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Mike Mills on 'Beginners', Melanie Laurent, and European influences

"Beginners", a new American film about a man’s relationships with his gay father and a French actress, hits Paris screens this week. We caught up with writer-director Mike Mills to talk about his movie, his influences, and his leading lady.

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In what looks to be a summer movie season typically stuffed with big-budget action and broad comedy, Mike Mills’ “Beginners” comes as a refreshing change of pace: a vibrant, emotionally nuanced, wistfully funny – and partly autobiographical - independent film about a young man (Ewan McGregor) whose romance with a French woman (Mélanie Laurent) is haunted by the death of his father (Christopher Plummer), who had recently come out of the closet.

We sat down with the writer-director Mike Mills in Paris for a conversation about his new movie, his influences, and what it was like to direct one of France’s biggest rising stars.

France24.com: Your film is subtly political in its very straightforward depiction of a gay love story and a loving relationship between a gay father and his son. What do you think about the representation of gay life in American cinema?

Mike Mills: I think it’s becoming less of a big deal - not just in cinema but in TV. There are so many shows with gay characters and that’s what makes it normal.

What’s most political in my film is that it’s not politicized in the story. The character of Hal [the father] is just a man who came out of the closet late. But he’s treated as a man who happens to love another man and has other things in his life, too. He’s not just a gay character. I think in a weird way, that’s the way the film is most political or the most progressive, hopefully – it’s just showing gay and straight people living together without it being a problem. He’s a human being and [sleeps with] men. It’s not a big deal.

France24.com: How did you find working with French actress Mélanie Laurent?

Mike Mills: I didn’t write the role of Anna for a French actress, but I had a really hard time finding someone strong and intelligent, but also intuitive and kind of wild and free -- but not crazy, a real woman with emotions that make sense. I know so many Americans married to French people, and living in New York and LA there are so many international couples.

So it wasn’t a big deal to think in terms of European actresses. I didn’t know who Mélanie Laurent was, because “Inglourious Basterds” hadn’t come out yet. Someone gave me her name, and I looked her up on YouTube and watched all these interviews of her speaking in French. I don’t know French, but I liked her energy. She seemed uncareful, unprecious, kind of punk in a way.

And then she did an amazing audition. And working with her, I couldn’t imagine anybody else being Anna. She’s fun, very intelligent, she knows what I’m doing as a director, she knows where the camera is, she knows where the light is, she knows the story. But then she really trusts her intuition.

And that’s kind of my favorite thing: someone who has the rational intelligence, but then trusts in the unknown. She’s also very funny. Mélanie, when she goes to [famous US fast food chain] In-N-Out Burger, she orders two hamburgers, she eats them all, and doesn’t care if it’s messy. That’s great. I love that in a woman.

France24.com: How did you end up choosing non-American actors (Mélanie Laurent, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visnijik) to play out a story that is very much anchored in American history and society?

Mike Mills: Those are the people that I liked. I think I lean a little bit toward Europe in my sensibility and the films I like and the culture I like.

There is also a ton of European filmmakers and films that have influenced me, and particularly on “Beginners”. Istvan Szagbo, a Hungarian director, did a film in the 1970s called “Love Film” that had a huge influence on me. It’s all about memory and it’s also a really personal story. Fellini’s “8 ½” – that’s a really personal filmmaker processing his life, and also a really lyrical story.

There’s tons in there about memory, and it’s not chronological. Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “The War is Over” – those are some of my favorite movies because of his precision as a filmmaker, but also in terms of what the films mean. They’re sort of open-ended and unresolved. I love the humour of François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”.

I got really addicted to that movie while I was writing “Beginners”. I would watch it as a sort of anti-depressant. And, of course, Jean-Luc Godard. “Beginners” is about the intersection of sex, relationships, emotions, and history and the power of politics. That’s Godard’s turf.

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