Movie stars’ vanity projects are more likely to fail than succeed, and the “Honey Boy” backstory would seem to play into those odds: an actor in lock-down rehab writes a screenplay about his deeply fraught relationship with his father, and finds himself playing his own parent. However, not only did Shia LaBeouf find a director and financing, the film also sold to Amazon Studios at Sundance — and none of that could have happened without the deep trust between the star and Alma Har’el, his strong yet empathetic director who delicately steered a combustible movie toward safe harbor.
“Honey Boy” has received rave reviews in advance of its November 8 release (and a full 90-day theatrical window) during a competitive award season. LaBeouf deserves consideration for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. And he’s the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it without Har’el, making her fiction feature debut.
The Israeli filmmaker, who never went to film school and arrived stateside from Tel Aviv when she was 29, learned her craft by working on sets, editing, acting, and directing music and art videos, commercials, and documentaries. She doesn’t believe in conventional wisdom, she told me: “A lot of the limitations of cinema come from the idea of a genre a film has to fit into, and I try in my work to find ways to tell a story that don’t fit into a specific genre. I walk the line and borrow from all of them.”
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She met LaBeouf in 2011 after he watched her DIY documentary “Bombay Beach,” after it somehow wound up in the Bob Dylan section he was browsing at Amoeba Records. He was so impressed that he sent an email to her website. When they got together for dinner at Firefly in Studio City, they realized they were both children of alcoholic fathers and Jewish mothers. “We met more than each other,” Har’el writes on the Landmark Theatres website. “We met each other’s complicated love for our singular fathers.”
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Within two weeks, LaBeouf was appearing in Har’el’s Sigur Rós music video; he went on to executive produce and finance her second feature, 2016 documentary psychodrama “LoveTrue,” which featured real people playing opposite actors playing their younger selves. “We had a good time with each other,” LaBeouf told me. He started to send her everything he was working on for feedback, from performance art projects to movie scripts for acting gigs. “She’s my barometer,” he said. “She’s the tastiest person I know.”
In 2017 LaBeouf faced a string of public run-ins with the law. (At the Hollywood Film Awards November 3, he thanked a police officer who arrested him in Georgia “for changing my life.”) He wound up in court-ordered rehab in Connecticut, where he was diagnosed with severe PTSD. His therapist directed him to write about the traumatic period in his life when he was a child actor living with his ex-con father in a fleabag San Fernando Valley motel. Seven years after LaBeouf first emailed Har’el, she received his first pages of intense father-son dialogue.
“Alma was the only person talking to me at the time,” said LaBeouf. “I was nuclear for quite a while, working my way through it. I didn’t have a whole lot of people to send stuff to; even my mother told me to fuck off. I wasn’t thinking it was material for a movie. I thought I’d get out of rehab and go to meetings and she’d be my sponsor.”
However, Har’el told him to flesh out the narrative, helping him to shape it into a viable screenplay. “Life took its turn and it was time for me to turn up and help him tell his story,” said Har’el at the film’s Toronto gala. “From the first time I read the script, it was important to make sure we told the story in a way that was authentic to Shia.”
He sent her something once a week for six weeks, some 80 pages. “It was so painful and raw and telling and funny, and specific,” said Har’el. “I immediately thought we had to make the film. It had some urgency to it. If he could play his father, it would be incredible. He prepared to play his father his whole life, whether subconsciously or not. He thought he might never act again, that nobody would work with him. He was diagnosed with PTSD, which gave him a clue to the anger outbursts. He hadn’t spoken to his father for seven years; he tried to avoid things that would trigger him.”
Reading playwright Sam Shepard was inspiration for LaBeouf. “I was molding the conversations to his pace,” he said. “I have always loved my father deeply. I guess until I had truly fucked up, I couldn’t look at it like that. I had a chip on my shoulder, it does something to you. When life hit me on the chin, my father and I went through similar things, shame was the connective tissue for us. I had more empathy for my father than myself.”
