Navigation Bar - Text Links at Bottom of Page

BEAUTIFUL BOY

About The Production (Cont'd)
The Love of Two Mothers

"Because this is primarily Nic and David's story, it would have been simple to reduce the roles of Nic's mother and stepmother to tropes," says Gardner. "The businesswoman and the artist. But they are both really good mothers, in very different ways, and essential to the story."

As Karen Barbour, Nic's stepmother and David's wife, Maura Tierney reveals subtle but unmistakable strength, as well as a profound affection for Nic. "Maura's performance as Karen is beautiful," says Kleiner. "You are aware that there is a deep bond between her and Nic. But when his behavior crosses the line, she feels violated and protective of her younger children, Jasper and Daisy."

Tierney, a Golden Globe winner for her role as Helen Solloway in "The Affair," says she loved the way the script incorporated an important, specific issue into a much bigger, universally accessible story. "I think addiction has a lot to do with the feeling of being seen or feeling invisible," she says. "People self medicate so they don't have to care. Initially it seems that Nic has just gotten a little off track and David and Karen address it right away. But things are not always as we hope for them to be."

Meeting Barbour before filming gave her a perspective on the character as more than just "the stepmother." "Her relationship with Nic is special," notes Tierney. "She's a well-known artist and they loved to paint and draw together. They spoke French with one another and played word games. She had, and still has, a very warm and loving relationship with him."

Working with van Groeningen was a special experience, says the actress. "I trust Felix completely. I felt really comfortable doing whatever he said, which is not always the case. I think it has to do with the fact that Felix has a specific vision that includes allowing for something completely unexpected and unplanned." Vicki, David Sheff's first wife and Nic's birth mother, is played by Amy Ryan. Vicki has remarried and is living in Los Angeles, where young Nic spent holidays and summers. The revelation that Nic has a serious drug problem comes as a bombshell for her.

"Like Karen, she also is a rock for Nic and takes over when David is unable to continue," says Kleiner.

Ryan immediately related to the dilemma that Vicki, David and Karen faced when confronted with Nic's addiction. Was it their fault? What was the best solution? "As a parent, you're always going to question whether you could have done something different," says the actress, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in Gone Baby Gone. "All three parents struggle with that. At times they have different ideas about what's best for Nic, but ultimately they are there for their child."

Like the other actors in Beautiful Boy, Ryan came away from the experience with the utmost respect for the director. "Felix usually knows exactly what he's going for," she says. "And on the rare occasion when he's not sure, you can see his wheels turning. Other directors might feel they have to have the answer and put up this faƧade, this toughness. With Felix, you get drawn into his process. It's infectious - you want to figure it out with him."

Van Groeningen is a true auteur, she believes. "His films are beautifully and fiercely poetic. The way the films are shot, the pictures he paints, the way the characters move through their world feels different from other films. And there's hope in all of his movies."

Ryan was delighted to reunite with Carell, with whom she shared a playful onscreen romance in "The Office." The first scene they shot together on Beautiful Boy comes late in the movie, when Nic has overdosed and his divorced parents immediately fall into a painfully familiar pattern. "It's a highly emotional scene," she remembers. "But when we first saw each other we just started giggling. I think Felix was slightly confused at first."

Kaitlyn Dever plays Lauren, a former classmate of Nic's and a fellow addict. When they meet up in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, he is 18 months sober and Lauren has been substance-free for four months. "It's pure happenstance," explains the actress. "They're young and looking to party. She had done meth before but not heroin until then."

Following a three-week bender of alcohol, meth and heroin use, Lauren ODs. "She is partially responsible for Nic's relapse," says Dever, "but her near death is also the impetus for Nic to try to get a grip on his life."

Dever's research for the role included watching documentaries about meth use and how it affects people's lives. "It was devastating to see how addiction tears families apart."

Timothy Hutton was cast as Dr. Brown. Hutton's character, an eminent authority on the devastating effect of crystal meth on the brain, is a composite of the many medical professionals David Sheff consulted over the years. "It is very powerful stuff," says the Oscar winner. "I responded to how emotionally deep this story is, particularly the relationship between a father and son. This is not just about drug addiction. It's about how this family faces a crisis. It has a brutal effect on everyone." Andre Royo, who portrays Nic's then-AA sponsor Spencer, says that for him the role felt like coming full circle from Bubbles, the sympathetic character he played on "The Wire." "Bubbles was a heroin addict who was able to get clean," says the actor. "When I read this script I just felt like this is what Bubs would be doing now.

"This script is layered in truth and grit," adds Royo, "and it represents a lot of people's experiences. Spencer doesn't know how much of an impact he'll ultimately have on Nic or how much help he can be. He knows that sometimes just being there is as important as anything he can do."

