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The Story Behind Sundance Hit ‘The Surrogate’ is in ‘Breathing Lessons’

The Story Behind Sundance Hit 'The Surrogate' is in 'Breathing Lessons'

“The Surrogate,” a drama based on the (sex) life of poet, journalist and polio victim Mark O’Brien, is already deemed one of Sundance’s breakout hits, with Fox Searchlight reportedly paying $6 million for worldwide rights and holding hopes for awards this time next year.

However, it’s not the first time that O’Brien’s life has been made into a movie — and the Oscars are already familiar territory.

Jessica Yu won the Academy Award for best documentary short in 1997 with “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” a 35-minute film comprised almost entirely of O’Brien talking to the camera from inside his iron lung. (At one point, Yu hoped to turn “Breathing Lessons” into a feature and was developing it with Oliver Stone.)

In a voice that sounds much like that of “The Surrogate” star John Hawkes, O’Brien details his history, his current life and his future. Shot in 1994, his life appears to be more constricted than it was in the film, which took place in the mid-1980s. Like the feature, “Breathing Lessons” utilizes O’Brien’s poems to illustrate some of his thoughts.

In Yu’s film, O’Brien also goes into some detail on his thoughts around sex and love.

“I was angry at all women for not falling in love with me,” he said.

Meeting his sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, helped him change that. As in the film, she used a long mirror to show him what his own body looked like naked. “I thought I was the ugliest man in the world,” he said, “but I looked like something someone would want to have sex with.”

As for sex itself, O’Brien said, “It wasn’t as great as I thought it would be, but being naked with a woman who was being extremely friendly was the most fun I’d ever had. I had expected somehow that seeing the surrogate would change my life… [but] you can’t just demand love. You have to be lovable.”

As “The Surrogate” showed, O’Brien did find love, with Susan Fernbach — only in the film, they met when he was in the hospital after a health crisis. The reality was considerably different: They met at the first screening of “Breathing Lessons” in Berkeley.

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