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Profile: Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions

The film is inspired by poet and journalist Mark O'Brien's experiences with a sex surrogate

Profile: Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions

Poland, 1946. Raised in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1971 Lewin quit his job as a barrister to study filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in England. Lewin’s work to date includes Ally McBeal and the films Georgia and The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish. His latest The Sessions is inspired by the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, after contracting polio as a child, spent the remainder of his life confined largely to an iron lung. The film is based on an article O’Brien wrote in 1990 entitled ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate’ which documented his experience of losing his virginity in his thirties. It stars John Hawkes as O’Brien, Helen Hunt as the sexual surrogate and William H. Macy as Mark’s Catholic priest confidante.

On how he came across Mark O’Brien’s story
‘By pure accident, I just stumbled across [his original article] on the internet. I guess now I sing the praises of spending time surfing the internet, as you never know what might happen as a result! It was pure serendipity.’

On his approach
‘With The Sessions I wanted to avoid political correctness. The frankness of it is definitely integral to Mark’s article - that’s my being faithful to his account. The irreverence is my sense of who he was; in reinterpreting Mark I used his wit as a key note. I’m in no doubt that he had his bleak moments but I certainly didn’t want that to be the experience of the movie.’

On The Sessions’ explicit depiction of disabled sexuality
‘I didn’t think of it as a taboo. It was the very thing that attracted me to the story. The idea that it was going into new territory was very exciting, it wasn’t off-putting at all.’

On securing funding
‘I’ve been in the business for a while so it didn’t take me long to figure that it was pointless going to the usual people. The subject matter was too new. If you want a studio to back you, you want to be doing something that’s been done to death! We really just hit up our friends and family. We took advantage of people who didn’t know better!’

On casting John Hawkes
‘Lesson number one, when you’re ready to make a film get yourself a really good casting director. That’s important because Ronnie Yeskel was how I got to John Hawkes and it was as a result of getting John that doors began to open. He’s such a witty and warm-hearted guy. Then there’s his incredible versatility as an actor and his willingness to do things as a labour of love. He just felt totally right.’

Interesting fact
Just like Mark O’Brien, Ben Lewin contracted polio as a child.

The Sessions is on general release from Fri 18 Jan.

The Sessions - Official Trailer (HD)

The Sessions

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 95 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Ben Lewin
  • Written by: Ben Lewin
  • Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
  • UK release: 18 January 2013

Mark (Hawkes, remarkable) is a writer and polio survivor. Paralysed since childhood, he's a virgin in his late 30s whose main confidant is his Catholic priest (Macy), but then he hires a sexual surrogate (Hunt). Based on a true story, it deftly avoids mawkishness and is pleasingly frank, funny and moving.


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