In 1955, Mike Mills' parents were married in a church in San Francisco, blocks away from where Allen Ginsberg was writing Howl. They were married for 44 years until his mother passed away. Following her death, Mills' father came out as a gay man.
If you've seen the trailer for his new film, Beginners, you'll see this plot point play out. This isn't accidental: Mills admits right up front his film contains a few key autobiographical elements. "He had five very gay years before he passed away," says Mills from Toronto. "When he came out, we had all these amazing conversations about love and relationships. He was just way more present, way more engaged with me. He was less polite, in a great way."
In the picture, Ewan McGregor is Oliver, who lives with a Jack Russell named Arthur. The dog once belonged to Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who announces he is gay in his mid-'70s, shortly before he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Oliver is also starting a relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actor. Through the prism of his father's revelations, illness and his new romance, Oliver looks at his life and romantic history, and compares his decisions with those of his parents.
"That generational divide is really key to the whole story," says Mills. "How love, or the options we have in a relationship in our own emotional lives are historically shaped. Hal's character is born in 1924, and Oliver's is born in the late '60s. Kids born from those years on have far fewer external obstacles. It does give them the time and space to be more aware of their interior emotional life, which is so much more ambiguous. It gives you the space to be aware of things my parents didn't even have time for. For very different reasons, children of those parents live out paradoxes and contradictions that the parents didn't even think twice about."
And the things that made sense to Mills' parents, marrying though they were both aware of his father's gayness, would be an intolerable decision for their son in a similar situation, but "that was their best choice for happiness," he says.
The autobiographical elements of the story do give way to fiction: though the romance between Oliver and Anna is new and fragile, Mills is married to Miranda July, who also has a new film due this summer, The Future. While Beginners has a certain intimate tone similar to July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, he says their creative lives don't really intersect.
"First and foremost, Miranda is the thing in my life other than work," says Mills. "Because we work a lot, we have very independent art lives, we don't sit around and talk about our scripts all the time. I wrote this script for about four years, she read it once. In ways we're more independent that people might imagine. I do love her work. And maybe we do share some turf, but we come at it in such different ways."