Interview: Ben Lewin on Portraying Sex and Getting the Right Cast

*This interview was originally published at The Film Experience.

With The Sessions opening in theaters today, it was the perfect time to share my chat with Ben Lewin, the film’s director. We touched upon everything from the politics of sex and nudity in Hollywood to the influence of his own experience with polio on building the character of Mark O’Brien. It’s a film I encourage everyone to see because it’s surprisingly funny and incredibly heartfelt, and features two of the strongest lead performances of the year. (In case you missed these back in September, here’s my review of the film and my interview with one of its stars, William H. Macy.)

Amir for TFE: I can’t think of a better place to start the interview than nudity.

Ben Lewin: Neither can I!

Amir: Because, in general I’ve been accustomed to seeing certain types of people have sex on screen in Hollywood films and everyone else’s sex life is barely ever shown, as if, you know, people in their 40s or black people don’t have sex. It’s unbelievable and I really appreciate that we get to see something very different here. Was the film always so explicit since the idea was conceived in your head?

Ben: I think if you read Mark O’Brien’s article, there’s no other way. The essence of it was that he was learning the ABCs, what goes where, what do you do, and I think the explicitness is part of revealing his naiveté and how childlike he was when it came to sex. I was only keeping faithful to his original work, which was really what inspired me. Every time I felt like I was losing my way in the script, I’d go back to his text and rediscover what turned me on in the first place. The first thing that struck me when I read it was the frankness. The explicitness doesn’t make it sexier, it just makes it more ordinary.

My point exactly! Everybody at every age does it. You don’t have to look like a star.

I’d never imagined myself going there though…[MORE]

BEN LEWIN [Director of The Sessions]: If I rolled the clock back a few years and think, if I made a movie about sex what would it be like, I don’t think I would have imagined this one; probably something much more conventional, more typical of the traditional male fantasy where all the characters are eye-candy. No one over 40, of course. When we were casting the thing began to define itself much more clearly. There were younger women who wanted to do the part. To exaggerate it a little bit, if I’d cast someone who was typical eye-candy, it would have been a bit like casting Marilyn Monroe to play Mother Teresa.

Amir: We’re being too unfair to John and Helen.

Ben Lewin: [Laughs] Yes, but somehow I think to give dignity and complexity to the character of the woman, she needed to be older, someone who had conventional responsibilities in life like parenthood and mortgage and that kind of thing. There’s a paradox in the character that she’s a soccer mom at the same time.

Did Helen or John have reservations about this?

No, it was not a matter of if or what to do. It was a matter of how to do it. The major burden of being exposed was on Helen and I think she knew from the beginning that this was not an appropriate movie to be coy. Walking around with a bed sheet or a towel would undermine the whole meaning of it.

You’ve mentioned the connection between this character and your own experience of suffering from polio, but you’re also very faithful to his text. I presume given the biopic nature of the film, there’s little room to maneuver, but how much of yourself did you bring into this?

That’s a very, very difficult question but a really pertinent one, because you know, you have to invent how a character talks in a script. Some of the dialogue came from his text but the day to day language is created from thin air and ultimately, the main character often becomes an extension of the writer. How does that character talk? Sometimes, the way I talk. How does he think? Sometimes, the way I think. You bring that to the table because you have the make the character real for yourself. I don’t think I can separate what was him and what was me at this point. I felt happy with the idea that probably we had a similar sense of humour. I can’t really know for sure, but from what people have told me and what I’ve seen on videotapes. So I put my kind of language and attitude in the way he acts.

Did you know of him before reading the article or during his lifetime?

Not at all, unfortunately. What I remembered was, not the film Breathing Lessons, but the Oscar acceptance speech given by the woman who made the short documentary, which was to the effect that the dress she was wearing cost more than the film. That was one of the funniest acceptance speeches but I didn’t relate it to Breathing Lessons until after the fact. When I read Mark’s article, I had no idea who he was and it was a learning process from then.

Speaking of Mark’s humour, the story of a man in an iron lung is an unlikely fit for the label of “the feel-good movie of the year.” Was it at any point a darker film in your head?

I didn’t spell out my intention to make a feel-good movie, but it would be really difficult for me to make a depressing movie about this. Georgia was about as depressing a film as I’ve ever made. I’ve naturally veered in this comedic direction. Now that you mention it, I think the tone of this film really evolved in the process. It wasn’t so much the idea of a feel-good movie as that he had an absurd view of life. Somehow to cope with the hand of cards that he was dealt, he had to say things in a funny way. There’s no way to deal with it if he wanted to get up every day and say “God, here’s another shitty day” you know? I think there an innate positivism about his character that formed the script. He just had a tremendous determination to stay alive. He did, after all, experience an emotional life that a lot of able-bodied people don’t, despite the loneliness that he had in his life.

That’s true. He connected to a lot of loving and interesting people.

Yes, and it didn’t feel artificial. I saw this film… god, what was it called… the message of the film was that divorce can be good. It’s a lot of horseshit [laughs] but there could be a positive spin on it. Everything’s possible in life. The feel-good sense was what I felt when I read his story. Maybe that’s the personal connection I brought in.

During this evolution of the script, did you ever want to make a traditional biopic of his whole life. I’m really glad you didn’t, by the way. I love that you focus on this particular chapter of his life.

That possibility was always on the table but the turning point was when I met Cheryl Cohen-Greene (played by Helen Hunt) in that she had so much to tell me about her side of things that I really only saw it as a relationship movie from that point. In earlier drafts I struggled with including his family and childhood but secretly I was looking for a way out of that. I wanted it not to be a biopic.

And this approach makes the flashbacks to his childhood all the more moving.

The other kid on the beach is my daughter.

Interesting. I met Alex, your other daughter, who’s the producer, right?

Yeah, it’s a family movie. We’re all in it in one way or another.

And how did the cast come together? They really seem like a family too. They all have such good chemistry together.

For me, the most exciting part of shooting a film is the casting. They had practically no preparation either. The process of casting went on for quite a few months before we were finally able to cast John Hawkes. My first stroke of luck was getting a casting director [Ronnie Yeskel] who was personally really committed. For anyone who has any sense, that’s the first thing to do when you have the money to press the go button on a film. She put John under my nose and said this is your man. After he and I met and agreed to do it, the door was opened to all kinds of interesting actors. He’s got such a reputation in the acting community.

Everybody’s told me the same thing about John’s clout.

It really gave the film a kind of prestige just to have him in it. At first there was a lot of juggling on who likes it, and who’s available and who’ll do it for no money, but in the end, it was extraordinary to see so many really good actors joining without really caring about the money. And you get a sense of how people are going to work together, but you don’t really know until everything starts. I felt so confident in each of them individually and in their chemistry that I thought we didn’t really need to rehearse. I thought let’s just fly it and see what happens.

The effect looks really organic on the screen. I think that’s one of the film’s strongest suits. To be honest with you, the screening was one of my best experiences at TIFF, but I think you know that already, with the reaction here and at Sundance. I hope this success carries on into the awards season.

Thank you. The whole thing feels like a race. Whilst I really appreciate that the public’s embraced the film, the idea of being competitive, I just think, my god I’m happy that’s in other people’s hands. I’ll just go along for the ride.


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