Beautiful Music

The book Beautiful Boy is filled with references to the deep connection Nic and David have through music, from classic rock to early punk and grunge, so creating an eclectic and personally meaningful soundtrack for the film was a major undertaking for van Groeningen. Early in the process, he brought in a composer to create original music for the film, but he soon decided to take a less conventional approach. At the suggestion of editor Nico Leunen, the director decided to construct a score entirely of existing music, including songs that were important to the Sheffs.

"I always planned to include some of the songs that Nic and David mention in their books," says van Groeningen. "The title Beautiful Boy is from the John Lennon song. It has special importance for David because he had interviewed John early in his career."

David Sheff admits to being "somewhat obsessed" with music, especially as it is used in film. "This music is extraordinary," he says. "They use the Lennon song in a beautiful, subtle way. Steve is singing to his beautiful boy and it breaks away into John Lennon singing, which is just gorgeous and heartbreaking."

One of David's favorite musical moments comes when he and Nic are in his car and the Nirvana song Territorial Pissing plays. "Nic grew up in the era of Nirvana and that was the first time he educated me about music," he remembers. "In that scene, Timmy is sort of head-banging and Steve is looking at him with real affection and appreciating that moment. It's beautiful and that song is so powerful. It says so much about the anger and the power Nic was experiencing during that time."

Finding the right songs, getting clearances, editing them to the right length and weaving them into the narrative was a huge undertaking, according to the director, but it is hard for him to imagine the film without this music. "One of the ideas behind it was that some of these are songs David had listed as ones he couldn't listen to anymore," says van Groeningen. "In his book, he tells the parents of addicted children to watch out for these songs because they are going to make them cry."

In addition to rock icons like Lennon and Neil Young, the soundtrack features some alternative acts including ethereal Icelandic avant rockers Sigur Ros. "I liked the eclectic nature of the songs we selected because David and Nic have eclectic tastes," the director explains. "The Sigur Ros track Svefn-g-englar works amazingly well. It's moody, dreamy, indie pop music. The music climaxes at the moment Nic shoots up and you realize that he's just relapsed in a huge way, which is exactly what you don't want to happen. The music doesn't prepare you for what's coming and because of that it hits you even harder."

Behind the Camera

For his first American production, van Groeningen brought with him a pair of longtime collaborators. Cinematographer Ruben Impens has photographed five previous features for the director, including the award-winning films The Broken Circle Breakdown and Belgica. This is also the fifth film that editor Nico Leunen has worked on with van Groeningen.

Impens and Leunen were on hand even before production started, sitting in on the two weeks of rehearsal with van Groeningen and the actors. "I know it's not the norm to rehearse in the U.S., but it is very important for me," says the director. "I want to have the time to explore things with the actors while we get to know each other. I like to try different things, but once you're shooting and the clock's ticking, it's harder. Having that 'play time' upfront is crucial."

With Impens on hand, van Groeningen can also begin blocking the scenes before he gets to set. Sometimes the cinematographer even films rehearsals, so the director can evaluate a scene before finalizing it. On each of the films he and Impens have made together, says van Groeningen, the cinematographer has been an essential part of the process on every level. "We know each other so well, it just flows," the director explains. "It's not just about the frame for us. It's about story, characters, mood, locations.

"What works for Ruben and me is not having to talk about it anymore," he adds. "When we start a new movie, we always want to do something different. We just don't try to pin it down too much in the beginning. Then slowly it starts to settle in and we begin to choose an aspect ratio and the camera we're going to shoot with, whether it will be handheld or not. It's never etched in stone."

The manipulation of time has long been a signature of Groeningen's work. But while Beautiful Boy includes numerous flashbacks to happier times before Nic became addicted, it is told in a fairly straightforward manner compared to some of his previous films. "We played around with time in the beginning in order to grab the audience's attention before diving in head first," he explains. "And we use flashbacks to show what the family has lost, or what they're about to lose."

For Leunen, it's a given that a van Groeningen film will unfold in a not-strictly linear way. "We take the entire story, rip it apart again, and put it back together as if the footage was just raw ingredients," Leunen says. "We've worked this way since our very first film. I rely on my faith in the fact that it will eventually work."

The way Beautiful Boy's narrative is structured, Leunen says, mimics the way memory works. "At every crossroads in your life, you think, how did I get to this point? It's a very natural thing for people to do, which is why they respond well to that kind of storytelling. The secret to making it work is that every cut back and forth has to have some kind of emotional logic. The biggest challenge was to find the balance between David's and Nic's characters. It is both their stories and so that was very important."

