This interview was originally broadcast on June 2, 2011. Beginners is now available on DVD.
Filmmaker Mike Mills' parents met in junior high school. For 45 years, they lived together, raising Mills and his older sisters, until Mills' mother died in 1999. Six months later, Mills' father — a 75-year-old retired museum director — announced that he's gay.
Mills' second movie, Beginners, is loosely based on his own relationship with his father, Paul. The movie stars Ewan McGregor as a graphic designer whose 75-year-old father, played by Christopher Plummer, has just come out and wants to experience the gay life he denied himself when he was married.
Mills says he remembers the day that his own father took him aside and told him that he didn't just want to be "theoretically gay" — that he wanted to do something about the feelings he had repressed for decades.
"The day before, he said, 'Michael, I'm going to throw you a ball and I hope you catch it,' " Mills recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, no, he wants to move in with me.' ... The next day, we're sitting on the couch and he said 'I'm gay.' "
Mills says the announcement was not as shocking as the changes that took place shortly after his mother's death — when he had to teach his father how to defrost food and live on his own.
"In the wake of these huge changes [after my mother's death,] his coming out was actually quite small," Mills says. "His coming out was actually this gesture, of him saying 'I want life. I want more life. I want something.' And this was a man who was so self-denying for so long — this very polite, quiet man. And he [wanted] sex. ... It's just weird, to think of your parent that way ... This is a man who had defused himself, who had tamped down his desires. And when he came out, it was the beginning of him becoming more vivid and hot and present, which was often messy but always wonderful."
After coming out, his father physically transformed, going from "75 to 40" in days, says the filmmaker.
"He got a trainer, he lost a bunch of weight, he really physically changed and became so much more young," he says. "He had crushes on all of these younger guys. So until he got sick [with cancer,] he became so much younger and independent and had this whole new world."
On making a film about his father's life
"Even when he was alive, toward the end of his life, I knew I wanted to do something. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know if it was going to be a documentary. In my head I had this title that was like 'My father has a crush on the king of Spain and my mother wants to be Humphrey Bogart.' And I thought that gave me some entry or permission to do the unspeakable thing of talking about my parents. So I didn't know how in the heck I was going to do it. So I was thinking about it while he was alive."
On how coming out changed his father
"When my dad came out, we talked about everything and he was a very different person all of a sudden. But for the first 33 years of my life, [my parents] didn't talk about their interior lives hardly at all."
"Marriage is really strange and my parents' relationship is still really perplexing to me. In a lot of ways, it was really committed, and in a lot of ways, it was very kind. And also, let's be frank, they had me when they were 40 — 10 and 7 years after my sisters. I was an unintentional birth. I am their strange love child. I'm the product of their recreational sex. But to me, marriage and seeing their marriage — there were these big voids that you couldn't point out, that you couldn't put a name to. There was this strange loneliness that went unspoken, that went undiscussed but very much felt by me as a kid. I feel like kids are the perfect psychic investigators of their parents, and kids understand their parents' unconscious better than the parents ever do. On the surface, it all looked good, and underneath, there was this impossible-to-describe loneliness."