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Director Ben Lewin on The Sessions, Honest Sex Scenes, and Bleeding Hearts

Ben Lewin. Photo: Tim Whitby/Getty Images

The Sessions could have been just an Oscar-bait picture, exploiting our sympathies for its protagonist Mark O’Brien, who is paralyzed from the neck down because of a childhood bout of polio. But that’s not the case. Under the watch of writer/director Ben Lewin, who survived polio himself, the movie brings us more laughs than tears. Credit for that is also due to O’Brien himself: His essay about losing his virginity, at 38 to a sex surrogate, is the basis for the film — and O’Brien wasn’t a pity-party sort of guy. Vulture spoke to Lewin last week, at a dinner hosted by the Peggy Siegal Company, about taking O’Brien’s story to the screen, directing honest sex scenes, and not catering to bleeding hearts.

You had polio yourself. Did you relate to this story more because of that?
Yeah, but it is impossible to measure that. I think that I probably related to [Mark] more as a writer than anything else. I related to his sense of absurdity. And I think that maybe looking at it from the point of view an insider, so to speak, maybe helped me decide that this was not going to be a “cripple of the week” movie. That there wasn’t going to be any kind of bleeding heart element. And I supposed it was easier for me to avoid political correctness and euphemism, and interestingly enough, during the filming, none of the actors ever related to me as a disabled person. I mean, they never asked me about my own experiences. And that didn’t have any relevance to the actual filming process.

How did you fight that “cripple of the month” potential?
I think I probably was very conscious of all the movies I didn’t like. And it was almost coming from that: Well, I know I am not going to do it that way. And also, I think applied that [mindset] to the sex scenes, which I normally cringe at — almost want to shield myself from — because I find them so phony. You know, you have all these weird angles, and you see these people rolling around. Where does all that crap come from? So, I suppose that given that so much of the theme has to do with sex and intimacy, I felt that I wanted to be as normal and realistic about that as I wanted to be about disability. I really have always felt that I stand up for the right of disabled people to be assholes.

Well, I think that there has over a time been this kind of Tiny Tim attitude about disability, that you’ve got to love them because they are Jerry’s Kids, if you like, and they are cute — and I just don’t believe that. That’s a falsehood. And not a very helpful one. And I don’t make any special allowances. I mean, I don’t feel that disabled people are immune from parity or satire or any of the other attitudes we bring to the description of human behavior. I don’t know if you have ever been in an elevator with a blind man and his Seeing Eye dog.

I don’t think I have.
Well, just picture it. What happens is people speak to the dog. I forgive them for it. I am not offended by it.

So, you were taking a kind of “trip ‘em with the crutches” approach when you made the film?
[Laughs.] Not really, but I think what happened for me in this case is I had to convince myself that there was a universal theme in [the story]. And that having a disabled character was, I mean, I can’t say the analogy is perfect, but it was similar to having a Latino character or a very tall one. Something that does have relevance to the narrative but doesn’t necessarily give you total insight into who they are and what they are motivated by.

Mark is just a guy trying to get laid.
Yeah. Oftentimes, the stories that immediately come to mind to people are someone wanting to achieve the extraordinary. And I think the appeal of this one is he was trying to do the most ordinary thing possible. And I think that makes it relatable to practically everyone. This is not to deny the really shitty hand of cards he got dealt. You can’t deny that. But I think that what I played in the movie was his intellect, and also his emotional naivety, coupled with that razor-sharp intellect.

Mark O’Brien also just seems like he was really fun and awesome. Like, there was this quality about him …
Women liked him.

Yeah, he was a fun guy.
I think, I mean, who knows? I never spoke to him, but I don’t think he realized that, in his lifetime, he probably attracted interesting women more effectively than a hell of a lot of able-bodied guys who would have wished they had his charm and his ability to tell a woman what she wanted to hear and to make people laugh.

John Hawkes was running into some back problems; I heard his organs were moving around? Was that something that ever concerned you?
It was something he never brought up when we were filming. He worked without complaint. He would sometimes, in between takes, lie so still that he would become invisible and people would leave their sandwiches on him.

Did that really happen?

Like, Wait, has anyone seen my tuna fish? Yeah, it’s over on John Hawkes.
Yes, yes. He never complained. I think he took the role very personally. I am not that sort of guy that believes in ghosts and spirits, but I think he wanted to connect with the real Mark O’Brien beyond just being a good actor, as part of his commitment to the role. I do believe that. That made a difference to what he was prepared to tolerate, how far he was prepared to go. I am sure it was tough work for him physically, but he never showed it to me. Maybe I was oblivious to it because I was in my own little cocoon.

Director Ben Lewin on The Sessions, Sex Scenes