The director Mike Mills is considered a jack-of-all-trades in the indie world (he’s directed music videos and designed album covers for bands like Sonic Youth, Air and the Beastie Boys). So it’s no surprise that his soon-to-be-released dramedy, “Beginners,” about a young man who learns that his father is gay and has terminal cancer, is more than just a film. “I seem to need to make a lot of stuff,” he jokingly says. Collateral material includes a book of sketches, aptly titled “Mike Mills: Drawings From the Film ‘Beginners,’ ” and some animated shorts to accompany them. T caught up with Mills to talk about “Beginners” and its never-ending possibilities.
What inspired you to make this film?
It’s a portrait of my real dad, when he came out. He passed away around four to five years later, and I wrote it right after he died. We had some intense, hot conversations that blossomed in so many ways; they became more engaging and started challenging my love issues, and I wasn’t done with the conversation.
Most of the movie seems somewhat autobiographical, but are there any parts that you improvised or added?
Actually, it’s more of a collection of memories turned into a story. I wasn’t intending to create a memoir or autobiography, but to use events from his life as well as mine to talk about love. The other half of the film focuses on Oliver [played by Ewan McGregor] and Anna [Mélanie Laurent]; it’s more in the box of fiction, and more emotional. It’s kind of a portrait of the people I know and the love moments we share.
How did the title come to be?
Well, it’s a story of beginners. [Christopher Plummer's] character, Hal, wasn’t someone who was dying replica soccer jerseys, but someone just starting to live. When my dad came out, it was like he was a completely different person. The movie also portrays a couple — they’ve gone through a bunch, but are really just starting their relationship.
What’s the role of drawing in the movie, and why did you decide on making a book?
Oliver is a designer, and he does drawings for a record cover for the Sads. When I was writing the script, I was actually describing what I was drawing and experimenting a lot — two to three years’ worth of experimenting and putting it aside. A lot of work was put into these drawings, and so we thought it’d be neat to make a book out of them. I was really excited about putting them together and being able to contextualize and show them in a book — I am a graphic designer as much as I am a filmmaker. I also like doing books more than gallery shows.
Could you tell us more about the format of the book?
It’s split up into three sections: “The History of Sadness,” which Oliver works on in the film, “1955″ and “The History of Love.” 1955 was an important year — it’s the real year my parents got married and when [Allen] Ginsberg wrote “Howl” — lots of amazing things happened during that year. “The History of Love” details what’s possible in terms of our love lives and our sex lives.
What about this animated clip, “Men”?
It’s a simple story, and relates to one of the themes that my father and I used to talk about: men who ask for too much, and men who ask for too little. Since my father came from a 1920s perspective, I always felt like he asked for too little. I always ask for too much. And so, I’m exploring these themes through drawing and Oliver.
Who are some illustrators or artists you admire?
I really like Warhol’s earlier drawings, I think those are very key to me. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec posters are nice, and I admire the fact that he was both a fine artist and a graphic artist. I also like Henri Rousseau.
Can Ewan draw?
He’s actually very crafty. He’s amazing at handling bikes and motorcycles, and has a long history with them. He also has this amazing VW camper from the ’60s, and he upholstered it with Scottish plaid. He just likes making things. In the film, I’d start a drawing, and he would finish it — you can see that he’s really drawing something I’ve started, and get close-ups of both my hands and Ewan’s hands. He really got into it.
What materials did you use for these drawings?
In the movie and for the book, I used a Copic sketch pen and Sharpie fine point on a straight-up 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper, sometimes over a photograph. Very, very simple.
In the end, are you happy with how everything turned out? Do you think your father would have been happy with it?
I think that’s really the magical, impossible question that’s been thrown around. I think he would have been keenly aware that I had real love and real curiosity for how my parents’ marriage happened. He would have kindly thought of that. As for me, and I think for all filmmakers, I had my ups and downs, but I can sleep at night. I feel really lucky. I got so many things out of this film that I wanted to and that were also slightly out of my reach. Everything is integrated in “Beginners” — my story, my drawings — and that’s why I’m so happy.
“Beginners” arrives in theaters on June 3. And if you’re in New York on Wednesday, catch Mike Mills at Opening Ceremony, 35 Howard Street, where he’ll be signing copies of the book from 6 to 7 p.m. Check out the movie’s blog here.