Written By September|October 2012 : Page 40
32. finally goes stare at the door. Vera The doorbell rings. They uetted against the light is Cheryl over and opens it. Silho She could be the Avon lady. She has a . with a substantial bag. and her long hair is loose light blouse, light skirt CHERYL I'm late. Hi, I'm Cheryl. I'm sorry VERA I'm Vera, No, that's fine. Come in. rs. I'm one of Mark's helpe in her is no noticeable reaction Cheryl sees Mark. There face, just a smile. CHERYL Hi, Mark O’Brien. with a little difficulty. Mark clears his throat MARK Hi, Cheryl Cohen Greene. front door. Vera is already at the VERA hours? I'll be back, say, in two CHERYL be Yes, two hours, that would perfect. abandoned. her. Mark feels totally She closes the door behind CHERYL (CONT’D) So... Mark blurts out. MARK Your money's on the dresser. Written by Paul Chitlik Portraits by Jilly Wendell A Ben lewin’s story might seem like a fairy tale. it isn’t. Charmed M is turned, dresser. When her back Cheryl walks over to the in self-disgust. She finds an Mark screws up his face envelope. Thank you. CHERYL Mark eyes her carefully. She puts it in her bag. MARK to start That was the wrong way off. 33. CHERYL again? Yes, it was. Shall we start MARK Please, you start. a very and looks at him. It is She sits down on the bed g to take a lot in. tryin is She . stare frank CHERYL us to have Although the aim is for and you sex, I'm not a prostitute front. I’ve up me pay to need don't but s, itute nothing against prost can talk there’s a difference. We about that later. I'm sorry. MARK CHERYL is a The other thing is, there sessions we limit to the number of Laura Did her. toget can have her? mention that when you saw MARK I'm sorry, I don't remember. CHERYL gives us The limit is six. But that to explore. opportunity of plenty to able are you Now, I understand have an erection. MARK Yes, but not out of choice. CHERYL there are Do you know how many men give on this planet who would erection? anything for a natural She looks around the room. CHERYL (CONT’D) Is this your place? MARK only No, it's a friend's. The at my bedroom furniture I have I've place is an iron lung. buying a sometimes thought about arose. futon, in case the need CHERYL It's worth thinking about. eet this year’s hot young thing, this award season’s new discovery, a rising star who wrote and directed a film that won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at Sundance. But don’t expect a fresh film school grad nor an overnight Internet webisode sensation. This guy’s not even a child prodigy with a DSLR camera his grand-mother bought him for graduation. So give it up for Ben Lewin, a 65-year-old, bald, avuncular, diminutive writer-director who had polio as a child. Did I men-tion that he still uses a pair of Canadian crutches (the kind that grip around the arm instead of under the armpits)? Although Ben didn’t go to USC Film School, as a child he did attend a special academy in Australia. “They were grooming me to be a first-class basketweaver, on the assumption that if you were physically challenged, you were mentally challenged.” He eventu-ally convinced people he was worthy of a first-class education. Years later, while making a TV commercial for the Interna-tional Year of the Disabled, he was sent to interview a prominent figure in the disabilities movement. Greeting Lewin at the door, “She recognized me: ‘Ben? Benny Lewin?’” Years before, both had attended that special Australian academy for the disabled. “‘Ben,’ she said, ‘so good to see you, but I’m sorry, I have an appointment with a director who is coming to shoot a commercial about me.’” Aha! Even the future Australian Commissioner for the Dis-abled harbored a prejudice that prevented her from seeing him as a person capable of making movies. (That commercial later earned Lewin a Golden Lion award at Cannes.) He’d learned a valuable lesson: He did not look the part of a director in
Ben lewin’s story might seem like a fairy tale. It isn’t.<br /> <br /> Meet this year’s hot young thing, this award season’s new discovery, a rising star who wrote and directed a film that won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at Sundance. But don’t expect a fresh film school grad nor an overnight Internet webisode sensation. This guy’s not even a child prodigy with a DSLR camera his grandmother bought him for graduation.<br /> <br /> So give it up for Ben Lewin, a 65-year-old, bald, avuncular, diminutive writer-director who had polio as a child. Did I mention that he still uses a pair of Canadian crutches (the kind that grip around the arm instead of under the armpits)? <br /> <br /> Although Ben didn’t go to USC Film School, as a Child he did attend a special academy in Australia. “They were grooming me to be a first-class basketweaver, on the assumption that if you were physically challenged, you were mentally challenged.” He eventually convinced people he was worthy of a first-class education.