Polish-born, Australian-raised writer-director Ben Lewin has split his time between TV (including American dramedy Ally McBeal) and features, most notably The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish (with Bob Hoskins, Jeff Goldblum, and Natasha Richardson). Though he made the feature documentary Hollywood Gold in 2003, eighteen years have passed since the release of his last fiction feature, Paperback Romance. Now Lewin is back in a big way with The Sessions, a comedy-drama—starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt—that's generating Oscar heat. The director has in common with the film's real-life subject, Mark O'Brien, a childhood bout of polio, a topic that came up in our chat at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. We also discussed his return following an unplanned hiatus from Hollywood directing.
Ben Lewin: You know, acceptance is a big relief, a nice change from rejection.
Groucho: Yeah. (Laughs.) Well, I was going to ask, you know, your last narrative film was 1994—
Ben Lewin: Uh-huh.
Groucho: And I wonder what kept you busy in the interim, and what led you back to do The Sessions?
BL: I directed television, occasionally. One of my problems was that I kind of got writer's block, which lasted about ten years.
BL: I reallydidn't want to spend the rest of my life in a room by myself: I thought that was living hell. And so I ran a business for a while, selling watches.
G: Oh, right. That's why you made a documentary, Hollywood Gold.
BL: Yes, yes. And then I think I got so sick of running a business that I thought, "Ohhh, I'd just love to spend the rest of my life in a room by myself."
BL: And I got back into writing. Sent my wife out to work. Which I highly recommend, if you can become a kept man.
BL: And I think I also—we had another child, kind of quite late in life. (Gesturing at the Sessions poster:) She's the one in the picture there—
G: Ohhh! Right.
BL: With the little boy. She's the little girl. And, you know, I did what I'd not been able to do so much with the other kids when my career was much more on a roll: I did a lot of parenting. You know: cooking, shopping, picking up from school and all that. And I really enjoyed that. So I didn't choose unemployment. I mean, it seemed to have chosen me.
BL: And I think that part of the problem was that the inroads of so-called reality television made narrative drama so much harder to get. I mean, there's so many more competing people for the same slots. It was tough; it was a pretty brutal time.
G: And then how did you find your way to this material?
BL: Totally by accident. I think out of sheer desperation my agent had suggested to me, "Why don't you write a sitcom about yourself?" So I started working on a project called "The Gimp." Which was about a guy who traded the use of his handicap placard for sex. My wife can tell you that she gets terrific parking.
BL: And I was literally surfing the internet looking for tasteless material about sex and disability.
G: Huh. Yeah.
BL: And there were these crazy websites like "Gimp Girls Gone Wild."
BL: For example. And I stumbled across this article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" [by Mark O'Brien]. And ten pages later, it was a bit like a "burning bush" experience; it had a profound emotional impact on me. And I thought: if I could reproduce that, in a film, then I would be making a good film.
G: And that is, I think, exactly what you did. And one of the reasons I liked the film is that it doesn't go out of its way to invent—you know, it really—it's very truthful to that source material.
BL: Yes, you obviously read the article.
G: I did.
BL: Yes. Yeah...
G: It is very detailed, his account of the sessions. But you met with Cheryl Cohen-Greene as well, I assume, right?
BL: Yeah! We spent a lot of time together.
G: I wonder if her perspective differed from Mark's at all and then how you integrated those.
BL: I think her perspective added. It didn't—it kind of—
G: Filled in some gaps.
BL: Yeah. It created a new perspective rather than a contradictory one. I mean, there were interesting differences, like she—in Mark's article, he says, "Oh, she," Cheryl, "was married to a psychiatrist." And I thought, "Wow! That's wild. Yeah, I can understand that." And then, when I met Cheryl, I said, "I understand that husband, who passed away, was a psychiatrist," and she said, "No, no, no, Mark made a mistake." It was a philosopher. And so I said, "D'you mean, like, at a university?" And she said, "No. In his own mind."
BL: And I really reproduced that conversation, pretty much verbatim...between her and Mark. And so she added a layer of humor as well. I mean, really, she's a very upbeat, funny person. And very warm. And at the same time brutally direct. I mean, she would make notes on my script, like pointing out I had used the word "vagina" but I really meant "vulva." "Wow, thanks, Cheryl." And, you know, her frankness was really quite disarming. And certainly it was a beautiful match! I mean, how explicit his description was, and hers as well. But she also added that dimension of being kind of a paradoxical character: in some ways a sort of a middle-class soccer mom, with a house and a mortgage and a garden, representing traditional family values. And, on the other hand, someone who had sex, for money, with strangers but wasn't a hooker. I mean, it was a complex character.
G: Yeah, yeah. In some ways, even though there are a lot of other important characters in the film, there's this element of it that's kind of a two-hander.
G: It's right there in the title: The Sessions. And the intimacy needed between those two, so much of the film depends on that. Can you talk a little bit about John's process and Helen's process. Were they immediately compatible...what was your strategy for getting the best out of both of them?
