Director Mike Mills, whose previous work includes the feature-length indie classic Thumbsucker as well as music videos for Air, Moby and Yoko Ono, draws from personal experience in his latest feature length film Beginners, starring Ewan Macgregor and Melanie Laurent.

Based on the coming out story of Mills’s own father’s, Beginners follows Oliver (McGregor), whose father Hal (Christopher Plumber) drops a bombshell that he is dying of cancer, just as he also reveals that he has a younger male lover. Writing and directing the film threw up questions of love, life and death for Mills, who we quizzed about the new feature.

What is your earliest memory of film?

“Herbie The Love Bug”? I also remember being just the right age for Star Wars initial release, all of us boys counting how many times we went to see it, I remember 10 being a common answer. I also remember seeing Saturday Night Fever that same year, 1977, which I wasn’t really old enough for that. And then of course, first year of art school ,1984,  is where i saw all the films that still influence me, 8½ Hiroshima Mon Amour, etc.

At what point did you decide you wanted to begin creating film?

Late in the game, like 27 or 28. Previously film seemed so difficult and complicated and just the entertainment industry. After seeing Errol Morris’s documentary Thin Blue Line and early Jim Jarmusch films I remember thinking, “Maybe I can do that” and  more importantly, “I really want to communicate with people like that.”

You have made music videos and short films – how did you find the transition to making full length features?

It’s the same and utterly different. You learn a lot about film, and crews and people and editing and how to light and how to work and you learn nothing about telling a story for that long and all the amazing complicated political work that goes into getting a personal, artistic, strange movie made in this day and age.

Beginners takes personal experiences as a main influence for your film. Although part autobiographical, how much fictional element is there there?

There’s a lot of “fiction”, they’re a lot of blurring between the two. Even scenes or moments where I’m really trying to make a true “portrait” of my father or something that happened, by the time you write it, cast it, find the new location, etc, you’ve done so much distillation, abstraction, amalgamation, I’m not sure if it’s “real” or “fiction” anymore.

Do you wish that Christopher Plummer were your real life dad?

No. He’s great, but my dad’s my dad!

Plummer famously portrayed Captain Von Trap in “The Sound Of Music” – with your experience of making music videos, would you ever consider directing a musical?

Yes I’d love to do a dogma musical, where all the sound has to be real and live. I’d be more interesting in the dancing that the singing, but I’d love to do that someday.

The rest of the cast are all strong actors – what was the casting process like for the film?

Your  usual  “running for president”  level of meeting and greeting everyone you can to try to get these kind of people. It’s as close as I’m ever gonna get to being the mayor of a major city, or an astronaut, or an ambassador, or a member of the U.N.

Did you have specific people in mind whilst drafting the script?

No, I don’t have anyone in mind while writing – I just end up doing a very bad imitation of them in their last film.

Which scenes of Beginners did you find the biggest challenge to direct?

Nothing really more challenging than others in a way. I love being a writer director, I love being on set, I love crews and actors and dogs, so I was very, very happy during all the shooting.

What is the meaning of love?

Like I know! Just an amateur over here.

Beginners is in cinemas today.

Words: Seamus Duff