Ben Lewin wasn't quite what I expected, but probably what I should have. The writer/director of The Sessions – a frank and funny motion picture about Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a paralyzed polio survivor who decides to have sex for the first time with professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) – is a frank, funny human being who's just as open about sex as the characters in his Oscar-nominated film.
The Sessions premieres on DVD and Blu-ray today, so we sat down (over the phone) with Lewin to talk about the unique challenges involved in making a film whose the lead character can only move his head 90 degrees, some of the more complex creative decisions made during the production, and the very unexpected way in which he stumbled across O'Brien's original article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."
Ben Lewin: I’m just looking at your website, and the home page has all these tough guys on it…
CraveOnline: Yeah… It’s ostensibly a men’s lifestyle website. But that’s not quite how I run the film channel.
That’s alright. I’m a man’s man. I can take it.
You’re a man’s man? Man about town?
Yeah, sure. [Laughs]
Oh, wonderful. I’m pleased to hear that.
Yeah, Fred Topel loved it a lot. I only just caught up with it on the Blu-ray, and I was struck by this very interesting dichotomy, wherein it’s about a very intelligent, obviously poetic individual, very mature but in some respects he and the rest of the film is almost childlike in its innocence.
Yes. Then I’m glad you got it. [Laughs] That truly was Mark’s situation as I saw it. A guy who was, in a way, a super-brain… I mean, his girlfriend Susan [Fernbach], when I asked, did he read a lot? She laughed at me and said, “You know, he did to his mind what Arnold Schwarzenegger did to his body.” In that sense, Mark was kind of super-educated. Super-intelligent. But emotionally he was still a teenager, from that point of view. So there is that dichotomy in the film.
How many people from his life were you able to interview for this production?
I only got in contact with Susan Fernbach and with Cheryl Cohen-Greene, because I wasn’t attempting to make a biopic. I really was just attempting to retell the story that he told in his article, that related to getting together with Cheryl Cohen-Greene. I guess that it made it more manageable for me in writing the screenplay not to have multiple resources and multiple points of view. I really wanted to stay focused on what happened when he decided he no longer wanted to be a virgin.
Did you read that article when it came out? Or what was your first introduction to that?
I read that article at the end of 2006, quite by accident. No idea that I was going to stumble across that article that day, or that I would get involved in making a film about it.
How did you stumble across it? Was it at a library, online…?
Online! I just saw it online. I was wasting time surfing the net, probably looking at inappropriate material, I don’t know… I was, in fact, researching material for a show I was devising called “The Gimp,” and I think I was looking for tasteless material about sex and disability, and I stumbled across Mark’s article and I did a u-turn.
It was beyond tasteful now.
Yes, yes! [Laughs]
What was “The Gimp?” That never went to series, I take it?
Yeah, I was developing an idea that was kind of loosely based on myself, if you like, about a guy who… I mean, he trades the use of his handicap placard for sex.
That was, in a way, a kind of mirror for my marriage. My wife still enjoys wonderful parking privileges, and I enjoy the other stuff. So that was kind of the premise of “The Gimp,” in a way. It was really politically incorrect. [Laughs] So it’s amazing. You start in one place and end in quite another.
Did this feel like a personal film because of that, or was Mark’s experience kind of unrelated to yours in most regards?
Well, Mark’s experience and mine were similar, in that we were roughly born at the same time, and roughly got polio at the same time. I spent a little bit of time in an iron lung, but not very much, and as time went on I became quite independent. But I did relate to him at that level, in that we had been through a similar massive life experience. But then, really, it was a matter of getting away from that connection and saying, hey, this is an everyman story, it’s a universal story, and I have to leave myself out of it. Which I found easy to do, so it stopped being personal at a certain point, and I really began to look on it from the point of view of a filmmaker, and not from someone trying to vent. You know, in any film it’s really hard to separate the strands of personal and not personal. Every film is personal in a way.
One of the things that struck me is that there’s this frank, very appreciated open dialogue about sex and sexuality. But it also includes a religious context that isn’t judgmental, which is so refreshing.
Yes. I think that I was struck by that element in Mark’s life, that one of the things that sustained him was his faith, even though I’m not religious, and that somehow he managed to have this strange chemistry of faith and a sense of humor. That was what got me, in a way, that he was religious and funny at the same time. So when I read in his article that he asked his priest whether he should go through with this, I went, well, that’s irresistible. I have to have that as an element in the movie. So I didn’t make that up. There was a priest, who did give him a free pass.
I haven’t read the article, unfortunately, but how characterized was the priest within the article? William H. Macy has such a sweet, funny, wonderful character.
