SXSW Interview: Director Mike Mills on Bringing Life and Style to ‘Beginners’

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2011

Mike Mills’s latest film, Beginners, bares many similarities to his directorial debut, Thumbsucker. Both films are personal tales from the acclaimed filmmaker, they cover similar thematics, and are honest and, somewhat, dark stories told in a heightened manner.

That style is mostly due to, as Mills claims, his art background. Nearly every frame in Beginners feels precise and beautifully composed. The auteur director has a style of his own, despite all the inspirations he mentions in our chat. Woody Allen is definitely the clearest influence, but this is the type of film that even Allen himself hasn’t made in quite some time.

Here’s what director Mike Mills had to say about losing a father, finding financing, and creating art.

Are you enjoying this process, finally getting feedback on the film?

Yeah, or just feeling like…for me it feels like I’m actually meeting the people that saw the movie and talking about it. I’ve wanted to make this movie for so long, worked so hard on it that I’m fuckin’ psyched to be here, anywhere. Like, I’ll go talk on the corner. I’ll do anything. So yeah, I like it.

I think it’s been about six years since Thumbsucker. So what’s that process been like trying to get this film made?

Well, writing it took a while. And then it was about my real dad who died. He died in the Fall of 2004 and I started writing in 2005. So I was still going through all that stuff. It was a heavy process in a way. And then there was the economic crash and trying to get casting and trying to get money, it was really just by the skin of our teeth that it got made.

Did you have trouble getting Thumbsucker made?

Oh yeah.

What’s that process like trying to go around getting financing?

You know, it’s learning how to hear “no” in every possible way you can. It’s like as close as I’m ever going to come to running for president. I guess that’s like really intense when it’s happening to you. But it’s a full-on job.

What type of notes would you get when showing financiers the script?

All different things. But the big thing that you get that is very funny is when they say it’s too small. Small in the film world means it’s about intimate things. So like, a big movie is Iron Man, or something like that. And it’s always funny to me like, “Oh, movies about the real emotional things that we all have to process and go through.” But if I had my dad go and shoot somebody it would be like eight times easier to get attention or to be thought of in a certain way.

I find it interesting how you said it’s too small, because scope-wise there’s a lot of locations. You’re usually in wide-angles.

Small is a funny word. They don’t mean the actual production feel or actual scale of what you’re seeing. It means the stakes. Even that I feel like is a miscalculation or an odd way to measure things, because like I’m saying, if you want to…do something ridiculous and very unreal or shot a bunch of people or something like that that would never really happen, it would be big. Which to me is just a very funny indicator of where our culture is.

How do your scripts read? Do you write long, extended passages to express the style?

No, not really. When I’m writing, I’m writing, and I tend to separate. There’s definitely things I can see and I write knowing it’s going to look like this. But it has more to do with editing than it has to do with anything else. I don’t describe a lot. So it’s mostly the dialogue. But the structure’s there. Like the sequence of the interplay between the memories and the present is there. There’s some kind of longer montage-y sequences, and those are written pretty much like you see them in the film. I don’t kind of make a lot out of my visual side or my visual self.

So when you read the script it feels like a very basic sort of character-driven script?

Yeah. People don’t want to hear that, especially people with money. That’s not interesting to them at all. Our visual stuff is sort of not trusted. But for this movie I did a little test film of one of those monologues because I feel like that was so hard for people to understand. So the first one was like, “This is the sun in 1955,” and all that. I did that. And my test looked a lot like what the movie looked like. And then I’ll collect photos and take photos, and I’ll have like a big bin of photos. And that sometimes helps.

Most dramas, especially independent ones, are usually done in a very documentary style. Thumbsucker and Beginners are the opposite in that regard. Can you talk about your approach to style?

I think both of those movies are hopefully also funny.

Yeah, they are. I mean stylistically they’re different from most dramas.

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. Obviously I went to art school. I was so much more a visual person than a literary writing person. And I write because I feel like that’s this part as a director’s job, to write. But I don’t really identify myself as a huge writer.

