An exclusive interview with writer/director Ben Lewin
Landmark Theatres: The Sessions covers an interesting subject matter that we don’t see in films, which is sex surrogacy. Why did you decide to explore this subject?
Ben Lewin: I think it was a matter of stumbling over Mark O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” and realizing, through his experience, I could give voice to a lot of stuff that was on my mind. I was conscious of the fact that I was a dirty old man from the age of 7 or 8, that certainly as a disabled kid, sex was something that really preoccupied me. And there was no one with whom I could talk about it. The idea of discussing sex with your parents, I mean, God forbid! I certainly felt it was the kind of thing you kept the lid on, and even though I knew it was a dominant subject in my life for as long as I can remember, somehow sexuality and creativity seemed to be married to each other, in this inconvenient but inexorable way. And I think there was a sense of comradeship between Mark and I. He was another writer who lived a lot of his life in the world of the imagination. And he had the same issues—sex was also really important to him, and I thought it was no coincidence that his creative urges and his sexual urges somehow came from the same place. That was a lot of the motivation—that he was expressing something I agree with 100%.
Landmark Theatres: One thing that hits you right away in the film is Mark’s personality. Did you get some of that sense from talking to people in his life, or was that all clear from what he wrote?
Ben Lewin: I think it was the picture I got from every source. In fact, when I first read his article, I thought there were elements of it that were rather bleak. And I thought, ah, well, he might have written this bit when he had a bad hair day, and just was feeling really low. Because beneath it I could see a very positive guy who wanted to embrace as much as he could of life. And it was through meeting people that were close to him, most significantly Susan Fernbach, who was his girlfriend in the last years of his life, that side of him was really reinforced—that he had this razor-sharp intellect. He really was extremely well-read, well-educated and very witty—and very charming. And that was something I wanted to reproduce. I mean, he might have had his bleak moments, and there might have been moments of self-pity, but I thought he had this kind of a lust for many things—including women. I decided to represent him with the things that he wanted…
There was a documentary film about him called Breathing Lessons, in which you see very graphically the ordeal of survival that he went through—that the mere fact of breathing was something he couldn’t even take for granted. In our film, I didn’t want to ignore that. I was fascinated by the fact it wasn’t that he wanted to do something extraordinary—it’s above all that he wanted to do something totally ordinary that would connect him with the rest of humanity.
Landmark Theatres: I’m sure you learned a lot from Susan Fernbach. Did you find anything new from her? Make any discoveries about Mark O’Brien that surprised you?
Ben Lewin: We talked about his sexuality in a very open way. I think there were aspects of him that did surprise me. I think he was in many ways more sexually complex than I chose to convey. I make a mention at the end, but it’s like a throw away joke, “I can get pretty kinky sometimes.” But there was a tremendous curiosity on his part—just where did sex go? It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was certainly revealing, that it’s not as if Mark just wanted to lose his cherry, and that was it, and I’m done with it. It really was a whole area he would have loved to explore as much as he could. That was something really interesting I learned from her. And I wasn’t censoring myself by not including everything about him in the movie. It was just that I wanted to keep the film simple. This was simply for me a relationship story about two people on a journey, and how it affected them both. So I think I learned lots of things about Mark that surprised me—his incredible passion for baseball for a guy who never was able to play the game, and yet he wrote poems about it, he was a genuine expert and baseball historian. That was one of the surprises, and it could have gone on, and on, and on, but I had to create the parameters for the movie. And I saw it as his journey with Cheryl.
Landmark Theatres: You cover an issue that perhaps everyone will explore in their life, and that is sex versus love: Where do they meet? It’s almost impossible for this woman to keep them apart, and they are both trying to keep them separate. Could you talk more about that as a theme?
Ben Lewin: It was a realization that crept up on me—that somehow what he learned was that sex was just the beginning. I think that probably for Cheryl it was something she knew already, and realized it was a delicate line—a bit of a tightrope act doing what she did. I think one of the main criticisms of the profession of sex surrogacy is that it does have this danger zone of how physical intimacy inevitably leads to emotional complication, which inevitably leads to pain (laughs). That was perhaps an underlying theme—that sex was just a beginning point of something much more complicated and difficult to control.
Landmark Theatres: Could you talk about working with Helen Hunt, and specifically with John Hawkes. His movement was limited, so talk about that process of exploring a character in a lot of detail with the restriction of movement. How did John approach that?
Ben Lewin: To me, the most intense part of working with an actor is the casting—the decision to use a particular actor. I try to make that decision very carefully because, as the director, I have to keep my eye on the total picture—every aspect. I like the idea of an actor owning a character, and not really depending on the director to give it to them or mold them into it. I really like the idea of them taking control, and bringing their own personal qualities to it, and the director being more of a guru than anything else. They gave me the freedom not to worry about the characters. Of course, I worked with them, but I was not the one who did the heavy lifting.
John did all the research into Mark. He created all of his own physical limitations. He created the way of making his body look the way it looked—insisted on only having a 90 degree movement of his head—and we worked around all those limitations. But it wasn’t as if I sat there and gave him all these instructions. He took the part and ran with it, and created it. And the same is true of Helen, but in a different way. John was very much trying to recreate Mark O’Brien, and I didn’t want Helen to mimic the real Cheryl. I wanted her to understand the role of a sex surrogate—to understand the complexity—and at the same time the paradox of being a soccer mom; not to imitate Cheryl, but to understand that stuff, and just bring herself to the role. She’s a mature woman. She understands parenthood. She understands all the elements of that. I think by the end she really understood what it was to be someone’s sex teacher, and care about them, and care about the result. So it was different in each case because their methodology was different.
One of the things I really enjoyed was throwing these two relative strangers together, and using the spontaneity of their chemistry, their interaction. We shot the sex scenes in story order, and the first time she tried to undress him was on camera. We didn’t do any practice for that. It’s a kind of gamble that’s exciting to take when you’re working with such skillful people. I don’t think you can do it with amateurs, but I think when you’re working with people who can prepare so thoroughly, but on the day do a kind of an erase, and just come to it fresh, and say, okay, let’s see what happens. That’s kind of really exciting when you’re working.
Landmark Theatres: It sounds like you really enjoyed the production process.
Ben Lewin: I did, and in that sense, it was a unique experience. Shooting is often mostly something of a nightmare, and you just pray for each day to end (laughing), so you can go to sleep and have the energy to face the following day. I really decided that I was going to enjoy the process, because you never know what the outcome is going to be like. So I was just determined to enjoy the process. I was really sad when we finished shooting.
Landmark Theatres: Did you find it difficult to keep the tone light when dealing with a serious subject?
Ben Lewin: I found it difficult only insofar as for me the most difficult part of making a film is writing the script. I always labor at it—am inefficient about it—and finally it just got to a point where I enjoyed reading. And I thought, okay, that’s a good sign. Let’s just leave it as it is, and go out with it. Because I think sometimes you can write one draft too many, and go backwards. I think I would go away from a draft for several months after I’d written it, and then I’d come back to it. And at the point where I really enjoyed reading it, I thought, that’s the tone I want in the movie. It pretty much started from there, and all the actors were skillful enough to bring a light touch to it—never to play jokes… never to try and be funny. I don’t think there’s a single moment where anyone is straining to be funny. I don’t know how all those elements evolve into a tone. I wish I did know. I would maybe write a formula and sell it. It’s a combination of having a particular view of life, and a way of using your craft. I think, as a writer, it’s a matter of recognizing when enough is enough. Okay, you’ve said it, you’ve made the point—move on—not to double up on things, and trust the audience to get it the first time. There’s still an element of throwing an arrow into the air (laughing) and praying where it lands.