<br /> <br /> Years later, while making a TV commercial for the International Year of the Disabled, he was sent to interview a prominent figure in the disabilities movement. Greeting Lewin at the door, “She recognized me: ‘Ben? Benny Lewin?’” Years before, both had attended that special Australian academy for the disabled. “‘Ben,’ she said, ‘so good to see you, but I’m sorry, I have an appointment with a director who is coming to shoot a commercial about me.’” <br /> <br /> Aha! Even the future Australian Commissioner for the Disabled harbored a prejudice that prevented her from seeing him as a person capable of making movies. (That commercial later earned Lewin a Golden Lion award at Cannes.) He’d learned a valuable lesson: He did not look the part of a director in An industry that valued appearance above all else; but, “as a writer, no one cared what you looked like. You could earn your points as a writer and be treated with respect.” <br /> <br /> Sorry, I’m getting way ahead of myself on the story of how The Sessions, originally titled The Surrogate, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy, came to be the hit of Sundance, sell for $6 million to Fox Searchlight, and relaunch the career of a man who had turned to watchdealing to make a living. Or how the writer-director won this year’s Evan Somers Award presented by the governor’s Media Access Office as well as the Writers Guild Award for distinguished work by or about persons with disabilities.<br /> <br /> A Long and Winding Road <br /> <br /> A member of the WGA Writers With Disabilities Committee, Lewin didn’t start out to be a writer. Born in Poland, he migrated to Australia with his family at age 3. As a child he wrote stories, even published a few, but law was his career path. And as a barrister Lewin championed underdogs.<br /> <br /> One of his first cases was defending a young woman who had disrupted a Billy Graham Crusade in Australia (as much as one person can disturb a crowd of 50,000 or so). Prosecuted for disrupting a “religious ceremony,” the woman faced two years in prison. Lewin argued that the event was not, in fact, a religious ceremony like a mass; it had been more of a personal occasion, like a political rally. In fact, it was a Billy Graham Rally, since, in all Graham’s literature, the name Billy Graham was mentioned five times more frequently than the names Jesus Christ or God.<br /> <br /> The case drew national attention (he won) and led to his being considered for a position in the about-to-be-formed Australian Film Commission. When politics determined the eventual appointee (not Lewin), the commissioners presented a consolation prize: a three-year scholarship to the first class of the National Film School in London, England.<br /> <br /> There he never attended a writing class, never read a book on writing. “You just went off and made movies,” Ben told me, sitting in the enclosed porch at his modest house in Santa Monica on the Venice side, a few blocks from the beach. “We were given £300 a year and told to go make movies.” <br /> <br /> Lewin’s original launch into show business (and what writer Of a certain age has not had more than one launch?) Came shortly after film school. Because of his law background, Lewin had always been comfortable with legal subjects (which would come in handy later directing episodes of Ally McBeal). Searching for a project to cap his years at the National Film School, Lewin noticed a short item in a British newspaper about a woman in a fish-processing plant who had fried up some live prawns for her lunch one day. Prosecuted for cruelty to animals, she became a cause célèbre in the national media. The judge refused to let her plead guilty and threw the case out of court.<br /> <br /> So Lewin phoned a friend of his, they grabbed the evening train to Scotland, and began work on his first full-length film, a documentary titled The Case of Cruelty to Prawns. This led to the BBC and a career making films, mostly documentaries.<br /> <br /> Although he believes “writing is one of the most unhealthy things we can do in life,” still he wrote. But not about himself: “Don’t write about yourself. You are boring. Look out into the world. Particularly when you’re young.” <br /> <br /> The Sessions is the first film Lewin wrote in the States.“There was a period that I felt writing was killing me. I stepped out of it for 10 years.” But then he got back into writing, even enjoyed it (imagine that). It worked better for him, he told me, “as a more mature individual” capable of accepting the grim fact that “almost everything you write here won’t get made. It was the opposite in Australia.”<br /> <br /> The Stress of a Sitcom a Clef <br /> <br /> While directing a film, Lewin suffered a heart attack. Although he eventually finished the film, the brush with death led him to a search to engage life in a broader way. He decided that writing was the worst thing he could do in life. Embracing life, he had another child with his wife, Judi. He took on hobbies so that his mind would not be continually focused on stressful things and, in a shrewd move, sent his wife out to work.<br /> <br /> One of his less stressful hobbies turned into his vocation.He progressed from collecting watches to selling them. He enjoyed participating in that subculture of collectors and timepieces. Life changed. He enjoyed raising his child. He became a stay-at-home dad. Then his agent called with a suggestion: Why not write a sitcom about a person with disabilities raising a child—essentially, a sitcom a clef. Because that would combine just about everything for Lewin, he began to ruminate about the concept.<br /> <br /> “I was looking on the Internet for material about people with disabilities and sex. That’s when I found an article about seeing a sex surrogate.”<br /> <br /> The article reestablished his faith in the written word. “I thought, If I can only do in film what he has done in writing, then I’m a winner.” The article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” had been published in The Sun magazine in 1990. It described Mark O’Brien’s desire to lose, at age 38, his virginity. O’Brien, a journalist and poet, had been paralyzed as a child with polio and spent his waking hours in an iron lung.