Ben Lewin Talks The Sessions, available now on Blu-ray and DVD
Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of California -based journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, The Sessions tells the story of a man confined to an iron lung who is determined, at age 38, to lose his virginity. With the help of his therapists and the guidance of a priest, he sets out to make his dream a reality.
We recently talked with director Ben Lewin, just as The Sessions, which has garnered Helen Hunt an Academy Award nomination, makes its way to Blu-ray and DVD. Check out our conversation, then be sure to check out the movie, which is available today!
Before Mark O'Brien, whom John Hawkes plays in the movie, passed away, he started courting a young woman named Susan Fernbach. You actually collaborated with her quite a bit on the screenplay, correct?
Ben Lewin: Yes. That wasn't at the beginning of the story for me though. The beginning was pure accident, stumbling across Mark O'Brien's article on the Internet. I had no idea on that day, this all would happen. It was after reading his article that I thought, "I really want to make a movie about this." And the first step in the trail was to contact his girlfriend. At the time, I didn't know she existed, but I found out she was proposing this as a movie, and it was she who owned the literary rights. She helped me by supporting the idea to do this. Without her blessing, I couldn't have done it. Because she held the rights. Also, I think she gave me as close as one could, the insight into who Mark O'Brien was. How he thought, how he behaved. In that sense, she was quite crucial. I used her to get a sense of the small details, which make up the character. Her, being a writer herself, she really understood the process. That was extremely supportive.
How much footage of Mark did you have to work from in building your story, and in figuring out who this guy was in terms of how you wanted to present him on screen?
Ben Lewin: There was quite a bit. The footage at the beginning of the film, where we see him graduating, that is all real. That is newsreel footage.
Its hard sometimes to tell what is real footage, and what has been digitally manipulated to look like period photography...
Ben Lewin: There is a wonderful film out there about him called Breathing Lessons, which won the Oscar for best short documentary in 1996.
Do we get to see that short documentary on the Blu-ray? Do you guys include any extra footage of Mark as part of the special features?
Ben Lewin: No. Because it's not our property. What is on the special features is only what belongs to us. But Breathing Lessons? You can go watch that on the Internet for free.
How useful was that short for John Hawkes in bringing this man back to life for the screen?
Ben Lewin: It was tremendous. He is one of those actors that really thrive on details, and specifics. Being able to watch Mark O'Brien, and study his expressions, and the limitations of his movements. The way he talked. It was quite crucial to his reinvention of that character.
As a director, was there a line that you wouldn't cross in terms of bringing Mark to the screen in tact as a real person? How much creative license did you feel you needed to take with this story?
Ben Lewin: There wasn't any line. One always blurs the line between reality and fiction, because there is no way that you have the resources to recreate all of the dialogue and all of the details. If you take any particular scene, it is a combination of small details. Words, nuances, movements. One doesn't have any factual resource for that. You have to make it up. But the overall purpose is to make the character as authentic as possible. I think John Hawkes, particularly, was concerned that his Mark O'Brien be recognizable to people who knew the real Mark O'Brien. The most gratifying aspect of the movie was going around meeting some of these people. And seeing their reactions to the movie. And how much, through serendipity and through effort, we did manage to reinvent Mark O'Brien. It's hard to really run fact and fiction side-by-side. As much as anyone can say this is Mark O'Brien, I would like to say it is.
What sort of limitations did you hit up against having a main character that can't move?
Ben Lewin: I think its an interesting challenge for an actor, given that he can only use his face, with a 90 degree arc. The challenge is not to overact, not to do too much face acting. Even though your resources are minimal, to maintain a minimal approach to performance. One of the things that John Hawkes really doesn't do is over act. When he uses his face, there is a subtlety to the emotions. That is a massive challenge. You have to use the bits you have.
How did the real Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Helen Hunt in the movie, help to create the authenticity we see on screen?
Ben Lewin: She helped me out by being very open about the details of the experience. She gave me material that related directly to the screenplay, and opened up her character to the point where I could really play it as a relationship film, and not a biopic. In terms of that resource, it was invaluable to me. Just in the formation of the script. But she also made herself very available when we were shooting, and she worked with Helen Hunt on some very basic stuff. How she related to someone's body. What kind of processes she went through in making people feel comfortable. Cheryl was a very important part of the process, and she still is. She helped us promote the movie, and she is a character herself.
How did you go about deciding what you wanted to show fans of the movie on the Blu-ray. I understand you didn't have access to some of the archival footage, but what extras did you want to bring to the experience of watching the movie, and in learning more about who these real people were, and are?
Ben Lewin: It wasn't very fickle. We didn't shoot this movie with a lot of excess footage. You know? We shot for twenty-two and a half days. There is not a lot that we left out. It was just picking a couple of scenes that were proper scenes. We didn't want to just grab shots. But we really wanted to show stuff that made sense by themselves. One was a fantasy scene where Mark O'Brien imagines that his nursing home is staffed with sex surrogates. He thinks, "Wow, wouldn't that be great if that was something we had to do in the nursing home?" The other scene is a scene between Helen Hunt's character and her son, where she is trying to explain the emotions that she is going through. That is a good scene, but it doesn't work at that point in the movie. people are interested in it. I don't know. When I watch a movie, I don't want to see the extra bits. People are fascinated by what went on that didn't make the movie. I haven't seen any of the extras on the Blu-ray yet myself.