Following its triumph at Sundance, The Sessions is about to premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where Bec Butterworth caught up with director Ben Lewin.
Mark O'Brien didn't want to die a virgin. Spending his life in an iron lung had kind of gotten in the way. Diagnosed with polio at six years of age, at 38 O'Brien was a poet and a talented journalist. Then he got an assignment. Write about disability and sex.
Of course, he went immediately to his priest for advice, looking for a ‘no'. He didn't get one.
With great trepidation, and more than a little trigger happy, he consulted sex surrogate Cheryl, and wrote of his experiences.
Australian director Ben Lewin (Georgia, Lucky Break), who has polio himself, couldn't resist the story, and John Hawkes and Helen Hunt signed on. The Sessions was born, a film that will raise an eyebrow or two when it premieres at the Melbourne International Film Festival this week, following its Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
For Lewin, it was a challenge bringing O'Brien's writing to the screen. "It was sexually graphic. Premature ejaculations all over the place," says Lewin. "I thought, ‘I don't know how I'm going to film this, and I don't know if the audience is going to accept it,'" he says. "And I felt that by developing the role of the priest, that took the sting out of it."
William H Macy came on board to play O'Brien's reluctantly permissive Catholic minister, providing comical relief. "It made what could have been cringe worthy, into funny."
Hunt, who appears nude in the film, deftly modulates the emotional journey of the film with Hawkes, both of whom put in seriously embedded performances. Hawkes is truly amazing, and almost unrecognisable as O'Brien. "The first thing [John] asked me was whether I'd tried to get a genuinely disabled actor," said Lewin, who is in awe of Hawkes' dedication to the role. "We were not going to portray Mark as a saint," he says. "John understood that."
The Sessions is playing at the Melbourne Film Festival on Saturday, August 4 at 6.30pm and Sunday, August 5 at 6.30pm. For more information, head here.