There are two interwoven narratives in Beginners, which opens Friday at the Ritz Five and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ. In one, McGregor's character, Oliver, tries to cope with the death of his father (played by Christopher Plummer). He reflects on the last few years of his father's life, after his wife - Oliver's mother - passed away and the Old Man, then quite an old man, belatedly but vigorously embraced his homosexuality. The scenes between McGregor and Plummer are tender, funny, awkward, and edged with bafflement. Oliver can't help but think back on his parents' marriage and wonder if their love was a lie.
In the second thread, Oliver meets a French actress (played by Inglourious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent) and begins a relationship that quickly turns serious. But both are afraid to commit, even as it becomes evident they should.
"It's complicated, that bit," McGregor muses. "Sometimes it felt like he was leaving her. Sometimes it felt like she was leaving him. . . . You know, a film is a snapshot of all of that time in their lives, and so you can't get all of it. It is quite ambiguous, as to what's gone wrong. And it's difficult to understand, because I don't think it's easy for them to understand. But, ultimately, you're left feeling that things are going to be all right."
McGregor says that Mills shot Beginners' two plotlines as if they were separate movies, each with its own rehearsal period and shooting schedule.
"I rehearsed for a week with Christopher and some of the characters from that first story, and then we shot that for two-and-a-half or three weeks," he recalls. "And then we stopped filming and rehearsed for a week with Melanie and myself and the actors from that story. And then we shot that story for two-and-a-half or three weeks."
Mills also insisted on shooting in chronological order - a rarity in a business where, for budgetary and logistical reasons, scenes are often filmed out of sequence.
"I don't think I'd ever really done that before," he says. "I've always thought it was a bit of a gimmick, because we're so used to shooting stuff out of sequence. I didn't know why it would make any difference. But it was quite brilliant to be able to not only look back on the scenes leading up to the one you're doing now, but also in the second story, the love story, my character does a lot of looking back at the story of his father, looking back at memories of his mother, and I was literally able to do that on the set with Melanie - I was able to remember back to the scene with Christopher. It was incredibly useful."
In addition to working with Plummer ("delightfully old-fashioned, but at the same time very contemporary - a really modern actor") and Laurent, McGregor shares significant screen time with a Jack Russell terrier, a dog named Arthur (played by Cosmo), whom he inherits when his dad dies.
There's a brilliant sequence (part of it is in the Beginners trailer) when Oliver brings the dog to his house, where he'll now live, for the first time.
"He's an amazing little dog," McGregor says. "That whole sequence where I'm showing the dog around at the beginning. I mean, I'd walk into the room and I'd say 'This is the dining room,' and the dog looks around, and then I'd walk into the next room, and I'd say 'This is the sitting room,' and then he looks around that room. And it's just amazing - he's literally acting with me. . . .
"He's a really wonderful wee man, Cosmo. And it was very difficult to say goodbye to him at the end. . . . I still go see him from time to time, and have a walk with him."
McGregor, who moved from London to L.A. with his wife and kids a few years ago, has, with the exception of Beginners, been making movies everywhere in the world but Southern California. ("It's a cruel irony," he notes.) He has shot a second film with his Young Adam director, David Mackenzie, called Perfect Sense.
"Then I made a film with Steven Soderbergh called Haywire, that's coming out later this year. And then I made a film called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen with Lasse Hallström and Emily Blunt. I made a film with Juan Antonio Bayona called The Impossible, with Naomi Watts in Thailand, and then I'm working on a film at the moment with Bryan Singer, called Jack the Giant Killer, in London."
Is that all?
"I have been on a bit of a roll," he acknowledges. "I'd like to stop and have a rest."
Abrams phones home. The first two things you see in Super 8, the just-out summer flick from writer/director/producer/cottage industrialist J.J. Abrams, are the production logos for Amblin Entertainment, the Steven Spielberg company, and for Bad Robot, Abrams' shingle.
And that, right there, is reason enough for Abrams to have made Super 8.
"A thrill? It's unbelievable," he says, of the alignment of the two emblems. "Literally, for me - but I hope not too many others - if the movie just ended right there, I'd be done, I'd be happy."
Super 8, set in a 1979 Ohio town, follows a gang of kids - led by Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning - who are making their own 8mm movie and who inadvertently capture the fiery wreck of a train carrying top-secret cargo. Neighborhood dogs go missing, grim-faced Army officers roll in, and nods of the baseball cap are made to Spielberg's The Goonies, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"The movie, from the very inception, was about that period of time in my life when I was making these Super 8s," Abrams explains, on the phone from London last week. "What I didn't realize until later is how massively I was impacted by the films of the era. And, of course, many of those included Steven's films. They also included John Carpenter's films and George Romero's films, and horror films."
That said, Abrams, the man behind TV's Lost and the Star Trek reboot and Cloverfield (yes, there are sequels in the works), wasn't interested in simply cloning the Spielberg and Carpenter and Romero canons.
"This movie was never designed as a chance to rip off that scene from that movie, or this shot from that movie," he explains. "It was always about telling a story and making a film that felt like it was from that period of time - which was itself informed by the cinema of that time."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.