In bringing to the screen the real-life story of his father — who came out of the closet after becoming a widower at at age 75 — "Beginners" director Mike Mills gambled on a series of improvisational "rehearsals" with star Christopher Plummer.
They included riding roller-coasters at Magic Mountain and shopping for skinny jeans at Barney's, with Mills' surrogate, Plummer's co-star Ewan McGregor.
“I sent them off to Barney’s and said, ‘Christopher, you’re gay now; you want to be attractive to younger men — go buy yourself a scarf’,” Mills said at a post-showing Q&A Monday night at the Landmark, part of TheWrap's Awards Screening Series.
“And I said, ‘Ewan, take care of Christopher, he’s 79.’"
Very much like his father, Mills said to moderator Steve Pond, TheWrap's awards guru, Plummer "needed no taking care of. He got there, and he was obsessed with skinny jeans. He went to the jeans bar for like two hours! Ewan ended up buying him $1,000 worth of jeans, even though I only gave him $200 to buy a scarf."
Mills said the shopping gave them an experience "very much like what it was like with me and my dad” – which is just what he'd hoped for, since the film is very close to his own true-life story. “
Plummer, nominated for an Oscar last year for his role in "The Last Station" and winner this year of the L.A. Film Critics' Best Supporting Actor award for his role in "Beginners," plays a widower who comes out of the closet as gay in his mid-70s, to the amazement and amusement of his son, portrayed by Ewan McGregor.
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Mills said he wanted to envelop Plummer in deeper aspects of his role than just the joys of late-life fashion discoveries, of course.
“The day after the Barney’s trip, Christopher brought all his new gay friends over, and they told their actual life stories of coming out, and that really leveled Ethan and Christopher,” Mills said. “I think it really heightened the stakes for them of what we were talking about."
By the end, he said, "Christopher was very appreciative, I think, and liked having this weird space to play in. I think it kind of opened him up in different ways and made him more willing to sort of meander. He’s so good, you want that guy to meander.”
Melanie Laurent plays McGregor’s girlfriend, in a storyline hinging around whether the two young lovers will take a cue from the gay father’s fresh start and try out something new themselves – which, in both their cases, is overcoming a history of commitment-phobia.
She, too, had to join in on the unscripted bonding. Though rather than a shopping spree to flesh out that relationship, McGregor, Laurent and the director “went to Magic Mountain and went on roller-coasters all day long,” Mills said. “Because I knew that they both were terrified of roller-coasters, as am I. So I said, ‘I’ll go in the front seat — but I need us to feel fear and exhilaration and dread all at the same time.’
"Melanie actually filmed it on her Flip camera, and Ewan and I were screaming like women, while Melanie’s cussing in a very low voice, in English, for some reason. We got off that ride eight times more bonded than when we started.”
Though the shooting stuck closely to the prepared script, Mills said the improvised bonding was very important to the project.
“Actors of that caliber, I don’t want them to get too used to my script or go over it a whole bunch of times,” the writer-director said. “I want them to find as much overlap between themselves and the characters as possible and explore that. To me, that’s the emotional tissue you’re trying to develop.”
Mills couldn’t have settled for much less of an actor than Plummer to play the barely fictionalized version of his real-life father, even though he said that when it came to casting the two male leads, “I was trying to think smaller, and luckily I got encouraged to think big.”
Getting McGregor was “like a classic story. Ewan gets so many scripts, it’s hard to get on his radar. But I talked to him on a ski lift at Sundance and pitched the story, and it was enough to get Ewan interested enough to read it.”
When it came to pairing him with Plummer, “I put a picture of them next to each other and thought, ‘Holy crap, they look so similar.’ I remember when I sat them down for lunch the first time: Ewan looked at Christopher and said, ‘Shit, you look like my uncle.’ I went, ‘Yes!’” They shared similarities beyond the physical: “Ewan and Christopher are tremendously good-souled, good-willed, willing-to-work-for-scale, totally and surprisingly human people. And if it weren’t for them…”
It’s been nearly seven years since Mills' “Thumbsucker” debuted at Sundance in early 2005… right around the time Mills had the idea to make his second film be about his then-dying dad. When Pond asked if he’d found the climate for filmmaking had changed in the intervening years, Mills suggested that was an understatement.
“I couldn’t get the (relatively all-star) cast that I got for ‘Thumbsucker’ if I was making it now,” the director asserted. “The theatrical release world is shrinking so much. That impacts everything. That impacts the amount of indie films that get out there. And that impacts the number of indie films that big actors are in that don’t get distributed that make big actors terrified of signing on to indie films — if you follow all that.”
In 2007-08, Mills was close to making the film, albeit with a different set of partners who would give him “a lot of negative notes” on the script. He’s happy he finally got to make it with producers who believed in doing it his way — “even though all the way through rehearsal, I’m rewriting, adjusting to the real psyches and souls and backgrounds of the actors I have. I like to keep it alive. My great fear is that it will be this dead plan that we’re executing.”
And Mills said he is is a bit of a beginner himself when it comes to really exposing himself for an audience.
"Even though I’m not a big extrovert, I just felt like this is the best chance I have to tell a tell a true human story and report back to the audience something that only I could report,” he said.