In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays true character Mark O'Brien, a man with polio who spends much of his life isolated from human touch in his iron lung. In hopes of feeling something remarkable, he hires a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. William H. Macy plays Father Brendan, a spiritual consultant for Mark during this life-changing event. Though The Sessions might arguably be his biggest film yet, Lewin has directed three narrative films before - Georgia, Paperback Romance, and The Favour, The Watch, and the Very Big Fish.
I sat down with Lewin in a roundtable interview to discuss the film, why he chose John Hawkes over disabled actors, the points he wants to make about physical sensation, and more.
The Sessions opens in Chicago on October 26.
What have preview audience reactions been like so far?
I find them really fascinating. In most cases, there's someone in the audience that you pushed a very personal button, and they come out with very private information. They just feel confident in somehow venting something that is normally quite intimate. In Toronto, there was a guy who said he had been a sex surrogate for over 30 years, and this somehow is the first time that he felt comfortable talking about it publicly.
The film has a lot to do with how we balance emotion and physicality in our relationships.
I guess underlying the movie is the notion that sex is just the beginning of the physical connection, which is the root to emotional connection. I think that in the case of Mark O'Brien, although I don't make a big deal of it in the movie, there's a whole element of him being starved of touch. On his iron lung are all those messages saying, "You can put your hand in and touch for the same price, you're welcome." I think this was an indication that he was only used to being touched medically or mechanically, and I think people take for granted that touch, even to most relative strangers, is an everyday thing. It may seem no big deal, but it is emotional communication of some sort. That was something that he was really deprived of, and I think we made a big deal of what we call body awareness exercises as a root to understanding that touch could be pleasurable.
When you were developing this story, what were some script elements that you were stuck on?
One of the biggest surprises to me, when I initially read his article, I was really bowed over by how explicit and full frontal it was. I thought, "Yeah, I want to go that same way." However, when I wrote it in script form, it really made me cringe. How can you show an ejaculation on screen? I'm just using myself as a test audience, but that's too much information. As for the priest character, I found that although initially the character of the priest intrigued me, he became a kind of device to move really explicit stuff from the bedroom to the confessional, so that it wouldn't make you cringe, but make you laugh; his reaction would make you laugh. That was something that developed during the writing, kind of unexpectedly.
Did you want to address these clichés of the feel good story, overcoming disabilities? You have a very sharp sense of humor with this movie, which feeds into deflating those clichés a bit.
I actually really like those clichés, and I think we read it for exactly what it is. It's so old fashioned, it's almost politically incorrect to talk that way these days, where using a word like "courage" or "perseverance" is patronizing. He was in a way a ground-breaker, as being a poster child for independence. That was about the most unlikely kind of Independence that you can imagine, to live in an iron lung and control your own destiny in some ways. Otherwise, I really don't adhere to any political correctness. Humor is a way of really defying political correctness and the kind of the practicality of the sex, which is like teaching to drive, was part of the whole language of the movie, so I hope that it puts a dent in the culture of political correctness.
You have two religions making a statement in this movie, in relation of their interaction to the physical form. What forgiveness were you seeking from the Catholic faith and the Jewish faith in that element?
I guess it's summed up in that line that Mark puts out, "You can't have too much insurance." I would describe myself as kind of a fundamentalist Atheist, but I'm fascinated by how religion plays into people's lives. I've come to respect it more and more. Particularly when I come across a character like Mark, who is raised with a sharp mind. I've always thought that the smarter you are, the less religion you have. But that's not the way it works. There are other reasons why people have religion, and they have it in very personal ways. I don't think that everyone does it according the book, I don't think he did. I was trying to, maybe not consciously, hopefully say something about the flexibility of religion, that God is someone that you can blame, as well as worship.
Mark is looking for meaning outside his biology. The things that give us the meaning are in this abstract world. As Mark says, "If I'm just my body, I'm f**ked."
I guess that as a writer, you have to appreciate people who are poets. I relate to people who are. They reinterpret life. That reinterpretation is often what we call spirituality, you translate the mundane details into something larger. I was groping for that kind of thing without trying to say I had a particular angle with it. For me the cat is a spiritual element, and I thought, by chance there was an element in this story. I didn't invent the cat in the story, the cat was a part of his life. That was a gift, a friend from the back alley. I thought I'd put the cat in the end as a mourner, which we normally associate with dogs.
You have Mark go through the various stages of sexuality in this movie.
Some people ask me why I had that relationship in the beginning. He wrote so much poetry about that girl, and obviously he had an ongoing obsession about her that went for years. He went from total devotion to really fiery anger, and I remember that unrequited love that you can't let go of when you're quite naive. I thought that was a good kicking off point for him to say, "What it is really all about? If she won't give it to me, I'll pay for it."
You've said that when you first started putting this project together, you considered using disabled actors. What was it about John Hawkes that convinced you to take on this unique role?
Partly our casting director, who is a woman I got very close to, and was very passionate about the project. When she really gave me the sense that John was the sort of person who would give it more than anyone else, and would really bring soul to it, I was inclined to believe it. When I met him, I felt there was a sort of affinity between him and the character. There was a wryness about him that I related to how I wanted Mark to be portrayed, and he was a kind of sweet-natured guy. He's nothing like the creepy parts he plays. And at the physical level, I had been looking fr small framed actors. I thought the idea of having to do CGI and body doubles would be a total nightmare. People aren't that familiar anymore with what polio looked like, and I thought I could stretch the truth there without offending anyone who knew. There was a doctor friend of mine from Australia who didn't know John Hawkes, but saw a rough cut and was convinced he was watching a real polio victim. John had the right physical kind of frame, and the right motivation to accomplish the physical transformation. He said himself that he's very detail oriented, and I really respect that. And also, that I could work with him. You have to have a sense that this person is going to be your friend. I thought it was just that I was on a roll, and that everything that happened was meant to be, even though I'm hardly a fatalist.
Is there a part of this film that you wanted to share relating to the fact that polio still has its remnants in contemporary society?
I don't think I am informing very much. Polio was not easy to understand, because if ten kids all got polio at the same time, you'd have ten wildly different results, and no one knew why this was so. I didn't feel I could go too deeply into explaining that. What I wanted to explain, because it sort of came up in my own life that people wanted to assume that if you can't move that you don't have feeling, and I guess I wanted to make the point that Mark, along with other polio people, have ordinary physical sensation, that it wasn't numb. If anything, I wanted to make that point pretty clearly. I know that when I was dating people, they'd be like, "Can you feel that?" "Of course I can feel that!"
During your immersion into this story, what do you think you learned personally about love?
If I didn't know it already, I think I became more aware that sex is just the beginning, and that moment of disillusionment that he has at the end, is part of the journey to figuring out, "Well, what else is there?" While I was trying to make the point that the priest didn't have much to say, I think I was also trying to say that whatever it is, you're not going to put your finger on it. You'll get a sense. It's not definable.