Movie News

Capone talks about Hollywood's two favorite things–the disabled and unadorned sex–with THE SESSIONS writer-director Ben Lewin!!!

Published at: Oct. 24, 2012, 2:14 a.m. CST

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

THE SESSIONS writer-director Ben Lewin is a strange and wonderful bird, and I mean that in the best possible way. The Polish-born filmmaker is best known for his work in Australia, but began his career in Britain (for the record, his accent is pure Australia) as a documentary director. He's made a handful of well-received features, including GEORGIA, starring Judy Davis, and THE DUNERA BOYS, with Bob Hoskins. He followed those up with comedies like PAPERBACK ROMANCE and THE FAVOR, THE WATCH AND THE VERY BIG FISH.

He dabbled in U.S. television, directed episodes of "Ally McBeal" and "Touched By and Angel," and then he basically vanished for about eight years, resurfacing with a script about based on the life of Mark O'Brien, a poet and journalist (played by John Hawkes) who lives most of his days in an iron lung due to being stricken with polio as a child. Afraid his "use-by date" is nearly up (O'Brien's words), he enlists a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. Being a man of faith, he also gets the "go ahead" to do this from his priest (William H. Macy). THE SESSIONS is a remarkable movie in every sense of the word, combining elements of shame and guilt, humor and intense drama, frank sexual talk and actions, and love and heartbreak. The film isn't overtly manipulative, but Lewin plays our hearts like a well-tuned harp.

I sat down with Lewin recently in Chicago, the day after Hawkes, Lewin and I did a enlightening Q&A after a screening of THE SESSIONS. Lewin has a wicked, dry sense of humor, and clearly with the subject at hand, nothing of off limits. I came into the room to talk with him after a rather lively roundtable with some other journalist that I could hear through the door before I came in. I'll let him explain. Please enjoy my talk with Ben Lewin…


Capone: Hello again. It’s good to see you, sir.

Ben Lewin: Hi. Is it just us?

Capone: Just us.

BL: Oh my god.

Capone: I know, it’s as intimate as your movie. Actually, let’s hope not. It sounded like you guys were having a party in here.

BL: Yes, we were talking boy talk and guy stuff.

Capone: When I interviewed William H. Macy a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to get him to talk about issues of faith and sex and more intellectual themes, and all he wanted to talk about was how jealous he was that he didn’t get to have nude scenes with Helen Hunt. [Both Laugh] He was like “You’ve got Helen Hunt naked, what else do you need?”

BL: [laughs] I’m glad he got to the point. I’m glad he didn’t beat around the bush.

Capone: Let’s talk about those sex scenes, because they arecompletely unadorned--there’s no mood lighting, there’s no soft music. This is raw, real, awkward stuff, which is the only way this is going to work. Tell me about coming to that visual conclusion and making sex look glossy, while still making it look very pretty.

BL: I think my starting point was that for the most part I absolutely hate watching sex scenes in cinema. The only sex that I find acceptable on scene, and not always, is amateur porn unadorned, because “Yeah, I can believe that.” But what happens during most movies that have sex scenes is that the movie is going along, and I’m in that typical stage of suspended disbelief and I believe what is happening, that the guy is really driving a car and it’s not just in a studio with rear projection. And then it goes into this totally fake stuff. What I particularly hate is when people are rolling around. I don’t get that, the rolling, and the dissolves and so on.

So at one level, I was just determined not to do what I hate watching. At another level, it was to do with staying faithful to what I had read of Mark’s work. His article is like that, it’s very unadorned. It’s very exclusive and full frontal and banal in a way, and I’m very lucky that Helen got that right away. In our first meeting, she understood, and she asked me, “How are you going to do the sex scenes?” I said, “The same way as the rest of the movie, just part of the ordinary narrative. We don’t segue into some weirdo stuff all of a sudden.” And I think having that understanding enabled her to make it really banal, being naked is, “Hey, it’s what you do.” Again, the cameramen understood it. It was a sort of bottom-line issue, really. We all knew that’s the way we were going to do it, so it looked like it was no big deal, it’s like learning to drive a car, and gradually the emotional element was going to creep up on you without you quite realizing it.


Capone: I love that in a lot of those scenes, you cut from the sex to Mark describing the sex to the priest. That’s a wonderful way of getting inside his head in those exact moments. Is that something you came up with, or is that the way it was written as well?

BL: That kind of developed over time, because in the early drafts, I found that even though I was being faithful to Mark’s way of describing it, somehow in script form, it was too explicit. I’m sitting there writing and I’m visualizing the film frame, “What’s on the screen? I don’t know; that’s too much information for me.” And gradually I found that by moving some of that over-explicit stuff from the bedroom to the confessional, it really did become part of his inner voice and it became very funny.

Capone: It is very funny, yeah.

BL: You could see the priest kind of cringe at it, like, “That’s too much information, but I’ll try and be gracious about it.”

Capone: He cringes, but there are times where he seems just lost in it in listening to it; he’s enjoying it.

BL: But it really became a way of saying what I wanted to say about the experience, but not making the audience recoil.

Capone: You have made a film that covers two things that--at least in this country--people don’t want to look at, and that’s the disabled and unadorned sex. Just in you describing how difficult it was for you to kind of get the ball rolling on this film, that might have something to do with it, that it’s covering these subjects that we're almost taught from birth to “Don’t look at it directly.”

BL: Yes, yes. That's exactly right.

Capone: But that seemed like it was important to you, to get that all out there.

