSS: But then he wanted to have sex.

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 you know, 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.

TERRY 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?

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. You know, my dad definitely - that's(ph) so my mom too, 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.

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

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.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in June with filmmaker, graphic designer and artist Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film "Beginners," which is now out on DVD.

TERRY 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...

MILLS: Yeah.

TERRY a support system, as - yeah, as a help-mate because often the surviving parent is pretty old and needs assistance of some sort.

MILLS: Yeah. Definitely.

TERRY 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.

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.

TERRY 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.

MILLS: Mm-hmm.

TERRY GROSS: 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.

MILLS: Yeah, yeah.

TERRY 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.

MILLS: Yeah.

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

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...

TERRY GROSS: Andy's the boyfriend in the film.

MILLS: Andy's the boyfriend, yeah. And the key thing that I saw was - so, yeah, my dad definitely feels, like born in '24, feels almost Victorian, like his energy, his nature. He is sort of a - 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 - 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.

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

MILLS: Hmmm. Right?


(Unintelligible) 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 very committed, in a lot of ways it was very kind, you know?

And also, let's just 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 - 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. Even to 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.

TERRY GROSS: So were you afraid of getting married?

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 – krikey - 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. I want...

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

MILLS: Well, it all goes together. But, you know, I really wanted my house and my dog and, like, you know, 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: Filmmaker, graphic designer and artist Mike Mills, speaking with Terry Gross. He wrote and directed the semiautobiographical film "Beginners," which is now out on DVD. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in June with filmmaker, graphic designer and artist, Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the new film "Beginners," in which an elderly man comes out to his graphic designer son after his wife dies. The film, now out on DVD, is based on the story of Mike Mills' father who came out at the age of 75.

TERRY GROSS: In the movie the father says to the son, even though I knew 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.

MILLS: Mm-hmm.

TERRY GROSS: He doesn't mention children in that.

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

TERRY GROSS: Or the mom.


TERRY GROSS: Right. Yeah.

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


MIKE 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?


MIKE 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-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.

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.

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



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.

TERRY GROSS: You had one film.


MIKE MILLS: That didn't do so well.


MIKE 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.



MIKE 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...

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

MIKE 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.

TERRY GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MIKE 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...

TERRY GROSS: Well, how did you get them?

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


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] 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?


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.

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


TERRY 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."


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

MIKE 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...


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


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 OK, 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?


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.

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

MIKE 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.


MIKE MILLS: Isn't that interesting?

TERRY GROSS: Nice. Yeah.

MIKE 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], in real life.

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



DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're listening back to an interview with Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie "Beginners" now available on DVD. It's based on the real story of his father coming out at the age of 75. Mike Mills is also a graphic designer. He's done skateboard designs, ads, billboards and album covers, including the art for the latest Beastie Boys CD. Terry spoke with Mike Mills earlier this year.

TERRY GROSS: The main character in your film was also a graphic artist. You’re a very visual person obviously. And there's parts in the film where you pause from the actual narrative and say like, my parents married in 1955 or whatever the year was and this is what the world looked like that year.

MIKE MILLS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

TERRY GROSS: Then you have just a collage of images from that year. And it made me think a lot about how interested we are in how the world looked at various parts of our lives and shortly before we were born because buildings looked different, streets looked different, cars looked different, clothes looked different, hair looked different. Things looked different. Can you talk about deciding to do those visual collages of different years and saying this is what the world looked like?

MIKE MILLS: Well, a lot of it I mean to me, yeah, they're like little visual lyrical essays about these different years. And the first key one is 1955 'cause that's the year my parents truly did get married but it's a pretty fascinating year. You know, I kept thinking in what culture and under what social conditions could my brave mom marry this gay man, knowingly, you know, what was it like? How can I – I was trying to historically contextualize their relationship, their love, their sex and it's so hard to do.

And so to me it's like yeah, this what the sun looked like in 1955. This is what the stars looked like. This is what pets looked like. This is what a phone looked like. This is what movie stars looked like. This is what cars looked like. I feel like with each iteration it's like do I understand it better now? Do I understand it better if I show you a dog, if I show you clothes, if I show you what it's like when people are happy? It's an endlessly curious - and I'll always have the desire to try to figure that out or to try to understand that. And I...

