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Mike Mills on Beginners' lessons

Pet sounds
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 9, 2011

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“The dog is not talking. Oliver is projecting his own conversation onto the dog. Animals can’t talk.” 

It's not like talking pets never appear in the movies, but when it happens twice in the same year, it seems suspicious. Especially when the two filmmakers turn out to be married. Such is the case with Mike Mills, whose Beginners features a border collie who communicates in subtitles, and Miranda July, whose The Future includes an ailing kitten voiced by the director. But Mills doesn't need to draw on the work of his talented spouse for inspiration, being himself a multi-hyphenate artist, accomplished in design, music, film, and skateboarding.

And he can draw on his own life experience for inspiration as well. In Beginners, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a pushing-40 designer much like Mills, mourns the death of Hal, his septuagenarian father (Christopher Plummer). Like Mills's father, Hal had come out of the closet after his wife died, just a couple of years before his own death. Helping Oliver through the transition is Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a kooky actress, and Arthur (Cosmo), the articulate dog. But let Mills explain.

IT'S WEIRD THAT THERE ARE TWO MOVIES OUT AT THE SAME TIME WITH ANTHROPOMORPHIZED ANIMALS IN THEM AND THEN I SAW THAT YOU WERE MARRIED TO . . . I would protest. I hope I did not anthropomorphize the dog. The dog is not talking. Oliver is projecting his own conversation onto the dog. Animals can't talk.

BUT DON'T THEY IN YOUR WIFE'S MOVIE? Well, I think that that animal is a magical other kind of being. It's a way to talk about all other selves or shadow selves and I don't think that Miranda thinks animals talk. And I had the dog before the cat came along. For us, they are very different types of being. Miranda's cat to me is like a magical being. Cats are more like that.

AND DOGS? Cosmo [the dog who plays Arthur] is the kind of person that comes into the room and jumps on strangers' laps and wants to be petted and looks you in the eye. Ewan [McGregor] was so good at interacting with him, treating him as a peer, that he ended up getting a dog a week after we finished because they really fell for each other.

THE DOG HAS ONE OF THE BEST LINES IN THE MOVIE: "TELL HER THE DARKNESS IS ABOUT TO DROWN US UNLESS SOMETHING DRASTIC HAPPENS RIGHT NOW." OLIVER ALSO IS WORKING ON AN ILLUSTRATION SERIES CALLED "THE HISTORY OF SADNESS." IS THIS A FILM ABOUT SADNESS AND DESPERATION? I have done a lot of work that touches on sadness. In America, I've found that sadness is something that is often held in shame or shunned or hidden away. So in a lot of my work I've been trying to find a place for sadness that hopefully doesn't put it on a pedestal, just sort of invites it to the dinner party and makes it a more normal part of life. With this subject matter, there is definitely a lot of sadness and grief and that's what Oliver is going through. When my dad was sick and afterward, the volatility of life that was going on opened up a lot of absurdity and humor, and I learned in writing this that my family does have a funny streak, reacting to bad news with a subversive joke.

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  Topics: Features , Movies, Mike Mills, Interviews,  More more >
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