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TIFF: Interview with Judi Levine – Producer of The Sessions

TIFF: Interview with Judi Levine - Producer of The Sessions

The Sessions is a very lovely movie about Mark O’Brien, a writer with polio who has to spend most of his life in an iron lung and his quest to lose his virginity and find a new level of intimacy in his crippled body.  John Hawkes gives a star turn as O’Brien and Helen Hunt is bold and brave as his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene.

In our quest to broaden our discussion with women working in Hollywood, we sat down with Judi Levine the producer of The Sessions here in Toronto for a discussion.

Women and Hollywood:  I was reading the notes, and my first question was how did the project come to you, but then as I’m reading the notes I realized the project came to you because you’re married to the writer/director, Ben Lewin.  So talk a little bit about how you both came to this project.

Judi Levine: I think that partly Ben had reached a point where he was tired of writing. He’d gone off to do other things, just to clear out his head, and then he was trying to develop a project which was really a television sitcom, also kind of a tasteless sort of thing about disability.  While he was researching that idea he stumbled across Mark O’Brien’s original essay on seeing a sex surrogate and said to me, “I’ve just read this extraordinary story. Here, read it.” So I read it and I said, “Yeah it’s fantastic. It’s very moving.”  But it finishes at a point where Mark and Cheryl part ways and it was very, very sad. I looked at him and I said, ever the producer, “You can’t finish a movie like this. The audiences are gonna slash their wrists and they’re never gonna recommend it to anybody. It’s too depressing.”

So he was very taken by the story and couldn’t let it go.  He kept looking at other stuff and then discovered that Cheryl Cohen-Green (the sex surrogate) was still around. And we discovered that Mark’s girlfriend Susan Fernbach was still around and we were able to get in touch with her.

So suddenly we had a wonderful happy ending, which was great, and it just sort of grew from there. The first thing we did was meet Susan, who’s absolutely fabulous to really to ask her permission to do it and to make sure that she felt comfortable with Ben as somebody taking on Mark’s story. And we got on really well.  Then she was able to connect Ben with Cheryl.

WaH: Do you think it helped that Ben also had polio, in terms of making the connection with the people in Mark’s life?

JL: I think it may have had some influence on his connection to the material, but in the end when you see the way audiences respond to the story, and I feel very strongly that it has a much broader reach, had he not had polio he may still have responded in some way, because we’ve all been in that situation, where you’re learning about sex and you start to date and all of those things.

WaH:  So there are a lot of definitions of the word producer. So what was your producing role?  Some people bring money in, some people bring talent in, some people make the trains run on time.

JL: In general, I see myself as both a practical and a creative producer. When I’m working with Ben I really can be hands-on all the way through. I’m actively engaged in editing his writing and the development of the story as the script is growing. With this particular project I was actively involved in bringing money to the table. We don’t have any studio money or the development money. It’s entirely privately financed.  We were calling people up and saying, “wanna put some money in our movie?”

WaH: And on set, were you in charge of a lot of pieces of the puzzle?

JL: Yes and no. I was involved in that less than I might normally be because I still needed to go to my day job. We weren’t being paid for anything because it was our ticket to health insurance.  So I was working all the way through, until May of this year.

WaH: So even after you premiered in Sundance you’re still working full time?

JL: Yes. I took my two weeks annual vacation to go to Sundance.  The shoot was Tuesday to Saturday, so I was on set Saturdays and night shoots, and occasionally during the week if something was happening that I felt I needed to be there for. We only had a 23 day shoot, so it wasn’t like there were months of things, and we had a phenomenal first AD that I was able to rely on to keep things running smoothly on set and the production team was taking care of everything else.

WaH: It’s a small movie.

JL: It’s a small movie. A lot of that was dealt with after we finished shooting. We were editing at the house, so I came home after work and could sit down and look at stuff.

WaH: Talk to me about those phone calls to raise the money how do you do that?   Tell people how to do that. I mean, do you send them the script ahead of time?

JL:  I think we were very fortunate in some ways, because we have some friends who have made a lot of money in their lifetimes and others who are just I think very loyal to us. The very first start was with a friend of ours who happened to be with Ben when he went to interview Cheryl, and because he was there and listening and very engaged he said, you know, I’ll come in with the first amount of money.  I think that’s the thing. The hardest to get is the first lot of money, no question about it.

