Beautiful Boy: Interview with Director Van Groeningen about his Tale of Drug Addiction, Starring Oscar Nominee Timothee Chalamet

Beautiful Boy is a searingly frank account of the Sheff family’s journey through their son Nic’s continuing struggles with drug addiction. At 18, Nicolas Sheff was a good student, editor of his high school newspaper, actor in the school play, and member of the water polo team. A voracious reader and talented artist, Nic planned to enter college in the fall. He had experimented with drugs when he was 12, but in his late teens he tried meth for the first time and, as he writes, “the world went from black and white to Technicolor.” Nic went from being a teenager dabbling with substances to full-blown dependency. Based on acclaimed journalist David Sheff’s bestseller of the same name and his son Nic’s breakout memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, the film presents a portrait of the ways addiction can destroy lives and the power of love to rebuild them. Harrowing, heart-breaking and yet full of joy, hope, and love, Beautiful Boy recounts the rehabs, disappearances, broken promises and rage as Nic sinks deeper into the drug world, as well as David’s valiant efforts to save his “beautiful boy” from the ravages of addiction. Cast Directed by Felix van Groeningen (Belgica, The Broken Circle Breakdown), the film stars Oscar nominees Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The Big Short) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), Golden Globe winner Maura Tierney (“The Affair”), Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone), and Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People). Credits Beautiful Boy is produced Plan B Entertainment’s Academy Award-winners Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, The Big Short). Nan Morales (Selma) is executive producer. The screenplay by Academy Award nominee Luke Davies (Lion) and van Groeningen is adapted from the books Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff. Van Groeningen’s longtime collaborators are cinematographer Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgica) and editor Nico Leunen (The Misfortunates). The production designer is Oscar nominee Ethan Tobman (Beyoncé: Lemonade, Room) and the costume designer is Emma Potter (True Detective Season 3, Creed). Director Statement When I first read father and son David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs back in 2014, I was viscerally moved. David and Nic wrote from their personal experiences of living through recovery and relapses, but also the moments of life’s joy, innocence, and love. They start out thinking that they have the tools to deal with Nic’s addiction, to “solve” it. They don’t. But they learn a lot along the way. As time passes, there are moments where control seems beyond their reach and they experience how the consequences of addiction affect every fiber of their lives. I had thought about making an English language movie in the past but nothing had spoken to me personally the way the Sheff’s story did. Family dynamics, the illusion of control, the passage of time – these are themes I was drawn to in my previous films. I had dealt with substance abuse in some of my films, and the raw emotions of the Sheff’s story – and how they told it – moved me. Their family believes in unconditional love, and yet they had to come to terms with the fact that there are no easy answers and dealing with addiction is impossibly irrational. I was in some ways daunted by covering the years and extent of their story, but it felt urgent and necessary and, with Plan B as my partners, I felt compelled to devote years of my life to telling it. I never anticipated it would be such an incredible journey. The Sheff’s invited me into their lives and were incredibly open with me throughout this experience. They were honest about everything they went through, sharing their deepest fears and feelings of shame too. To experience how they live and how close they are is really amazing to see. Although it’s far away from where I grew up, the way David and Nic described their lives, a lot of that felt familiar to me. I grew up in a very different family, but the love between them is something I could really relate to. The core of their beautiful family, which gets tested in a very big way, and the idea of genuinely being there for each other moved me very much. I make films because they oblige me to process my own experiences and to face the hard things I need to. By diving head first into that particular feeling (dealing with my past, dealing with loss) through my films, I learn from them. I learn to confront life and, in doing so, I appreciate it all the more. I lost my father when I was only 26 and, in many ways, my father still lives in me through my movies. It’s also why I’m drawn to father-son stories. I want celebrate life through my films. I try to understand what each character goes through, and I hope the empathy I experience is felt by the viewers too. I learned from David and Nic’s books that my family and I had certain prejudiced towards addicts’ behavior. We hadn’t seen all the ways to deal with it, ways to try to help. Their story inspired us to make a film, that we hope in some small way, could give voice to so many people struggling with addiction. To show in a simple, honest and raw way, the complexity of the illness. As we finished the film and I returned to Belgium, I became a first time father to my son. It is incredible to feel the joy of loving someone that much. I hope this film helps people to feel and understand different points of view and might open the hearts and minds of the people who see it, as the Sheff’s story did for me. Felix In 2005, journalist David Sheff wrote “My Addicted Son” for the N.Y. Times Magazine, a painfully frank and unforgettable first-hand account of his son Nic’s battle with addiction to drugs, including methamphetamine. He chronicled the efforts to save his family, which includes his second wife Karen and their two much younger children, during a decade-long ordeal. Two years later, producer Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B Entertainment learned that Sheff had written a book about Nic’s 10-year struggle called Beautiful Boy, and his son Nic had chronicled those years in his own memoir, Tweak. Released simultaneously, the two books together created an emotional, multilayered portrait of a single family in crisis. When Kleiner shared the books with his partners at Plan B, producers Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, he proposed an unusual scenario. Each book was moving and