“The Sessions” is the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, at the unlikely age of 38, sets out to lose his virginity – under rather challenging circumstances. Veteran actor John Hawkes plays O’Brien in a powerful performance that transcends the physical limitations of the role.
The film, which world-premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest as “The Surrogate,” will be released by Fox Searchlight in early October.
Having survived a bout of childhood polio, O’Brien spends a significant part of his time in an iron lung for all but a few hours each week. Most would have difficulty imagining that he could lead an ordinary love life — but not being ordinary did not stop Mark. Ferreting out the humor, optimism and even faith from his tricky situation, Mark is determined to taste all he possibly can of life, including the emotional and physical pleasures that had eluded him. So, he makes the bold decision to stop dreaming of love and hire a pro: a sex surrogate who can give him a chance at experiencing intimacy in his own inimitable way.
The funny, moving and life-changing set of lessons that ensues in these surrogate sessions became the topic of O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which he published in the literary magazine The Sun. The article broke wide open the taboo of talking publicly about sex and disability, but did it in such an honest, witty and warm way that it seemed anyone, no matter who they were, could relate.
One person who related to O’Brien’s story on an especially personal level was filmmaker Ben Lewin. Like O’Brien, Lewin had contracted polio as a child. Like O’Brien, it didn’t keep him from a successful career. When Lewin stumbled upon O’Brien’s sex surrogate article on the internet, he felt it could be the basis of a film. Was it possible to make a dynamic, relatable and even deeply moving film about a man with a significant disability? Taking his cue from O’Brien’s writing, Lewin envisioned something humor-filled and unsentimentally true to life. He saw the script as not just about a guy’s middle-aged quest to end his virginity but about how a man comes to terms with his body, his manhood and the full measure of what makes a life worth living.
Lewin then brought this unusual tale to life with a devoted cast in roles unlike any on screen – with John Hawkes portraying O’Brien, Helen Hunt taking on Cheryl Cohen Greene, and William H. Macy as the priest who lends Mark his blessing, and his ear, as he attempts to explore life’s mysteries. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it took home the coveted Audience Award and the Jury Prize for ensemble cast.
Ben Lewin says he always saw THE SESSIONS as a love story – albeit a different kind from any most people have ever seen. “It doesn’t follow the usual blueprint of love stories,” he admits. “But I felt if I could do with the film what Mark had done to me with the power and authenticity of his writing, that would be something. I think his story is something genuinely unexpected.”
While Lewin’s own experience with polio gave him an authentic perspective, he says his first loyalty was to getting O’Brien’s razor-sharp and lyrical voice on the screen. “I was also in an iron lung when I first contracted polio, but I don’t remember the experience,” the writer-director explains. “Gradually I recovered the use of my upper body and some use of my lower limbs. I think Mark’s emotional journey was unique to him and, at the same time, I think it will be relatable to many people.”
Since O’Brien himself passed away in 1999 at the age of 49, Lewin relied on his writings, interviews and also on O’Brien’s eventual life partner, Susan Fernbach — whom O’Brien met after Cheryl Cohen Greene. Together they created a rich, life-like portrait of a man known for his biting honesty and his sharp self-depreciating wit.
“Susan was my major window into who Mark was, and was a kind of soul mate for me as the script and film progressed,” says Lewin. “She gave me a lot of insight into Mark and related many funny and harrowing events that actually happened to him. Things like the fact that the cat would sometimes brush past his nose and make him itch insufferably – that was from real life,” comments Lewin. “And Cheryl did take a mirror into one of her sessions and say to him ‘This is your body.’ When the power cuts out on his iron lung, that is also true. It seems these might be made up for dramatic purposes, but they’re not. It was just a matter of figuring out where these real events would work best in the narrative.”
As he wrote, Lewin also got to know Cheryl Cohen Greene, the woman who grew to admire O’Brien as she dove into new territory with him in their sessions: Cohen Greene was direct and open with the writer/director. “The first meeting with Cheryl was a crucial event. At one point, she asked if I minded if she referred to her notes,” Lewin recalls. “‘Notes?’ I thought. They were the notes of a clinical therapist, not of a sex worker. For the first time, I had an insight into what a fascinating person she was.”
He continues: “She really helped to transform the movie from what could have been a biopic into the story of relationships. Having her side of the story was a real treasure because it became a journey for two people.”
To join these two real-life characters who so profoundly touched one another’s lives, Lewin invented a third – Father Brendan, a fictional parish priest who is based on the reality that O’Brien was a practicing Catholic who, in his angst over the moral predicament of his virginity, consulted several priests, at least one of whom recommended that he have sex. “Religion was a fundamental part of Mark’s life, and I felt it was important to reflect that, as well as his idea that sex had a spiritual dimension,” says Lewin. “It’s also true that he had several close relationships with priests.”
O’Brien’s engaging descriptions of his sessions undoubtedly came in part from his expressive side as a poet and Lewin wanted to capture this on screen. Lewin opens the movie with an O’Brien poem about the act of breathing, which helps to drop the audience into his exceptional reality. “Breathing was a very important aspect of Mark’s life, which is something everyone else takes for granted,” notes Lewin.
Lewin began working with Such Much Films producer Judi Levine–who also happens to be his wife–to find support in the filmmaking world. As Levine watched the screenplay develop, she was sure it would inspire others. “The film works on several levels — as the story of a guy who wants to lose his virginity, as a story that shows how much people are capable of enduring and as a story about what it’s like to have that first experience of sex, no matter who you are… I think that’s why the audiences who have seen it so far have universally responded to it,” she says.
Producer Stephen Nemeth, head of Rhino Films, also had a visceral emotional response to the script. “I fell in love,” he summarizes. “I’ve always been intrigued by Ben Lewin’s intellect and his wicked sense of humor, and that is what he brought to this story. It is a story that could easily have been maudlin, but he nailed it tonally in all the right ways. The story has some tragedy, but you don’t feel sorry for anyone. The story is also hysterically funny, but it’s not quite a comedy. It’s a story about perceived underdogs and it is unexpectedly triumphant.”