I recently had the opportunity to talk with the charming Ben Lewin,
writer and director of the The Sessions, last year's undisputed Sundance hit, starring John
Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy. The film is based on an essay by the late Mark O'Brien
(Hawkes), a disabled journalist and poet who spent most of his life in an iron lung—because of a
childhood bout with polio—and who, as a 38-year-old virgin, set out to explore his sexuality with
the help of a sex surrogate (Hunt). The Sessions has been near-universally acclaimed
for the frank depiction of its delicate subject matter, and it marks a triumphant return to
filmmaking for the 66-year-old Lewin, whose last feature was 1994's Paperback
Read on for full transcript of our conversation:
I saw the film for the first time yesterday, and I loved it.
You've been away from filmmaking for some time, it seems, so The Sessions
makes for a major comeback. Why this story, and why now? What lead you to Mark O'Brien's
essay on sex surrogacy?
Well, you know, the same thing that's lead me most places—accidents, serendipity, fate—
everything but having a planned agenda. (Laughs) I would say that my stumbling across Mark
O'Brien's article was totally accidental, and it was my response to that article that was the
starting point for the process.
When did you first read it?
I read it at the end of 2006, and at the beginning of 2007 we managed to contact Susan
Fernbach, who was Mark O'Brien's girlfriend when he died. She had all the literary rights—she
was his literary partner and the executor of his literary estate. So, that's when the process
really started, at the beginning of 2007.
I've read that you yourself had polio when you were younger. Did that play into your
decision to turn this into a film?
Well, it did, and it was also a cautionary note, because one thing I wanted to avoid was having
too special a take on it. It wasn't until I was satisfied that the story was bigger than me
that I really went into it. And I guess I had to get over that hump that, you know, maybe I'm
too connected with this story. It wasn't until I felt that the story could connect with a very
broad audience, with anyone who could understand what it's like being terrified of sex.
I do think it's a very universal film, even though it deals with an extremely specific
disability. There are some particulars, though, that I really liked, and I don't know if any of this
was borrowed from your own personal experience. For instance, at the beginning of the film,
when the cat brushes by Mark's face and there's this itch that he can't scratch—did you spend
any time in an iron lung like that when you were younger, where you couldn't move?
Yes, I did, but as a small child, not an adult. That particular detail is drawn from Mark's own
reality; that was part of his life. He did have a friend who was an alley cat, who used to wander
in and make himself at home, and when I read about that little detail, I though that was a great
way to begin the film—that sense of starting with an absurd statement, you know, "Scratch
with your mind." It's almost like saying, "Eat with your mind." Interestingly enough, that and a
lot of other very unexpected details were plucked out of Mark's real experience.
I read Mark's essay yesterday, and I do love how the film is so exacting in the way that it
borrows from it. Some of the dialogue is taken straight from the essay. Can you talk about the
process of writing the adaptation?
I think it was a process of initially being inspired by it, looking for the problems in it, wandering
quite a long way from it at certain points, and then coming back to it. Whenever I got lost in the
process of writing the screenplay, I would go back to his original article and ask what was it that
turned me on about it. And I think that, in the end, it still is the blueprint for the movie.
I do like what you added to the story—which was obviously taken from real life but
wasn't present in the essay—where we have this denouement of sorts where Mark meets Susan,
and then the fast-forward to five years later. The essay itself kind of ends on this note of fear
and rejection, but in the film, you show that these fears were ultimately ungrounded, that he
found what he was looking for. Was this just to add some sense of catharsis, or how did you
know that you needed to add something more to the essay?
I didn't know, and at the time that I read the article, my wife said, "How can you end it like this,
on this real melancholy note? Is that all there is? I feel worse than I did before." And I said,
"Oh, don't worry about it, he was just having a bad hair day. People get like that." And I
thought, well, it didn't matter for me at that point. The thing was still a profound experience,
and it took him somewhere where he wasn't before. The fact that we discovered that there was
a happy ending wasn't something that I had always intended to tackle. But I thought, wow,
maybe this is really telling me something. In the same sense that I stumbled across his story, I
also stumbled across the happy ending—it was that sense of the unexpected. I think it was a
natural process to include that. Probably the biggest influence outside of his article was meeting
Cheryl Cohen-Greene and getting her side of the story, filling out her character.
I imagine you also met the real Susan as well?
Oh yes, certainly did! And we're all very close friends now.
Nice. I guess they responded positively to the film, then.
Yeah. In terms of those individuals—Susan and Cheryl and ourselves—it's been quite a bonding
experience, with them reliving the whole thing. They didn't ever realize that someone would
find this so compelling that they had to make a film out of it. Nor did I realize that it would get
the kind of exposure that it has. Just the experience alone of getting to know Cheryl and Susan
has been gratifying in itself. They're two of the more fascinating people I've met in my life.
One of the reasons I think the film has gotten such a great response is that it's very frank
about the way it portrays sexuality, specifically in a way that you don't often see in the movies,
where sex is usually so plastic and polished. In The Sessions, it's kind of awkward and
intimate and real, and while it's never prurient, it's certainly erotic just by its very nature. How
did you go about finding the right tone there?
I think the first guideline was to do it not in the way that everyone else has done it, which I
hated. I still have a problem watching sex scenes in films—I look the other way, I kind of close
my eyes, I cover my ears. It all seems so totally fake to me, you know? The silk panties sliding
down the leg, the feet stepping out of them, the wind blowing the drapes and all that kind of
crap. I guess the last straw for me is when they're rolling in bed. I mean, who the hell rolls
when they're having sex? (Laughs) And so, really, that was a very useful guideline—just don't
do it the way they do it.
It's very plain and honest and real.
Yeah. As you've probably noticed, there are no carefully placed objects. (Laughs) Really, we shot
it in a sort of quasi-documentary style. Clearly lit, no particular sense of composition—I mean,
other than normal. I think it was really a decision to make it a performance-based event. This
sex act was not to do with graphics or style or mood, but it was really to do with the emotional
energy between the two characters.
It definitely helped that you had two truly amazing actors in the main roles. Can you talk a
bit about the casting process for the film?
My casting process is to find actors who are really going to make the whole process easy, that
they will do the hard work to find their characters. They're not going to turn up on set
as empty vessels waiting for the director to tell them how to do it. And that's not how really
experienced actors work. (Laughs) These guys came so prepared. Totally prepared. And
yet, with a kind of freshness on the day, as if they weren't prepared. I'm kind of talking in
riddles, I suppose.
No, that makes sense.
It was a mixture of being thoroughly prepared, but also ready to be spontaneous. The process of
casting is really just to recognize those sorts of actors when they come along.
Publicist: Hi guys, we're just about at the ten-minute mark, and we have some other
interviews lined up. Just wanted to give you a heads-up.
No problem, I'll wrap it up. Last question: Can you say anything about your next film? I
just saw the announcement for A Moment to Remember.
Oh! Yes, all I can tell you is that it's an unusual, tragic love story, and I think that I wanted to
step outside my typical comfort zone and do something that someone else has written, to direct
someone else's work. It's a script that emotionally moved me when I read it, and I thought,
wow, that's a good start. It's an emotionally resonant love story—I guess not the first one to be
Well, I definitely look forward to seeing it. Thanks so much for your time today.
Okay, Casey. When do I see our film on your website?
This is a fantastic film by one of Australia's greatest directors. See it but also dig out his quite wonderful Dunera Boys. Ben Lewin is a remarkable man and his handling of this potentially difficult subject is masterly.