<br /> <br /> “The emotional experience expressed in the article got me fired up,” Lewin recalls. “I saw the ‘do-ability’ of the story right away.<br /> <br /> It was a story about two people in a room that had great dramatic value,” Lewin said. Though Mark had by then passed away, the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, was still alive, as was O’Brien’s priest and friend, Father Brendan.<br /> <br /> Lewin made an appointment to see Cohen- Greene and took along an Australian friend to the interview. The friend remained silent and merely listened during the interview.As they left the house, the friend declared he’d be in for 20 percent of the budget.<br /> <br /> What budget? There wasn’t even a script.But the story was there. Lewin took that as a sign since the offer came from someone whose interests were mainstream. Lewin recognized that people from the “normal” world would connect with the story. It wasn’t only his natural empathy for someone with polio.<br /> That was significant affirmation.<br /> <br /> He secured the rights to the article, then the rights to Cohen-Greene’s portion of the story.Then he dedicated himself to that unhealthy, stressful activity: writing. “One of the hardest things about writing is how you overcome your loathing of it and do it every day,” Lewin says.<br /> <br /> The subject was particularly challenging as it could easily turn into a “poor me” film—or a “man with a disability” film. He didn’t see himself that way, and he knew that O’Brien hadn’t seen himself that way either.Lewin didn’t find the spine of the film until he “stopped seeing it as a biopic and started seeing it as a relationship movie.”<br /> <br /> Once he finished the script, he showed it to another Australian who put up 30 percent of the budget after he learned that the first Australian had put up 20 percent. But then it got tough. “Getting anyone to read a script is the toughest part of filmmaking,” Lewin discovered.He tried to set it up as an Australian production but couldn’t even find a reader.He suspects that Film Australia still has it sitting on a desk somewhere, holding down a pile of papers.<br /> <br /> And forget about indie production companies and mainstream studios. He was not the flavor of the month—not fresh out of film school, wasn’t in the Variety “Top 10 Screenwriters to Watch.” He was a short, bald old man with a pair of crutches and a script about a polio-driven romance. Who was going to fund him?<br /> <br /> So his wife of 30 years became his producer, raising the rest of the budget through private donors. “In the end, she was calling up friends and relatives and saying, ‘I’m putting you down for $5,000.’ Not asking, mind you. Telling.”<br /> <br /> Budget in, it was time to cast the film.“You can approach any actor you like as long as you’re really making a film,” Lewin stresses. He cast a wide net in the actors-with-disabilities community. The character had to be believable, and the actor had to be able to take the pace of production and still give a sensitive performance.In the end, though he did cast several actors with disabilities in major roles, the role of O’Brien went to John Hawkes who appealed “because he was scrawny,” not to mention his Academy Award–nominated role in Winter’s Bone.He had the look, and he had the creds.<br /> <br /> Lewin was bowled over by how Hawkes embraced the role, going so far as to simulate Mark O’Brien’s posture by using a soccer ball–size piece of foam, which he laid onto the left side of his back in order to curve his spine. Drawn to the Script because of Lewin’s own experiences with polio, Hawkes also read every article and poem written by O’Brien and viewed Jessica Yu’s Academy Award–winning Breathing Lessons, a documentary on O’Brien released in 1995, four years before his death.<br /> <br /> Once Hawkes committed, there was a “mini-avalanche” of women who wanted the part of the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene. Even though she knew Lewin had made an offer to another actress, Helen Hunt asked to be given a chance with the role.<br /> <br /> The essential question for the woman’s role? How is a surrogate different from a hooker? Lewin had this question in his head when he went for his initial interview with Cohen-Greene. The answer came when Lewin asked a specific question about her initial meeting with O’Brien.“Let me get my notes,” she answered.Notes? Lewin understood that prostitutes don’t keep notes, and the foundation of the character was in place.<br /> <br /> Lewin decided not to have any rehearsals.“If the script works, and the actors are right, you don’t want rehearsal,” he maintains. But he did work out with Hunt that the degree of nudity would be left up to her. He never knew how much skin would be shown on any particular sequence, but they agreed that they would not censor on the set. At the end of the day, Hunt would decide what she did or didn’t want to keep.<br /> <br /> In the shoot, Hunt draws a firm line between surrogate and prostitute. The emotional connection she establishes with Hawkes’ O’Brien binds the film together in the way that Lewin conceived it: a relationship story. With a 22- day shoot, “there’s no time for improvising,” so they remained true to the script.Besides, “the actors feel more secure if it’s all there in the script.” <br /> <br /> The concept, the script, the financing, the actors—it all came together.Miraculously? John Hawkes dubbed the whole experience, “a charmed event.” <br /> <br /> “It’s a little surreal,” Lewin confesses, “as I’m so used to rejection.”
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