The Sound of ‘Beginners’: An Interview with Mike Mills

When I was 20 years old I was afflicted by a reoccurring dream of a music video I had never even seen. See, one of my friends in college explained the premise behind Air’s “Kelly Watch the Stars” famous video: two attractive French girls, play an intense game of ping pong in slow motion before a super, serious group of spectators while the band seemingly controls the game through the archaic pioneer video game, Pong. Kelly gets decked in the head by an errant shot when her soul floats above her body. She is eventually resuscitated by the band dressed as paramedics and returns to consciousness before mounting a comeback and achieving victory. I was so enthralled by my buddy’s description I was sure that the real thing would fall short of what my imagination had conjured up. That was hardly the case because the video was directed by the fantastically talented Mike Mills.

Mills has earned a reputation for having a talented eye for capturing and communicating interesting moments of the human condition first gaining his notoriety as a graphic artist. Whether it was making album covers for bands like Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys or videos for Air and Moby, some of today’s most impressive artists have sought out Mills to lend a complimentary vision to their work. Much like Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze, Mills cut his teeth in the music video world before moving on to feature films; thus, when 2005 came along and word got out that Mills directorial debut Thumbsucker was coming out, his small cult following was already united behind the project, hoping major audiences would soon follow suit.

I re-watched the film again recently after not having seen it since I caught in the theater and it was actually even better the second time around. Thumbsucker is a beautiful coming of age movie about a teenager and his inability to connect with his parents, convince his high school crush to love him back all while coping with his inability to stop sucking his thumb. Mills material has such a quintessential human element to it that anyone can instantly relate.

I recently had the chance to talk with Mills about his new film, Beginners. The movie starts Ewan McGregor who, following the death of his mother, finds his father (Christopher Plummer) sitting him down to tell him he is gay only to later be floored with the news he is also dying of cancer. The closing of his tender trailer concludes with the McGregor summing up the movie’s story arc when he calmly states: “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic.” A pretty committed list of ideas to tackle in a single movie no doubt and one even more amazingly so because the story is based on Mills own experiences about his father’s last few months. I was curious if writing this film was a sort of tribute to his father or if the making of the film was somehow cathartic.

“Cathartic implies you sort of are resolving something,” Mills was quick to reply. “And in real life a parent passing away is such a bigger deal than making a film about it. I guess I was braver than I normally am because I started writing it just after my dad died, really. There was part of that where you are like wildly alive and you feel very just sad and all of that but you feel very alive.

“My dad came out when he was 75 and was just kind of like really amazingly filled with life. And this is a deep human story that I could report on really closely. I sort of felt like I had to do that film [laughs]. But as the release date gets closer, it sort of gets more and more scary. Like what is going to happen or what are people going to do with it,” says Mills. In essence, once you put a piece of art out there for public consumption, it longer remains yours but instead becomes whatever the receptive party makes of it — or needs it to be. And that cannot be easy when you are talking about a story involving your parents. Mills is quick to point out that characters in the movie are portraits of his parents and not to be taken literally. He felt he could write the script with the understanding his audience would realize these characters are subjective and of his own doing.

The music in Beginners, much like Thumbsucker, is extremely integral to the tempo and emotional core of the storyline. Prior to his death, Elliott Smith was originally tasked with recording a handful of covers to accompany Thumbsucker and contributed a cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Mills mentions that the song was one of the last Smith recorded but also got a version of Cat Steven’s “Trouble” into the final cut of the film. Resorted to scrambling to find a different route, Mills caught a performance by the Polyphonic Spree at a New Years Eve party and realized that their sound was perhaps more what he was aiming for all along.

Mills went on to explain how he spoke with music supervisor Brian Reitzell and he thought using the Polyphonic Spree would make sense. Mills elaborates: “Brian said something very smart when he said ‘You know they [Smith and the Polyphonic Spree] are not as wildly different as you would think because they are both very deeply Beatles based.’ I think Elliott’s songs are very ostensibly sad but he is singing them to find hope or to some sort of solace, you know? And Tim’s [DeLaughter, lead singer of Polyphonic Spree] songs are ostensibly super happy positive but they are also [about] trying to get out of the darkness. Or they are Tim’s way of pushing back that darkness.”

After speaking with Mills about the music in Thumbsucker, one starts to realize how important he views the sonic accompaniment to his films as a way to carry his story when dialogue need not be exchanged. When I asked him how he decided to approach the music for his new film, he again went back to his parents for inspiration.

“My dad loved classical music and he was always trying to get me into classical music. He was into Mozart. I still can’t really get into Mozart but I got really into Bach, specifically his suites. So with the help of Roger Neill, one of our composer teams, we got them all done in French horn. They are really beautiful and haunting. Pretty much anytime the father story line is in the movie, that is the music that accompanies it”

Mills, mother on the other hand, was an enormous fan of The Sting soundtrack and he equates listening to Scott Joplin’s famed score as fond as “hearing Christmas carols.” He wanted to have music that properly represented his mother’s taste when he stumbled upon the work of Jelly Roll Morton., specifically Alan Womack’s Library of Congress recordings.

“It’s not your typical rag piano stuff. It is slower, more melodic and there [are] all these fragments telling [Womack’s] life story. They really became kind of like the harmonic center of the film for me.”

I recently started getting into Jelly Roll Morton myself, largely because of the HBO series, Treme. I tell him I read some people online complaining about the fidelity of the Library of Congress recordings, but Mills isn’t having any of it. “Oh they are amazing — they are rough for sure. And they are not closely mic’ed and its weird cause they are these historical recordings. They are done in 1938 so I don’t know what was available to them.

“But the performance, especially the ones in my movie, are so beautiful and lilting and human and they are in their own wobbly time signature and they are just filled with so much life. And it is so gentle cause it is just Jelly Roll alone. It is just neat that he is playing alone.”

When asked if he ever listens to specific songs or music when sitting down to write, Mills warns that that can be dangerous territory to tread in because there is often times issues or cost constraints when trying to get certain songs in a movie. Instead he admits to sometimes sitting down and putting a single song on loop for an entire day while fleshing out characters and a story and uses music to help point him in the right direction.

“When I started writing, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & #35’ a lot — which is weirdly very New Orleanian. It is very much like a funeral march and you know it wasn’t part of The Basement Tapes, you know right before that it was on Blonde on Blonde. It was with a band that would become The Band. But when he went in to make The Basement Tapes he was weirdly influenced by Alan Womack and all that American roots music. So in a funny way there is so much like New Orleans in my film; like an underground New Orleans energy.”

After Morton, Mills’ research caused him to stumble upon Mammie Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, and Josephine Baker, noting how he attributes all of the jazz-tinged aspects of the film to his mother’s record collection. Mills gushes about Georges Delerue’s French film scores and how he is a sucker for the romantic sweeping music the late famed composer was responsible for and how that sound acted as the foundation for Beginners‘ original score created by Neal, Reitzell and pianist, Dave Palmer.

“Delerue is a romantic. A big part of this film is a big love story so I wanted romantic stuff. [The film] is kind of like George Delerue meets Jelly Roll Morton court.”