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BEAUTIFUL BOY

About The Production
In 2005, acclaimed journalist David Sheff wrote "My Addicted Son" for the New York Times Magazine. A painfully frank and unforgettable first-hand account of his son Nic's battle with addiction to drugs including methamphetamine and David's efforts to save his family - which includes his second wife Karen and their two much younger children - during an almost 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 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, van Groeningen had become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and a fixture at film festivals around the world.

Not surprisingly, 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, according to Gardner. "It's a democratic phenomenon that doesn't care how much money or love or education you have," says the producer. "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 try to place blame for Nic's addiction, Beautiful Boy takes a clear-eyed 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."

A Pair of Bestsellers

David Sheff says he had never actually planned to publish his book. Writing was initially part of the way he dealt with the chaos and uncertainty of that period of his life. "When I couldn't sleep, I would just sit and write," he remembers. "Then I went back to the notes I'd taken in the middle of the night and remembered in a very vivid way how hard it was, how much pain there was."

Nic began his memoir after yet another unsuccessful attempt at rehab. Asked to leave a treatment center in New Mexico, he disappeared, and his family didn't hear from him for almost 18 months. "My dad and I didn't speak for a long time," he says. "I didn't reach out because I didn't want to disappoint everyone again. When I was six months sober, we started talking again. He had also been writing a memoir during that time. He asked me to send him my book and he sent his to me."

David was shocked by what he read. "I cried on every page," he says. "I thought I knew what he had been through. But as bad as I imagined it, it was worse."

Nic was similarly taken aback by David's perspective. He says he never realized how much chaos he had created for his family. "I got to see his experience for the first time," says the younger Sheff. "I always thought that if I killed myself by using drugs, it was my business and it wouldn't affect him that much. In fact, it affected every aspect of his life. He was suffering constantly, and I had no idea. Meanwhile, he thought I was having one endless party and now he saw that wasn't the case at all. I was in a tremendous amount of pain."

Both men were surprised when their books garnered national acclaim and appeared on bestseller lists. "Neither of us were prepared for what happened," says David. "People read the books and it just hit them in the gut. We were telling a story that wasn't being told. Memoirs about addiction from the perspective of a boy Nic's age didn't exist. It was so visceral; it was so fresh. And then my version of the story was about what a family endures."

It was the idea of adapting both books together that sold the Sheffs on the idea of making a movie.

"I know that combining the books would be challenging," David says. "If they had chosen to tell the story from a single perspective it would have been fairly straightforward. But I loved the idea because that's really what the story is. It's two very different experiences of the same events."

David Sheff points out that addiction is a largely misunderstood, often hidden disease whose victims are often reluctant to talk about what they are going through. Perhaps, he hopes, Beautiful Boy can start a much-needed dialogue. "We judge their bad choices. We judge their families. We judge ourselves. We have stigmatized addiction. The judgment is so harsh that we hide and when we hide we feel like we're alone. We all like to think of it as something that happens to someone else, but it is hard to find a family that has not been touched by addiction."

A Delicate Balance

Despite that, both Nic and David admit to feeling some trepidation as development of Beautiful Boy got under way. They would, after all, be entrusting people they had just met with the most difficult and personal struggle of their lives. "We didn't want this trivialized or made to feel inauthentic," Nic explains. "So many families face these issues. We wanted to make sure addiction and recovery were handled in a subtle, complex and realistic way. Talking to Jeremy and Dede, we felt they really got it and would protect us while not shying away from the truth. They were enthusiastic about telling the story right - without any sensationalism."

David concurs: "It was clear we were in the hands of people who would treat the subject and the material and our family in a very trustworthy way."

After sending David and Nic The Broken Circle Breakdown, the producers put van Groeningen together with the Sheff family very early in the process to allow them to get to know the man who would be telling their story. He quickly earned their blessing. "We clicked immediately," the director says. "I felt I had their trust from the beginning in part because they had seen my previous films and believed I was the right match to tell the story. But over time we built a very personal bond."

David says watching van Groeningen's earlier movies convinced him they were working with an artist. "We felt honored that he was interested in making this movie." The Sheffs invited the director to spend time at their Inverness home for a first-hand look at their lives. "He spent hours with us," says David. "He even slept on the floor of our little cabin. We took walks on the beach. We hung out. We ate some good dinners together and just talked and talked and talked. We showed him photographs and videos of the family and he asked a million questions."

David was convinced that van Groeningen wanted to make a film that would be authentic to their collective experiences. "I also felt his passion and connection to telling a story that was true," he says. "One of the things that I appreciated from the very beginning was his commitment to showing addiction in all of its complexity."

Staying with the Sheff family gave van Groeningen an even deeper understanding of the bond between father and son and forged a lasting connection among all of them. "Nic and David were both so open," he says. "They were completely honest, even about their deepest fears and their feelings of shame. It wasn't intentional for us all to become friends, but that is what happened. We kept in touch after shooting ended. In fact when I spent the next year in Los Angeles, I took up surfing with Nic as my teacher."