TERRY GROSS: Did having those images help you understand and did you do that as an exercise in real life or just for the film?

MIKE MILLS: Well, the two get kind of blurry, right?

TERRY GROSS: Sure, Sure.

MIKE MILLS: I mean I did a lot of research that's not in the film that I enjoyed doing. But, you know, the film was sort of guiding me. I was on the film ship as I was on that trip, you know, as I was investigating that stuff. And there's so many crazy things about '55. That's when James Dean drove off the road and that's when Rock Hudson got married to a secretary. That's when Ginsberg wrote “Howl.” And it was really amazing to find out that my parents were married in the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco on April 30th 1955. And about 10 blocks down the street there's Ginsberg writing “Howl” simultaneously in an apartment. And I have pictures of the inside of the church and I have Ginsberg's picture at the inside of his apartment. And I love brushing up my smaller family story against the much larger American cultural history story. And it felt really exciting to me, and again, it was part of this attempt to not just make a memoir, not just make like this little intimate story, but to show how we are very much shaped by different historical forces.

TERRY GROSS: Are there images that remind you of your childhood and that define, in some way, culturally, the era in which you came of age?

MIKE MILLS: I didn’t really, that's not really in the film, you know? I didn’t do the – like I was born in '66 and I didn’t really do the – I have a little bit about '78, you know? I have one of these little visual essays about 1978 and it has like Superman and it has like those little Lego toys that were invented that year in it. And it has pets from that year and that - it's just like a home family picture of two women with their pets. So that's evocative but I feel like I didn't really do me in this – in those essays.

TERRY GROSS: Could you do you? Do you know what those images would be?

MIKE MILLS: Yeah. Totally. I might do that next.



MIKE MILLS: Partially. Well, I'm really interested in like I'm really interested in '79 now. I get kind of obsessive about years. And I kind of...


MIKE MILLS: I don’t know. It's a fascinating year to me 'cause I feel like – OK, I'm going to say something like highly un-defendable, but in a way, I feel like maybe in a way, 1979 is the last year of any organic and thereafter the primacy, the dominance of our processed world – from food to culture really kicked in. And I know I can't defend that but I like saying that. And in '79 was such an amazing year for music, with the punk stuff and all that was happening.


MIKE MILLS: It was, you know, Carter's last year. It was the end of the '60s. To me, it was like in '79.

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

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


MIKE 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.

TERRY GROSS: What have you written in graffiti?

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


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, a big, you know, you had to – it was really terrifying.

You had to climb up this, like, 35-foot billboard and the ladder's 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. 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.


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.

TERRY GROSS: Well, somebody noticed then, huh?

MIKE MILLS: Oh yeah. They have...


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

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

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


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.

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

MIKE MILLS: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.


MIKE 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 companies' property.

TERRY 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...

MIKE 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.

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

MIKE MILLS: 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 that 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.

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

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

TERRY GROSS:...billboards. Yeah. Yeah. I see.

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

TERRY GROSS: Thank you so much.

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

DAVIES: Mike Mills wrote and directed the film "Beginners," which is now available on DVD. Here's a song included on the soundtrack of the film.


HOAGY CARMICHAEL: (Singing) Sometimes I wonder why I spend a lonely night dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you when our love was new and each kiss an inspiration. Oh, but that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song. Beside a garden wall when stars are bright you are in my arms. The nightingale tells you fairytales of paradise where roses grew.