Watching van Groeningen, Impens and Leunen work together was a revelation for Gardner. "They all know each other's rhythms and understand how the combination adds up to something unique," she says. "It comes from their history together."

Creating a Home

Design is an essential element in storytelling, notes executive producer Nan Morales, and production designer Ethan Tobman was meticulous in ensuring the film's visual environment was organic to the Sheffs' story. "When that occurs, magic happens," says Morales.

Before setting pencil to paper, Tobman had many conversations with van Groeningen and Impens about the look of the film. "Felix and Ruben are unlike any director and DP team I've ever worked with," he says. "They finish each other's sentences - often in Flemish, which is their first language. They create a framework and then invite you to think outside of it. It's important to them that there are things the audience has to discover for themselves. Visually, we talked about not wanting things to be predictable."

Finding practical locations in Los Angeles to match the Sheffs' coastal Northern California environment took some time. A visit to their home in Inverness, a small bayside town in Marin County, demonstrated how important art, nature and architecture were to the family. "We saw from how they live that they have a very strong sense of design," says Tobman. "There were some departures for cinematic reasons, but we maintained the integrity of their identity. It's an environment that feels like the last place a child would want to escape from."

The Sheffs' home is classic Marin, marrying weathered wood with sophisticated touches. Antiques, rustic elements and raw industrial materials all coexist, creating a style that the designer dubbed "Bohemian Academic." "There are poured concrete counters next to aged wood floors," he says. "Huge windows embrace nature as it surrounds them. There's lots of grass, greenery, stained glass and semi-transparent materials with colors that sort of bleed into the rooms."

Kleiner offers high praise for the care Tobman put into meticulously curating the key locations to highlight the drama. The designer poignantly captures the light-filled optimism that defines the Sheff family home, contrasting it with the dark moments they faced in it. "When David is dealing with Nic's addiction, his office becomes a prison," Kleiner says. "This house that had been a place of joy becomes a kind of purgatory."

The Sheff house was shot in two different locations. First was a house in Calabasas, a well-heeled, rural exurb of Los Angeles, where they filmed exteriors and scenes set on the first floor. "The house absolutely could have been in Marin County, surrounded with heavy oak trees, and dense canopies of green," says van Groeningen. "There's even a brook running through the back of the property. Ethan added a lot of color and changed things to make it more beautiful and cinematic. It was a wonderful, fruitful and exciting collaboration on many levels."

For the home's second floor, Tobman designed and constructed a set on a soundstage in Hollywood. It was the first time that either van Groeningen or Impens had shot a film on a soundstage. "We did extensive miniature work, 3-D modeling, experimenting, location scouting and movie watching," recalls Tobman. "I drew up each of the rooms and then I cut them up on pieces of paper and presented them to Felix and Ruben like a jigsaw puzzle. We would assemble it in different configurations, then tear it apart and put it back together again."

Nic's bedroom is based on pictures of his real-life childhood room. "So many drug addicts and people in pain want to shut nature out and live in shadow," says the designer. "So Nic's bedroom is designed in opposition to the rest of the house. The windows have blinds and heavy curtains. The walls are a darker color. Nic is an incredible illustrator. He made collages and did pen illustrations that were pretty dark.

On a lighter note, Morales points out that the only connection between the set and the non-existent first floor was a false stairwell that went down only around six feet. "So as the cast descended to the stage floor, they would literally bend their knees so it looked like they were going down further."

The Sheff's seemingly unlimited creativity came into play when recreating the family home. Karen Sheff's acclaimed art can be seen on an easel in a scene when Tierney is painting and on the walls of the Marin County house. In addition, Jasper Sheff, now in his 20s, worked as a production assistant on the film and created some of Nic's artworks including the ones in a journal David discovers adorned with sexually explicit and violent images, as well as facsimiles of work that he and his sister Daisy created as children.

"We discovered an incredible resource that we didn't know we had in Jasper Sheff," says Tobman. "His drawings look exactly like Nic's."

Up North

On April 30, 2017, the Beautiful Boy cast and crew decamped for Marin County and San Francisco to film exteriors. They began at Goat Rock Beach in Jenner, California, where David and Nic regularly surfed. They also used local landmarks like Tomales High School, Bodega Market, Point Reyes Lighthouse, the Point Reyes Bear Valley Trail and North Beach, as well as driving shots in and around Inverness.

David and Karen Sheff visited the set on North Beach, where a scene featuring a "healthy" Nic playing with his younger brother and sister was filmed. "It was almost like we were watching one of our home movies," says David, "if it had been directed by Felix with cinematography by Ruben."

