Beginners, a new film by Mike Mills starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent, takes place in the Los Angeles of Richard Neutra, Deco hotels, humble Spanish bungalows, and independent bookstores. It opens with septegenarian Hal Fields (Plummer) telling his son Oliver (McGregor) that he's gay. For a double-whammy, the conversation takes place on the heels of the death of his wife, who he was married to for 45 years. The complexities of modern relationships—love, obligation, change, sadness, honesty, and mourning—are explored through two different storylines: that of Hal as he embraces life as a newly outed man who is coping with terminal cancer, and that of Oliver, which takes place after Hal passes. Oliver, while struggling to overcome his father's death, learns to love from Hal's willingness to take risks and build a new life when he was so late in years. What's most remarkable about the film is that it's inspired by the experience of Mills' own father. "Beginners started when my father came out of the closet," writes Mills in his director's statement. "His hunger to completely change life was confusing, painful, very funny, and deeply inspiring."
Beginners is beautifully shot and peppered with wonderful imagery throughout: vintage photographs act as interstitials; scenes are rich with classic design, including an enviable collection of Thonet chairs and Polish film posters; illustrations are drawn onscreen; vivd pops of color accent otherwise morose moments. For design lovers, Beginners is not-to-be-missed.
Much of the film is set in Neutra's iconic Lovell Health House, but absent are the hero images of the structure clinging onto a hillside and the ubiquitous shot of the steely glass facade. Instead, warm lived-in interiors highlighting the patina of time are used, infusing the film with an intimate character akin to the personal nature of the story.
On April 22nd, I sat down with Mike and Ewan when they were in San Francisco for a screening of Beginners at the Castro Theater. For a quick 20 minutes, we chatted about the film, design, architecture, Adolf Loos, baring it all, and how Mills gained "inner access" to McGregor's "mind and soul" (hint: it has to do with motorcycles of the everyman). Read on for the interview.
What initially struck me about the film was how visually rich it is. How has your background as a graphic artist contributed to your role as a feature director?
Mills: I went to art school; I didn’t go to a film school. I studied with Hans Haacke, a good German man with nice, sensible shoes. He’s an amazing political conceptual artist. In one of our classes, someone would come in and, like, spill a liter of coke on the ground and we’d talk about it for four hours. That’s actually great training to be a director because it's all about your ideas—the development of your idea and how to express it. It was perfect training for all of this. It’s not so much that I’m a designer as that I came from that. So, a lot of the stills in the movie—obviously the drawings from the movie—but just that way of thinking. I feel like often I’m more of a conceptual artist working in the film format than just a film director.
McGregor: Yeah, it feels like that for me, too, working with you. Absolutely…that you’re a filmmaker as well as an artist. As a filmmaker you’re informed by all of the other facets of your of art life.
Mills: Did it kind of feel like that on the set?
McGregor: Yeah, sometimes. Because you weren’t thinking in shots; it was more about living the experience of the scenes, playing the scenes. Filmmaking has become more about making “this close up work” and “this close up work” and actors turning up to do “this shot” and “this shot.” In our experience, which is what I love most about acting, is that you got to live the scenes.
Mills: Yeah, it was more "in the round," especially with Melanie [Laurent].
McGregor: It has to be because there's a life force bouncing everywhere…it’s incredible!
Throughout Beginners there are wonderful design classics starting with the Neutra house. Also, there are these really beautiful bentwood Thonet chairs everywhere. How did you and your set designers go about designing the spaces in the film?
Mills: The main space is the Neutra Health House, which is this amazing house. Neutra is an amazing gaffer. The light in this house is just so gorgeous and he has all of these built-in lights and a lot of times with the night shots, it’s just the lights that are in the house, like these scalloped lights that run the whole length of the living room. He’s also so conscious of the positioning the house in terms of where the sun’s going that the light in the kitchen is sic. There’s never a [production] light up—just the natural light. So it’s a little bit of a portrait of Richard Neutra’s amazing sense of gaffing.
The Thonet chairs and a lot of the other objects in the house are just my parent’s stuff, and stuff from the family that’s lived there since the 1960s. I love having a sense of accumulation that you couldn’t have done yourself.
Mills: I grew up with those Thonet chairs and they’re in my house now. I used them partly because it was perfect for the story—weirdly, I don’t know how that happened—and partly because it was free! We were struggling for money and so all of the things we could do for free, we did.
That was actually going to be my next question—if you had a personal connection to the objects in the film. So there we have it!
Mills: One of my sisters just saw the trailer, and there’s my dad’s Tiffany lamp, there’s the chairs, my dad’s couch, there are my parents' fabrics, and my sister’s like, “Mike, what did you do? All of our stuff is there!”
In your statement you wrote that the film is very much rooted in modern issues and I was wondering if the set design figured into that aspect of storytelling?
Mills: Well, I wrote that Hal has very modernist external problems like death and homophobia, World War II and being 25. Oliver’s problems are very internal and kind of postmodern in a way—things that float around in your mind. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between that and the sets, but it was fun doing the two houses. Oliver’s house had all of these Polish movie posters and it was this neat 1930s Spanish house. I feel great to have been able to shoot at the Biltmore hotel, which is this 1920s California-Los Angeles building. The style of the neat little Spanish colonial house is all over L.A., but since they were built in the 1930s, the bones of the house are still so great. They have all of these neat little details that were very well done and pure. And you have Hal’s Neutra house. All of the locations were like little characters.
McGregor: And Andy’s house—Miranda’s house—where Oliver drops off the dog.
Mills: Yeah, yeah… That’s my wife Miranda’s little house.
McGregor: And that whole side of L.A. I didn’t really know at all. From going in and out of L.A. I’d only really been in the west side and hadn’t explored the east side.
