Mike Mills on Beginners, graphic design and music videos

Long admired for his graphics and illustration work, Mike Mills is now becoming renowned as a film director. His second feature, Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, is out in the UK this week. He talks to CR about making the film, his ongoing love for graphic design, and his views on the state of the music video industry…

Mike Mills on the set of Beginners with McGregor and Plummer

Long admired for his graphics and illustration work, Mike Mills is now becoming renowned as a film director. His second feature, Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, is out in the UK this week. He talks to CR about making the film, his ongoing love for graphic design, and his views on the state of the music video industry…

Mills cuts a somewhat unusual figure in Hollywood. He came to movie-making via a career as a graphic designer and artist, and has previously created record sleeves for Mo’ Wax records, as well as for acts including the Beastie Boys and Beck. He has also shot music videos for Moby and Air, and ads for Nike and Gap, amongst many more. Mills’ first movie, Thumbsucker, came out in 2005, and won acclaim as an indie tale of teenage angst. His follow-up, Beginners, will no doubt also be cast with the ‘quirky’ tag, but is a delicate, gently funny and poignant tale about a situation very personal to the director. Inspired by Mills’ own father, it relates the story of Hal, played by Plummer, who has come out at the age of 75, following the death of his wife of 45 years. It explores how Hal’s new experiences – he enthusiastically embraces a full and tumultuous gay life, including a relationship with a younger boyfriend (played by Goran Visnjic) – impacts on his relationship with his son Oliver, played by McGregor.

Beginners trailer

The story is also one about grief. Hal’s tale is told from the perspective of Oliver, and begins at a point just after Hal’s death, which occurs only a few years after he came out. Still deeply grief-stricken from his father’s death, Oliver reflects on his own life and family relationships, and the film follows him as he cautiously embarks on a new love affair, with French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Mills avoids mawkishness and sentimentality in the film, and instead uses humour and a delicate touch to tell a story that tackles the universal themes of love, family and death. As a sideline, Beginners also offers a small but amusing insight into the life of a graphic designer, with Oliver earning his crust by struggling to create cover artworks for bands that just don’t seem to understand his vision.

Plummer and McGregor in the film

Despite the parallels with his own life, Mills is keen to stress that story isn’t a documentary. “I felt like this is a great story, and it’s so full of life,” he says. “It’s about incredibly deep things in a way, and it’s what my dad actually did. I just admired him having the bravery to come out when he did, and to risk so much and make himself so vulnerable by falling in love with people… as his real self. But it’s not my dad, it’s Christopher Plummer. And it’s my version of my dad, it’s like a portrait, more than a documentary… I knew that’s what I was doing and I knew I didn’t want to make a narcissistic memoir, I was trying to reach out. I love so many things that come from a personal place, whether it’s Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Fellini’s 8½… So when I’m directing it on set I’m not like ‘oh, that’s my dad, it’s so sad’, I’m like ‘I’m making a movie, I love film. I love being a writer and director more than anything.’ It didn’t have a heaviness or even a sense of personal-ness around it.”

McGregor works on illustrations in the film

“Again in Oliver there’s part of me,” he continues, “but I’m not really interested in making a self-portrait. This is the only way I knew how to write this story, and I did want to talk about my experiences of love, which I feel are also some of my friends’ experiences, kind of a generational thing. So yeah, I wanted to write about me, but I also really didn’t want to write about me. Whenever I can distance myself from Oliver, I’m very happy, because it’s easier and safer. Ewan isn’t me. We really get along, which is great, and we laugh at a lot of the same things. I think we are similar… we’re somewhat emotive, straight men. Not afraid to do that. So I really can’t imagine anyone but Ewan doing the film – how many movie star guys make themselves that emotionally exposed and vulnerable? So few people work that way.”

Illustration featured in Beginners

McGregor’s expression of the sadness and confusion Oliver is feeling about his father’s death is largely non-verbal. Mills uses Oliver’s interactions with his father’s dog (an exceptional cute and soulful terrier, who occasionally talks back, reflecting some of Oliver’s inner turmoil) and also his artworks to articulate things that are too difficult to say out loud. The drawings in the film are recognisably by Mills himself. As well as being used as an expressive prop, they also form Oliver’s pitch for the cover artwork for a band. Sadly, in a scene perhaps all too familiar for many designers and illustrators, the band in question are not interested in Oliver’s melancholic musings on life and love and instead just want their portraits painted.

Bruise and Fireworks from Mills’ Humans project

While Mills’ graphics output has lessened over the years, Beginners has actually led to some new projects. “The movie brought a lot of it back,” he says. “I’ve been doing this Humans stuff, a line of posters and fabric prints (see here for more details). I sort of reduced all my graphic work down to that project. I rarely do it for hire. But after doing this movie, I did the Beastie Boys’ new cover. And I’m doing the cover for Carrie Brownstein’s new band, called Wild Flag. So I’ve done more record covers in the last six months than I’ve done in years.

“But doing graphic design is hard,” he continues, “and working for clients is hard. I’ve done a lot in the past, and I’m not really into repetition… But graphic design is hugely important to me. I look at websites all the time: I look at Creative Review, I look at Many Stuff, I look at It’s Nice That… I’m not doing it as a job but I still love Cassandre, I still look at my Wolfgang Weingart book all the time, that stuff just excites me.”

Mills’ recent cover for the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

Mills has similarly reduced his music video output, but this is in part due to the changes in the industry of late. “The music video market has shrunk so radically since I was really making them,” he says. “I still do them now – I did some of my favourite ones just a couple of years ago for Blonde Redhead, which were all quite experimental. But nowadays people want the band playing. And so I do this thing where I’ll present an idea that’s not the band playing and I don’t get the job. I do that a fair amount.

“It’s what everybody wants… or some version. They want a story with the band playing. It’s like, if Jarvis Cocker asked me to do that I would say yes, he’s an amazing performer. But with so many people, it’s like why? I barely did that when I did videos frequently. I don’t want to go backwards.”

Air, All I Need promo

Despite the success he’s achieved with his videos, including his hugely popular All I Need video for Air, shown above, Mills is modest about his place within the promos world, and his ability to get to work with the musicians currently leading the field in more experimental works. “An Arcade Fire video… of course I’d like to do that,” he says. “But you have to get past Michel and Spike… and Jonathan Glazer. I’m like seventh on that list. Or [you have to be] a friend or someone new… To be dang honest with you, I never got that high on the ladder. I just don’t get offered that work.”

Blonde Redhead, Top Ranking video

With Beginners, Mills has been refreshingly candid about his influences for the film, and has written a blog charting them (see here). Among the inspirations listed are Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being and the Parisian graffiti of 1968. The blog offers a great insight into some of the artistic ideas Mills has brought to the movie, which combined with its intriguing narrative make for an unusual and life-affirming film.

Beginners opens in the UK this Friday (July 22). For more info on the film, visit beginnersmovie.com, or Mike Mills’ site at mikemillsweb.com.


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