Director/Writer, The Sessions
"I was undressed, she was undressed, and it seemed normal. How startling!
I had half-expected God - or my parents - to keep this moment from happening."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
THE SESSIONS is the true story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien who, at the
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.
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
intimacy in his own inimitable way.
The funny, moving and life-changing set of lessons that ensues in these
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
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
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
and the Jury Prize for ensemble cast.
Ben Lewin says he always saw THE SESSIONS as a love story - albeit a different
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
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
"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
Since O'Brien himself passed away in 1999 at the age of 49, Lewin relied on his
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
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
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
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
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
O'Brien's engaging descriptions of his sessions undoubtedly came in part from
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
"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
areā¦ 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."
"I doubted I deserved to be loved. My frustrated sexual feelings seemed
to be just another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
In the last couple of years, actor John Hawkes has played some of the most
and grittiest roles in cinema and television - including his Oscar -nominated
turn as the backwoods
meth dealer who tries to help his niece in WINTER'S BONE, the Wild West merchant
"Deadwood," and an alluring cult leader in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. In playing
O'Brien in THE SESSIONS, Hawkes takes on another memorable role capturing
spirit, self-effacing wit and the significant physical challenges that take him
into a very different daily
When he received the script, Hawkes had a tower of high-profile screenplays to
But THE SESSIONS stood out from the pack. "Bottom line, it was the script that
got me," says
Hawkes. "It was just such a beautifully drawn story. It reviews just a small
piece of Mark O'Brien's
whole life - but in doing so, it tells us something powerful."
Lewin was thrilled to have Hawkes take on the role. "Here was an unbelievable
was ready to go to extraordinary and painful lengths to portray O'Brien's true
physicality so as to give
a more genuine performance. Once you have that person, you know you have a great
the director says.
The two met early on for lunch in Los Angeles. "I was as charmed by Ben as I was
wonderful script," Hawkes recalls. "We had a very interesting talk. My first
concern and question to
Ben was 'Have you considered an actor with a disability for the part?' He told
me he spent a great deal
of time auditioning many actors, some with disabilities and some of whom ended
up in the movie in
other roles. But there were qualities that he was looking for that he wasn't
seeing in others so he
considered me. And I'm glad he did."
"After I first read Mark's article, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted
to use a
performer with a disability to play Mark. I wanted the telling of the story to
feel as authentic as
possible and this seemed to be the perfect starting point," said Lewin. "I
reached out and sent the
script to three disability-access organizations in New York, Los Angeles and San
without result. In the end, we hired two excellent disabled actors, Jennifer
Tobias Forrest to play the other characters with disabilities in the film. They
speaking roles, they came with strong acting experience and had excellent comic
timing. I would
work with them again in a heartbeat."
Once Hawkes signed on, he began intensive preparation, which started with
poetry, articles and his autobiography, How I Became A Human Being, including
the essay on which
the film is based, getting to know O'Brien from the inside out. "I came to think
of him as both a writer
and a fighter," he explains. "He was a guy who was interested in justice, not
just for people with
disabilities, but human justice. He was someone who wanted to fight the good
fight. He was also not a
person who felt sorry for himself very often. So, from an acting standpoint, it
was important to fight
reflecting self-pity at all times."
Hawkes was already familiar with the 1996 Oscar -nominated short documentary
O'Brien, Jessica Yu's BREATHING LESSONS - a 35-minute film in which the camera
O'Brien talking openly about life, death, sex, work and poetry from inside his
iron lung. The
intonation of O'Brien's distinct voice and the imagery of his mannerisms became
resource. "I think I would have portrayed Mark differently if that documentary
didn't exist," he
reflects. "It presented a chance to capture his voice, witness his determination
and experiences, as well
as understand the way the iron lung affected his breathing."
In addition, Hawkes consulted those who knew O'Brien well, especially his life
Fernbach, who emphasized Mark's indefatigable sense of humor. "Susan told me
that when she and
Mark were together they often laughed because 'how much worse could it be?' They
had a sense of
humor about everything; they called themselves 'a horizontal lover and a
vertical lover.'" Hawkes
wove that humor through his performance. He explains: "Humor that comes out of
low points is
always the most interesting to me."
Mark's spirited attitude was paramount, but Hawkes also wanted to realistically
O'Brien's body, which had long been an obstacle to the love he sought. While
many people believe
those with polio have no feeling in their limbs, that is far from the case. They
have the same amount
of feeling as anyone else, but lack the motor neurons to move their muscles.
Hawkes wanted to
portray O'Brien's resulting altered physique without any kind of body double.
"I knew I would have to contort my body," he says. "Mark only had about 90
motion with his head and his spine was significantly curved so I began with that
reality. You can't just
fake that so, along with the props department, we designed something with a
soccer-sized foam ball
that I put under the left side of my spine to curve it without any special
effects make-up or CGI."
