After struggling in Hollywood for almost 20 years, Australian couple Ben Lewin and Judi Levine finally crack it with their Oscar-buzz indie film The Sessions.
The story behind The Sessions would make a great Hollywood flick. Aussie director and producer couple moves to LA after finding some local film success. Couple struggle for two decades to make it in California. Lewin, who was afflicted with polio as a child, then stumbles upon an article by Mark O’Brien (a fellow Polio sufferer who spent much of his life in an iron lung and despite being Catholic wanted to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate) while researching for a sitcom. Couple decides to make the movie. The movie attracts leading indie actors such as William H Macy, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt and is a Sundance hit. Fox Searchlight distributes it. Now, the movie’s lead actor (Hawkes) is a shoe-in to receive his second Oscar nomination for his portrayal of O’Brien. It’s a story almost as good as the one Lewin and Levine decided to film – The Sessions, a fantastic little film with big (but not over-the-top) performances from its lead trio. But how do you go from anonymity to Oscar bait?
“I don’t think we set out for this at all,” Levine explains. “We just stumbled across this story and both thought it was a great idea for a film and we were hoping it would move people the way it moved us. We never said this is the film we should make because it’s going to have this sort of extraordinary impact on people or it’s going to be the one that has our ship sail in or anything like that. We just wanted to be working and making a movie.”
Writer and director Ben Lewin knew from the moment he read the story that he would film it.
“I instantly knew that I wanted it to be my next project,” Lewin remembers. “As much as any project I’ve ever stumbled across before, this one had the karma. It was a dramatically big story in a very compact form. It was a simple story to tell and I think we had the sense that we could do this without asking anyone’s permission to do it, where we didn’t have to ask the grown-ups, ‘could we make this film?’, we could just go and do it. But we did, we asked all our friends and relatives and said, ‘we’re making a film and you’re paying for it’.”
When they decided to make The Sessions, originally called The Surrogate, the film didn’t have William H Macy, Helen Hunt etc in it. It was just a small indie financed by friends and family. How did the film attract its talented cast?
“We put a massive poster up in Hollywood saying, ‘great script, no pay’ and that attracted them in hoards,” laughs Lewin.
“To be honest we were fortunate because we had a producing partner who knew a wonderful casting director, who are often the unsung heroes of this process, and that was a woman called Ronnie Yeskel,” Levine continues. “She was the one who introduced us to John Hawkes. Once Hawkes came on board and once it was announced in Variety that he was doing this indie film people sort of pricked up their ears. Here was an actor that they admired and who had been nominated for an Oscar, so they were curious about this project. Agents started looking at it and the word got out that there was this good role for a woman in her 40s for which there was a range of fabulous actresses who can’t find enough great work. We were then suddenly in a position where there was a much more open choice to women of Helen’s calibre, so we got a call saying Helen Hunt wants to meet with Ben. It took off from there. William H Macy was just handed to us on a silver platter because he’s represented by the same person as Helen.”
When watching The Sessions you can see why the actors were attracted to it, as it is a brave film where sex concerning people with disabilities is finally filmed in a moving, real and humorous way. Aside from that, it features a Catholic priest (played by William H Macy) who encourages O’Brien to have sex outside the sanctity of marriage.
“I’m not religious but the fact that Mark O’Brien wanted to do something very ordinary and earthly but wanted to feel that it was blessed in some way, that he could reconcile it with his Catholic faith was something that I found fascinating,” Lewin explains. “The idea of a kind of hippie priest in Berkley, California in the 80s seemed very plausible to me and not only plausible but very dramatic and funny too.”
The Sessions opens Thursday, November 8