Sessions: Interview with Ben Lewin

Based on the poignantly optimistic autobiographical writings of California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, THE SESSIONS tells the story of a man who lived most of his life in an iron lung who is determined – at age 38 – to lose his virginity.   With the help of his therapist and the guidance of his priest, he sets out to make his dream a reality.

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 progressedFor 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.


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 candor and the detail of her recollections helped me redefine a biopic into a relationship movie that I felt much more confident writing.

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.

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents, in association with Such Much Films and Rhino Films, THE SESSIONS with a cast including John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy.

The film also stars Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama, Rusty Schwimmer, James Martinez with Adam Arkin. The film is written for the screen and directed by Ben Lewin. The producers are Judi Levine, Stephen Nemeth and Ben Lewin. The executive producers are Maurice Silman, Julius Colman and Douglas Blake. The creative team includes director of photography Geoffrey Simpson, production designer John Mott, ACS, film editor Lisa Bromwell, A.C.E., costume designer Justine Seymour and music by Marco Beltrami.