Interview: Ben Lewin (The Sessions)

Interview: Ben Lewin (The Sessions). By Simon Miraudo.

When The Sessions (formerly The Surrogate) claimed the top prizes at Sundance earlier in the year, it wasn’t a plucky American upstart that took to the stage and basked in the applause. Instead, 66-year-old Australian writer-director Ben Lewin made his way to the podium, accompanied by wife and producer Judi Levine. Despite moving to Los Angeles in 1994, Lewin had failed to make much of mark as a filmmaker until that very moment, and even considered returning to his former profession as a lawyer. His heart-warming comedy wound up the toast of Park City, and now looks like a legitimate Oscar contender. John Hawkes stars in the picture as real-life journalist Mark O’Brien, a polio survivor confined to an iron lung for all but a couple of hours a day. At the age of 38, his desire to lose his virginity sees him retain the services of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt)… but not before getting the ‘all clear’ from his priest (William H. Macy).

Check out Richard Haridy’s review of The Sessions here.

We spoke to Lewin –  a Polio survivor himself – about the “desperation” that kept him going even when his big break seemed so far off, the difference between male and female nudity (including how an erect penis “wouldn’t have helped anybody”), and his concerns about becoming “the world’s leading disability filmmaker.”

SM: I understand you originally worked as a lawyer before making the move to film. Can you tell me a little bit about coming to that decision and deciding to get into movies?

BL: The opportunity initially was to be a lawyer in the beginnings of the Australian film bureaucracy. But, it didn’t work out that way, and I unexpectedly got a scholarship to go to film school in England, and before I knew it, it had all just happened. It wasn’t a decision, really. It was just opportunities popped up, and I thought, “Oh well, should be fun.” In a way it was just like moving from one line of show business to another.

SM: Absolutely. It’s not a bad line to be in. But it has been a number of years since your last movie, and I understand there was a period there where you wondered whether or not you should return to law. What was it that kept you going when you were unsure if the big break was going to be around the corner?

BL: I don’t know. I guess desperation is always a great motivator [laughs]. I don’t know what keeps one going, honestly. I think in this particular case I happened to stumble across a very good story, quite by accident. It just seemed like such a gift. I guess you need that kind of accident to happen from time to time. The rest is persistence.

SM: John Hawkes, the star of your film, has long been this undiscovered gem of an actor, and he’s finally getting his due thanks your film, and also his Oscar nomination a number of years ago for Winter’s Bone. Can you tell me a little bit about getting him to play Mark O’Brien?

BL: Well, I think he was suggested to me by my casting director. I really didn’t know his work all that well. Then, you know, I could see he’s an incredibly versatile actor. When I met him, I really liked him, and I felt that he had some of the qualities of Mark O’Brien naturally. He’s a very, very hard working guy. Real perfectionist, and did a lot to become the character. Learnt to work with a mouth stick and put this special ball under his back to twist his spine. He went a long way to do that.

SM: Well, that devotion certainly comes through in the final product. It’s definitely one of the more committed performances of the year, and of many years, really. He has stated in previous interviews that he was concerned at first about playing a disabled person, and did ask you if you had looked at disabled actors. Was this a concern you shared in that early stage of casting?

BL: With John? Yeah. I mean, he was concerned that he was possibly taking work away from a disabled actor, but I’d done what I could to meet disabled actors in looking for the role, and I couldn’t do it. He was the best guy for the job. I did use a couple of other disabled actors in a couple of supporting roles.

SM: You were the subject of a recent episode of Australian Story, and a friend of yours described you as having a particular way with women, particularly when it came to charming them. Mark shares this trait, despite being confined to his iron lung, and stuck on his back. Obviously you grew up with Polio, so there Is a connection there, but was this another element of the story that you related to?

BL: Oh, well, look I’ll take that compliment – thank you – without necessarily agreeing with it [laughs].

SM: Sure.

