Focusing upon a brief period of sexual awakening in the life of real-life polio-afflicted Californian journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an amiable and largely enjoyable comedy drama set in the 1980s. As a survivor of boyhood polio himself, the film’s subject is very close to Lewin’s heart. We sat down with the man recently to discuss his inspiration for the film, getting the right tone, and the experience of working with such a talented cast.
PPH (in bold): What in particular drew you to the story of Mark O’Brien?
Ben Lewin (in regular): To put it very simply, it was the emotional impact on me when I quite accidentally read his article on seeing a sex surrogate [played in the film by Helen Hunt]. I didn’t expect to be reading that, even less for it to reach me in the way that it did. A few minutes later, I took the article out to my wife and said to her, “I think this is our next movie.”
How did you approach adapting the work and what he had written?
I think I tried as much as possible to use his article as a blueprint for the whole thing. And I may have moved away from it at times; you know, I wrote various drafts, but always kept coming back to it to find what it was that had turned me on. When you write, you sometimes lose your way or meander off on a tangent. I think it was a combination of what he had written plus the insight I had got from his girlfriend, who was with him in the years before he died, Susan Fernbach. And the really rich account that I got from from Sheryl Cohen Greene [Hunt’s character] of her side of the story .
How did you approach the tone of the film?
The process of writing goes everywhere for me, it goes dark and light and everything in between. Finding the tone is, in fact, the process. I simply reached a point where I thought that it represented Mark O’Brien’s really unusual view of life and the influence of his poetry on his way of thinking. And I think that I never worried too much about the tone, I never worried particularly about trying to be funny. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise to me, particularly when I heard an audience, and there’s a moment when he says [to Sheryl], “Your money is on the desk over there” and people laughed. And I never intended that to be a funny line, but I think people identified with his awkwardness. And that’s where the humour comes from, so I don’t think that it’s full of funny punchlines and so on. I think the situation itself is what generates the humour.
What are some of your cinematic influences?
I certainly never looked at other films about disabled people – they were not a guideline. In a way, one of the films I kept thinking about was Risky Business. I thought that also had a real verve to it, plus a touch of authenticity. Otherwise I’m not sure that I used any other film as a model. I guess my heroes are Bruno Weill and Billy Wilder and probably people that have been long forgotten by most others! But film is just another way of storytelling, and I would say that I’m as much influenced by storytelling in written literature as I am in film culture.
Initially, the title was The Surrogate – what was the reason for the title change?
It wasn’t an exciting reason at all, it was the fact that there was a film out called Surrogates which Disney had made with Bruce Willis that was completely different. And both Fox and Disney, being members of the MPAA, they didn’t want to have any confusion between the two films. I was in the end, very happy with the choice of the title The Sessions.
Did you come across across any issues with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]? The film’s surprisingly sexually explicit…
Well, we were concerned. I think that we never thought we would get a PG-13, even though Bill Macy is very vocal on this subject. He thinks that it’s a crime that films full of violence are given a PG-13 and films that touch on sexuality are immediately in the R rating. But we were gratified that the MPAA liked the film and didn’t ask us for any cuts.
That must have been a relief…
It was a relief, because there were a couple moments which are on the edge, and all of a sudden they want you to edit it and you’re in danger of getting an NC-17 [the rating that carries the stigma of box office death]. In the end we were happy with the attitude that they took and they saw the film the way it was intended.
What was it like to work with your two leads?
It was like sitting back and watching the best theatre in the world. I’d like to think that my particular gift is casting! [Laughs] I know that if you do that correctly, you never have to look over your shoulder. I really think they did all of the heavy lifting. We spent a lot of time together before the shoot talking through the script and particular scenes and when it came to the actual shooting, I really tried to let them use the spontaneity of the moment as much as possible, and as much as possible, stay out of the way.
Was William H. Macy your first choice [for the role of the Catholic priest?]
You know, he wasn’t my first choice, because I was actually thinking because this was Berkeley, California at a particular time, I wanted something completely different. I was thinking of a black or Latino priest. Then all of a sudden the suggestion of Bill Macy came up, and it took me all of a millisecond for me to agree to that! But often the best choices come out of left field and you don’t know they’re coming.
What’s next for you?
Well, I know that I’m going to buy new shoes for the children! [Laughs] I’m kicking the tyres of a bunch of projects and writing a couple, but I haven’t committed to one in particular just as yet.
The Sessions is out in cinemas from Friday, released by 20th Century Fox.