About The Production
In 2005, acclaimed journalist David Sheff wrote "My Addicted Son" for the New
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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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