The Beginners director talks love, life and why living in LA inspires him.
Fiercely respected as both an independent graphic designer and a mainstream music video director, having shot Moby, Air and Blonde Redhead, Mike Mills is what you might call a creative chameleon. As part of the Beautiful Losers crew with Shepard Fairey, Harmony Korine and wife Miranda July, Mills' impact on the art world has been profound. Now, he's following 2005 writer-director debut Thumbsucker with Beginners, a highly personal romantic drama starring Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent and Christopher Plummer. LWLies caught up with the au fait LA native recently to discuss living outside of the film industry and turning grief into art.
LWLies: Los Angeles is a big character in this movie. It’s a city that’s been distorted by cinema in the past, how does that Hollywood version differ from the LA you know?
Mills: Well, I live in Silver Lake, which is where we shot a lot of the film. But it’s funny; I’m struggling to think of a film that uses LA more interestingly... I’m just thinking of, like, Pretty Woman and shit like that.
We were thinking of Short Cuts...
Yeah, a little bit, but Short Cuts isn’t really about LA. I mean Altman definitely lives in LA, you can tell, but he... not that much. It’s not the way people have used New York. And LA’s such a more dispersed city, it’s harder to capture in a way; there aren’t that many obvious landmarks and it’s quite dystopic in many ways and quite unpretty in many ways. So, like, I’m sure there’s a film that’s done something more interesting with LA, but I just can’t think of one right now. But you know what, in terms of film industry it’s kind of fascinating because Silver Lake is kind of become like a wealthy neighbourhood, but it used to be... I mean when I moved there it was pretty cheap, which is why I moved there.
It’s on the east side, it’s far away from the beach and Santa Monica and the whole film industry, but where I live is within two minutes of where DW Griffiths' first big lot was where he made Intolerance; there’s a big blockbuster video there now. And the other direction, literally two minutes away, is Disney’s studio where Mickey Mouse was first drawn and animated; that’s a supermarket now. Mack Senett’s Stage is the other way, and that’s where all the first silents were made and some of those studios are still there. My 'Kelly Watch the Stars' video was shot on a Mack Senett stage, you know, so I live in the real beginnings of film. It’s kind of amazing, like, everywhere I walk it’s like, 'Well, Charlie Chaplin must have walked here; Buster Keaton, DW Griffith, all these people must have walked here.' But it’s all invisible now.
In Beginners you reference that history by using the Biltmore Hotel and the Cosmopolitan Book Shop where Anna finds a book on old movie stars...
Do you look back at that whole era nostalgically?
Well, I’m obsessed with history. We are the latest chapter in a long story and if we want to figure ourselves out of get out of the prisons that we’re in then you need to figure out the past. So I’m always looking back. And I do love Louise Brooks and I do love old Hollywood through the teens, '20s and '30s, because it was being invented then, it was like this whole new entrepreneurial world that was just being discovered. It’s a little bit like coming from skateboarding, it’s like, I like these cultures that were born from punk, too. I was around and I watched these things make themselves a little bit and I related a lot to that. Actually Louise Brooks was a fucking punk, man. She was a really interesting, subversive person.
Do you consider yourself a part of any specific scene? Because there’s the movie world, the skate scene, the graphic illustration culture that you started in professionally, and they don’t always co-exist.
Personally no. It’s funny... well, I was involved with this gallery that Aaron Rose did called Alleged and there was the documentary about the group of us, the Beautiful Losers thing, but we kinda were as much apart as we are together. And, yeah, I do art stuff, I do graphic stuff, I do film stuff... none of these worlds care about the other one, you know what I mean? Like, it doesn’t help me in the film world that I did a Beasties' cover, and the Beasties don’t really care that I did a film. So in a way it doesn’t help you, none of these different worlds takes care of you. If I was just an artist it might be easier to just be in galleries, but because I do films that whole scene kind of pooh-poohs me, like I’m too commercial because I do films. The film world considers me [to be] kind of an aberrant thing; I’m not just a film director. The graphic world doesn’t really embrace me because I do too many things, so it makes me kind of like an émigré in all these different scenes and places.
Are the Beautiful Losers guys like your creative family?
Yeah, well, it is in that Aaron’s my great friend, but Aaron doesn’t have a gallery anymore, he’s sort of an émigré himself, you know.
Moving on to the human characters in Beginners, where do they come from?