Although Van Groeningen has created highly personal, elegantly constructed screenplays for most of his films, the producers wanted to get started as soon as possible and his schedule was already full. "I think he couldn't imagine doing something that he didn't also write," says Gardner, "so we asked how he would feel about having someone else write the screenplay in anticipation of eventually joining up with the writer and doing the shape-shifting that all filmmakers do."

Screenwriter Luke Davies, an Oscar nominee for his work on Lion, initially met with the producers in 2014 to share his ideas on how the two books could be adapted into one screenplay.

Davies has his own history with addiction, having survived nearly a decade of heroin use. He wrote a novel, Candy, about an intense love affair between two drug addicts, which he adapted with Neil Armfield into a 2006 film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish.

"I initially had doubts about whether I wanted to circle back to the subject matter of addiction," says Davies. "But then I realized I had never dealt with how my problems affected my father. In some ways, I was reconnecting with him and trying to understand how he may have felt during the years of my addiction. That completely changed my attitude."

Davies and van Groeningen met for the first time in Davies' native Australia, where they spent time discussing the books. Later, and in between sessions in Paris, they joined Plan B in Los Angeles for the painstaking process of merging Nic's and David's points of view. Davies recalls, "the books are complementary in the sense that you see what was happening in Nic's crazy consciousness at the same time David was going through agonizing times. The question was how to unify the emotional journey. We didn't want it to feel like two different films jumping from one perspective to another."

Combining David's and Nic's points of view was challenging, van Groeningen says, but ultimately one of the more compelling aspects of the project. "We decided that the trick was to have one character sometimes disappear, so we could be completely immersed in the other's life for a while. Staying with just one of them brought a more full understanding of that character. For instance, we watch Nic and see how and why he relapses. With that information, we return to David and see how that affects him, and so on."

Each time Nic and David go through the cycle of rehab and relapse, it changes their perception of themselves and each other, he says. "The characters in the movie had to find their own arc," he says. "David's book is written from the vantage point of looking back. But the movie has to show what's happening in the moment. Balancing those arcs and juxtaposing them with each other was essential."

The pair collaborated to create a script that chronicles a deeply emotional experience for son and father alike, while avoiding passing judgment on either of them. "Writing together was a beautiful, chaotic wrestling match," says Davies. "When we went down a path that didn't work we would unfold the chronology and start at the beginning. When we felt we had a solid structure, Felix put his director's vision into the script and took it down the home stretch."

The pain the Sheffs go through is not uncommon in America today. Beyond that, however, Davies believes their story will resonate for anyone who has raised a child, even those whose families have not been affected by addiction. "Nurturing a child is one of the fundamental parts of the human experience," he says. "As the child becomes fully grown, the parent has to let go and let the child fend for himself. This story is filled with joys and anxieties that all parents can relate to.

The film amplifies and intensifies some of those anxieties, according the screenwriter. "For David it raises primal questions: Have I been a good father? Can I protect my son against these monsters? Which is what the addictive forces tearing Nic apart really are. In some ways, it's a father-son anxiety drama about an apparently unbeatable foe."

Father and Son

The filmmakers realized early in development that one of their biggest challenges would be finding two actors of equal depth to handle the emotional complexity of the film's leading roles. They found their solution in a pair of Oscar nominees who both defied career expectations to become two of the most versatile performers in Hollywood. Timothee Chalamet, who plays Nic, transcended early roles as a conventional son/brother/boyfriend by shooting to fame with an unforgettable performance in director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name. The actor brings sensitivity, intelligence and a kind of recklessness that never alienates the audience to his character.

David is played with equal parts gravity, desperation and rage by Steve Carell, whose comedy skills made him a star in popular vehicles like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and "The Office" before he transitioned into a mature leading man in prestigious dramas including Foxcatcher and The Big Short.

When it came time to cast the film, van Groeningen asked Gardner and Kleiner, who had worked with Carell on The Big Short, if they thought they could convince him to play David. They all agreed it would be inspired casting. "The character of David Sheff felt perfect for Steve," says Kleiner. "David's a family man, which is something Steve embodies. His performance in the film is astonishing. With very little dialogue, he finds an extraordinary range of human emotion."

Carell remembers hesitating before agreeing to play the role. "My biggest fear about a movie concerning addiction was that it might take a Hollywood approach to the story and not really tell the truth about what happened," he recalls. "But this script was brutally honest. There are no heroes or villains. It's life as we live it."

When Carell met with David Sheff before filming began he was concerned it could be an awkward encounter for both men. "I didn't want to talk to him as if he was a science project," says the actor. "But I wanted to get a sense of who he was and what he went through. Looking at it from the outside, the Sheffs seem to be a family that, if not perfect, was really happy. Everyone is well intentioned, including Nic."

