O’Brien, who died in 1999, was a childhood polio victim and spent most of his adult life in an iron lung. That presented several challenges: How to make an engaging, entertaining film that is mostly spent watching people talk; where to find an actor who could portray both Mark’s physicality and his acerbic romanticism and how to overcome some of the Oscar-season cliches that often accompany films about disabled individuals.
(Plus there had already been an Oscar-winning film about O’Brien–Jessica Yu’s 1997 short documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.)
On top of all that was the particularly tricky aspect of O’Brien’s life Lewin wanted to tackle: The quest by Mark–a virgin in his late ’30s–to experience sexual intimacy with the help of a sex surrogate, which O’Brien chronicled in the 1990 magazine article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”
But Lewin’s film, The Sessions, ends up with quite a few strengths in its corner: Lewin, himself a victim of childhood polio, brings a sharp, cliche-skewering wit to the screenplay that matches O’Brien’s own bittersweet, sardonic nature while still retaining plenty of humanistic warmth and humor.
And best of all, The Sessions sports two terrific award-magnet performances from John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Mark and Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the sex surrogate Mark hires. It also co-stars Moon Bloodgood, Alan Arkin, Hawkes’ Deadwood co-star Robin Weigert, and William H. Macy as the priest Mark, a devout Catholic, approaches with his plan.
Several other film writers and I sat down last month in Chicago with Ben Lewin to talk about The Sessions. (We also spoke separately with John Hawkes–watch for that interview in the next day or so.)
The Sessions is playing at select theaters nationwide and expanding to more this weekend.
Ben Lewin: In most cases there’s someone in the audience for whom you’ve pushed a button, and they come out with very private information. They feel confident in venting something that is normally quite intimate. In Toronto there was a guy who’d been a sex surrogate for over 30 years, and somehow this was the first time he felt comfortable talking about it publically. Several members of the sex surrogate community have said they identify very personally with this film.
The film does a great job of showing the connection and balance for humans between emotion and physicality.
Lewin: Underlying the movie is the notion that sex is just the beginning, that physical connection is just a root to emotional connection. In the case of Mark O’Brien, he’s starved for touch. He was only used to being touched medically or mechanically, and I think people take for granted that touch, even among strangers, is an everyday thing. It’s an emotional communication of a sort, either trivial or more meaningful.
What challenges did you face in writing the script?
Lewin: One of the biggest surprises to me was that when I initially read Mark’s article I was bowled over by how explicit and full-frontal it was. However, when I wrote it in script form, sometimes it made me cringe. How can you show an ejaculation on screen? That’s just too much information. Initially Bill Macy’s character of the priest intrigued me as a spiritual counselor, but he became a device to move the really explicit stuff from the bedroom into the confessional, so that it wouldn’t make you’d cringe but his reaction would make you laugh. That developed unexpectedly during the writing.
Lewin: I actually really like that opening cliché because I think we read it for exactly what it is. It seems so old-fashioned; it’s almost politically incorrect to talk that way these days. Using expressions like “courage” or “perseverance” is patronizing. But in a way Mark was a ground-breaker in terms of being a poster child for independence, to live in an iron lung and still somehow control your own destiny.
From a religious perspective, you have Mark, a devout Catholic, and Cheryl converting to Judaism. Did you intentionally set out to say something about religion and spirituality?
Lewin: I guess it’s summed up in Mark’s line, “You can’t have too much insurance.” I would describe myself as a fundamentalist atheist, but I’m fascinated by how religion plays into people’s lives. And I’ve come to respect it more and more, particularly when I come across a character like Mark who has a razor-sharp mind. I’ve always thought the smarter you are, the less religion you have, but that’s not the way it works. There are other reasons people have religion, and in very personal ways, not always according to the book. Mark certainly didn’t. So I was trying to say something about the flexibility of religion; that God is someone you can blame as well as worship.
And as I writer, I appreciate and relate to people who are poets, although I’m not one. They reinterpret experiences and life, and that reinterpretation is often what we call spirituality. You translate the mundane details into something a little bit larger.
You originally considered having a disabled actor play Mark. What sold you on John Hawkes instead?
Lewin: Our casting director was absolutely passionate about our project, and she gave me the sense that John was the sort of person that would give the role more than anyone else, that he’d really bring soul to it. When I met him, I felt there was a sort of affinity between him and Mark—a wryness about John that related to how I wanted Mark to be portrayed. He’s a sweet-natured guy, nothing like the creepy guys he plays, like in Winter’s Bone.
Also at the physical level, I was looking for a small-framed actor. I felt that having to use computer-generated imagery and body doubles would be a total nightmare. You could cheat a little bit—people are not all that familiar anymore with exactly what polio looks like. There was a doctor friend of mine from Australia who looked at a rough cut and didn’t know John Hawkes and was convinced he was looking at real polio victim. So I knew John had the right kind of physical frame and the right motivation to accomplish the physical transformation. I’m not a fatalist, but when John dropped in my lap, I thought it was meant to be.
You mentioned most people no longer knowing what polio looks like. Did you feel a need in the film to inform younger generations about polio?
Lewin: I don’t think I’m informing very much. Polio was not easy to understand. If 10 kids got polio all at the same time, you’d have 10 wildly different results, and no one knew why this was so. What I wanted to explain, because it came up in my own life, was people assume that if you can’t move, you don’t have feeling, that a touch doesn’t register. I wanted to make the point clearly that Mark and other polio people had ordinary physical sensation.