The Sessions director's indelicate touch

By Russell Baillie

Director Ben Lewin talks about his acclaimed movie The Sessions to Russell Baillie.

Writer and director Ben Lewin at a screening for his film, 'The Sessions,' at the Dolby 88 Screening Room in New York. Photo / AP
Writer and director Ben Lewin at a screening for his film, 'The Sessions,' at the Dolby 88 Screening Room in New York. Photo / AP

As we sit talking about his remarkable film The Sessions in an Auckland hotel lounge, there's a glint of metal from one of Ben Lewin's callipered boots from beneath the table. His crutches propped nearby also remind us that when it comes to telling the real-life story of the polio-disabled Mark O'Brien - a San Francisco poet-journalist who wrote frankly about his life before his death in 1999 - that the 65-year-old Los Angeles-based Australian director is, well, qualified.

But no-one gave Lewin the job of bringing the story of O'Brien to the screen. He created that himself by writing the script and securing the funding independently.

With the modest budget secured, he cast John Hawkes as O'Brien, a man paralysed from the neck down (but still able to feel sensation) and required to spend much of his time in an iron lung. Opposite him is Helen Hunt as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, the woman who therapeutically relieved O'Brien of his virginity. Also cast was William H. Macy as a priest - a fictional composite character - ministering to O'Brien, a devout Catholic.

Having found himself in bit of a career slump after TV directing gigs on the likes of Ally McBeal and Touched by an Angel, Lewin had thought about creating a sitcom - working title The Gimp - about a disabled man who swapped his parking spaces for sexual favours.

He then stumbled across O'Brien's 1990 essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. An idea for a script immediately took hold in Lewin's mind. A couple of years later distribution rights to the finished film were purchased by Fox Searchlight for US$6 million ($7.3 million) at the Sundance Film Festival.

You would have gone through a few drafts of the script.

Four or five.

What was the difference between the first and fifth?

In two major areas there was quite a difference. By the time I got to the end of the process it was a relationship movie whereas it started out as more of a biopic. And then particularly after I met Cheryl I really began to think of it more as a relationship movie and that is what it evolved into. Somehow the structure of a relationship movie was what dictated the rhythm of the script. The other way it changed was Mark's article was very explicit and whilst that was part of the appeal - that sense of authenticity and frankness - when I read it off the page it kind of shocked me. I thought how can I show ejaculations on screen? I can't do that ...

There's a whole other movie business dedicated to that ...

Indeed. They have got that covered somewhere else. And by developing that relationship with the priest I could [talk about] some of that explicit stuff in the confessional where it would be funny and ironical rather than make you cringe. So they were two major ways in which the script changed.

Money-wise, how did you get what might seem an unlikely movie like this off the ground?

The fact I went to naive investors. People who had never done this before but who believed in the story and were willing to read the script. The hardest thing in the movie business is getting someone to read the script. So at a very early stage, a friend of mind, who came with me just by accident when I was interviewng Cheryl, the surrogate, was so impressed by the story premise that he offered to help me financially. That was highly incentivising. It fascinated him enough to make that offer even before I had written the script. That gave me the idea: there must be more like him.

It must have given you more control over the whole project as well.

It gave me complete control because the investors got a generous deal and I got total freedom. Big responsibility too. Most times I was glad no one was looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I would think I wish someone was looking over my shoulder and saying "this is what you do next".

Initially, what did you tell your lead actors about what their roles would require?

The script was my strongest advocate. I didn't have to explain much. It was all self-explanatory once you read it. With Helen Hunt, it was clear from the script that this was a movie where you couldn't be coy. It was not a rom-com where you hold the sheet just above your nipples and be very careful not to show any naughty bits. I think that both the challenge and the attraction was this was very sexually confronting. It related to everyone's fear of sex - it's not just focused on people in iron lungs. There was a universality about the story that appealed to the actors.

You use the priest character as light relief. But did you feel you had to be careful about depicting O'Brien's faith?

No, I didn't feel I had to be careful. I felt I had to get my head around it because I guess I am what you would call a fundamentalist atheist. But I really did understand that sense that he must have had that behind all this was an order of some sort - that life would be too despairing unless in his words "you could blame someone". I honestly think he embraced religion with a sense of humour and that is what enabled me to understand it more. I never claimed to feel what it was like to be in his skin. I don't know what it is like to be in as extreme a situation as that. But I know that it was things of the mind that really kept him alive - poetry and his work as a journalist. Things of the imagination. Whether he imagined God or really believed in him, her, it as a real entity, I haven't any idea. I just know it was part of the rhythm of this life and that his relationship with priests was probably a very important one for him. He was genuinely devout and the whole issue of having sex outside marriage was a question for him. So I never doubted his sincerity as a Catholic.

How did your own, ah, background...

You are trying to be delicate. Don't be delicate ...

You had polio as a kid. Would you have made the film had you not?

That's the unanswerable question. I looked it at pragmatically. It gives me a legitimacy to make this film. I felt that it helped to establish my credentials. Did it really influence my take on it? I'm not so sure. In most ways I am closer to you, physically, than I am to Mark O'Brien. I think it probably gave me a licence not to take it too seriously, not to make it too intense, to think this is holy ground that I have to be careful. I can't stand the politically correct rhetoric that we have to use. I think being an insider, in a sense, liberated me from this delicate language and this wish to never offend. In real life I am quite willing to offend.

Who: Ben Lewin, director
What: The Sessions
When: At cinemas now

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