important on its own, but the combination was far more than the sum of its parts. Could they make a film that combined both narratives into a cohesive story? “We were blown away by both texts,” says Gardner. “And we believed taking two perspectives of the same series of events and putting them together in a movie would be even more compelling than they were on their own.” To create a blended narrative based on such sensitive material, the producers knew they would need an unconventional writer and director who could help them shape story in a way that shared both Nic’s and David’s points of view. “We realized the movie was going to be unique in that it is derived from two memoirs about decades in this family’s life,” Kleiner explains. “It had to be painful and inspiring and ultimately optimistic as you travel with them through the many, many years they struggled with their son’s illness.” Kleiner and Gardner had seen a Flemish-language film directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, and were intrigued by his filmmaking style. “When we saw The Broken Circle Breakdown I was completely transported into a world that felt the way Beautiful Boy is meant to feel,” says Kleiner. “Our film is an epic story, but it is also extraordinarily intimate. It sees the beauty in life and the difficulties in life as inseparable and part of the whole experience of being human. Felix’s film also had an innovative, almost indescribable structure that went beyond movie rules and felt rather, like life.” Gardner says Broken Circle Breakdown pulls the viewer into a deeply tragic the story and says, ‘I know it’s uncomfortable but I’m going to take you through it.’ That is exactly what we were looking for.” Van Groeningen had made five features films in Flemish, including Belgica, which won the Best Director prize in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and The Misfortunates, which was selected as the official Belgian entry for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. By the time his fourth film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, a poignant family drama set to bluegrass music, was nominated for the 2014 for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar van Groeningen had become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and a fixture at film festivals around the world.  As he racked up awards and critical praise for his work, van Groeningen was inundated with requests to helm his first English-language feature. Although he was intrigued by the idea of working with international stars he had long admired and the prospect of reaching a worldwide audience, the director was painstaking in finding the right project for his first foray into Hollywood. “I read some scripts that were very good, but I always asked myself why I would be the best director for each project,” he recalls. “It was difficult to find material that I felt close to ― until Beautiful Boy. Of course it was a plus that it had Plan B behind it, but the bottom line was that it felt like the right film for me to do.” The Sheffs’ comfortable coastal existence in Marin County was geographically and culturally far from the filmmaker’s own upbringing, but the love between them was something he could relate to. “They are a beautiful family,” he observes. “Each of them genuinely wants to be there for the others. The longing for that kind of family life plays a large part in my previous films. It is something that moved me deeply.” Gardner and Kleiner first approached van Groeningen in 2014. As they talked about Beautiful Boy , the director saw many of the themes he had explored in his earlier films emerge ― family conflict and loss of control, deep emotion, the passage of time and visual storytelling. “Felix is dedicated to honest expression above all else – he has no patience for artifice, but this results in an extremely loving and patient director – with his actors, with the text, with the ways in which time and memory wend their way through the narrative. It is a quiet ferocity to behold and ultimately borne of a deeply heartening respect for the story he is telling,” said Gardner Van Groeningen felt the Sheffs’ books, rich in evocative details, lent themselves to being adapted for the screen. “They were full of little things that I loved,” says the director. “Maybe it’s because both David and Nic really love film, so when they write, they think about images or situations that are cinematic, like when they go surfing. All of a sudden, it’s foggy and dark and David loses his son. That was an incredible metaphor for the entire film. Ultimately, though, it was because the story felt so mythical and universal that I thought it was worth spending three or four years of my life on.” Something else that made the books unique, says van Groeningen, was the way in which they each depicted the unbreakable connection between Nic and his dad. “There was such beautiful material in the relationship,” he says. “It was exciting to think about showing that special bond, what they shared and what they were at risk of losing. It’s heart-wrenching, especially because this is a family where there is so much love that none of them can fathom what’s happening. “On top of that, it’s not one person’s story,” he continues. “Nic and David are equally present throughout. Often movies about addiction are about people coming out of rehab and restarting their lives. Or it’s about the experience itself with all its ups and down. I have never come across a film that is specifically about the experiences of a family going through this ordeal. It’s a tough topic, yet the darkness is countered by a love for life, and the highs are really high.” The common misconception that addiction only thrives in impoverished or deprived situations is debunked in Beautiful Boy.  Says Gardner. “It’s a democratic phenomenon that doesn’t care how much money or love or education you have. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some connection to the subject matter. So seeing a boy who came from a beautiful place and had people who did their best to help him is excruciating precisely because it upends our cognitive bias about addiction – this is the place from which we began.” Rather than placing blame for Nic’s addiction, Beautiful Boy takes a clear and intimate look at a family grappling with a devastating and growing phenomenon. “In the past–and to some extent, still–addiction has been perceived as a failure of character or a result of abuse and neglect,” says van Groeningen. “Addicts were kept at a distance. But we’ve come to understand that this is something that can happen to anyone, anywhere.”