Well the Hal character is very much a portrait of my dad, but it’s a story, you know, I have two sisters that are not in the film and I’m sure they would have a different version of my dad; my dad would have a different version of my dad... but I tried pretty hard to, like, remember him or capture him, but my dad never called me one night after going to a gay club and asked me about house music, but it’s very much based on conversations we were having. So that’s the typical kind of amalgamation and distillation that occurs when you’re writing a story. So is it true or false? I don’t know, but it’s definitely moving towards some kind of truth. But it’s a fiction, also, and there’s a lot of that: Oliver has a lot of me in him but I wasn’t really interested in making a self-portrait...
Do find it difficult writing autobiographically?
I find it, like, embarrassing. It’s easy to write because you know about it, but it’s not my main goal to write a story about me; I want to write about love and love through the eyes of different generations. I’m narcissistic but not that much, you know. I don’t get off on it that much; it makes me nervous. There’s a tonne of me in Anna, actually, like her emotional architecture, and that’s just from writing from stuff that I know. But the stuff Oliver does, the graffiti, the drawings, that’s all me. I taught Ewan [McGregor] how to draw like that. Oh, I inherited my dad’s dog, that’s another thing. But Anna isn’t Miranda [July] at all, and it’s not a portrait of us, I didn’t try to capture us. That would be interesting to do someday, maybe.
Great writing often comes from miserable writers, but you’re married, happily, secure in your career... How do you explain the shade of melancholy in the film?
There’s a long streak of melancholia in my world. Often when I’m sad I make things to get out of it, it makes everything more emotionally vivid when you’re sad. At least for me... But this particular story was written in the hotness of grief, and it’s coming out of that place. So it’s not depression, it’s grief, that’s a much more traumatic thing that happens. It’s a real 'Ka-bang!' thing that happens, you know, and that’s what Oliver is in. And love... I think new love is... not like depression but it can really rattle you, it can really bring all your ghosts out into the open, it can bring all these shitty sides of you to the surface, all these parts of you that are really unsettling and unresolved. Real love, real intense love does that, I think.
If you’re in a real relationship that’s stirred up all the time, in does something to you that no other part of your life does, and I wanted to document that in Beginners. So, like, being with Miranda reminded me of all that and brought me close to all that. But I started writing the film before I was with Miranda and none of that stuff is us, but being with Miranda and being in love definitely reminded me of how transformative and testing and, like, really revealing love can be. That’s what I wanted to write about.
Is Beginners self-medication; like, closing a chapter of your life that was anchored by grief?
Sure, or... I mean, I don’t think I’m going to make another film about my dad, you know.
Would you make one about yours and Miranda’s relationship?
Maybe later. I would love to try to make a portrait of Miranda one day, or us, you know, but not now. When we’re 60. It’d be neat to do us much later in life. Or maybe to look at love and a connection with someone from that close and concrete of a perspective. That’s what I was trying to do with this; report on love in a really intimate, detailed way, not just for the love of telling and personal story or for the love of me but, like, just finding that something that I can report on with that level of intimacy.
Was it hard finding the right actors to tell such a personal story?
I think it’s hard to find any actor. It was hard to find Mélanie [Laurent], it was hard to find Andy, it was hard to find the people who weren’t so autobiographical. That was rally tricky. It was hard finding Ewan and Christopher [Plummer], or getting to them, partly because I’m American so I didn’t immediately start thinking about this Scottish guy, you know. But it was weird; I cast all non-Americans and I think there’s something quite un-American about my family spirit and my family energy. Or at least, like, American movie star people, I don’t really fit into that block easily so it’s hard to imagine who would play me. I didn’t want some American actor doing an impersonation of me, which is probably what I would’ve ended up with.
I knew who ever I chose would have to overlap with me to a certain extent, but Ewan and I come from really different backgrounds – I was writing about this guy who wasn’t married at 38 and in reality Ewan’s been married for 15 years. And Santa Barbara and Scotland are pretty different... But whatever we share I do think found a connection somewhere; we certainly enjoyed each other’s company and we laughed at the same things and we get along really well. That was a blessing. I saw Young Adam and I re-saw Velvet Goldmine and just thought that he could be Oliver, but I had no idea we would get along so well. That made it so much easier.
What do you love about movies?
I love the synthesis of all these different things; acting, music, photography, editing... I’m looking at it like a filmmaker, but I love filmmaking and I love watching it happen. I really love making things happen and bringing all those elements together. I love watching 1930s movies like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight and thinking about the wardrobe department and the gaffers and what the set must have felt like. I always watch films with a kind of behind-the-scenes monologue running in my head. Because I love making films I love watching films. It’s like watching my sport.