Producer Judi Levine on her Sundance winner The Sessions

With The Sessions getting positive reviews at the box office, Australian producer Judi Levine tells Georgina Pearson about working with her husband, director Ben Lewin on the film that tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a man who lives in an iron lung and wants to lose his virginity.

How did you get involved in this project?

Ben came across an essay by Mark O’Brien while researching another project and said to me, “I’ve just read something extraordinary. Read it”. I thought it was fantastic so we went from there.

Making The Sessions was very much a family affair. Tell us about the experience.

It was an entire family production. Our two daughters and son also worked with us on it – our youngest daughter played a small role in the flashback scene and our son, who is studying classical music, helped out with the soundtrack. Our eldest daughter was my right hand. I couldn’t have done the job without her.

Was it difficult to make a film where the lead character is largely confined to his bed? 

When we started, I thought ‘how are we going to make this when for 90 minutes you are watching someone lying horizontal?’ But after the first few minutes you don’t even notice.

It was like that with my husband who has polio. When I first started dating him, I think people were a bit shocked but you just don’t notice his disability after a while.

How did you cast the film?

A lot of credit has to go to our casting director Ronnie Yeskel. Initially, we set out looking for a disabled actor but we couldn’t find anyone who had both the acting experience and Mark’s physicality. So Ronnie introduced the project to John Hawkes (who played Mark), who initially wasn’t quite sure – it’s a very challenging role – but he talked it through with Ben and by the end of their first conversation he was on board.

What is the moral of the story?

On one level, have better sex. It’s a story that in a way everyone can relate to. Nearly everyone has been in that room where someone has taken their clothes off in front of you and it’s been uncomfortable and awkward and you are thinking ‘should I turn out the light? What happens next?’

It reminds you to never undervalue what you have. After the screening at the Toronto Film Festival, a young man came up to us and said, “I will never take sex for granted again” and I think that really sums it up.

On a more serious note, it’s about seeing beyond outward appearances and getting to know people for who they really are.

Early in the process, the film had a different ending. How did it change?

Originally the film ended when Mark and Cheryl parted ways and it was very, very sad. I said to Ben “there is no way we can end a film like that, the audience will slash their wrists”.

So we ended up tracking down the real sex surrogate and found out that Mark’s girlfriend, Susan Fernbach, was still around. We got in touch with her and then we had this happy ending.

What are your hopes for the film?

We have been so fortunate with the critical acclaim we have received so far. There has been talk about awards but right now I am just looking to the premiere in LA. If we can get through that, and pull in a respectable box office, then I think I can breathe again

The Sessions is now showing at selected cinemas.




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