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'Sessions' director strives for emotional realism in true story

BY GEORGE LANG Modified: November 21, 2012 at 12:58 am •  Published: November 23, 2012

Writer-director Ben Lewin was randomly surfing the Web, looking for stories worth telling, when he found a late-1980s magazine article titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” written by Mark O'Brien, a quadriplegic journalist and poet who spent much of his adult life in an iron lung after contracting polio as a child. Lewin, a polio survivor, said he was deeply moved by the story, and soon began the process of making his latest film, “The Sessions.”

“I guess I was just really using a gut instinct,” Lewin said in a recent phone interview. “If it could reach me in the way it had, so unexpectedly and intensely, that it would do the same for an audience. I think as soon as I read it, I became committed to the idea that this would be my next movie.”

The film stars John Hawkes as O'Brien, who graduated from University of California Berkeley with a journalism degree in the 1970s and accepted his diploma from a gurney. Partly because of physical limitations — his back was permanently and painfully arched, and he was unable to sit — O'Brien did not lose his virginity until he began researching the article, which led him to sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt.

O'Brien died in 1999, so Lewin had to rely on O'Brien's writings and the recollections of Greene and Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's girlfriend for the last several years of his life. Lewin said that Fernbach offered great insight into O'Brien's character, but also had strong opinions about what to avoid in telling his story. Both agreed that sentimentality should be avoided at all costs.

“Knowing exactly what you don't want to do is a good starting point,” he said.

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