Roger Durling with Writer/Director Ben Lewin, Producer Judi Levine and Actor John Hawkes
Roger Durling: Can you tell us about the evolution of this project? When did you first find out about Mark O’Brien and decide to make a movie about his story?
Ben Lewin: Mark O’Brien wrote an article which was really a diary of these events, called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published 1990. And I stumbled across it by accident on the internet while I was surfing for inappropriate material…
Judi Levine: I didn’t know anything about that!
Lewin: In the old days I just used to read playboy for the interviews…anyways, it was totally serendipitous. I was not expecting to read something that powerful, and I guess I was really taken by surprise by the emotional how real it felt. And I guess as a film maker my next thought was that this was really doable. It was a very compact story, essentially focusing around two people in a room, which are usually the ingredients for a boring story. But in this case it wasn’t. And I just thought that the possibility of making a movie with some meaning and tremendous dramatic qualities for relatively no money was exciting. We started the clock running when Judi and I went out to meet Susan, who is a character in the movie, in January 2007. And we spent a weekend together and were really excited to meet her. She was excited about the idea of us making a movie. And that’s when the process really started. And almost five years later to the day we showed it at Sundance. So I guess we think of it as a sort of a five year story.
Durling: And Ben, meeting Susan and as well as Sheryl (the real sex surrogate). How did meeting them and hearing them talk about Mark, change the trajectory of the screenplay?
Lewin: Well it wasn’t about just a matter of changing the story; it was about incorporating a lot of real elements. I mean Susan was a terrific window into Marks personality. And whenever I felt insecure about reinventing his character, I think she represented a kind of a level of support and reassurance for me. And Cheryl was a major turning point in that I realized this was as story involving two very fascinating characters. And really what I was writing was a relationship movie. Which I prefer writing to a biopic. So both women, I think, were crucial collaborators and I couldn’t have developed the script in the way it happened without them.
Durling: The character of the priest, is a character that correct me if I am wrong, it’s the character that you created? And he works as a bridge between these two major other characters. Can you explain how that came about?
Lewin: Well, he is in fact a character in Mark’s article, and I found it totally fascinating that Mark wanted god or the nearest thing to god, to sign off the whole deal. And what is made up, is that I didn’t know anything about this priest other than what Mark said in his article. The dialog is invented, and the character of the priest is invented. I think I’ve found it in my mind to be very plausible to have a hippie priest in Berkley at that time.
Durling: Judi, how was your experience in pairing this production together with this certain kind of subject matter?
Levine: It’s not an easy pitch I can tell you that, sex and Catholicism and a disability. You don’t want to walk into a room and try to sell a movie like that. I mean we were involved from the outset, as soon as Ben had read the story, he brought it to me. And I think we were kind of, in it together all the way through. And we did get rejected by a lot of people; it was very hard to even get places to read the story. But we decided at a certain point that the only way we could get it together was to hit up all out friends and family, and so we took advantage of their naïveté. We called them up and said “We’re making something a little bigger than a home movie, and we’d like you to put some money into it”. After a while we stopped giving them a choice, and told them they had to put money into it. And that’s really how we pulled it together. We were very fortunate that a friend who’s done very well financially happened to be with Ben the day that he went to meet Cheryl in Berkley. Then I kind of said something like “I’m going to meet with this sex surrogate, come along for the ride.” He was very captivated by Cheryl as well, and offered to give us the first 20 percent of our budget. And that of course was very early days, we didn’t have a script, so it was a wonderful thing to hear and we went back to him when we were further down the road and the script all ready to read. We also put more pressure on people, so we started with him and we found one more angel who came in for a reasonable amount. And then we just pieced it together little by little over the next 18 months, until we had enough to money to say ‘Yes, we have our budget’. Then we could start looking at a cast and a schedule together. And that’s how it happened.
Durling: And Ben, since we have John here, how did the process of casting John come about, and did you ever think about casting a actor with disabilities, or was John your choice from the start?
Lewin: When I first read the article, this very old British TV movie flashed into my mind, where a severely disabled teenager who played himself. It was called ‘On Giants Shoulders’ and it really blew me away when I saw it, I don’t know how long ago it was, maybe thirty plus years. And I thought, “wow, if only Mark O’Brien could play himself.” And then I discovered that Mark O’Brien was no longer with us, and that wasn’t a possibility. There were hardly any other iron lung survivors, so that fantasy went out the window. I did audition some disabled actors who were a paraplegics or quadriplegics, but I couldn’t find the right man. And ultimately it was staring me straight in the face that John was the best person for the job. I was very lucky to have casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, who had a long standing relationship with John, and was able to introduce the project to him in a very favorable way. I think we met with a real sense of excitement about what we were going to find out about each other while filming. And fortunately I think we found out the best things about each other. To John’s credit, the first thing he asked me was if he was taking work away from a disabled actor.
Durling: And John, our favorite cinema actor, which I want to point out, is the third year in a row that you have graced us with his presence here. John tell us about reading the script for the first time, and what made you decide to take this challenge?