BL: I'm not aware of having any strategy as a director. I'm aware of treating the whole casting process as the most crucial stage of the actual production. I mean, you're stuck with what you do; you can't repair it if you've put a foot wrong. So I take that part of it very, very seriously. And it wasn't a process of making a perfect match between them. And one of the things that appealed to me was the fact that they never worked together, didn't know each other, and that there was no reason why this couldn't actually play into their performance that there was a certain amount of trepidation on both their parts. And we chose not to rehearse the scenes between them. And also to shoot them in story order. So that, in the first scene where they meet, the ordeal of undressing a guy who can't move is a real ordeal. And we didn't sort of say, "Well, let's block through this so we can make it efficient and easy." It was "Okay, rolling, go for it." And it wasn't easy. And I found myself almost using every foot of what we shot, and playing it in pretty much real time. And I think that, you know, if you want to call that a strategy, you can, but I think we were choosing to use the advantages that we had. And I think that when you've got really confident, skillful actors, who prepare to the nth degree, you know that on the day they can abandon all that preparation and start on a blank page and "Let's just see what happens."
G: Yeah, film being about catching that lightning in a bottle: you only have to get it, for real, once.
BL: Yes, yes. We did very few takes of things. And I think that a lot of the performance is rooted in the spontaneity of the moment. I haven't done this a lot before, in that way. And, as I say, I think you really need skillful people to take the risk.
G: And you found them both equally game to do that, as I imagine.
BL: Oh yeah. (Chuckles.)
G: It comes across.
BL: Helen had to do most of the heavy lifting. I mean, you know, John couldn't move. And I think from the very first time Helen and I met, she absolutely understood it wasn't a movie where you could be coy. You know. This wasn't someone walking in with a towel covering the naughty bits—that the whole idea was to be a bit shocking.
G: Right, yeah, and it just wouldn't do. You can hardly imagine a situation that called for nudity more organically.
BL: Yes. Yes. Yeah. And I was lucky to have, y'know, actors who so totally understood the tone of it, and the purpose of it. And were not willing to compromise. They really said, "Well, whatever it takes, let's do it. " I would—yeah, it was a gift! I didn't know it would happen that way.
G: You say in your "Director's Notes" in the Production Notes that this time, in contrast to other experiences you've had, was legitimately fun to go to the set and do the work.
G: How do you account for that: why do you think it ended up being that way?
BL: I think that it was a matter of mindset. Maybe it was partly to do with the fact that I hadn't directed a feature film for about eighteen years. And I thought, "Well, who knows how many more opportunities I'll get." I wanted to make the process itself gratifying, 'cause you don't know what the result is going to be like. Oftentimes the result is different. It's a disappointment; it's not what you thought it was. In the past I think I'd had my eye always on the result. I couldn't care if I didn't win a popularity contest, if every day was a nightmare, as long as the result—and I think I had a very different mindset. I'd say, "I have no idea what's going to come out of the other end of this. I really want to enjoy making it." And the circumstances were there, there were no one looking over my shoulder, there were no grown-ups to tell me what to do. And I think that the whole thing was collaborative enough for me to feel that I was in a family.
G: Yeah. It's funny that the story of the film sort of reflects that approach, that when we get in our head about—stressing that it's got to be just right—
G: As Mark does.
G: In the film, inevitably that just gets in our way. And it's when we let go and relax and embrace what we're doing that—
BL: Yes. Look, I wish I could do it again; I don't know if it's always going to be possible. I think it partly in the nature of a low-budget independent movie, where there are no grown-ups in the room, as it were. You can just treat this like fun. But I was very sad after the last day of shooting. I really fell into a bit of a hole. It was genuinely enjoyable.
G: One of the other interesting oddities, I guess, of this film is that you had to cast and work with an iron lung. Right?
G: You had to find an iron lung. Can you talk a little bit about—
BL: Well, I had gone to a place called Rancho Los Amigos in Los Angeles in order to set things in motion to get myself a new leg brace. And this was a sort of rehabilitation center that had a polio clinic attached to it. And in the course of being a patient there, I happened to say, "I wonder if you guys know where I could find an iron lung," and they said, "Yeah! We've got two of them right here, and one of them works." (Laughs.) And I was just lucky, and they graciously loaned it to us for the duration.
G: Was that at all a cranky bit of equipment, or did it cause you any problems on the set?
BL: No! It's a very simple piece of equipment. It's got a pump, and it just worked. I mean, it's not a cranky piece of equipment. In a way, I think people in hospital now, who have breathing difficulties, they tend to just stick a tube down their throat, which is kind of sadistic!
G: Yeah. (Chuckles.)
BL: And I'm hardly an expert. I think: well, wouldn't it be more humane to use an iron lung? I know it's way less efficient, but I don't know, I kind of came to regard it in a rather friendly way. I mean, I didn't want to get in it: that would have spooked me out too much. But my daughter got in it; she loved it.
G: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
BL: Thank you! It's been a pleasure too.