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Beginners: Making the unfamiliar a matter of family

Christopher Plummer (left) and Ewan McGregor in a scene from "Beginners," in which they play a father and son.

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The latest film from Berkeley, Calif.-born director Mike Mills is autobiographical, up to a point. But when he cast the roles most near and dear to him, he turned to relative strangers.

Perhaps that was appropriate. The core actors in Beginners - a film that follows the figurative start of a new life, and the beginning of a new love affair - began with personal blank slates, having never worked with each other before, nor with Mills.

On the other hand, the film's stars are familiar faces: Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, and Mélanie Laurent (of Inglourious Basterds fame) form the movie's main trio, backed by Goran Visnjic, formerly of the TV series ER.

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Beginners - which opened in Toronto on Friday - hinges on a creative recreation of one of the most momentous events of Mills's real life: when his 75-year-old widower father came out of the closet and began living "five very intense, brand-new years of being gay and being very free" before he died, as Mills puts it.

The semi-fictional film, which Mills began writing while he was still mourning his father, weaves together two storylines taking place in separate time frames. In the first, Oliver (McGregor) adapts to the news of his father's sexuality, and to the even greater bombshell that his father, Hal (Plummer), is terminally ill.

In the second, Oliver struggles to maintain his blossoming relationship with Anna (Laurent), a charming French film star he meets at a party, while still laden with grief over Hal's death.

Mills's plan was not to make a memoir, but the film does dip into his past for material.

"The verbs and the actions do come from things that happened between me and my father, but all the proper nouns have been erased," he says.

The result, executed by a small film crew, is quirky and sparse, and has little of the Hollywood polish of big-budget films. The movie is melancholic, but also funny, and the laughs per minute increase as events get sadder.

Above all, it is a study of character and relationships. To that end, Mills made sure that boning up on the particulars of the story took a back seat to getting his actors comfortable and familiar.

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"My rehearsal isn't to go over the script a bunch," Mills said.

Instead, he arranged "all these experiential things" for the actors to do together. He sent Plummer and McGregor off with a wad of cash to buy Plummer a flashy new wardrobe, and had them host lunches with the actors who would play Hal's gay friends.

He prepped McGregor and Laurent for their onscreen love affair too, sending them to an amusement park, having them break up with each other five times (each), and sitting them down to stare into each others' eyes for minutes on end.

For McGregor, it worked like a charm: "He's very clever," he says of Mills.

After some initial awkwardness, Plummer had a rollicking good time playing a newly gay man, with Visnjic as his young boyfriend Andy. But he found the more sombre scenes trying, and Mills thinks something almost familial grew between Plummer and McGregor.

"Every now and then, when you're playing someone as close to the knuckle as that, you do tend to be a little bit ...," Plummer says, trailing off and unable to find the right adjective, "and Ewan was so supportive."

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There remained a lingering question: To what extent were the actors playing Mills, his family and friends? All involved said the character Anna does not mirror Mills's relationship with his wife Miranda July, but Hal and Oliver cut closer to reality.

Plummer gradually felt as though the part of Hal "had been written for me," and any "nervousness about not doing [him]justice" faded quickly.

For his part, McGregor said he still doesn't know what of his character's actions and emotions was real, and what fabricated, nor does it matter. But he had Mills make recordings of himself reading the dialogue so that McGregor could pore over them on his laptop.

"I did want to play him - I don't mimic him or do an impersonation of him - but I did want to feel like him because it's his story, and his words," McGregor said.

Mills, however, is less comfortable with the idea that McGregor was at some level getting into his skin.

"That makes me sort of queasy and vertiginous-feeling even suggesting that," he says.

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