San Francisco Film Society's Rachel Rosen enjoys an onstage moment with last-minute arrival Ewan McGregor (center) and 'Beginners' director Mike Mills.

SFIFF54's 'Beginners' Brings Surprises

Susan Gerhard April 23, 2011

“I don’t know if I can sit,” director Mike Mills, in a state of agitated excitement, explained to the audience as he was being introduced for a Q&A following the San Francisco International Film Festival screening of his gently comedic, semi-autobiographical, heart-tenderizing feature Beginners at the Castro Theatre Thursday night. “Should I tell them about the texts I’ve been getting?” he asked his onstage interviewer, San Francisco Film Society’s director of programming, Rachel Rosen. “Someone is trying to text me, a lot. Someone is losing his mind in a car.”

The someone in question was Ewan McGregor, Mills’s alter ego in the film, and his apparent friend for life after the shoot. Rosen had been given the difficult task of informing the audience that the expected McGregor might not be present because of a delayed flight from France, which meant she was offered the delightful task of introducing McGregor, when, halfway through the proceedings he showed up, live and in-person, from his long journey. (Which, for the record, began on a runway in Paris with a plane dripping gasoline from its wing). “Here I am,” McGregor announced while panting. “I made it!”

In answer to one of Rosen’s early questions, the audience learned that the point of origin for Beginners lay in another adrenaline-fueled encounter, one that happened before the filmmaker’s father’s death. Late into the night under the influence of prescription steroids, his father—who’d come out of the closet at 75 to live a supercharged, colorful life while enduring treatment for cancer—issued his son a statement about how it was that he had come to marry Mills’s mother in 1955, despite the self-knowledge about his own sexual orientation. “She took off her Jew badge, and I took off my gay badge,” he said.

Mills realized his father’s coming out so vibrantly and passing away so quickly was great material, but it took him some time to write and fund the story, which he insisted was actually fiction, however “true” it felt for him. Memory is a slippery thing, he said. “I thought these memories were objective truths and I became surprised at how dreamy they were.”

On the process of filmmaking, for both directors and writers, he said, “I love it when there’s something real at stake for them, when they’re processing something.” So, of course, “Make it real for yourself,” was one piece of advice Mills said he offered his actors. He assisted them in that by sending them on get-to-know-each-other missions, as in one shopping expedition to Barney’s where McGregor was told to look after Plummer, who was told to pick out some clothing for his character. McGregor walked away with a charge on his credit card for a thousand dollars worth of charges for his co-star, spent on a type of trouser he called “skinny jeans.”

The Christopher Plummer/Ewan McGregor pairing also netted other anecdotes, among them, lunch at The Beverly Hills Hotel, where they ran into a dynastic Hollywood dame, who said to Plummer, in passing, “Don’t tell me we’re going to be naked in the pool again.”

Au naturel or not in the pool, it was definitely a natural-light undertaking on screen. An audience question about production brought the explanation that indeed the shoot used very little artificial brightening. “Waiting for light,” said McGregor, “is an energy-killer, soul destroyer on set.”

A point of great interest was the casting of the dog, a fuzzy, exuberant animal named Cosmo. Mills confessed the process was a nearly “pornographic” experience for him, and he greedily asked for everything he wanted: an actual lick on the face from each Jack Russell Terrier. Working with Cosmo was such a deep experience for McGregor that the actor found a puppy of his own, a rescue dog, with Cosmo’s same coloring and size, to have and to hold.

Asked by the audience about his “erratic” mother, Mills replied with insouciance appreciated by many, “By erratic, I hope you mean awesome. She was a real rascal, a tough ass....A good drinker, smoker. “

“Who was Anna based on?” an audience member asked, perhaps wondering if Mills’ wife Miranda July, whose film The Future plays the Festival Saturday and Sunday, April 24-25, might be the answer. “Anna is me,” Mills explained. “You may not believe this, but I am a very beautiful French woman."

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