“It started with Plan B,” Van Groeningen tells us, referring to Brad Pitt’s production company, which has helped make films such as Okja, Moonlight and The Big Short. “They had seen my film Broken Circle Breakdown, which they loved, and it sparked the idea that there was a sensibility to my filmmaking that would make sense with turning Beautiful Boy into a film.”
Plan B owned the rights to Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff. “They had tried another version of it, and it sort of died,” says Van Groeningen. “It had been laying on the shelves and seeing my film revived the idea, so they pitched it to me. I read the books and I totally fell in love with it. It just spoke to me on a lot of different levels. I loved the medical journey of the father trying to help his son. He does it through research, but also by never giving up, and trying to find a way to deal with it, and with that, encountering his own flaws and needing to adjust his expectations and essentially coming to a point where he realises that he needs to let go in order to save the rest of his family and himself and, maybe eventually, his son. But what was unique was that it also had this other point of view of Nic.”
Australian screenwriter Luke Davies, currently riding high on the success of Lion, was enlisted to adapt the memoirs into a film. “He speaks from experience,” comments Van Groeningen about Davies. “He was a recovering addict and Candy was his story, but most important of all, he’s a great writer. It felt like a great match. For a while, he worked by himself, and then I wrote.”
Speaking to us today, Van Groeningen’s English is good, but he does struggle to find the right word occasionally. Was it tough making a film not in his native language? “It was stressful,” he admits. “It’s been a long process. That’s why we’re here I think in the sense that I got time to grow into it. I did write in English in the beginning. It felt very strange, but I started to feel comfortable doing that and developing a movie is four year of hard work and a lot of very necessary discussions in English where I just grew and started to get more comfortable.
“Working with stars too, in the beginning, throws you off a bit.”
Which is particularly pertinent, as an essential ingredient for Van Groeningen was the cast, which started with Steve Carell. “I always start with the core and then do everything around it. It was important to get him to also just get the movie financed. He was the first actor, I went to him and immediately he said, ‘Yes’.
“Big Short,” cites Van Groeningen when we ask which of Carell’s performances was key. “For me it was The Big Short, although I really love Foxcatcher but it was a very stark performance whereas The Big Short and a lot of his work actually is … I think it’s incredible how he can make people always relatable even when they’re not nice people. He’s very earnest, warm and sincere.”
Starting with Carell as David Sheff, Van Groeningen lucked out when casting Timothee Chalamet as the son, Nic. “It just premiered in Sundance,” he answers when we query whether Chalamet was cast off his breakthrough performance in Call Me By Your Name. “I had seen it during the audition process and it made me realise how amazing he was.
“We were in a luxurious position where we could just cast the best person, which we did and now it’s amazing for the movie because he also draws the young audience and we’re delighted with that because we think it’s important.”
Beautiful Boy is playing at the Adelaide Film Festival, and will release in cinemas October 25, 2018