A heartwarming and triumphant piece of cinema, “The Sessions” tells the true story of poet Mark O’Brien, a man paralyzed from the neck down who at age 38, decides he would like to lose his virginity. Upon hiring a sex surrogate, what transpires becomes more than just an inspiring tale about the disabled, but a simple and poignant love story.
Australian-American filmmaker Ben Lewin, a 66-year-old polio survivor himself, helmed the film adaptation starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. He recently took a few minutes to chat with The East Valley Tribune about “The Sessions”, opening at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale this weekend.
On how he discovered Mark O’Brien’s story, and whether or not his own battle with polio influenced the way he approached the film:
I came across his work purely by accident. I was surfing the Internet and just collided with his article on seeing a sex surrogate and it was just a total surprise both at the level of storytelling and, above all, an emotional level. Thinking about the issue of polio and me having polio and so on, I think it really is a marginal issue. I never wanted to exploit it, like “Hey, I’m obviously the right guy for the job” but there have been many excellent films made about disabled heroes and heroines by people that have not been disabled. I don’t think it’s a qualification for the job.
I think that, initially, it was something that made me suspicious about my own judgment, I thought, “Maybe I’m too close to this story,” and I think that I needed to be satisfied that it affected able-bodied people exactly the same way as it affected me, in order to embrace it. Certainly the actors never thought that I had any special insight or asked me about that. It’s impossible to say it’s got no relevance, but I wouldn’t over-estimate it, I wouldn’t emphasize it. I think it’s a talking point but not crucial to the way the film was made.
On the unexpected casting choice of John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien:
Because I wasn’t really familiar with him or his work before casting, it was the casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, who really made me sit up and take note of him. No. 1, I discovered that he’s an extraordinary character actor with this kind of chameleon quality and tremendous technical skills. To me, the crucial point was that there’s a lot about him personally that I think, you know, he brought to the part. He is very naturally kind of wry and funny, and he’s a very warm-hearted guy. I saw really quite strong similarities between him and the character I wanted him to play. I think that’s something I would look for in a leading man. That was very persuasive to me that, when we met, I really liked him and I thought that the audience was going to really identify with this guy.
On the challenges he faced shooting “The Sessions”:
Well, we were really concerned about creating a credible version of Mark, without using body doubles or computer-generated imagery. I think it was largely John’s commitment and preparedness to be very uncomfortable that enabled us to do this. I mean, he’s naturally kind of a slight build which helped, but he also learned how to be totally still, which is really hard. He learned how to work with a mouth stick to type, use the telephone, read books and he used this device, which, you know, this ball which he stuck under his back to mimic the curvature of Mark’s spine. He also used the recordings of Mark to recreate his voice. I must say, it was a major anxiety of ours to make an as-real-as-possible Mark O’Brien but he did all the heavy lifting in that area.