Though I dream in vain in my heart it will remain. My stardust melody, the memory of love's refrain. (Whistles)


DAVIES: That’s Hoagy Carmichael singing one of the songs featured on the soundtrack of the film "Beginners." Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "The Descendants," starring George Clooney. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: It's been 7 years since Alexander Payne's hit film "Sideways" but the director of "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt" is back with his fifth feature, "The Descendants." George Clooney plays a Hawaiian real estate lawyer with a wife in a coma and a momentous decision to make involving land inherited from the last Hawaiian king. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Writer-director Alexander Payne is either the American cinema's most acerbic humanist or its most empathetic jerk. Whichever it is, the protagonists of the novels he adapts are outsiders who pay an emotional price for their sense of superiority. Payne's "The Descendants" is his first film to be told from the perspective of a person of privilege, but real-estate lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney, is the ultimate outsider - a stranger to his family and his lifelong home, Hawaii.

Matt grew up wealthy in paradise, but in voice-over he says paradise can go bleep itself. He's actually the great-grandson of a native princess, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha, but she married a non-native, or haole, businessman and died relatively young, and Matt and his many cousins were raised on the haole end of the spectrum.

Now, these descendants are scheduled to meet to vote on the fate of their principal inheritance - 25,000 acres of untouched coastal land, to vote on whether a developer gets to buy and cover it with hotels and golf courses. Matt is trustee and will make the final decision - a lot of power for anyone, let alone someone whose life is falling apart.

When we meet him, his wife Elizabeth has been in a coma and on life support for 23 days, after a daredevil water skiing accident and her prognosis is iffy. Matt refers to himself as the "back-up parent" to their two daughters. He barely knows how to talk to his 10-year-old, Scottie, often in a world of her own and 17-year-old Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, has had drug problems and now goes to boarding school on another island. When Matt brings her home to see her mom, she insists on inviting an old friend, a stoner named Sid, who's a little too forward, played by Nick Krause.



(As Alexandra) Dad, this is Sid.


(As Matt) Hello, Sid.


(As Sid) What's up, bro?


(As Matt) Don’t ever do that to me again. Get ready. We're going to go see your grandparents. And Scottie, Auntie Esther is going to come watch you.


(As Alexandra) Dad, Sid's coming with us, okay?


(As Matt) Yeah. Listen, Sid, what's going on this week is really a family matter. You understand? Sid's not going to be interested in meeting your grandparents. He's going to be bored stiff.


(As Alexandra) Dad, I told you that he was going to be with me. I'll be a lot more civil with him around.


(As Sid) What can I say?


EDELSTEIN: Sid raises hackles because everything he says is a reflexive taunt, a provocation. But he's emblematic. "The Descendants" gets to you by mixing devastating sadness with sick humor and showing how they're karmically connected. It turns out Sid has had a sad life, and that his point of view has waked. In Payne's dramatic universe, there's no such thing as inappropriate.

"The Descendants" is closely based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, but the casting of Clooney as a self-absorbed workaholic can't help but throw it slightly out of whack. It's hard to accept he could be that much of a non-presence in peoples' lives.

And yet, much of Clooney's recent career has been an attempt to fight his own glibness, even his own ridiculous handsomeness, and he does so triumphantly here. He gives a wonderful performance - morose, then manic, then somehow morosely manic. Early on, Matt discovers his wife has been seeing another man and his sweaty desperation to find out who and why is both hilarious and emotionally right.

Just when you think a character is too much of a cartoon, there will be a moment of revelation, a window through the facade. A too-tanned Beau Bridges plays the most prominent of Matt's cousins. He's all rummy Hawaiian bonhomie until you glimpse the core of deviousness.

Judy Greer is the wife of Elizabeth's lover and her final scene is a triumph of Payne's vision - deeply poignant, until she starts to rant, and then all of a sudden she's a comic banshee. Best of all are the kids - Amara Miller as 10-year-old Scottie, still a child withdrawing into fantasy and Shailene Woodley as the willowy beauty Alexandra, who's had to grow up too fast.

Elizabeth King is played by Patricia Hastie, seen only in her hospital bed but for the film's first shot - a close-up of her face, elated, as she water-skis. Why does Payne open with that image, so remote from the narrator's point of view? I think he wants it to come back to us later, when we know how she got to that moment.

At which point you see her husband and the other characters, with their clownish jealousies and pettiness and greed, differently. It gives this broad comedy the sting of tragedy. "The Descendants" is a great movie.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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.

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