Tobman says shooting in Northern California naturally elevated the visuals. "It felt like those great movies where nature plays a character. There are twisted trees and weather-beaten homes that speak of a beautiful place that's met with saltwater and hardship. It was the least set-designed part of the film."

Other, more urban exteriors were shot at the Ohloff Recovery Center (Nic's first rehab facility), at Fort Baker's 19th-century concrete battery with panoramic views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, and throughout the city's Haight-Ashbury and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

"The scenes we shot in the Tenderloin with Nic and Lauren are heartbreaking," says Chalamet. "They help to explain why the two keep going back to this life. When you look around the Haight or the Tenderloin, to a young person it can seem so carefree - just your contemporaries walking around looking to party or hook up."

Dressing the Part

For costume designer Emma Potter, Beautiful Boy was a wonderful chance to help tell an important story through wardrobe. "David and Karen were very helpful in providing us with a wealth of family snapshots," she says. "There were so many funny little details, but one of the key things I noticed was the ways Nic changes."

In the photos, Nic goes from insecure teenager to self-centered drug addict and then vulnerable adult. "The earlier, happier versions of him wore a lot of primary colors. As his drug use begins, he moves through more secondary colors and as an adult it's all neutral tones."

Potter's work with Chalamet had the added challenge of accommodating the young actor's weight loss and gain. In preparation for production, Chalamet had lost 20 pounds. "He was losing weight as we were doing fittings," she says. "We began the movie when he was at his thinnest and backtracked from there."

The gritty street photography of Lincoln Clarkes, Jim Goldberg and Mike Brodie documenting life on the streets in the late 1990s and 2000s inspired the wardrobe for Lauren and the other denizens of the Haight. "One of my favorites was of a girl who was clearly in a very bad way with drugs," Potter remembers. "Yet her little backpack had a Disney character on it. We also hired local street people in San Francisco as extras. They already looked the part with long dreads, lots of tattoos, unusual colored hair and bits and pieces."

A Message of Hope

What sets this film apart is its point of view. "It feels like a window onto the disease of addiction that we hadn't seen before," Kleiner says. "Addiction is the great equalizer. We've been trained to associate it with income status and moral failing. In reality, addiction is a disease that is rooted in non-moral circumstances, but it is taboo in our culture to talk about it that way. If you acknowledge it as a disease, it is not something that should create shame.

"In addition, most films that deal with addiction do so from the point of view of the addict," adds the producer. "Looking at this through the perspective of a father who is trying to keep his family together was new."

Together, the books Beautiful Boy and Tweak cover a period of about eight years, which encompass visits to seven treatment centers and 13 relapses for Nic Sheff. While the books deliver an unflinching look at the uncertainty and pain families like the Sheffs endure, they also paint a compassionate and optimistic portrait of a father and son held together by a love that transcends their problems. The movie Beautiful Boy, say the filmmakers, chooses to concentrate on the latter.

"Addiction is in the DNA of the movie," Kleiner says. "But what makes us care is this loving but conflicted relationship between father and son. The story is heartbreaking, but also inspiring and hopeful. It puts forth an ideal of parenting as not giving up in the face of difficulty. As David, Steve Carell embodies the kind of parent that we all would like to be. It's easy to love when things are good. It's very difficult when your son is in the throes of addiction."

Nic Sheff, who continues to write and is also an advocate for families struggling with addiction, says that even though Beautiful Boy is largely faithful to his and his father's accounts, it has provided a fresh perspective on his own experience. "Watching the film, I got a chance to relive my past and see events in a way I hadn't thought about," he says. "Plan B, Amazon and Felix gave me and my family an incredible reminder of everything we went through. Beyond experiencing the film as a work of art, it made me grateful to be alive and healthy.

"It was so surprising to see just how much it got right and how real it felt," he adds. "You don't see anyone wanting to get high because it's fun. It comes from a place of pain, and that's an important thing to show. I hope people come to understand the feelings that were driving me and have driven so many others to use. I hope people who are using know they are not alone and there is a way through."

David Sheff has also become an activist, educating groups and individuals about the disease of addiction and treatment and recovery. "As many as 150 people die every day from overdoses," he says. "The only way we're going to surmount that problem is to recognize this as a disease. A lot of people still feel like addiction is a choice. No one chooses to be addicted."

When he visits schools, community centers and hospitals, David hears countless stories from people whose children didn't make it through. "A kid might have been prescribed Vicodin or OxyContin because they broke their leg," he recounts. "Soon they started using heroin and then they overdosed and died. When I saw the movie, I was reminded every second of how blessed I am to have my son."

TOP

Home | Theaters | Video | TV

Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
Contact CinemaReview.com

© 2018 80®,  All Rights Reserved.

Google

Find:  HELP!

Google