The American-based Australian filmmaker took Sundance by storm with his clever take on a polio victim’s loss of virginity.
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12 Oct 2012 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2012 - 4:09 PM

When Ben Lewin's movie, then titled The Surrogate, screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it was by far the most popular film there. Twentieth Century Fox quickly snapped up the film for worldwide distribution, retitling it The Sessions—maybe they should have titled it The Sex Sessions to really get our attention—but the thing that truly won audiences over was the humour. This came partly from the autobiographical writing of the film's subject, American poet and writer Mark O'Brien, a chronic polio victim who lived in an iron lung from an early age. Yet when you meet Lewin, a former criminal barrister who was raised and educated in Melbourne and still speaks and behaves in a very Australian manner (he's outspoken and bawdy), you come to realise that the writer-director's own sense of humour is what makes the film such a triumph.

A polio sufferer himself, though thankfully able to lead a normal life with the help of crutches, the Los Angeles-based Polish-born Jewish filmmaker could develop into our own version of Woody Allen. Certainly he wants to come back and make films here, together with his highly articulate and equally forthright Melbourne-born producer-wife, Judi Levine, who moved to Los Angeles with her husband in 1994 and has been exerting her considerable push there ever since.

“It wasn't an easy pitch,” Levine admits. “'There's a guy lying down in an iron lung who wants to hire a sex surrogate and lose his virginity'. First of all, it was very hard to get people to read it. There was no way of trying to explain it was an upbeat movie so I would encourage them to read the first 10 pages. Ultimately, we didn't go down the conventional road as that wasn't working. Our first investor came on board after he met the real [sex surrogate] Cheryl Greene and that helped move things along. Attracting such an incredible cast [John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are astounding in the lead roles] became an enormous bonus, which made things run so much smoother.”

Tenacious in her approach, Levine was convinced that the presence of a Catholic priest might help the sexually explicit film reach the conservative American masses, even if he is played by that famously left-of-field heathen, William H. Macy.

“I've never been accused of radiating empathy before in my entire career,” Macy jokes, “but it's a lovely screenplay about two of my favourite subjects: disabilities and sex. If there's anything that's got the ability to make American audiences squeamish these have!”

After watching the film, it's interesting to look up information about O'Brien, a Catholic and an ardent opponent of euthanasia, who died in 1999 at age 49 from post-polio syndrome. It helps that a short documentary, 1996's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, directed by Jessica Yu (who recently made the documentary feature Last Call at the Oasis with Erin Brockovich), exists about the man who was such a profound voice about rights for the disabled. O'Brien was apparently even more restricted than Hawkes is in the film, yet his cute smiling face and irrepressible charm shone through as his head poked out of the huge iron structure. In The Sessions, the naturally shy Hawkes captures his subject's joie de vivre to perfection.

Lewin: “The first time John was in character and the people who knew Mark saw him—Susan Fernbach, his companion in last years of his life and the real Cheryl—it was a freaky moment for them. I could see how deeply moved they were in a totally unexpected way. Here they were seeing Mark O'Brien reborn, so it was no mean feat. Susan told me Mark had an athletic mind. She said, 'Mark did to his mind what Arnold Schwarzenegger did to his body!'”

Ultimately, Lewin took his cue from O'Brien's poetry. “There's no question there were some awful moments in Mark's life,” he says. "This was an episode that, probably even in his recollection, represented one of the most joyous and melancholy moments: that with the discovery of love there is also pain. I don't think we try and hide that, but I hope what we show has the rhythm of one of his poems. Our film is not intended as a gritty documentary. It's intended as a kind of love song.”

Still, the film is also about the sex act itself. For those who have never heard of a sex surrogate, Greene's job seems akin to that of a prostitute. What's the difference? “Sixty bucks, I think!” Lewin jokes. “Of course, it's more eloquently explained in the movie.”

Hunt at 49 may be incredibly well preserved, yet the What Women Want actress has to be commended for her brave portrayal, which includes extensive full frontal nudity. Hawkes, though, probably faced the greater challenge of having to contort his body to replicate O'Brien's curvature of the spine while continually lying down—and simulating sex.

“Helen and John didn't know each other before making the movie and there was at least a level of reality to me in the anxiety of their first encounter which was a crucial part of the story,” notes Lewin, who shot the sex scenes in sequence. “There's an electricity between them, so it's an interesting casting lesson for me, that you can often get the most interesting and intimate results out of total strangers.”

Clearly having faced his own challenges around puberty and now with teenage children of his own, Lewin says the film offers a life lesson for everyone.

“Carol teaches the sorts of things everyone wanted to know when they were fumbling around in their first efforts—you know, what bit goes where! One of the fascinations about the character and the relationship is this incredible innocence. There's no inhibition in describing the bits and naming them. A lot of what they do is instructive.”

Levine: “There have been all those coming-of-age stories in films where they've almost had to put Vaseline on the lens as they were afraid to go where we've gone. In this movie there's an honesty about own bodies, even if we're not disabled, because we've all got our fears as to whether we're going to be accepted by the person we're trying to attract or we're attracted to. Maybe we can break some barriers so other filmmakers can go there too.

"I'd like my kids to see this with their friends. I almost wonder if the next generation could benefit from sex surrogates where they could have this wonderful way to learn about sex before experiencing it with somebody they really care about.”

The Sessions is screening at the 2012 Cockatoo Island Film Festival and will be released in cinemas November 8.