BL: That was the attraction of it. It was the fact that it wasn’t a subject area that’s been done to death or people have had lots to say about it. The novelty of it was really part of the attraction. I was aware that it would be an instant turnoff for the usual sources of funding. I knew the industry would not say, “Yeah, that’s what we’ve been waiting for.” But having done it somehow, I’m really gratified that it’s been embraced. Hopefully this is not going to be a marginal movie and people will say “Hey, this very blunt, full-frontal stuff is also entertaining and has a sense of an emotional journey.” So I would say that all of the negative factors were the big attractors for me in the first instance.

Capone: And they seem to be the things that people are responding to the most, because people tend to respond to things that open their eyes to something they have never seen before. The studios seem to think audiences only want to see something familiar, but it’s actually the things that are new to us that I think excite us the most and make us interested and curious.

BL: I also think it reminds us how at least we all start with this massive ignorance with sex, and probably the one line in the movie that gets the biggest laugh, but it’s intended to be quite meaningful is when [Mark's caretaker] says, “They're going for simultaneous orgasm,” and the response is, “What’s that?” People can relate to that degree of naiveté.

Capone: And then the other line where she’s rolling him along, and she asks him how long he lasted and he says, "It was all so fast," and she’s like, “Yeah, tell me about it.” Tell me about the importance of talking to Susan [Mark's girlfriend after the surrogate experience] and Cheryl [the real-life surrogate] about this. What did you learn from them that only reading Mark’s words and seeing the documentary about him didn't provide.

BL: I felt that with Susan, I acquired a friend, that she also as a writer understood that I was about to turn a piece of reality into a piece of fiction and still want to have a sense of truth about it. She understood that process and the wrestling match involved in it. The most difficult thing for me was to find a voice for Mark, to write all of that dialog and feel that it revealed a person, and I think she liberated me in that process. She kind of encouraged me and made me feel that I could incorporate myself in that and still be portraying a genuine Mark.

So that was really important, just having her moral support and the window into who he was. I asked this naïve question of her when we first met: “Did he read a lot of books?” I wanted to get a mental picture of that lazy-susan rotating that that he had at his bedside. What did it have on it? She said he was always reading at least three books at once, and that he had done to his mind what Arnold Schwarzenegger had done to his body--made it a super mind as Arnold had made himself into a super body, that his mind operated way beyond the norms. I felt gave me permission to give him a really sharp sense of humor.

Where Cheryl was concerned, I became so fascinated with her as an individual and her side of the story that if I needed convincing, it did convince me that this would work based as a relationship movie and telling the journey of two people rather than an attempt at a biopic or mini-biopic. I really wanted to tell the story of the event and not pretend I was telling the life style of Mark O’Brien. So that’s how she affected me, and also I wanted them to more or less sign off on what I did. They were the two people that I first sent the script to when I felt it was ready and wanted their feedback on it.


Capone: Just from a logistical standpoint, this idea that you’re making a movie where the two lead characters spend a great deal of time lying down. How do you make that visually interesting for you or for us?

BL: I don’t strain to make things visually interesting. To me, it’s a little bit like reading a book: the thing you really want the reader to do is to have a desire to turn the next page, and what is important in cinema is the sense of a forward-moving narrative, that something is happening between the characters, even if they're lying still. I think one of the most beautiful scenes actually is where he’s asking her, “What happens when you’re attracted to someone? What do you do about that?” They really are lying perfectly still, and it’s a beautiful shot. If I had my way, that would be the poster on Sunset Blvd.

Capone: Because they are just lying on their backs, side by side.

BL: I guess that I don’t strain to be cinematic for the sake of it. My thing is narrative and character development, and it’s really in the facial expressions and in the dialog, and I never went in for any serious silhouette shots or things like that. Number one, we didn’t have the time to spend a half a day lighting a shot. I guess it was the purpose of it to make it look ordinary, not to make it look extraordinary. There are moments of “Okay, let’s be a bit poetic,” and I think I used the cat in that way, to bookend the film. I’ve always found cats very cinematic and so I thought, “Okay, I’m going to give it in a way a touch of being a poem. The movie is like a poem, and it’s got a special opening and it’s got a special closing,” but otherwise it never worried me that there was not a lot of physical movement. I was never attempted to write a car chase into it. [laughs]

Capone: What you think about the way the disabled have been portrayed in film in general, and what have people not quite gotten right about it in the past? What have they gotten right about it?

BL: Well, disabled heroes and heroines have been a part of literature and cinema history for a long time and their portrayal has been really diverse. I don’t think I can say, “It’s all been terribly unfair.” I ’ve seen some incredibly sensitive films. MASK was one of them. I think that’s one of my favorites on that subject. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has always been a favorite with this guy who could leap from steeple to steeple and really liked pretty girls. So I don’t have any generalization about the way disabled characters have been portrayed. I think they're just an established part of folklore and literature.

I don’t think people always reject them. I think people are often fascinated by them, because they can appear freakish or maybe they're regarded as having something special going on. I think that their treatment has been very diverse. On the one hand, you’ve got the tradition of leper colonies. However, I’ve been to places where there have been a high incidents of leprosy, and there’s no leper colony; the lepers are integrated into the community. So the treatment of disability and physical difference has been very diverse. I don’t think I’m the first person to humanize it. I think that dealing with sex quite as bluntly is fairly new.


Capone: I think you still had the best line of the night last night of when that person asked why did didn't show John's penis, and you apologized to penis lovers for not having any in the film. I had assumed that the reason you didn’t show it was because Mark was pretty much in a constant state of arousal, and that you couldn’t show it. That’s a whole different movie.

BL: [laughs] Yes. That’s right, I mean you’re immediately into porno land.

Capone: Right, it’s not that you didn’t want to, it’s just you couldn’t because of the state he was in. Anyway, it was great to meet you. Thank you so much. Best of luck.

BL: Thank you so much.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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