One of the highlights of any film festival is the panels and discussions that take viewers beyond simply watching the films into understanding the process behind getting them to the screen. In theaters now, The Sessions is a fictional story based on the real-life Mark O’Brien, who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio and decided that, despite his physical limitations, he wanted to lose his virginity.
John Hawkes brings Mark’s plight and writer-director Ben Lewin’s words to life through an unforgettable and transformative performance. The two sat down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway this afternoon at the Roosevelt Hotel to discuss the film, the challenges they faced in making it, and the impact the film had on each of them.
Lewin came up with the idea for the film when he happened to come across O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which was published in The Sun back in 1990. Lewin had no knowledge of O’Brien prior to reading this article, but it became his “ah ha” moment, and he knew the emotional impact of such a story would be his next film project.
Lewin’s life has many parallels to Mark’s — both were diagnosed with polio at six — but Lewin is not paralyzed from the neck down and was able to get fairly rehabilitated by the time he was a teenager. O’Brien, on the other hand, went into his adult life still dealing with his paralyzation. Lewin explained that he was never attracted to the story on a personal level. He simply thought it was a good story. Up until the release of the film, Lewin had never thought of himself as a part of the disabled community, but in making this film he has come in contact with that community and now views his experience with it as a “work in progress.”
With the success of the film, Lewin has found his life more affected on a personal level than a professional one. Hawkes describes success in Hollywood as a “double-edged sword” where the more success you have the more visibility you gain, making it increasingly difficult for audiences to separate you as a person from your characters. Hawkes says the “great secret weapon is to be unknown.”
Hawkes came across The Sessions when he was going through a slew of scripts he was sent after Winter’s Bone and joked that it was “the best script about a poet in an iron lung looking to lose his virginity” he had read in a long time. Plus, the fact that it had the lowest budget of all the scripts in the pack made it seem like the right fit for him since he is known for taking on low-budget, independent film roles.
He said the reason he was drawn to the character of O’Brien was because he was a singular human being and was different from any character he had ever read about. Hawkes is always drawn to the underdog and he liked that O’Brien constantly fought self-pity or pity from others as he finds those stories much more compelling to tell. When asked if there was a project he turned down in order to do The Sessions that he regrets walking away from, Hawkes said definitively that once he selects a project, he does not look back.
When asked how many times he needs to read a script before he captures it’s meaning, Hawkes explained that he only needs to read a bad script once, but for a script like the one for The Sessions he will read it every day. Even after having read this script 60-70 times, however, he still did not feel like he had it all. The two questions he always asks himself when reading scripts are “What is the story?” and “How can my character help tell that story?”
To prepare for the role, Hawkes dove into O’Brien’s autobiography, “How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence,” as well as Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short film, Breathing Lessons. Hawkes wanted to convey that O’Brien was neither a victim nor a saint, and he loved the humor in the script, wanting to mine those moments in a real and truthful way.
As far as the physical transformation, O’Brien had an incredibly curved spine, and in order to mirror his deformity Hawkes worked with the props department to create a soccer ball sized piece of foam to contort his body in the same manner. While this was not the most comfortable position — and neither was laying in the iron lung — Hawkes said the moments when people would forget about him, laying props or costumes on his gurney, were his favorite because he felt like he was truly embodying O’Brien’s experience of feeling invisible.
Hawkes said it actually did not take him long to get into character since, once he was lying down, he felt like he could successfully get into O’Brien’s headspace and he would seek out quiet places in between takes to listen to O’Brien’s voice and focus on the next scene. He noted that he is not a formally trained actor. When asked how he got into the craft, he explained that he saw The Crucible on a school field trip, and after that wanted to participate in the give and take he saw between the actors in the play. After a year of college, he ended up hitchhiking to Texas from Minnesota and said that experience taught him a lot about different characters and improvisation. He first got into acting as a stage actor and eventually began acting in films.
When asked how conscious he is of himself while he is acting, Hawkes explained he never liked watching dailies because there is nothing you can change about them. He tries not to be conscious of himself, but there is always a little piece of yourself present when you are acting that you cannot fully shut out. In the moments when he feels he is just not getting a scene or connecting the way he wants to, he will take a quick peek at the monitor to see the camera angle and his performance and that brief glance will help him to re-center himself in the scene.
Lewin explained that they did not have specific logistics to filming the sex scenes and dealing with the nudity. While he recognized people view male and female full-frontal shots differently, he simply thought it was unnecessary to have a full-frontal shot of O’Brien in these scenes to get their point and meaning across. Helen Hunt, who plays O’Brien’s sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Green, is seen topless in the film, and Lewin said her concern about doing those scenes was more about gaining a sense of trust between herself and the cameraman. Lewin recalled that Hunt invited him and the cameraman over before filming and after running through the various set ups and camera angles they planned on using, she gained that necessary trust and it allowed her the ability to move freely once on set. There were never any logistics to it, more a process to getting the actors comfortable so they could perform in that space.
Casting Hunt was “simple” since she came to Lewin once she heard Hawkes was attached to the project. Lewin said they got lucky when their script got to the agencies representing major actors who, despite the fact that there was no money or distribution attached to the script at the time, were interested in doing stories for the sake of the craft.
Lewin admitted that the tight rope act sex therapists have to walk between caring for their clients and keeping that professional detachment is an ability he still, despite all his research, does not quite understand. He said that in the case of O’Brien and Cohen-Green, this line did get blurred, but even then it was simply a moment in time and then they each moved on.
It took exactly five years from the day of Lewin’s first meeting to get the option rights for the article to the film’s premiere at Sundance to develop, shoot, and release The Sessions. The film was financed through Lewin and his wife’s friends and family, and Lewin noted that they actually began filming before they had any real money attached to the project because he did not want to wait for “permission” to make it. He just wanted to get the story told.
A funny, touching, and memorable story, The Sessions is a unique glimpse into the way humans, no matter their set backs, can (and should) always find a way to connect with one another.
The Sessions is currently in limited release and you can read my Sundance review of the film here.