This is in Silver Lake, correct?
Mills: Yeah, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and we got to shoot at the L.A. River when Oliver takes Anna to the park on a date.
McGregor: The roller park…
Mills: The moonlight rollerskating park, whatever the hell you call that. And when Oliver’s driving down Sunset he’s driving in the right direction and he went to Cosmopolitan Books a couple of times. I was very happy to show things in L.A. that I know, and show the L.A. I know, which has its own weird history.
Modernist homes have a tendency to be used as residencies for villains and I was wondering if you’ve ever come across “Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films”?
Ewan: Is that true in films?
Yeah, somewhat. The Lovell Health House was in L.A. Confidential, for example.
Mills: I looked for the parts of the house that weren’t the signature Neutra parts. I didn’t shoot the shots that show off the two-story glass thing. The Topper family has owned it since 1960, and a lot of the furnishings like the checkered bed and the green carpet and all of the stuff in the kitchen, is just all of their stuff that they’ve had since then. There’s this family warmth to that house—it’s not just “The Big Neutra House,” so I looked for that side.
Was there a particular moment that ignited each of your interests in design and architecture?
McGregor: Mine would be the first house I bought in London, an old four-story townhouse, that we had totally stripped. A wonderful architect called David Adjaye designed our house for us. My wife and I worked with him on the designs of the interior. It has a very modernist exterior and a dining room made of glass at the back and that would be my first—and probably really my only—design experience.
Mills: He’s a huge car nut and he, like, comes to my house in this amazing 1955 Beetle that he had perfectly redone to that time.
McGregor: That’s true.
Mills: And he loves tinkering with bikes. When we were doing drawings for the movie, we had this wonderful afternoon where we were sketching, and I’d give him a half-done drawing and he’d like look at my posture and would just talk about it and try to express how unprecious it really is. I kind of felt that Ewan was really into it and it was like the bike-tinkerer-engine part of his brain really coming out.
McGregor: I’ve always really liked drawing; I’ve just never been all that good at it. I always like the idea of it and occasionally I’ll go through a bout of buying the little pencils and stuff and a week later…
Mills: In those scenes in the film he was drawing the whole day.
Did you use any of Ewan’s drawings in the film?
Mills: He finished some of them. I would start them and tell him to keep going. [To Ewan] You were good!
McGregor: I finished them off. I liked that it was a complete key into the character as well. Mike had been doing it for such a long time that it had become slightly frustrating. And the idea that you have this great studio that you share with this girl, and it’s very kind of cool. You’re sitting there and you’re fed up, and you have to deal with these fucking ass holes from the record company. All of that was really interesting to me. That kind of crack and mystique in that.
Ewan, any chance that you’ll be moonlighting as an illustrator?
McGregor: I don’t think so, but because I do spend so much of my time away from my home and my family I have fantasies of things that would keep me at home. Literally and truly at home, like becoming a writer or becoming an artist. I like to build bicycles and the idea of becoming a professional bike builder really appeals to me.
Do you guys have a favorite design classic or work of architecture?
Mills: I just found out that Adolf Loos was crazy pants. Did you know this? He’s this famous Viennese architect from the 1890s who wrote this amazing essay called “Ornament and Crime” and it’s this big modernist text that’s about no ornament and false consciousness. He was accused of being pedophile and a sex-crazed maniac, and I was like “right on Aldo, it’s not just about the rules!” His interiors are amazing.
So Ewan, I know that you’re most known for your acting, but I was wondering if we could talk a bit about your work with a Dwell favorite, Tom Dixon, to design a director’s chair. What was that like?
McGregor: It was interesting. I worked with a friend of mine who’s a furniture designer. They wanted different people to design things and it could’ve been anything but I thought since I’m always on set and always in these director’s chairs, which are quite uncomfortable, I should try and design one that wasn’t. Everything is a bit wider and the arms are wider, and the seat itself is wider and it’s also lower to the ground. They’re normally very high up and you can’t get comfortable in them. I think they’re traditionally high up for makeup artists so that they can do your makeup without breaking their backs. I’d be quite happy to stand up to do my makeup checks.
So you’re also well known for baring it all in films and you had that that house designed by David Adjaye. I was wondering if there’s any connection between your willingness to do that in films and the appreciation for a stripped-down, Modernist aesthetic?
McGregor: [laughs] With windows where people can see me naked through, somewhere where I can be viewed undressing at night! No, no, I really like the house.
My wife is a production designer and so really through her I’ve learned to appreciate this design and she’s really quite clever and has designed two of our houses with architects. She’s very good and practical and I put my tuppence worth in every now and then on practical points, which I think are valid as well. My area has become more and more the garage where I tinker with my motorbikes.
Mills: [To McGregor] I’m fascinated with these are these old cop bikes that you have. They’re very big and you described them to me that you like them because they’re not really muscular but agrarian, which is why you liked them. What did you say about their description? I kind of had this amazing portrait of you and you picked that bike because it’s very clumsy and slow…
McGregor: And pedestrian.
Mills: …But very beautiful, in a way. I feel like your taste is very particular, like you have a ’55 Beetle and you have these kind of old things, not showy things.
McGregor: I do like things that are very ordinary in a way. I have 10 or 12 vintage motorcycles and 4 vintage VWs and like things that are old.
Mills: With a simplicity to them.
McGregor: You can collect vintage motorbikes like Brough Superiors that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and all of mine cost about six thousand dollars—I really like everyman kind of bikes that even back in the past were ridden by anybody. Postmen would ride my bikes.
Mills: I remember you were telling me this kind of early on and as the directors I was like “Note taken! I have inner access to his mind and his soul now! Simple, agricultural bikes!”