In the article the priest is not characterized. He’s just referred to. But I made the assumption that anyone who would have that attitude must be a good guy. [Laughs] Really, it followed, and I found that Bill Macy was a very natural fit for that role.
For a protagonist who is immobile, does that make the production more complicated? Or does it take some of the pressure off of you in the blocking? Just from a practical perspective, how did that affect the film?
It actually puts demands on you for blocking, because he can only move his head 90 degrees, so in fact he has only one side for his point of view. Which means that before you shoot the scene you have to block very carefully what he can see. You can’t suddenly jump to his blind side. So the blocking was really determined by what his field of vision was in any particular scene. It’s not difficult, you just have to plan for it.
Another thing I was wondering about your planning for is the nudity within the film. It’s very comfortable, it’s very matter of fact, and not unattractive, but one of the things I was interested about was that we never see Mark naked, even when she’s holding up the mirror to him in that one shot. Was that a difficult decision to make.
Where did that come from? Was that a practical concern? A subjective one?
I suppose initial it came from me, in that I had probably made up my mind at an earlier point that I didn’t want to see his d*ck. That I didn’t think it was necessary. I think that it could only have gotten us into trouble. And also, I’ve had to answer this question a number of times, and the truth is full-frontal female nudity and full-frontal male nudity are not the same thing. You can’t just equate them to each other. If you have a male full-frontal, you see the whole works. If you have a female full-frontal you don’t, not unless it’s a kind of a spread-eagle kind of shot, which I wasn’t going to go there either.
Right. Fair enough.
So for me, there were limits of sexual explicitness which were really determined by what the needs of the story were. I wasn’t going to get into a yelling with the censors, with the MPAA, just for a matter of principle. There’s no doubt that if we’d gone into showing erect penises we would have gone into NC-17 territory, and no one would have seen the movie. To what point would that have been?
It’s an excellent point.
What I’ve done, every time I get the opportunity during a Q&A, if it arises, I simply apologize to the penis-lovers of the world and hope they accept it.
I almost coughed coffee up my nose there for a second. My favorite part in The Sessions, if I had to pick, is the moment where he experiences genuine sex for the first time, and it’s a montage of images – very tactile images – and experiences. I loved that. I thought it felt very real. What was the process of deciding what would go into that montage?
[Laughs] It was a torturous process, because I think that I had started it, in the script, I had this anxiety about maintaining a lightness to it. Not being too heavy. So I think in the script I put in ridiculous things like cannons going off, and Clint Eastwood saying, “Make my day.” [Laughs] All sorts of stuff like that. Indeed, when we cut that kind of montage together, you got a laugh out of it but it didn’t fit in the context of the movie. The interaction and Helen and John seemed so authentic that to go to that wacky place right then, it took you out of it. So it was actually a very difficult process. Difficult in that we did it a number of times before deciding, finally, on the very specific shots that were going to deal with tactile issues, since the whole question of touch was so fundamental to the movie. It was, in a way, a reprise of this earlier poem, where he talked about “if only I could touch her,” sort of thing. But you picked a very interested moment in the movie, and there certainly was a process to getting that. It wasn’t easy. [Laughs]
The Sessions did very well at Sundance, and now, a year later, you’ve got Helen Hunt nominated for an Academy Award. What is that like, and I was wondering if you’d seen her so-called competition, and if you had any thoughts on those other movies?
You want me to badmouth all the other movies? [Laughs]
No, I’m just wondering what you think about the process…!
I don’t understand the process at all! I mean, I might as well be a creature from Mars trying to understand the whole awards industry. You’ve got me. I don’t it at all. It goes on for three or four months of the year, and doing it once, I think, “Boy-oh-boy I’m glad that’s over.” I can imagine doing it year after year, I mean, it must be exhausting. And what it does to your head, I’m not sure. In a way I feel grateful to be on the fringe, and not in the middle of it. We’re very lucky, we get invited to all the parties, but don’t ask me to say anything illuminating about the whole awards business.
[Laughs] I think it’s one of the strangest inventions of mankind! But it seems to keep the ball rolling. If you’re on the right side of the fence it’s wonderful. If you’re on the wrong side, it’s terrible. So where am I? In the middle, I guess. But it’s been a lot of fun, and totally unexpected, honestly. At the outset we just thought, boy, we’ve got a little bit of money, just enough to make this movie. Let’s do it! Without really anticipating what followed. I mean, Sundance was really a life-changing event. Who can tell? Who can anticipate those events?
Well, sir, congratulations on your movie, and congratulations on that Oscar. I hope it doesn’t bring you too much trouble.
No, no, no, I’m hoping not, but I’m doing my best. I’m working on becoming an arrogant prick, but it’s hard work.
Hopefully it will be worth it.