First published on 10 Oct 2012. Updated on 8 Nov 2012.
Until now, filmmaker Ben Lewin hasn’t exactly set the movie world ablaze. He directed a few obscure Australian movies in the late ’80s and early ’90s – Judy Davis thriller Georgia, Anthony LaPaglia romcomPaperback Romance – and a minor international arthouse comedy, The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish. He has largely worked in TV: SeaChange in Oz and Ally McBeal in the US.
Right now, though, Lewin finds himself suddenly, in his late sixties, a hot young director in Hollywood. “I’m what is known as a 40-year overnight success,” he tells Time Out on the line from his LA home.
Lewin has written, directed and co-produced The Sessions, based on an essay by the late Californian poet Mark O’Brien titled ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’. Crippled by polio, O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) spent most of his life in an iron lung and decided at the age of 38 to lose his virginity, with the help of surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).
Featuring humour, humanity and courageous performances, the film was warmly received at Sundance in January and acquired by Fox Searchlight for US$6 million. The fact that Lewin himself is a polio survivor has proved a helpful meta-narrative for publicity purposes. The actual genesis of The Sessions, however, comes from a less noble place.
“Out of desperation from my years of unemployment my agent suggested I write a sitcom about myself, so I started a project called The Gimp,” Lewin reveals. “It was about a handicapped worker who trades the use of his handicap placard for sex: totally politically incorrect. And I was surfing the net looking for tasteless material when I stumbled across Mark O’Brien’s article.”
O’Brien was unable to sit upright and typed his poems and articles using a “mouth stick”. To play the part Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) practised for hundreds of hours and spent the shoot lying on a foam “torture ball” to simulate the twist of the character’s spine. “John has played some really creepy roles but he’s very warm-hearted, wry and witty as a guy, I really liked him,” Lewin says. “I think he did everything possible to simulate the real Mark O’Brien.”
Hunt, meanwhile, embraced a role that required her to be fully naked. “She understood that she couldn’t afford to be coy. Her character had an obvious openness to nudity and sex and we agreed to shoot those scenes in a nothing-special, matter-of-fact way.”
Like O’Brien, Lewin acquired polio as a small child in the 1950s. Unlike O’Brien, he says he has led a mobile and independent life, with a wife, three kids and a career. While he’s “gratified” that the film has started conversations about the sex rights of the disabled, that’s not what motivated him.
“I believed in the project at a dramatic level, as opposed to having a social purpose,” he says. “I wouldn’t have taken on the project if I didn’t think it confronted everyone’s fear of sex: the awkwardness of it, the wish that you could learn it like you would driving a car.”
The Sessions screens from Thu Nov 8.