Sundance likes nothing more than an overnight success. Countless directors have, over the thirty-odd years of the festival, gone from total unknowns to the hot new thing, and they’re usually some fresh-faced whippersapper, relatively speaking. This year’s festival had one of those, in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin, but it also had, in the shape of “The Sessions” helmer Ben Lewin, a rather more atypical overnight success, as Lewin is a 65-year-old filmmaker with credits stretching back nearly four decades.
But it’s no surprise that “The Sessions” (originally titled “The Surrogate“) has made Lewin such a hot property — his warm, humane and funny film, which stars John Hawkes as the paralyzed poet Mark O’Brien, and Helen Hunt as the ‘sex surrogate’ who helps him to lose his virginity, marks the consolidation of a real talent who’s been under our noses for far too long.
And yet when we caught up with Lewin in London this week ahead of the film’s screening at the BFI London Film Festival, he put much of what’s brought him to this point down to luck. “Like most interesting things that have happened to me,” Lewin told us, “[discovering Mark O’Brien] was entirely an accident. I was surfing the net, just wasting time, and I came across Mark’s article, ‘On Seeing A Sex Surrogate,’ And ten pages later, life turned a corner.”
There was one issue with the material — the somewhat downbeat ending to O’Brien’s piece. As Lewin says, “I trotted up to my wife a few minutes later and said this is our next project, darling. And she read it, and said, the ending’s a bit bleak. But the irony is in that chasing up the rights to the story, I discovered that this man had a really beautiful relationship at the end of his life, and that the end was not at all bleak.”
That process of putting the rights together proved complex, but also useful to the research. “You can’t get life rights from someone who’s dead,” Lewin told us. “You can only get the rights to their literary work, but Susan Fernbach (O’Brien’s partner in the later years of his life) was the owner of his literary rights, so I optioned the article, and the rights to his poetry. And her life rights, which included her experiences with him, and then the same with Cheryl [the basis for Helen Hunt’s character].” So while it was the original article that helped to provide the structure for the film; “It was really a blueprint for the movie. I found that whenever I was losing my way when I was developing the script, I’d return to the article to remind me what it was that turned me on in the first place,” those other elements really brought it to life. “An important moment was meeting Cheryl, and realizing that I had at least two fascinating characters interacting with each other, that it was a journey for two people. Ultimately, I saw the script as a relationship movie.”
As far as that relationship goes, we were surprised at how the emotional connection between Mark and Cheryl ends up being more than a one-way street, and asked Lewin to what extent it was an invention. “I think it was something that came out of reality,” he responded. “In his article, you get this sense that there were moments of connection that he hadn’t anticipated, that had nothing to do with sexual penetration, or the mechanics of sex, but to do with moments of subtle touch and expression of emotions… that in a way, sex was only the beginning. One of the controversial aspects of [sex surrogacy], and much has been written about it, is that on one hand, it goes beyond regular therapy. There’s a logic about it, saying if you want to address serious sexual issues by just talking about them, it’s about as effective as teaching someone to drive a car by giving them a book. On the other hand, asking someone to engage physically with someone, and at the same time care about them, is a dangerous high-wire act. That thin line between compassion and involvement is a difficult one to tread. So that was the reality of Cheryl’s life, and of all sex surrogates, and I wanted to convey that in the movie, that inevitably sex leads you to another place, where you maybe didn’t anticipate going. And I think the emotional climax of the movie is when they realize that things can spin out of control.”
It’s also intriguing that Cheryl didn’t ask for her name to be changed, an openness that’s reflected in the film, in which her husband (Adam Arkin) is fully aware and accepting of her profession. Lewin says he had her blessing to be as open as possible, bar a few notes. “Cheryl, for all that she’s had a lot of experience in life, is still a very innocent, trusting individual. And I tried to reciprocate that by keeping her involved, and before I sent anyone else the script, I sent to her, and to Susan. And she gave me quite detailed notes, some of them were very amusing. Certain ways she wanted to be depicted. She didn’t want to be depicted as smoking, she never smoked. She didn’t want to be depicted as using harsh language with her son… One of the paradoxes of Cheryl’s character was that on one hand, she was a typical, middle class American family values soccer mom, with a garden, and a mortgage and a teenage kid and all of that, and at the same time, doing this very unusual thing. So I felt I needed to show her family situation, so that we understood. She didn’t share an apartment with two other girls one of whom was a junkie, or whatever. That part of the story was that she was a very conscientious parent.”
Of course, Cheryl, and Helen Hunt’s performance, is only one half of the film, with the Oscar-tipped John Hawkes, giving a phenomenal turn as O’Brien. Interestingly, Lewin actually wasn’t aware of the actor until he started to cast the film. “I’ve got to give credit to our casting director,” he said. “I really wasn’t aware of him, and she made me aware of him, and she was so passionate about him that I took her seriously. So I did my homework, and watched everything of his that I could get my hands on, and when we met, we spent quite a lot of time together, arriving at a common view of what the film was to be like. At the end of which, I felt he was a gift.”
Although the film premiered in January at Sundance, Lewin’s remained busy, both with readying the movie for release (“If you sell it, as we did, you have to go through all the elements of delivery, which are endless,” he told us, adding “I don’t think people appreciate that”), and on the press tour, which is likely to last through to early next year. But he’s starting to think about what could come next, saying ” I’ve been getting a lot of scripts, and I’m kicking the tyres on a bunch of different projects.”
One such potential is “Bridge Of Sighs,” a thriller about a Death Row inmate. Lewin says that it’s “a lot darker… I look at it and say ‘who wrote this?’ I know I wrote it myself, but I’m not sure why or how.” It’s not necessarily next though. “It needs another pass,” he told us, “and I’m just waiting for a little bit of headspace, because I’m a very inefficient writer. I’m also way behind on another writing assignment for Fox. It’s based on a book, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about it. It depends what plans they have for it. I certainly haven’t committed to anything in particular, this is way too absorbing.” If “The Sessions” is anything to go by, though, we’ll be looking forward to whatever he picks out.
“The Sessions” is on limited release now.