The work of the graphic artist and filmmaker Mike Mills is at once sweet, earnest, and fiercely curious. His movies can feel airy and playful, but there is always a deeply considered emotional core for the viewer to latch their teeth into. The semi-autobiographical Beginners, his second feature film, nails this balancing act of the dramatic and the authentic with expert-level precision. It is a clairvoyant film painted with measured shades of love and sadness—and absolutely stacked with beautiful visuals. Most of these emotions and decor are all mined from his own lived experiences.
The two main characters—Oliver and Hal—are sketched from Mills and his father. Oliver is a depressed, withdrawn graphic designer, and Hal is a widowed, retired art historian who came out as gay at the end of his life, after the death of his wife. Each man is assigned a home that serves as much a character study as a beautiful stage for Mills' design-driven cinematography. Oliver resides in a humble 1920s-era home in Silver Lake—not quite Spanish Revival, not quite California Bungalow—while Hal occupies the famous Richard Neutra-designed Lovell Health House. (Although Mills deliberately shies away from the iconic structure's more apparent features, instead focusing on the warmer more lived-in areas of the home.)
If that wasn't enough, the glitzy old-world Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel makes multiple appearances. And there is what amounts to a world tour of modernist furniture: a Thonet bentwood rocker (among other Thonet-designed pieces), an Eames LCW chair, and a Noguchi paper lamp.
There are intensely personal effects scattered throughout the film, including a larger rug Mills' parents sewed together from smaller runners, Thonet dining chairs, and his father's couch. The bookshelves within the Lovell Health House were emptied and filled with art books from Mills' personal collection. Ceramic vessels with flowers that adorn the dining table in Oliver's house resemble those photographed in a spread on Mills' own home for the flagship issue of Apartmento.
Mills grew up in Santa Barbara and left for New York City at 18 to attend college at Cooper Union, eventually falling in with the 1990s downtown art scene. He showed work at Alleged Gallery and designed T-shirts and album covers for the likes of Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys. This earned him a reputation as an off-beat graphic designer with a strong point of view, which gave way to directing music videos, then short films, and eventually features. His movies have since gone on to nab multiple Oscar nominations, including a win for the late Christopher Plummer for Beginners.
Despite his time out east, there is something very California about his eye. Mills has an inclination towards turn-of-the-century European design and earthier Japanese fare. From interviews, it seems that this is a decor style imbued on him from his parents. The look can also be found in his own home and throughout Mills oeuvre. In his most recent film, 20th Century Women, he and his team include plenty of personal winks and nods. There is a wooden chest in a bedroom that is a family heirloom. The rugs that populate the house—the film's central location—came directly from Mills' home. And the Thonet bentwood chairs from Beginners make another appearance in the 20th Century Women dining room.
"Mike is obsessed with colors and also fascinated with how objects become icons in our lives," a production designer who worked with Mills on 20th Century Women told an interviewer.
The interiors of a Mike Mills movie never distracts. Like his writing, the production design is intelligent and loose, never veering into something that feels over fussed or too twee. (His graphic art is similarly appealing, yet not something one would ever describe as being "pixel perfect.") Most won't notice the repeating Thonet chairs, but it's fun for the eagle-eyed viewers that do. The fact that Mills includes much of himself in his work, in the stories he tells and the visuals on display, feels driven by necessity and deliberate choice.
"It's very autobiographical, and it's also a movie, so it's some weird combination of all these things," Mills once said of his films. And of the decor? "It's cheaper bringing my parents' Thonet chair than renting one."