Hawkes admits that his own chiropractor warned him about damaging his own body
body-altering device - dubbed "The Torture Ball" -- but he says what he went
through to play the role
was nothing compared to O'Brien's lived experience minute by minute, day by day.
Diving deeper, Hawkes would spend weeks learning to work a mouth-stick with
dexterity to dial the phone and type out articles. He also explored spending
time in the narrow realm
of an iron lung. "It was quite spooky when John entered the iron lung for the
first time," admits
Lewin. "It felt very real."
Yet once production began, Hawkes let go of all the rigid physical training he
tried to kind of forget all of it when the camera rolled," he explains. "I tried
to have it all inside me
enough to look the other person in the scene in the eye, tell the truth and have
For Hawkes there was another aspect to the challenge: allowing Mark to get as
naked as he gets physically naked with Cheryl in their sessions. It is in those
scenes - love scenes that
break the mold in every way - that Mark's spirit emerges. Key to this was the
organic rapport Hawkes
developed with Helen Hunt. He says of working with her: "She was very daring to
accept the role in
the first place and then she just stepped up and embodied it, physically and
Says Hunt of working with Hawkes: "In these few weeks of shooting we got to kind
hands and go into this totally un-chartered territory. I felt so lucky to be
working with somebody
whose talent is shining so radiantly at you."
Lewin observes that since Hawkes and Hunt never met, that unfamiliarity only
precarious intimacy of their scenes together. "There was a nervousness the
actors had on a personal
level that worked very positively in the story because the whole point of the
beginning of Mark and
Cheryl's relationship is how anxious they were, how openly fearful he was and
how secretly fearful
she was. When John and Helen got into bed for the first time, it was a blank
page. Whatever they did,
it was going to be totally fresh and new."
For Mark O'Brien's life partner, Susan Fernbach, Hawkes' transformation was a
reminder of Mark's spirit. "When he smiled exactly like Mark; it was as if he
was channeling him,"
she says. "It gave me goose bumps."
"I asked Cheryl whether she thought I deserved to be loved sexually.
She said she was sure of it."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
While many unconventional professions have become film subjects, sex surrogacy
been among them. It's an unusual, easily misunderstood job - part psychologist,
part coach, part hired
sex partner. Mark's ice-breaking sessions with Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the married
who agreed to take him on as a client despite his considerable disability, paved
the way for him to
experience true intimacy with a woman.
To give Cheryl the open-minded, uninhibited mix of toughness and tenderness she
go on this journey with Mark, the filmmakers turned to Helen Hunt (AS GOOD AS IT
About You"), the Academy Award winning actress known both for her dramatic
versatility and deft
"What Helen brings to the role is a real sense of Cheryl's journey, how she not
Mark but how little by little, her own vulnerability emerges to the point that
you stop seeing her as a
surrogate and start to see her as a woman," says Ben Lewin. "One of the things
that Helen brought to
the character is a kind of edge - an attitude of 'I'm not a charity worker.
We're here to do a job, so
let's get down to business.' But you see her vulnerability when she is
undressing Mark in their first
session. When she says to him for the second time, 'nice shirt,' you start to
see that this woman is not
quite as tough as she came on at the beginning."
It was the unique way in which the layers of the script unfolded that grabbed
Hunt. She was
intrigued by the challenge of giving Cheryl her due as a professional like any
other - and one who
passionately believes in the importance of sexuality to human identity.
"Probably the rarest thing in
my profession is a good story and I thought this one was beautiful," Hunt says.
"It was bold and not
like anything I'd read before. Cheryl is someone people might think they know,
but she very quickly
defies your expectations. She fired me up with her positive extroversion, her
Boston accent and the
way she saw the world and sex in particular."
Hunt also found that, like Cheryl, she related to Mark under the skin. She
explains: "I found
his story to be not about what it's like to have polio but what it is like to
have a body, whatever shape
it's in. This is a really positive look at sexuality."
Hunt admits that she knew next to nothing about sex surrogacy before she took on
the part and
met Cheryl. But she quickly found that it's a serious profession -- even if it
gets into some awkward
territory -- one that helps people heal.
"I can only speak about the one sex surrogate I came to know, Cheryl, but I
think having your
life's work be helping people have pleasure in their lives and not feel weird or
hung up about things,
that's a beautiful thing," Hunt comments. "Cheryl was very enthusiastic about
the movie, very open
and very generous of spirit . . . I asked her everything. And I found that she
was someone who came
to this profession as a kind of calling."
