12.08.11

Director Mike Mills on His Film 'Beginners' Luck During Awards Season

In a letter to The Daily Beast, graphic designer turned filmmaker Mike Mills talks about his most personal film yet—on his father coming out to him at the age of 75—and what all the the awards recognition means.

Dear Daily Beast,

It has been a very crazy week. Our film Beginners came out in June, and this fall it really felt like, “Well, that was extremely nice, but I guess that’s it.” The film had run its course. We were so lucky just to get such a personal film made and distributed.

“Personal?” you ask. Part of the film contains a portrait of my father, a guy who was born in 1924 and married to my mom for 44 years, and who came out of the closet shortly after she died at 75, to have almost five very gay, very full years before he passed away. After he came out, I had a new dad, one who wanted to talk about everything—love, sex, family history, doubts—as opposed to the reserved and secretive father I had known before. We became much closer, much more real, much more messy (in a good way) with each other. We talked a lot about love and relationships: what was possible and unreasonable to ask for, what was real and what was really just hiding, emotionally speaking, and why I was not “settled” my mid-30s.

My film is a continuation of this real conversation about love—interweaving a portrait of my new gay dad, largely as he was dealing with his cancer, which for him was anything but sickly and retiring, and a portrait of his son (kind of me, kind of not) who is dealing with a new romance and being flooded with memories of his just-passed-on father. It’s about how old stories of who we are can control us, and how new stories can take hold when you least expect it.

While the film had a relatively small theatrical life, it felt pretty amazing to connect to all the people we did connect with. It’s mind-blowing when communication works. Especially when you’re writing about things that are oh so intimate and personal. Things that are a mystery to you, about the way the people you love in your family doubt themselves and are brave—brave enough to risk showing the parts of themselves that they fear are “wrong,” brave enough to risk loving someone and losing control over themselves. The whirlwind of grief I was really going through while writing the script made me braver than usual and pushed me to wonder, “If I can just write about all this as directly and as honestly as possible, maybe people will be able to relate in their own personal way?”

Since the subject was my father and a bit of my dear mom, and their dog, people I love remembering, it was all the more bittersweet to kind of say goodbye again this fall. But then the strangest thing happened. I was sitting with all these famous filmmakers and movie stars in a huge dark room on Nov. 28 at the Gotham Awards. I could see Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee and Tomas Alfredson from where I sat, to name just a few of the people I deeply admire who were there. And over there was Tilda Swinton, whom I adore and got to work with, and I was feeling pretty freaking lucky just to have our film be nominated, and to my true and great surprise (I will never be so innocent again!) they called out the name of our film, Beginners. Jesus, they did it twice!

So the next morning, knowing other nominations were going to be announced, I turned off my phone, ran from my Internet-connected computer, and went to the Metropolitan Museum to look at the Klimt painting I love, ’cause I just wanted to be in the moment, for a moment. At 3 p.m. I warily turned my phone back on because I missed my wife [Miranda July] and saw that we got four nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards. Then I think the next day we were included in the National Board of Review Awards.

When strangers watch this story play out, meet my strange version of my parents, and some connect with it, that’s just ... wonderful.

What all this means I don’t know. I just know I feel lucky, and I hope it means more people will give our film a try, more will watch it. And that’s somehow still surprising to me, still strange, still nerve-racking; when strangers watch this story play out, meet my strange version of my parents, and some connect with it, that’s just ... wonderful. And yeah, it does seem like all of a sudden the film’s back on.

Equally meaningful are all these emails from people not in the big film industry, just people in Nairobi and Tucson, Ariz., people who just downloaded the film or got the DVD, and it said something to them they could hold on to. That right there is why I made the film in the first place. The best thing, or the sanest thing I heard during all of this, was from Dee Rees, director of Pariah, another Gotham winner, who said something like: “Winning doesn’t make your film any better, and losing doesn’t make it any worse. As a filmmaker you have to keep that in the front of your mind. In the end it’s just about making the best film you can.”

But I hope this attention does make it so that some more people will see my film, and I hope I’ll get to keep the best job in the universe—being a writer-director.