'The Sessions' interviews: A movie about sex, poetry and polio

Interview • Here's how "The Sessions" — a film about a quadriplegic's quest to lose his virginity — went from Sundance to Oscar contention.
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What might be the most unlikely sex comedy in movie history involves a quadriplegic poet, a professional sex surrogate, an Oscar winner, two past Oscar nominees and an Australian filmmaker who stumbled on the story "quite by accident."

The result — "The Sessions," which opens Friday, Nov. 16, in Salt Lake City — received standing ovations and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has put writer-director Ben Lewin and stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in this year's Oscar race.

Lewin, 66, was casting about for a project — "someone had told me I should write a sitcom about myself, so I wrote 'The Gimp,' about someone using his handicapped placard for sex," he said in a recent phone interview — when, in 2006, he stumbled across an article online. The 1990 article, by the quadriplegic poet/journalist Mark O'Brien, described the writer's visit to a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity at age 38.

The article was "brutally frank, it felt totally authentic, and it reached me emotionally," said Lewin, who, like O'Brien, contracted polio as a child and spent some time in an iron lung. (Lewin today walks on crutches; O'Brien, who died in 1999, was confined to an iron lung for most of the day.) "I forgot about everything else I was doing and decided to make it my next project."

Learning from O'Brien • There was plenty of material about O'Brien from which Lewin could draw. There were his articles and poems, and there was the Oscar-winning 1995 documentary "Breathing Lessons," a profile of O'Brien by the filmmaker Jessica Yu. But the key was meeting O'Brien's girlfriend, Susan Fernbach, "who gave me a lot of insight into who he was — and the permission to see him as an inherently funny guy," Lewin said.

Lewin also met Cheryl Cohen Greene, the therapist and sex surrogate O'Brien hired to allow him to experience sex for the first time. "She shared with me her side, and it showed me the whole relationship," Lewin said. "It felt more powerful as a relationship movie."

Searching for an actor to portray O'Brien, Lewin said it was his casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, who brought Hawkes to his attention.

After seeing Hawkes' Oscar-nominated performance as a violent Appalachian man in "Winter's Bone," Yeskel told Lewin, " 'This is your guy,' " Lewin recalled. "I said, 'What? That creepy old guy?' "

"I saw what an incredible range he had," Lewin said. "Then we met, and I really liked him. That to me makes a tremendous difference."

Hawkes received a stack of scripts to read after his Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," and Lewin's script "is what I look for. It's a good story, well told, and a role that's really interesting and challenging to me," Hawkes said in a phone interview.

Hawkes was only vaguely familiar with O'Brien beforehand and admitted what he knew about "Breathing Lessons" was Yu's famous comment during her Oscar acceptance speech: "You know you've entered new territory when you realize that your outfit cost more than your film."

Even though Lewin hadn't directed a feature film since "Paperback Romance" in 1994 (his only directing credit in the past decade was an episode of the made-in-Utah TV series "Touched by an Angel"), Hawkes said, "just meeting him, and reading the script over and over, I'd be reassured that this guy knows how to tell a story."

Holy moley, Helen Hunt • As Lewin sought someone to play the sex surrogate, he got a surprise. "One day I got a call, and they said, 'Helen Hunt would like to meet with you,' " Lewin said. "I thought, holy moley."

Hunt heard about the script when a friend auditioned for a different role, and was attracted to the story. "But it wasn't until I met the real woman that I got excited," Hunt said in a phone interview. "She's very frank and open, and willing to talk about anything. And what was more intriguing was the way she talked. Her Boston accent is louder than mine, more no-bulls—- than mine."

Hunt, Lewin said, "really understood the part in a seriously intelligent way."

Also in the cast is Oscar nominee William H. Macy ("Fargo"), as a surprisingly open-minded Catholic priest in whom O'Brien confides.

Hawkes faced the challenge of playing a character who, because of his physical disability, was always lying down and didn't move very much on his own. He had to lie for hours on a foam-rubber ball to make his back arch the way O'Brien's did. At the same time, he said, "the character was so alive, and if I could bring half of that, I'd be OK."

Hawkes — who read O'Brien's journalism and poetry and watched "Breathing Lessons" repeatedly to capture O'Brien's speaking voice — praised Lewin for wanting to avoid the clich├ęs Hollywood employs when portraying people with disabilities.

"If I was going to play Mark, I had to fight self-pity," Hawkes said. Lewin, he said, "had seen disabled people portrayed as either victims or saints. He wanted a warts-and-all human being."

Sex, frank and true • The emotional core of the film are the sex-surrogate sessions between O'Brien and Greene — scenes of frank sexuality and raw emotion between Hawkes' and Hunt's characters.

Hawkes said he and Hunt hadn't met before filming started and didn't talk about the sex scenes beforehand. "We weren't unfriendly, but we gave each other a great deal of distance," Hawkes said. "What you're seeing are things happening for the very first time."

The scenes were filmed without rehearsal, Lewin said, "so there was a natural nervousness, an awkwardness." The sessions were shot in chronological order, "so that the development [of the relationship] came about in a natural way. There was a lot of trust between the actors and the cameraman."

Hunt has shot sex scenes before, "but it's been very different — it's [usually] adorned with light and drama," she said. "This was more scary, but also less scary. We had a tiny crew and a beautiful cinematographer."

Hawkes added: " 'The nudity is necessary for the role' may never be more applicable. The nudity is not dirty, it's not exploitative. It feels frank and true."

Hunt said she was less nervous performing nude than she was watching herself when the movie premiered in January at Sundance. "I went, 'Why are my hands sweating?' " she said. "I'm about to be naked in front of 1,300 people."

Those 1,300 people at Park City's Eccles Theatre gave "The Sessions" (which was then called "The Surrogate," a title that changed to avoid confusion with the Bruce Willis sci-fi movie "Surrogates") two standing ovations — one for the film and another for Hawkes. The film went on to receive the Audience Award and a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures.

"I wish I could bottle the Sundance experience," Lewin said. "It was quite overwhelming, like a warm tidal wave."

As for the talk of Academy Award nominations, Hunt (who won an Oscar for the 1997 comedy "As Good as It Gets") takes it in stride.

"When people say 'Oscar buzz,' I say, 'OK, but will you take me out to lunch if it doesn't happen?' "