BL: I think that we both liked women. We both really were turned on by interesting and attractive women, so I guess that’s what I shared with Mark O’Brien and a lot of other guys. As I say, I’m prepared to accept the compliment without totally or necessarily agreeing with it.

SM: That’s fair enough.

BL: Thanks, whoever that came from.

SM: You funded this movie yourself, initially, and with the help of some Australian investors. I’m curious, how did you sell the story to them initially?

BL: It’s entirely Australian investors. Well, no, there was a couple of American and one English investor, but I’d say 80-85 per cent of it is money and people from Melbourne. Friends and family. I don’t know how I managed to pitch it to them, but they liked the script. You get the first guy, and it’s easier to get the second guy. Not everyone came in for large amounts. Some investments were small amounts. I don’t know. We got enough together to make the film. Easier than going to the studios/trade.

SM: Absolutely. Even though you didn’t do that, you still managed to bring some high profile actors on board. So, tell us about bringing Helen Hunt and William H. Macy in.

BL: I think that once John Hawkes was on the film, it gave it a certain prestige, and the script was getting around the agencies. Getting coverage, getting some buzz. Before we knew it, there were agents who wanted their clients in the movie, regardless of the issue of money. One day I get a call saying Helen Hunt would like to meet with me. The rest is history, I suppose. All of a sudden someone just suggested Bill Macy – his agent – and we didn’t hesitate for a millisecond. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I guess the script made its way to the right people.

SM: That’s good to hear. Now, the film, I found it surprisingly frank about sex; much more so than your typical production (certainly a studio production). Helen Hunt does go full frontal in the film. Sometimes the censors can be a bit touchier when it comes to full-frontal men as opposed to women, so I’m wondering, was it a specific decision to not show John completely naked, or was it left on the cutting room floor?

BL: You know, there’s something different about full frontal male nudity and full frontal female nudity. With full frontal male nudity, you get to see the lot. Not so with female full frontal nudity. You basically get to see a patch of public hair, which in this case, we also did with John. You see bits of his pubic hair. The bottom line, for me, is I went as far as I wanted to go; that was useful for telling the story. At a certain point, I would begin to cringe. Too much information, thank you. Too much like a medical lesson, or whatever. And also, if we’d shown John’s penis, particularly if it was erect, we would have gotten a rating that wouldn’t have helped anybody. It would have made sure that practically no one would have got to see the film. As it is, it’s still pretty edgy stuff, and the MPAA gave us an R-rating without asking for any edits.

SM: Thankfully people are still seeing the film, and the picture did win some prizes at Sundance, and looks primed to be a major Oscar contender. This must seem pretty amazing. Has there been a particular moment where you’ve had to pinch yourself?

BL: Oh, yeah. Particularly at Sundance, it all took us so much by surprise. I mean, we were awake and functioning, but also in a bit of a daze. There have been other high points, but, you know, at this point a lot of it is work. I guess we’re part of the marketing of the film; learning all about that stuff.

SM: And you have to talk to the likes of me, unfortunately. The downside of the job.

BL: Oh no, it can be the upside of the job too.

SM: Oh, I’m glad to hear that.

BL: You know, I’m comfortable about shooting my mouth off about anything, really.

SM: Excellent. I understand that before working on The Sessions, you were developing a potential sitcom called The Gimp. Is that something you’d ever revisit, or did you kind of exorcise everything you wanted to say on that topic The Sessions?

BL: Well, thank you for comparing it to exorcism.

SM: Well, no. [Laughs] … ‘Purge’ is an even worse word in that context.

BL: Look, I don’t know, because I haven’t yet really gotten back to work in terms of deciding on my next project. There’s no doubt I’m probably going to get invitations to do other things about disability. I don’t know, but usually that’s the way it happens. I don’t know whether I’m going to say, “I’ve already done that.” Not necessarily. If there’s interest in The Gimp, and I think it can be developed usefully, of course I’ll do it. At the same time, I don’t want to become the world’s leading disability filmmaker. We’ll just take things one step at a time, I think.

The Sessions is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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