John Hawkes: Yes, I had some luck with a film called ‘Winters Bone’, and I had gotten sent some scripts and this was the one on the stack that I was most fascinated by. It was the lowest budget on the pile, but it didn’t matter to me, that hasn’t scared me in the past and it still doesn’t. Suffice it to say, it was certainly the best “Poet who lives in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity” script I had read in several months. It was the cream of the crop, and the real selling point for me; I found the character fascinating and knew it would be a challenge. I just loved the script though. It’s such a subjective thing and that’s rare. I read something, and Helen Hunt has actually said this before, that she got to the last page and was like “Ahhhh”. Normally it’s like, “Well if they change this, and maybe massage some of this, it would be a script I’d be interested in”. But this is one where you read it and go “I really want to be in this.” So in meeting with Ben we just got along, it felt like we wanted to make the same movie as we spoke. I loved the humor in the script and I thought that it would be important with such a fraught situation and the beginning of the film to define any real true humor that we could find. And if you think about it nearly every character in the script with a speaking role almost maybe two or three down, have moments that lend humor to the film. I wanted to fight self pity and Ben agreed, Ben said “Mark should be neither a victim nor saint”. And that really resonated with me, that he would be a whole human being. And I just loved meeting Judi, we got along well and we decided to go forward with it.
Durling: Had you ever met Helen hunt or worked with her before?
Hawkes: I hadn’t met Helen Hunt until we were cast in the film, and something interesting happened in that we didn’t ever rehearse traditionally. Helen and I and Ben sat down two or three times and went through the scenes and do the things that actors and directors do, ‘do you think this is a better line here’… ‘why is this line here at all?”. Helen and I never really spoke other than through Ben, we kind of had a distance between us because we didn’t know each other and we didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other. And rather than going out to dinner and getting to know each other, I think we both instinctively thought it would be a good idea for us to be strangers. Ben gave us the great gift of shooting the intimate session scenes between Helen and I chronologically. So the fact that Helen and I didn’t know each other well and were under rehearsed, I think made for a really fascinating first scene between the two of us. I think that film does something really special in that it can capture first moments between actors for the first and only time. Unlike a play where you rehearse and reproduce the same ‘moments’ each night, I think film is great for catching things for the first time and capturing the electricity between the actors. And a lot of what you see in the first surrogate scene is happening for the first time in real time. And then as Helen and I got to know each other better and we shot the subsequent intimate scenes, our characters were also getting to know each other. It worked out wonderfully.
Durling: Ben, I want to point out a beautiful way to start the film, which is with the poem about breathing, and you hear Mark talking to us with this poem. Can you talk to me about how you decided to open the movie in that way?
Lewin: It was in fact a very late decision, at quite a late stage of the editing, I went back to view Jessica’s documentary in breathing lessons, which I think was quite a source of inspiration and practical resource for all of us; particularly for John in becoming the character. One thing I was particularly looking at was how Mark’s poetry was used in the documentary. I thought that it created a real narrative thread in the sense of who he was. As a result of revisiting breathing lessons, I included three more poems in our film, one of which was ‘Breathing’. I don’t why I had hesitated initially but the more Marks new screen persona evolved; the more I liked representing the poet side of his personality very prominently. Because I think that sort of gave us the license to make the whole film slightly poetic.
Durling: Judi, one of the boldest things about the movie is the fact that we’re used to feeling sex is kind of like a conquest, it at least it’s rare to see a movie that shows sex as such an intimate, beautiful thing, and did you always know that’s what you wanted to accomplish?
Levine: I think Ben and I both agreed very strongly that we have almost never seen a sex scene in a film that we liked, and that all that rolling and soft lighting and curtains blowing, things placed strategically so that you don’t see what you’re not supposed to see; never really worked for either of us. And we made a real commitment to making something that was honest but in no way voyeuristic or salacious. And we wanted people to be comfortable with it. I think that was always in the back of our minds and certainly Ben’s when he was setting it up. And I know that Helen asked Ben, how do you plan to shoot the sex scenes. And he said ‘the same as the rest of the film’. Not in any way sort of set up so that it feels different the moment you go in, but the way sex feels for all of us. My feeling is that a lot of people respond to that material on a visceral level that’s not conscious but something that we all recognize, and where we’ve all been. We’ve all been I that situation when were having sex for the first time, when your with someone and they are taking their clothes off for the first time and you don’t know where to look and what you can touch, and I think there was a real, almost unconscious attempt on our part to be truthful to that. I think that’s why it works.
Hawkes: I would just say that as an actor, and you probably hear this a lot but it is true. Any love scene between actors is always going to be awkward, unwieldy, and unfamiliar. Even between a married couple, I would think that there being a guy with a boom and a crew around, and people telling you to move your hand up her thigh or stroke her hair or whatever; it’s going to be awkward. And it’s edited into a more palatable, perfect sort of fantasy for people. The great thing was for Helen and I was that our unfamiliarity and our awkwardness was something that we wanted to embrace. There was no editing with violins or rose pedals in our case. We wanted it to be real.