WaH: And is it a million dollar budget? Is it a ten million dollar budget? Is it a $250,000 dollar budget?

JL: It’s at the low end of that spectrum. Generally, not discussing the budget, but it’s at the lower end of that spectrum. And basically, once we had one person, then the phone calls were more or less like, okay we already have somebody who’s in for this much, and we’re accepting investments from 5,000 dollars up, and we’re gonna offer you your money back plus a small percentage. And I’ve had a lot of our friends and investors have said to us, “We never thought we’d see our money again.” So it’s a great for us to know that we’re gonna be able to pay them back with a bonus.

WaH: So when you made that first phone call you hadn’t signed John yet?

JL: No, the first lot of money came in before we had cast, mostly from people who didn’t have anything to do with the film business, who’d never invested in film before like, our first investor Julius Coleman, Maurice Sillman was another.  They’re our two angels, our major investors.

WaH: Is it okay to put their names in?

JL: Well, they’re executive producers of the film, they have credits, but thank you for asking.  They had read the script, but Julius, as I said had been at that first meeting with Cheryl, he was engaged.  With the rest of them it was a question of sometimes sending them the script, and because we weren’t asking for very much they were willing to take a small risk and we were piecing it together.  At the time the budget was probably two-thirds of what it ended up being.

WaH: You know, honestly, I didn’t know anything about either you or Ben and I just imagined that you were both gonna be 25. And I am so heartened—

JL: I am 25. I just look much older. This movie’s made me very old.

WaH: It’s also quite heartening to, like, see people who have had different kinds of life experiences and have this kind of success.  This film is going to go all the way through Oscar season.

JL: Thank you. We have certainly experienced the whole range of disappointment in having careers in filmmaking, and there is a part of me that, as excited and as optimistic as I get, I’m always a little bit reserved because there’s what I sort of refer to as the natural disaster effect of things completely out of your control. We opened The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish the night that the Rodney King riots happened, and it was the first time there was a curfew in 100 years and no one went to the movies that weekend. No one’s got control over that sort of stuff, so you always know something might come out of the woodwork. 

To be honest, we were so close to moving back to Australia because I’d had enough. I couldn’t do it anymore, 17 years here trying to make films and really not knowing and not being able to find the material that we thought spoke to people.  I was constantly thinking that’d we’d be better of in Australia where it’s a smaller pond and I’m a bigger fish. But to have this success  at this stage in our lives is very gratifying. I think one of the most important things for us, on a personal level, is for our kids to see this. I think they believed we were just delusional to make another movie.

WaH: How old are they?

JL: The eldest is nearly 27 and she worked with us on the film, Alexandra. She was incredible. She was my spine and was one of the reasons why I could keep working.  We had a virtual office going.   We would instant message and read the same emails. She’d call me for advice about stuff and so she was my ears and eyes on the set.

WaH: So you’re training the next generation.

JL: Absolutely. Our son is 21. He’s studying classical music in New York, and he was a lot of help with the music on the film. And our youngest is 12 about to turn 13. She’s in the film. She’s the little girl running on the beach with the boy in the flashback scene. So it was very much a family event.  They were with us at Sundance and we had this extraordinary reaction to the premiere there and for them to see that just meant so much to us.

WaH: Talk about that premiere and that reaction. Did you ever expect something like that?

JL: We had no idea that was going to happen, we really didn’t.  We went to Sundance, and we’d had some positive feedback, but hardly anybody had seen the film at that point, and pretty much anyone who’d seen it was associated in some way. And my biggest concern was that people wouldn’t get the tone of the film, so when we were sitting there I initially was waiting to see if they were gonna laugh. And when the first laugh came in, and as that screening was going on and people were going with the  emotion that was, very reassuring. But then to see 1,270 people stand up and give us a standing ovation was really was extraordinary.  And then as we walked down on the stage and the cast came out and they stood up again it was extraordinary.

WaH: I just got a chill.

JL: You’d think I—I mean, I’ve talked about it a few times now and you’d think I wouldn’t get emotional, you know, it was never anticipated. We thought we were making another small movie. We never thought we’d have a cast like this.

WaH: And how did that happen?

