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.
Lewin, 66, a Polish-born director who emigrated to Australia as a child, cast Hawkes and Hunt based on their skills as actors, but also because they had never met or developed a rapport before the production. He said he was looking for “two total strangers to connect,” creating a realistic awkwardness on screen that would have to be overcome during the honest and frank sex scenes in “The Sessions.”
Beyond the social element, Lewin said each actor took on considerable challenges. For Hawkes, it was maintaining O’Brien’s rigid horizontal posture, which was partly assisted by a foam ball wrapped in gaffer tape and placed at the base of the actor’s spine.
With Hunt, the challenge was naked, pure and simple. She spends much of her character’s screen time in “The Sessions” without any clothing. Lewin said that while this aspect of his film has created curiosity, it was essential to telling O’Brien’s story without compromises.
“Actors are hungry for complex and challenging roles, and I think they resent gratuitous nudity as a crowd-pleaser,” Lewin said. “But given that it was an integral part of the character and the situation she was in, Helen embraced it as part of her job.”