Durling: And John, your physical preparation for this film, which must have been quite an ordeal because you had transform yourself and hold that contorted position without special effects. How hard was all of that and the rest of the process that you went through?
Hawkes: It was certainly the most physically challenging part I’ve ever taken. Jessica’s movie ‘Breathing Lessons’ was great especially to be able to see Mark’s body and hear his voice and his attitude; and learn more about him that way. Mark wrote a great deal of poetry and essays, as well as an autobiography in which he described his body very superficial. I love detail when I work, and in this case there was so much about the real guy, where I would normally have to invent back story and characteristics, and this time I really didn’t have to. And looking at Jessica’s film I found a great deal of detail. Plus I think the more specific you are when you tell a story, the more universal the story will become to people. That is not the only reason I concentrated and really obsessed over Jessica’s short about Marks life, it was also because I wanted to capture as much of the real Mark as I could; which is way more interesting than something I could have made up. His voice, the way his body was positioned, I wanted people who knew Mark to be able to recognize as much of their friend as possible. I really wanted to bring all that I could of the real Mark O’Brien. I learned to type with a mouse stick that I made at home, and practiced. And how to turn the pages of a book and to dial a telephone. I figured out how to twist my body into Mark’s kind of polio ravanged picture. And also it’s mentioned that Mark’s spine was terribly curved, so the props department connived, a soccer sized ball of foam which I placed behind my back to pronounce my ribs and give me a real curve. I guess that’s the beginning of the physical side.
Durling: And you never had a doctor tell you that you were going to harm yourself by holding that position for so long?
Hawkes: I’m fine, I’m sitting in a lovely theater in Santa Barbara on a great day. I’ve come through it okay. I was told that it wasn’t a great thing to do but I’m okay. I didn’t gain 40 pounds or anything. Actors do crazy things for a role. It was hard and painful but obviously just a minute amount of pain compared to what people deal with in their everyday lives with whatever physical struggle or challenge was worth it.
Durling: Ben, the character of Cheryl, and Helen Hunt’s performance and what you have done with the script, was amazing. I truly admire the way that her vulnerability is shown to us in small snippets throughout the movie, it’s almost like peeling an onion and the little detail like the second time she says ‘Nice shirt’. Did you discuss with Helen about those moments, to reveal her vulnerability.
Lewin: Yeah I’d say that Helen and I had many hours of discussions about a lot of details in the script. And some of them we wrestled with, and some of them we didn’t. I think that overall she had a tremendous appreciation of how paradoxical this character was, that really you were talking about someone who on one level was say, a typical soccer mom representing middle class family values, and on the other hand someone doing a very untypical job. I think that she was able to endow that character with those complex and sometimes contradictory agendas. She was also able to bring a very kind of natural beauty and sensuality to the part, which we really didn’t speak about, and you can’t plan for. It’s just kind of inherent in the performance. But I’d say more than any other leading lady that I’ve worked with, Helen and I really grasped the part and talked about it in ways that really went beyond what I had written on the page.
Durling: John, you’ve played other characters, and of course there are fictional characters. Was that more of a challenge to do justice to Mark, who had been living this type of life?
Hawkes: Yes. Certainly I’ve been fortunate enough to play non-fictional characters, and I love what I do and I’m such a lucky person to do what I do, and I always give all of myself but I think when you are portraying someone who either is still alive of has survivors who treasured their lost friend or relative, there’s definitely more of a feeling of trying to get it right. I certainly appeal to Mark a couple of times in quite lost, lonely, moments. If you’re there, I could use it. It’s also such a great thing to play a character like this because there is so much there for you to take in about them. I m happy to invent but it’s really wonderful to have so much of mark, I feel like I knew him somehow. I’m sad I never met him. He died in 1999 at the age of 49. He lived much longer than anyone ever thought he would.
Durling: Judi, has Cheryl and the rest of the people that the story is based on, have they seen the film? And what has the reaction been?
Levine: Susan and Cheryl were with us at Sundance when we first screened the film, and that was an extraordinary experience for everybody in fact. Up until that point, anyone who’d seen the film had been someone associated with it, so hardly anybody had seen it. We screened for the first time for 1270 people, it was very exciting and emotional. They both loved the film, and they were both satisfied with the way it portrays Mark and them as well. And I think they both would say they couldn’t imagine it being any more honorable in terms of who they are and what they’re own personal values are. Cheryl talks about wanting to have a more sex positive attitude out there in the world, and she thinks this film helps to promote that. And Susan feels that John has done an incredible job of presenting Mark, and it’s been fantastic to have them be with us all the way along the journey and still involved. Cheryl has a book coming out later this month called “An Intimate Life”, about her story and she’s very happy to be talking about that along with the film. Susan and a lot of Marks friends were encouraged to go see the film when it opened and or come to see it in Berkley. We have been given wonderful feedback and it’s been good.
Hawkes: Jessica, who made the “Breathing Lessons” documentary, who won an academy award for that film in the late 90’s and who knew mark very well. She saw the film at Sundance, she’s a tough nut but I think she was very moved for quite some time afterwards. She told me that it was like spending an hour and a half with Mark. That was pretty great.