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Interview | Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions

Ben Lewin

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.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

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.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mostly gripping, yet slightly smoke-and-mirrors study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).

The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.

The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, while an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.

Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune and its inner workings are particularly – and disappointingly – thinly drawn.

Within this tense thriller lie some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect. Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two staggering plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.

Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, provided he goes down the route of adding a bit more substance to his films.