Coming up with the visuals, to me it’s like…there’s so many, from whatever, Resnais to Gordon Willis…there’s definitely DPs in films that to me are huge, that are always circulating around in me that I’m sort of bouncing off of when I make my own stuff.

So that’s kind of key to me and what gets me excited when I’m making movies. It’s often what other movies look like.

For this one, all the stuff in the past I storyboarded just because I wanted it to feel more like…and everything in the past is locked off or on sticks. And everything in the present is handheld. So I knew I had certain things that were very story driven that were kind of guiding the visuals.

But besides that, maybe from being like a student of William Eggleston’s photography, I’m really into like entering a room without a whole lot of preconceptions, seeing what the light’s doing and trying to work with what’s there, and trying to do something that’s not schematic, not planned, but more responsive, more documentary style.

At what point in the process do you start getting a good visual sense as to what you want?

I think I write visually. So when I write I have an image in my head. I don’t write it down. People aren’t really that concerned about reading that. And it makes for kind of boring scripts. So I don’t write a lot of that, but I have it in my head. I know that I’m going to do something that looks like love film, that looks like loves of a blond, that looks like parts of 8 ½.

I didn’t do boards until we were into pre-production. I didn’t need to. It’s not until like I know the place, I know the house that we’re going to shoot in that I really wanted to board it out. And also, me and Kasper [Tuxen], my DP, he has a D7 and we shot lots of things. We would work out lots of scenes. Like just when we were location scouting together we would act it out and look at it. It was a really cool sort of heavy way to develop the final look.

How would you say that your art background influences the look of your film or how specific you are?

The storyboards are really a way to communicate with the crew, so they’re still like blobby figures. They’re not like Super-Tron’ed out. I might share them, but they’re not like exquisite in any way. They’re more to get across a structure than to draw what something’s going to look like, and to get people into the idea of a structure.

I was a graphic designer before I was a filmmaker, really. So the whole look of the film, the way I approach things, the way I shoot things is very sort of, to me, graphic designer centric. It’s like a film, like, since we’re in Texas, a film like Thin Blue Line and the way it’s like visual diagram. Like that kind of visual language and process speaks to me. Like when I saw that movie I was like, “Oh my God. I want to be a filmmaker.” And I think I still do it. There’s lots of shots like that in Beginners.

In the film you track a lot of characters from behind —

I think that happens a lot in life where you’re following somebody or you’re kind of with them. And often, that from behind, it’s as you’re coming from the present and entering a memory. So it’s just a way…it’s like a transition. So you’re often with you. And as he’s going into the new world or coming out of a memory going into the present, so we’re going with him.

So it’s sort of like using him as the Pied Piper and following him. And that’s something that both my editor…My editor, I’ve always been a Resnais fan, but my editor turned me on to The War is Over, a Resnais film in like ’65 or something. And it’s a great thing that he does. There’s different tracks in the story, different storylines. And when you switch from one to the other there’s often a tracking shot where you’re following somebody. So that’s sort of an example of how a film makes me excited and it ends up being part of how I structure my story.

There’s a very heightened approach to the film’s style, but the storyline is still very naturalistic. Can you talk about balancing those two different feels?

Well again, enough references, but another influence is Woody Allen. If you look at Woody Allen from 1979–87, he’s like my favorite filmmaker. If you look at Manhattan or Stardust Memories, there’s amazing balance between very artificial things, very composed things, and incredibly naturalistic acting and naturalistic stories and real emotional stuff that he’s processing.

So I like that combo of something that has a touch of the self-referentiality that the new wave brought us of playfulness that Woody Allen inhabits. But also something that’s real, that’s getting towards like things that we can relate to in a really naturalistic way.

How do you find the tone in your scripts and also with your actors?