In fact, he pulled back on the true story of when his father pulled a gun on his “big brother” at a Shakey’s Pizza in Van Nuys. “I didn’t want to make him evil,” he said, “I toned him down. Pulling a gun would have been too much.”
When LaBeouf got home, the director sent him to reconnect with his dad. “He was in Costa Rica with no passport, out there freewheeling, he had some fight in him,” said LaBeouf. “He had some adventures in Costa Rica. By the time I got there, he was cooked and wild.” As he told the audience at the Toronto premiere, “I really only made this for two people. Selfish for myself to survive where I was at, and for my father. He’s with it, he’s proud.”
Casting the two actors to play “Otis” was tricky. The kid needed to be able to stand up to the belligerent father. “How to cast people who capture the DNA and essence of the character without doing a cheap and empty impression of this person, and not create some funny crazy mirror?” said Har’el. “I wanted Shia to be involved in casting. It’s a chemistry thing.”
British actor Noah Jupe, who also stars in “Ford v Ferrari” this season, was able to be both strong and vulnerable. “Me and Lucas created this character of Otis, built our own version of this person,” said Jupe in Toronto. “Shia wrote the basis of it. Being with someone who had been though the same things I have, he was a child actor, I just learned from him emotionally and physically.”
See the audition tape below.
Lucas Hedges as the older Otis “was sweet and spiritual,” said Har’el. “You can see his consciousness changing in expectations of masculinity and spirituality. He and Shia have the same relationship with acting, what it means it to them. Casting is very intuitive: either it comes to life or it doesn’t.”
“I knew I needed somebody whose top priority was his craft,” said LaBeouf, “who loved this thing more than their family, Lucas would die for this. I didn’t care what he looked like. We met 400 kids to find Noah, who had to do 20-page scenes. I needed someone who could play jazz with you, and ballsy. He’s a ballsy jazz player.”
Supporting her star during a challenging 21-day production was not easy. Har’el and her director of photography Natasha Braier used documentary techniques to give the actors “the space to act,” said Har’el, “to be themselves and discover that reality is taking the stage instead of me telling them to meet that mark, remembering all the time that we are bringing it back to really what this is about, Shia performing some exorcism literally for his father. It’s a story about a destructing generational thing, making that decision to develop empathy for the person you love the most who also hurts you the most, being able to forgive so you can survive and live.”
Har’el helped him to craft the last 20 pages and found the ending in the editing room, which LaBeouf never entered. “I couldn’t reflect on it as an adult,” said LaBeouf. “I’m one, yet I am still in the middle of it. I couldn’t find an ending.”
Har’el has always seen filmmaking as a form of therapy, “a way of connecting to life and finding value in myself as I moved away from the addiction and self-harm that were part of my early years,” she said. All of her films are “entangled with healing people on the edge of society who need to go through something to be part of life again.”
The hardest part of the shoot for the entire cast and crew was going back into the father-son gates of hell at the motel. “People were crying by the monitor,” said Har’el. “Everyone on the film ended up to be the child of an alcoholic. People were walking around telling each other stories about what happened to them. It was very therapeutic and trying for them. And cathartic for Shia. He’s been sober for a year and a half for the first time since his childhood. It was very hard for his mother to be on set every day and watch things happen that she wasn’t aware of.”
The filmmaker kept things on track with “a lot of hugs and doughnuts and camomile tea,” she said. “I had help from Shia’s therapist and his rehab facility, who were there for him when he needed, to make it safe. Sometimes it was risky. There were some days better than others.”
LaBeouf admitted he was “terrified,” he said. “The boys ran with it on their own. I never checked with them. Lucas was living in my house, taking my clothes and popping up in the kitchen, making me really uncomfortable. I had to get out of the house. I moved into Noah’s hotel for pretty much the whole shoot.” At one point, Jupe asked LaBeouf to hit him to put him in the right place. So he did it: once.
“It felt like a loving and collaborative team sport the whole way,” said LaBeouf. “I’m trying to stay in self-love mode.”