JL: Well, we have to give great kudos to Ronnie Yeskel our casting director.  Ronnie introduced it to John, who was very uncertain about doing it. He first of all wanted to know if we talked to people with disabilities about doing this role. Which we did, but it was very difficult to find somebody who would be able to  reflect Mark the way Mark was.  It’s also a grueling process so thata person  would have the stamina to do it, and unfortunately we couldn’t find anybody who was right for that role.  John needed to be reassured of that. And I think to ask any actor to spend 90 minutes performing like that, flat on their back and giving the performance of a lifetime. That’s a big ask. John met with Ben and I think at the end of that John was happy to say yes. Once John came on board the floodgates sort of opened for the role of Cheryl, because the word got out that there was this great role for a woman in her forties playing opposites John Hawkes.

WaH: But you do have to get naked so not everybody’s gonna take that role.

JL: No. And we got knocked back by the best of them who were nervous about that or who had reasons for not being able to do it . Some wanted to do it but had conflicting schedules because we had a very limited window with John’s availability.

WaH: How long was the shoot?

JL: Twenty-three days.  It was short. It was quick.  Helen heard about us and approached us, and Ben met with her twice to talk about it. You know, she has a very insightful and intelligent approach to—

WaH: She’s a director.

JL: She’s a director. They talked about it a lot. Ben really felt that she could bring to that character what was needed, which is a sort of sense of someone who’s really doing this in a pragmatic way. It’s a job, but then it crosses that line, or almost crosses that line, where it becomes a much more intimate relationship between two people.  She’s extraordinary.

WaH: Talk about how you sold the film.  I read there was a bidding war?

JL: There was a little bidding war.  That was a total surprise because we’d been told not to expect anything like that, that those days were gone. That there wouldn’t be a bidding war, that it would take a few days for us to get settled somewhere and it wasn’t like that at all. It was exactly the opposite. And sure enough, by the time we walked off the stage after that first screening I was getting messages saying, “You’ve gotta get over to the CAA (our sales reps.)   And suddenly we’re sort of whisked off here and whisked off there and having these very intense meetings about the offers that are on the table. So it was exactly the sort of Hollywood image of that kind of bidding war situation.  It narrowed down pretty quickly. And then the negotiations with Fox Searchlight took a few hours and we went over to their condo at 1:00 in the morning and signed the deal with them.

WaH: So what time did the premiere end?

JL: The premiere ended about 4:00pm.  We were still with CAA and there were their reps and our attorneys and Ben’s agent, we were all sitting together and the CAA reps went off with our attorney to go do the negotiations. And they’d call us up and we’d have this conversation on the speakerphone on my Blackberry. I’m, like, listening to all these figures and kind of trying to absorb what’s going on. And they’d say, “Okay, we’re gonna go back and do some more talking.”  

So and then they called us again and said, “Okay, so now we’re down to they nitty gritty.” We’ve kind of—we almost locked it off. You need to go to the party that you’re supposed to be at. I’m getting messages saying, “Are you too cool to come to you own party?”  So we went off to the party and our attorney Craig Emmanuel said, “Just make sure you’ve got your phone in your hand,”   It was cutting into my skin so much since I don’t want to let go of it.  Finally he called us and we went over to huddle in the corner and Craig said, “there’s an offer on the table.”  Go back to the condo and wait for them to email me the deal memo. So then we’re back at the condo waiting for— and then they said, “All right, we’re sending a car to pick you up.”

WaH: That is a great story. So any advice you have from that?

JL: I guess it is that that sometimes miracles do happen.  If you’ve got enough faith in your project, I never questioned the project or Ben’s writing the project. I sort of kept going to that other job all the time knowing that he was at writing and looking after the kids while I was working insanely long hours.  I was often sort of terribly frustrated and wondering what had happened to my producing career.  It’s an endurance run.

WaH: And now this is a new beginning—

JL: Oh, yes, it’s  the beginning of a whole new chapter for us. And sometimes Ben will sort of joke that he’s sorry to be giving up his life of obscurity and being a kept man, but I’m certainly tired of keeping him, I can tell you that! But it’s not like, oh, well now we can sit back and relax, you know. Now there are wonderful new offers coming in and it’s very exciting. And it’s like, well now we get to do some other movies that are really interesting which is what we’ve been wanting to do over the last all these years.

WaH: Twenty year overnight success.

JL: Yes, yes, or 18 year overnight success.

WaH:  What a great story.

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