"It was a calling," says Cohen-Greene, who was excited to share her memories and
experiences with Hunt. "I found it the ideal work because I was on a quest of my
own to feel more
comfortable in my skin and with my own sexuality. Helen was interested in every
detail of how I
talked to Mark in our sessions. She paid a lot of attention to how I would have
touched him. I was so
happy to see she used her hands the way I would have in the film."
Like the real Cheryl, Hunt determined she would be forthright, fearless and
unconstrained in her interactions with Hawkes' character. Working with Hawkes,
she could see how a
surrogate walks a razor's edge. "When you open your heart to someone, you really
open your heart,"
she muses. "I think with Mark, Cheryl tries to open her heart just enough to
close it again, but she's
not perfect at it."
Their scenes were starkly, sometimes unexpectedly, emotional but Hunt also came
appreciate the comedy inherent in a 38 year-old having his first intimate
encounter. "Being really
scared about something and wanting it really badly at the same time can be quite
poignant and funny,"
Ultimately, Hunt says she hoped to capture all the shadings of Cheryl's time
with Mark by
being as natural as possible while, at the same time, keeping things upbeat and
sexy, just as Cheryl did
in their sessions. She concludes: "Like any work that means anything, this one
asked for courage and
vulnerability. It's just this film asked for a little more than usual."
"I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be held, caressed, and valued.
But my self-hatred and fear were too intense."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
The person who first starts talking sex with Mark O'Brien in THE SESSIONS is an
one: his priest, Father Brendan, who finds himself chatting openly with his
parishioner not only about
faith and conviction but the flesh-and-blood mechanics of losing his virginity.
Taking the role is William H. Macy, whose broad range spans from his Oscar
work as hapless Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen Brothers' classic FARGO to his
Emmy -winning role
as a salesman with cerebral palsy in "Door To Door" to his current role as the
single father to a large
dysfunctional brood on Showtime's hit comedy "Shameless."
Macy was initially attracted by the subject matter. "It was an unusual script
that was very well
done," he says. "I liked, first of all, that this is the story of a guy with
tenacity and boldness, who says
'I want to experience this; I want to be in love; I want to know what sex feels
like.' And second, I
liked that he makes this happen in a time and place when such things were
possible, in the wild and
woolly 70s and 80s in San Francisco. It's a great story and I hope it
The first task for Macy was approaching Father Brendan on his own terms - as a
man of the
cloth trying to do the moral thing even if, ironically, that means helping a
member of his flock to have
paid sex, which under other circumstances could certainly be construed as a sin.
"I love this priest
because he is a good man and he makes a beautiful decision," says Macy. "Father
about Mark's situation and he says 'I know in my heart that God will give you a
free pass on this one.
Go for it.' And I adore that about him."
Still, Macy understood that it wouldn't come easy to Father Brendan, especially
once the shoot
began in a real, functioning church. "Shooting in this magnificent California
church, we all felt a little
squeamish talking about sex," he confesses. "But I think what steels Father
Brendan is that he believes
his church is a place to talk about important things and sex is important."
Finding a sly mix of humor and compassion in his rapport with John Hawkes also
Macy to bring the role alive. "John is the real deal," he comments. "He plays
this very complex role
with a light touch that I really enjoyed. There's a twinkle in his eye, but he
also digs deep. He doesn't
add anything but he doesn't deny anything. It was such great fun to work with
him in this role."
Most of all, Macy appreciated Lewin's emphasis on the comedy of the situation,
the story's vivid emotions. "When I talked with Ben about doing this, we both
agreed that it was
important to really bring out the humor," concludes Macy. "And I think that is
what helps the
audience want to get to know these characters so fully."
Hawkes was grateful for the chance to work so closely with Macy. "I was elated
when I found
out he wanted to play Father Brendan. I was beside myself," he recalls. "He
brings such an essential
quality because, while Mark has a lot of humor about him, Bill brings a
different kind of humor and a
humor that is so needed in the film. It comes from his bringing the truth to
"I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and
loved. For if this latter
happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing A Sex Surrogate
Joining John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy in THE SESSIONS is a
cast who take on the key roles of O'Brien's friends and personal attendants as
he embarks on his
quixotic middle-aged quest to know sexual intimacy. They include Moon Bloodgood
as Vera, the
architectural student who accompanies him to his sessions; Annika Marks as
carer Amanda; Rusty Schwimmer as Joan, Mark's most humorless caretaker; Jennifer
Carmen, whose sex life as a disabled woman encourages O'Brien to pursue his
plan; and Adam Arkin
as Cheryl's husband, who watches suspiciously when she receives a love poem from
They all knew that the film would be an experience different from others. "I'd
never heard of
sex surrogates for people with disabilities," says Bloodgood. "And my character
Vera isn't like any
I've played before. She doesn't say much, but she's a doer. At first, she thinks
this is just a job, but
she slowly starts to really care about O'Brien. She's funny because she's so
direct, to the point, and
Marks was drawn to the role of Amanda, despite the fact that she is the
attendant who rejects
his besotted affections. "She breaks his heart but that's the catalyst for him
to go on this quest for
intimacy," she explains. "She really does love him, but not in that way."