You can write and rewrite something forever trying to get that. And eventually, hopefully you get financed, hopefully you get actors, hopefully you’re just there. And that’s when the realism really sets in. And I’m pretty loose with my…people are 90% saying what I wrote, but I’m more than encouraging. Like, “Okay, as you leave, say whatever you want. In every take say a different thing.” Or, “How would you enter the room?” Or, “Maybe this scene should be different.”

When you get that sort of documentary receptivity to what’s really happening, I think that’s when little things happen that start to accumulate throughout the film and make it feel hopefully more natural. I love doing that. That’s like, a very Milos Forman thing.

I know you mentioned earlier how editing informs your style and the tone of the film. Could you elaborate?

Well, I mean editing is a hard, long thing that you do. It’s very similar to writing. Like you’re doing it a long time. You’re going over scenes a long time. The scene’s not working forever. And finally, like months later, you figure out, “Oh, just this one shot, this one piece of coverage.” So it’s a very organic process. It’s hard for me to even understand myself. I don’t get it. You just have to keep doing it. It’s like writing. You just have to keep going and there’s not like some magical answer.

But editing ultimately, while I do tricky things in editing or I enjoy letting you see the edit of the film, ultimately it’s in the service of the story. It’s in the service of the emotional line. And if it’s not working out then you’re screwed and you’re just watching a flat screen.

So I don’t know…I don’t have any great secrets of how to edit.

But that’s a good point of how it’s serving the story. A lot of filmmakers always talk about the difficulty of staying invisible behind the camera. Do you find that tricky?

Well, to me I guess the way that works out is being real with the actors and creating a set that’s good for them to be vulnerable and real in, and giving them the time, and giving them rehearsal, and making sure that it’s alive for them, that something really is happening that’s un-programmed and spontaneous, and like encouraging them from when they arrive to breakfast all the way through the day. You’re trying to create a magical day.

So it’s not so much what you’re doing behind the camera, where you’re putting the camera. It’s creating a vibe on set that’s sort of actor first. And I think I do that in all things. I love actors and I love working with them. And I love what they do. And as a recovering extremely shy person I’m very impressed that people can do this.

So I think I’m very focused on them and what they’re doing. And that’ keeps me in the story. And if it’s alive for them that’s the most necessary ingredient for making it alive for the viewer.

I know I gotta wrap up. But I have two quick final questions: How often do you meet people that relate to Justin Cobb (Thumbsucker)? And how important is it to you to never satirize your characters?

Well I think, you know, I’m the director, right? So anybody who comes up to me and talks about this movie is probably someone who relates. You know, the people who hate the movie rarely come up to me and say something or don’t relate. You don’t meet them.

So I meet a lot of people who relate to Justin. And I relate to Justin. So maybe our molecules all gravitate towards each other. And there’s a lot of Justin’s in the world. But all the characters, I’ve met a lot of people…moms, especially when I was promoting the movie, came up to me, “Oh, God, that mom! What she’s going through is so real for me.” That’s what movies do. They’re like little phantasms of ourselves walking around.

And then yeah, to me, I’m not really into satire at all. Making a movie’s so hard and I’m so easily depressed and negative. So I’m going to make a movie that’s going to help me stay on the positive side of life and help me stay engaged and in love with life. And then when anybody steps in front of a camera for me, I really have this…like if it’s a documentary or a film, I’m never more in love with a person. And like capital L Love. I am so sympathetic to them. They are giving blood for me, for us. They’re doing something that makes them incredibly vulnerable. I totally feel for them.

So as an actor, as a real person, and then as a character, I really feel like it’s my responsibility to take them seriously. And I just don’t get a lot of the muster out of…or food…I don’t get any food out of that. A lot of people do.

In a way, my struggle is not to be sentimental in doing that. That’s where I can fuck up.

Yeah. But yeah, I guess also…back to Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris once said, “I find the way people reveal themselves with words endlessly fascinating.” And I guess that’s me too. I find people’s emotional lives and what we can do with them or what we can see of them, like I’m always really interested. And I want to honor that and share it. And I think that’s maybe the biggest part of my contention to make movies.

Beginners opens in theaters on June 3rd, 2011.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.