Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Director Ben Lewin on The Sessions

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Helen Hunt, left, and John Hawkes in a scene from 'The Sessions.' Photo / AP
Helen Hunt, left, and John Hawkes in a scene from 'The Sessions.' Photo / AP

This week saw the New Zealand release of The Sessions, the acclaimed new film inspired by the writings of poet Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes in the film), a polio sufferer paralysed from the neck down who spent his life in an iron lung.

Approaching 40 and never having felt the touch of a woman, he hired a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) with whom he engaged in the titular sessions. The Sessions is an amazing film, elevated beyond its TV movie trappings the stellar lead performances and a light directorial touch.

The film was written and directed by the Polish-born, Australian-raised Ben Lewin, a journeyman director with credits in Australia, England and America. Following a raft of positive reactions to The Sessions on the global festival circuit, Lewin (a polio survivor himself) visited New Zealand for the recent Big Screen Symposium, from which he took some time out to promote his film.

Lewin first became aware of O'Brien's story by pure chance:

"I stumbled across his article On Seeing A Sex Surrogate on the internet and that was it," he told me. "It was a very intense and compelling story. There had been a documentary film made about him but I wasn't aware of it at the time."

Unless you're an LA Law fan with a good memory (move along, Douglas), you could be forgiven for not being aware of the existence of sexual surrogates - sexual therapists who engage in actual intercourse with their patients. So I asked Lewin if he felt a responsibility to educate the audience about sexual surrogates.

"I don't think I had any agenda to educate, that sounds way too noble. The agenda is simply: 'Is this gonna make a good movie?' and there was no guarantee of that but I thought his article was an incredible blueprint for a script. I never for a moment doubted that if I got the script right that it would be a good movie."

Was he concerned about a lack of audience awareness of what a sexual surrogate does?

"It wasn't so much a concern as it was an asset! This was something new. It's addressed as one of the first questions in the film. Part of the appeal of the story is finding out what this person does. I was hoping the public would share the curiosity. It's not a hooker. It's not a psychotherapist. It's a whole study in itself. I thought it was one of the real selling point of the movie - that here was a character in society that hadn't really been explored before."

Acquiring the rights to the article brought Lewin into contact with Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's partner at the time of his death.

"We really did click and she was very happy that here was a guy who wanted to tell that story. She did give me a window into who he was, as much as possible. She is a writer herself and understood what I was aiming for. She also connected me with Cheryl, the surrogate, and as a result of meeting Cheryl I was really convinced that this was not a biopic but a relationship movie. They were very crucial to the development of the whole thing."

The Sessions features a revelatory performance from the increasingly ubiquitous character actor John Hawkes, who came to Lewin's casting director's attention following his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 2010's Winter's Bone. It was Hawkes' casting that lead to the surfeit of stellar character actors populating the film, including several of Hawkes' Deadwood co-stars.

"He would send his friends along for auditions. I just thought they were really right for the parts. I was very happy for John to recommend friends, and it was convenient. Once John was in it, the project had some kind of gravitas and it became somewhat easier to cast. "

Helen Hunt delivers a very raw performance as the surrogate, and embraced all facets of her character:

"It's a very interesting character, a paradoxical character. Someone who's a middle class 'soccer mom' and who also has sex with strangers as a profession. Some very good actresses wanted to do that role, including Helen. We had a very substantial discussion about what her character was about. I felt that she would probably depict more of a journey. She had the skill and the subtlety to convey that journey."

One aspect of the film getting a lot of attention is the large amount of nudity on Hunt's part. "The point was to bring some banality to it, a real matter-of-fact quality to the nudity. I think she understood from the outset that it wasn't going to do the job to be coy. Having the sheet covering the naughty bits - that wouldn't fit into the style of the story."

Both actors are garnering considerable Oscar buzz for their performances, but it's all much of a muchness to Lewin:

"I don't know what Oscar buzz is! I would've made the film for peanuts with unknown actors if that's what had to be done. I really was very fortunate to have got such prestigious people and such terrific performances. It's kind of stressful actually to be now part of a horse race. But I see it really as part of the process of selling the movie. Whatever you're selling, product endorsement is part of the process. My main interest in the Oscars is what people are gonna be wearing. I'm really interested in the frocks. That to me is the fun part of it."

*The Sessions is in cinemas now. Seen it? Thoughts? Comment below!

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