How to Laugh At (Or, With) Disability: Ben Lewin and 'The Sessions' Take an Unusual Journey
The writer/director of the Sundance hit talks to THR about his film's cringe factor and the unlikely tale, on screen and off.
Ben Lewin, a childhood emigrant from Poland to Australia, is a polio survivor with a gift for storytelling. His latest film, The Sessions? About a polio survivor with a gift for storytelling. That would seem to make for an obvious leap, a write-what-you-know situation with a very specific expertise, and it’d be hard to believe that the insight of personal experience wasn’t helpful along the way. But perhaps more important important traits shared by Lewin and his film’s lead are wry senses of humor and indomitable spirits.
Lewin was doing research online for a television project when he came across an essay by a man named Mark O’Brien. A journalist with a degree from Cal-Berkeley, O’Brien was paralyzed from the neck down from a childhood bout with polio, and at age 38, decided that he wanted to lose his virginity. Lewin, who is completely mobile with the help of crutches, was moved by O’Brien’s self-deprecating humor, perseverance and tailor maid tale of human triumph -- and the relationships he shared with the people that helped him in his quest.
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O’Brien, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, spends most of his time in an iron lung, traveling by caretaker-pushed gurney to church each week. He is a devout Catholic, a regular at confession even though it seems, should any higher power indeed exist, the almighty would owe him an apology for his lot in life. When O’Brien decides, despite the physical impediments, fear and embarrassment, to find a willing partner for his quest, he gets permission from his reluctant, yet ultimately compassionate priest (William H. Macy) and sets off on an unlikely journey -- and one that is a new experience for film audiences, as well.
"When people say to me what are you doing, and I start off saying, 'Well, it’s this guy in an iron lung,’ and there’s this look of 'Oh yes, thank you, let’s move on please,'" Lewin laughs. "And then I say, 'Well he wants to lose his virginity,' they say, 'Oh?' And then I add, 'He contacts a professional sex surrogate,’ and then [they say] 'Ahh...' And there’s a kind of, 'Oh, this is not quite where I expected it to go.'"
That is an important distinction: The Sessions is not a pure sympathy piece that requires an emotional charity from the audience, or even a film relying on obligatory admiration to move an audience.
"Initially people don’t want to see a depressing movie, or they don’t want to watch a character that they’re supposed to pity, and they don’t want to see something that is inherently sad,” he acknowledges. "I think that’s the essential challenge of getting it out there, that people have to be persuaded that it’s really quite different from what they expect."
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O’Brien is far from a pity case, or someone to call inspirational out of obligation. He is a man who types poetry and full-blown books by using his mouth to type a pencil against the heavy keys of a typewriter, who sought to wring out every bit of life from the husk he was dealt. His were the days before PCs and voice recognition software transferred any sound to text; when finding a sex partner required hard investigation and guts, not just perusing ads on Craigslist.
And, therein lies where the film becomes more than one man’s journey, but instead a film about relationships, and their many different forms.
A licensed counselor who helps patients battle discomforts with their own bodies and sexualities, a sex surrogate goes the extra step of having relations with his or her charges. The practice began in the early 70’s, and O’Brien, seeking to shed himself of the scarlet letter V in the late 1980’s, worked with a woman named Cheryl Cohen Greene, portrayed in the film by an oft-naked Helen Hunt. Even Lewin was initially perplexed by the concept.
“I certainly wondered a first, what’s the difference between Cheryl and a hooker?” he admits. "And I think when we were talking and I asked her a question and said, ‘I need to look at my notes, do you mind?’ And I thought, notes? And then she came back with clinical notes, and I thought, hookers don’t do these sort of notes. I really began to understand what the job was about."
The film crystallizes the distinction for the audience when Greene tells O’Brien that while a prostitute wants someone’s repeat business, she hopes to never have to see him again at the end of their six weekly sessions -- because they’ve accomplished their goals, of course. Even for a professional sex therapist, who is equipped to deal with the strangest of situations, the assignment was unmarked territory, and an emotional investment that goes far beyond anything she could have expected.
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And yes, there is something slightly uncomfortable about the first half hour of The Sessions. You’re tempted to look away, as Hawkes twists his neck, stretched out to his right, jerking violently to extend his narrow field of vision as he lie trapped within his own body, motionless below the neck, strapped into a gurney or sealed tight within the iron lung. But over time, even if the disability never fades away -- that would defeat the purpose of the film, of course -- O’Brien’s dynamic personality takes over, casting his immobility as a background player.
"People are open to having their minds changed, and it’s not the first movie featuring a disabled hero,” Lewin points out. “I think there’s an interesting history in the cinema and in literature, of disabled heroes and heroines. And often, they’re very exciting stories. The Hunchback of Notre Dame -- the guy could leap from steeple to steeple and he liked pretty girls and they sort of liked him. I think there’s probably more openness to imperfect characters than you generally think. I think that the combination of sex and disability is a kind of whoops, where are we going with this? But in a way, that’s the whole magic of the film. You’re going where the Starship has not been before."
For the 65-year old writer/director, The Sessions represents the first time the course has been set for the box office in 18 years. Last in theaters with the Australian comedy Paperback Romance, he has dabbled in TV directing (including single episodes of Ally McBeal and Touched by an Angel) in between features, and his late-career success seems almost as unlikely as his protagonist’s sexual conquests.
“I didn’t choose to step out of the business,” he laughs. “Unemployment wasn’t a choice. I think what was really special about this is that it was not only a compelling story, it was also doable. So, it was kind of a compact story with a big, dramatic message.”
Lewin circumvented traditional Hollywood indie fundraising by hitting up friends and family for the film’s small budget, kickstarted by a friend who, early on, read the script and offered to put up 20 percent of the cash it would require. They’re already receiving a solid return on investment; the film was scooped up for $6 million by Fox Searchlight after winning the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at Sundance.
The film figures to be a contender come award season, one of those small festival favorites that plays alongside the big epics and period pieces by and starring the perennial Oscar favorites. Hawkes, who not only had to figure out how to dominate nearly every scene without moving a single muscle beneath his neck, but had to do so while withstanding the immense physical discomfort wrought by hours of complete stillness, could be a major contender for a nomination. That his first Oscar nod came in 2010, for his role in Winter’s Bone as a tattooed, meth-addicted Ozarks toughman points to -- as Lewin admits -- how unlikely he seems for the role.
“It was our casting director who called me after he got his nomination for Winter’s Bone and said, this is your man," the writer/director explains, noting that he had initially sought out disabled actors for the part.
“I went and looked at Winter’s Bone and I thought, ‘Holy! This creepy old guy? No thank you,’” he remembers, with a chuckle. “But then when I looked at the body of his work, you see how incredibly versatile he is. He plays all sorts of ages, all sorts of characters, and then when we met, what I was really feeling was that he was much closer to Mark than to any of those characters that he played, and that he did have this very kind of very wry, self-deprecating humor, and he really was a very warm-hearted, sweet guy."
And ultimately, that's what you notice: not O'Brien's immobility, but the surprising warmth within.