For David, watching the making of a movie based on his life was somewhat disorienting. Seeing Carell play him made it even stranger. "Steve Carell is a comic genius," he says. "More recently he's been in acclaimed dramas like Foxcatcher and of course The Big Short, which I adored. I felt so honored that he wanted to do this movie."

"Steve knows what he wants and at the same time he's the perfect collaborator for a filmmaker. This is the first time I had worked in a language other than my own and with a famous movie star. It was intimidating, but Steve was so open."

Carell remembers being told that van Groeningen has "an extremely high emotional IQ" and after meeting him, he agreed it was a fitting description. "Felix has a very gentle touch," he says. "He didn't want to take the easy road and I felt the same. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do, especially with David and Nic. I think his mantra is just to be honest."

Once on set, Carell was enthralled by the images he saw on the video playback monitor. "Felix knows how to tell stories visually," he says. "He created really beautiful pictures, while playing with metaphor and irony in terms of how he shoots things. He never simply sets up a camera and records dialogue. He's always looking for another layer of something, in terms of how a scene is framed or how the lighting works."

Beautiful Boy poses a lot of important questions, observes Carell, but does not try to answer all of them. "More than anything, this is a very realistic story about a father and son going through a crazy, horrific journey together," he says. "It's about the urgency David feels because of his deep love for his family, which is almost visceral. He wants nothing more than to take care of them. Timothee's physical and emotional vulnerability were exceptional in finding that urgency."

Carell first met his young co-star when they read together with van Groeningen. "When Timmy walked out of the room, everybody just looked at each other and nodded," he says. "I immediately felt a connection with him. He's very open and he's such a good guy. That's his character as well. Even at his lowest, his most conflicted and addicted, you can see that wonderful little kid you've always loved. There was just this light burning within Timmy."

Chalamet first came to Gardner's attention when she saw him on stage in New York. At only 22 years old, Chalamet has rapidly become one of the leading actors of his generation with roles in prestige films including Lady Bird, Interstellar and an upcoming remake of Little Women alongside Meryl Streep.

"He's an extraordinary and talented young man," says Gardner. "He's also an old soul. You get the sense that he's lived a lot for his years. I think that's true of Nic too."

It was Gardner who suggested to the other filmmakers that they have Chalamet audition for the role. "He and Steve read together and every step of the way it was perfect," recalls van Groeningen. "By the end, there was no doubt. Timothee has the ability to be this sweet kid who shares a special bond with his dad but who can turn into a crazy meth addict. Timothee is an open book emotionally. He gives of himself completely and is so present and so real that it is impossible to not care for him."

As Nic, the young actor manages to embody both the "beautiful boy "that David loves and wants to protect and a young man who is out of control - all without losing the audience's sympathy. "He captures the essence of Nic," says van Groeningen. "He plays the character as someone who we love so much that we're really scared for him. What makes it especially sad and painful to watch is that he is lucid enough to realize what he's doing. He is trapped by the drugs and the situation he's gotten himself into. As Nic describes so well in the book, there's a cycle of shame: you relapse; you feel bad about it, so you take more drugs; you run out of money, so you steal; and then you have to take more drugs to forget about the horrible things you've done. Timmy just got that right from the very beginning."

Chalamet says he considered Tweak his "bible" during filming. "It is heartbreaking - a stinging, first-person, in-the-moment portrait," he says of the book. "Sentence by sentence, moment by moment, it is a very specific description of what Nic was going through and what it was like to be in the throes of drug addiction. My understanding of that is that when you're deep into it, you are not yourself. It's as if there were two versions of Nic."

The actor jokingly refers to the director's "super powers," because of the depth of his understanding of the nuances of human behavior. "He simply has an eye for those things," says Chalamet. "It was surreal to be doing a scene and get a note that was so very specific, so well thought out and with such a grasp of the intricacy of the push and pull of trust and love and betrayal that is Beautiful Boy."

Nic remembers meeting with Chalamet before filming began. "Timothee was sweet and sensitive and so anxious when we first met," he says. "He was super respectful and really cared about getting it right. He had lots of great questions, especially about drug use."

Chalamet says his biggest fear was that the Sheffs would see the movie and question its authenticity. But according to David, the opposite was true. "It was eerie watching Timmy because he has a look that was reminiscent of Nic during those years," he says. "He moved like Nic. He wouldn't just sit on the couch; he'd jump over the back of the couch to sit down. That was Nic over and over again."

Comparing the side-by-side versions of the story from the two books was particularly revealing for the actor. "What Nic is going through in Tweak actually has little to do with the family you see struggling in Beautiful Boy," Chalamet explains. "Nic's book deals with his own experiences. His mind is on what's right in front of him and what or where the next high is. It was very present, very personal and in the moment rather than, 'I'm really devastating my family.'"

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