Zurich 2012 - The Sessions Q&A
Posted on Saturday September 22, 2012, 22:50 by Simon Braund in Under The Radar
Empire talks to the cast and filmmakers of The Sessions, writer-director Ben Lewin’s film about poet and essayist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a severely disabled man and his strange, funny and ultimately moving relationship with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), and therapist whose controversial methods involve intimate physical contact (i.e doing it) with her patients.
How did you come to be involved in The Sessions?
Helen Hunt: I was sent the script by Ben and had coffee with him, and we didn’t fight...
Ben Lewin: There’s still time yet (laughs).
Hunt: It all happened very quickly. We didn’t do a lot of rehearsal, which was kind of perfect given the way these two people meet and how much they don’t know each other and how intimate they become so quickly.
You seem to be very selective about the roles you accept.
Hunt: A good story is almost more important - actually it is more important to me than the role. And this was a good story, one that I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t even know how interesting the part would be until I started work on it. And when I met the woman I’m playing, Cheryl Cohen Green, there were some things about her I thought would be interesting to bring to the role. Then I really got interested in the role. People say it’s hard for women to find good roles. It’s hard for anyone to find good roles because its so hard to write them. I am selective about the things I do because I have a life and a child I enjoy being with so to leave that it has to be something very compelling and this really was.
John Hawkes: I had had some success with a movie called Winter’s Bone (if you can call an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor ’some’ success) and after the awards season I was in a position that was rare for me in that I was sent a lot of scripts to consider. There were several large studio films that were not very interesting to me, several independent films that were okay, but this one just really stood out to me.
Did you have any qualms?
Hawkes: I was initially worried about being an able-bodied actor playing a disabled person. Disabled actors are underrepresented in American films, to be sure. Ben assured me when I asked him about that that he’d researched some wonderful disabled actors but had’t quite found his Mark O’Brien. So we went forward from there. It just stood out to me as something that was so different, and something that would be a challenge. And I really loved Mark He jumped off the page as a person with a sense of humour and a fighting spirit
Stephen Nemeth (producer): And there are a number of highly talented disabled actors in the film.
Helen, you spend a lot of the film in the buff, full-frontal in some scenes. How do you feel watching yourself as nature intended on screen?
Hunt: I’d seen the film a few times in progress, but i didn’t see the whole thing till Sundance. And the first half of the movie, John and Bill Macey (who plays O’Brien’s conflicted but caring priest) had these scenes that were playing to roars of laughter. I was enjoying them too. I was holding my boyfriend’s hand and I was thinking, Why is my hand all sweaty? What’s happening? Oh right. I’m about to take all my clothes off. So I guess on one level I was nervous, but I feel like - and I felt like this making the movie - my nerves about having a body, which is ridiculous (laughs), were eclipsed by the bigger thing, which is the story of the movie. My care for the story outweighed my nerves, and that goes for when I saw the film too.
And you looked pretty damn good.
Hunt: Thank you very much (laughs)
John, on the other hand, goes no further than getting his shirt off. Why, in America at least, is there more acceptance of female nudity in movies than there is of male?
Lewin: One of the aims of the film was not to get into a duel with the Motion Picture Association Of America. It was to get the essential message of the film across. I don’t really feel the kind of cultural restrictions in America had any significant impact on the content of the movie or the feeling of the movie. So, while I appreciate Europe is more sexually open in most ways, I still think the level of acceptance that the film has so far found in America represents some opening up of narrow cultural boundaries. It’s an interesting question, but I think mostly a technical one.
Do you think it might have had more impact, or been more truthful, had you gone the Full Monty too?
Hawkes: As an actor it’s so difficult to maintain any mystery about yourself, everything is known. So I’m glad in a way that there’s at least one thing about me that’s still not known (laughs). Maybe it might’ve made the movie better. But I’m certain that, in America at least, we would have limited our audience a great deal by showing a man’s penis. Sadly.
Nemeth: And to give credit to 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight, they did not insist on any cuts, which was very surprising and much appreciated.
Judy Levine (producer and Ben Lewin’s wife): Neither did the MPAA, they left it completely as it was.
Nemeth: That was a great relief, it meant the film could go out to the people exactly as we intended it.
Lewin: I think it’s almost a hard-and-fast rule that if you show an erect penis in an American movie, it goes into the porno category. We didn’t want to go there and it wasn’t something we needed to do.
Hunt: I wanted to go there! They were not up for it.
Lewin: We could always do a European remake.