Memories are unsettled things for director Mike Mills. Even the most precious are fleeting and untrustworthy and only grow foggier the closer he looks at them. He discovered this while writing the script for "Beginners," inspired by the story of his late father, who came out as a gay man at age 75.
There is a funny moment early in the film, in which the adult son played by Ewan McGregor recalls being told of his father's true sexual orientation, with narration set against contradictory images flashing on the screen: "I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this — but actually he wore a robe."
"Memories are so broken apart," says Mills, 44. "I can remember my dad saying the same things in a sweet tone and in an angry tone. In some of my memories, I'm looking at myself in a shot-reverse-shot structure," he says of the technique of showing movie characters in conversation from opposite camera angles, "which is impossible, right? The language of filmmaking has infiltrated into my dear precious memory of my father. How unstable and unreliable is all this stuff?"
His father was Paul Chadbourne Mills, an accomplished director of art museums in Oakland and Santa Barbara, who began an active gay social life after 44 years of marriage, three kids and the death of his wife, Jan. Then, just five years after coming out, he died of lung cancer in 2004.
"Beginners," which is set for release Friday, is the second feature from Mills, whose 2005 debut, "Thumbsucker," earned wide critical acclaim for its off-center coming-of-age tale. Both of his indie movies unfold as playful and deeply felt stories, with warm, naturalistic imagery rooted in his own early years as a favorite graphic designer for the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and other alt-culture heroes.
In the film, the son, Oliver, also a graphic designer, charts his romantic struggles and feelings of loss in a series of drawings. He has imaginary conversations with his little dog via subtitles that are hilarious and sad. Though not strictly autobiographical, the script was written, Mills says, "in this who-am-I crisis thing I was having after my second parent died: What do I do? What's my history? How did I get here? What are all the things I love?"
An ebullient Christopher Plummer plays the father, whose final years embracing a new life is interwoven with a parallel story of Oliver struggling through an otherwise charmed new relationship with an actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Both sides of the young couple are passionately and hesitantly in love, running to and from genuine commitment. For the still-grieving Oliver, his father's example as an older man discovering real love in the face of imminent mortality is a crucial guide.
Mills had his own romantic history to draw from for the fitfully graceful and awkward love story but says the film does not depict his courtship with writer-director Miranda July, whom he met during the latter stages of writing his "Beginners" script. They were married in 2009. "I had real fresh access to how love makes you face all the parts of yourself that you don't want to face," he says. "But I wasn't doing a portrait of me and Miranda."
Even so, it was an exceptionally personal film for the director, and Mills kept the production close to home, setting the story largely in his own neighborhood of Silver Lake. "It's still really alive in me," says Mills, bearded and sitting at a Sunset Boulevard cafe near the home he shares with July. A couple of scenes were shot right outside. "My dad's gay experiences really had a very positive influence on me and my straight relationships — how to better accept all the weirdness and ambiguity and ups and downs and paradoxes. I knew from the beginning I was writing about love."
His oldest sister had once told him, "You know, Pop was gay," but the information failed to register with him then. And yet Mills wasn't all that surprised when his father ended decades of secrecy and threw himself into a new kind of life. His dad started wearing all black, became active in the gay community in Santa Barbara and began having conversations with his son with new depth and feeling.
"He became so much more emotionally open and available and interested," Mills says. "Not that it was easy or without its mistakes or foibles, but he was a much more interesting dad in lots of ways."
When his father died, Mills knew he wanted that story to be the basis of his next film. Movies as autobiography had always interested him, from Woody Allen's work in the late '70s to his first viewing of Federico Fellini's surreal "81/2," which follows an Italian director through a moment of creative crisis. For "Beginners," Mills slowly pieced his story together through remembered moments sketched out on file cards. The finished script attracted the early interest of McGregor, who saw no need for changes before shooting began.
"I really liked the simple smallness of the story and that it was a true story," says McGregor in a separate interview. "It never felt like a load to carry. It's down to Mike's creativity. He's an artist, and I can see that his filmmaking is just part of his art, and it really feels like that."
Mills was a skate punk from Santa Barbara who left for Manhattan at 18 to become an artist, attending college at Cooper Union, where he was "transformed." He gravitated toward graphic design, embracing "commercial art as a way to insert ourselves in the public sphere."
His visual style was an ironic reflection of postwar modernism, with dots and loops and shapes and symbols for a better world. In the '90s, he designed for the X-Girl clothing line launched by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and became part of a young creative community in New York, creating images for T-shirts, skateboards and posters. He recorded an indie-rock album as the bassist for Butter 08 (with members of Cibo Matto and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and evolved into a filmmaker.
That same decade, Mills cofounded the Directors Bureau — a movie production company and the first creative home for Sofia Coppola and other new directors. His early films included shorts and documentaries, exploring the lives of bop jazzman Ornette Coleman and the Huntington Beach artist-skateboarder-vegan Ed Templeton.
Filmmaking is Mills' central concern now, though he'll still design an album cover for a friend, as he did recently for the new Beastie Boys release "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two." And just before arriving at this neighborhood cafe for an interview and eggs, he worked up a cover for a Beasties single, then played ball with the dog and looked over his notes for a new script.
It was five years between his features. Though he keeps busy with commercials, documentaries and the occasional music video, Mills hopes the next one comes quicker. He knows that few projects will affect him the way his father's story has.
"It's not all sadness and depression," he says of "Beginners" and the mourning and revelation that fueled it. "There's a big part of it that's so raw and open and realizing all the assumptions that make our lives easier are not working anymore. You're kind of like an alien walking around in a world that's quite alive."