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SESSIONS, THE – SEX AND THE DISABLED MAN

Like the subject of the film Mark O’Brien, expat Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin had contracted polio as a child. Like O’Brien, it didn’t keep him from a successful career. When Lewin stumbled on 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 humour-filled and unsentimentally true to life. Ben Lewin explains.

Mark O’Brien’s article, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, was effectively the blueprint for the screenplay of The Sessions, but my take on the subject matter and the characters changed and expanded as the journey progressed. For instance, in tracking down the rights to the article, I came across one of the most gratifying ironies of Mark’s story – what he thought would never happen – did, in fact happen. 

Mark had given up hope of ever having the kind of close and enduring relationship with a woman that non-disabled people seemed to enjoy, and he expressed this in his article. His tone was sad, despondent and pessimistic, but the melancholic ending he wrote had an unexpected and joyful coda: her name was Susan Fernbach. 

"described their time together as magical"

In the last few years of his life, Susan was his lover, companion and literary collaborator. She described their time together as magical. Apart from the positive ending that she represented, her insights and intimate observations of Mark made it possible to construct a different and more complex screen character than I would otherwise have been able to conceive.

The other event that significantly changed my approach to the screenplay was meeting and getting to know Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the original surrogate, now a grandmother and still practicing her craft. Her candour and the detail of her recollections helped me redefine a biopic into a relationship movie that I felt much more confident writing.

The first meeting with Cheryl was a crucial event. At one point, she asked if I minded if she referred to her notes. ‘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. 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.

I believe there is a popular assumption that filmmaking is fun. I don’t know where people get this idea. Certainly, the anticipation can be fun, and the result can sometimes be fun but, for me, the actual filming is typically very stressful, every day is peppered with conflicts and misunderstandings, and it is a relief to get home and go to bed.

But The Sessions was the exception that proved the rule. Shooting this movie was a unique experience. It was beyond fun, it was joyful and, when it was over, it was painfully sad.

THE STORY:
At the age of 36, San Francisco poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), who has been confined to an iron lung since childhood polio, decides he wants to lose his virginity before he dies. With the help of his therapist Laura (Blake Lindsley) and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate * – but otherwise a typical mother with a teenager, a house and a husband (Adam Arkin). An unusual relationship evolves between Cheryl and Mark as she takes him on his journey.

* A sexual surrogate is a member of a sex therapy team who engages in intimate physical relations or sex with a patient in order to achieve a therapeutic goal. The practice was introduced by Masters and Johnson with their work on Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970. Most surrogates are women, a few are men, and there are married couples that practice surrogacy together. Some surrogates work at counseling centers while others have their own office. The majority of surrogates have professional certification in the fields of sexuality, psychology, or counselling. – Wikipedia

FOOTNOTE:
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.” 

Published November 8, 2012

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