DISABILITY and sexual awakening are the themes of Ben Lewin's new film The Sessions.
The Polish-born, Australia-based director also wrote the screenplay of the film, which based on American poet and journalist Mark O'Brien's experience losing his virginity to a sex surrogate.
Paralysed from the neck down by polio, O'Brien was also the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary about his journalism career.
The Sessions is Lewin's first feature-length drama since 2003's Lucky Break starring Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney.
Deadwood star John Hawkes plays O'Brien, while Helen Hunt plays sex surrogate Cheryl and William H Macy plays O'Brien's friend and confidant Father Brendan.
Although it features a fair bit of nudity and sex scenes, The Sessions is a gentle, touching tribute to a man who used humour and intellect to overcome adversity.
Q and A with director Ben Lewin
Q: Helen handles her role with grace. How important was the casting of Cheryl? It's a role that not only features full nudity but requires both sexuality and sensitivity.
A: Cheryl is a complex character, a typical middle-class soccer mum who does a very untypical job. Part of that job is the balancing act between professional and personal. It was important to have an actress who could understand and embody all this, and also have a natural beauty and sensuality about her. On top of her consummate acting skills, Helen had all of this.
Q: Tell me about the physical and practical challenges with John's portrayal of Mark and his disability.
A: John studied and emulated Mark's voice, limited his head movement to 90 degrees, learned to work with a mouth stick, used a "torture-ball" device under one side of his back to twist his spine like Mark's and also perfected the art of lying completely still.
Q: Did you feel an added layer of pressure to stay true to Mark and original article?
A: It was not pressure. It was a supportive factor, like having a map or a blueprint. Also, I think the dramatic impact of certain moments is enhanced if the audience believes in the authenticity of it.
Q: Why was the name of the movie changed from The Surrogate to The Sessions?
A: For boring legal reasons. There was already a protected title out there called "Surrogates" and all the relevant parties wanted to avoid confusion between the two movies.
Q: What has been the reaction to the US release so far, particularly to the film's sex scenes?
A: Very positive. It had a strong opening weekend with the top per-screen average numbers. Audience reactions seem genuinely enthusiastic to the film overall, with no special focus on the sex scenes
The Sessions opens on Thursday Nov 8.
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