It was especially thrilling for Marks to work so closely with Hawkes. "He was so
don't have words for it," she goes on. "Despite the physical and emotional
demands of the role he was
always the most generous person on set."
Schwimmer had worked with Hawkes in THE PERFECT STORM, but this was completely
different, playing the attendant least compatible with O'Brien. "What's fun
about Joan is that she's
assisting this man with significant disabilities who has a golden sense of
humor, and she's got squat in
the humor department! It was interesting to play someone humorless when I'm
someone who sees
humor in everything."
Another important woman in O'Brien's life is Carmen, a friend from the
with a very satisfying sex life. She is played by Jennifer Kumiyama, who makes
her film debut in
THE SESSIONS. Kumiyama, who was born with a rare birth disability and was
Wheelchair-2010, says that she needed little preparation to take on the role of
Carmen. "I myself don't
make any excuses for who I am or what I believe or how I feel or how comfortable
I am with my body
or my sexuality so it didn't really take much for me to relate to Carmen," she
But Kumiyama does believe that if the film gets people talking more openly about
disability, that is a very good thing. "I hope this film will bring a lot of
awareness to the non-disabled
community because people don't usually see those of us in the disability
community in a sexual light.
It's never 'hey look at that hot girl'; it's always 'hey, look at that hot girl
in the chair.' There is always
the chair or the disability attached to it. So I think this story is going to
open a lot of people's minds
and shatter myths."
For Adam Arkin, the role of Cheryl's husband was also eye-opening, as he
imagined what it
would be like to have a wife who explores the mechanics of intimacy with other
men as her day job.
"I could imagine it - but I imagine that it would be filled with challenges,"
Arkin confesses. "Even for
the most evolved of people. Most people's sexuality comes with a certain sense
of attachment and
issues of possessiveness so I think it would definitely be a challenge."
"My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation
and my fear of breaking out of it.."
-- Mark O'Brien, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
THE SESSIONS traverses two contrasting worlds: the free-wheeling, anything goes
atmosphere of Berkeley and Mark O'Brien's personal realm as he leads a full life
inside the narrow
confines of his iron lung. To bring both to life, Ben Lewin worked with a
creative team that includes
cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, editor Lisa Bromwell, production designer John
costume designer Justine Seymour, who focused on an understated realism that
allows the characters
and their inter-relationships to be front and center.
Simpson used the Red One digital camera to get up close with the cast even in
awkward and vulnerable moments. "Geoffrey was just the most sensitive DP," says
Helen Hunt. "He
had a sense of humor when you needed it and he gave you quiet when you needed
that. He made the
atmosphere as perfect as it could be for the very intimate scenes."
Mott also aimed for a subtlety in the film's design, bringing in period details
that added flavor
to the story without ever distracting from it. "The humor of the script was
really important so I didn't
want there to be humor in the design. The comedy had to come out of the dialogue
and the situations.
I thought these things were really crucial to the story's appeal," he explains.
He contrasted Mark's small, spare apartment which was largely dedicated to his
iron lung with
the more exotic locations where he meets Cheryl -- his disabled friend's
bedroom where their first sessions take place and then the typical mid-Century
California motel room,
which Mott built on a soundstage. As for Mark's iron lung, Mott borrowed perhaps
the last working
machine in the state of California from the Rancho Los Amigos National
Rehabilitation Center in
order to bring complete authenticity to Hawkes' portrayal.
One of the most important things Mott wanted the design to convey is that this
was a time
before instant communication, when there were major logistical challenges for
someone in Mark's
position to live independently, with the daily help of personal care attendants.
"He had real issues with
communication," he says. "It was important to have all the right stuff near his
iron lung - such as his
phone and his mouth stick. All these things were a real part of his life and we
needed to show that."
Working with scenes involving a physically stationary lead character also pushed
Bromwell in new directions. "Usually, you make cuts on motion," she explains,
"but on this film we
had to throw that out, and we cut on emotion, which is very hard. But we had
performances and when you have a great performance you can do almost anything
Sums up Lewin: "I want the audience to feel that this movie is very different.
haven't been through this kind of experience before and that it is something
unexpected. I would like to
think that this movie is a kind of catharsis - you see it to feel emotion and
express emotion yet, at the
same time, enjoy the experience. I hope people leave the theatre thinking about
life in a broader sense,
even if they're not philosophers, to think outside themselves."
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