The Sessions is a very lovely movie about Mark O'Brien, a writer with polio who has to spend most of his life in an iron lung and his quest to lose his virginity and find a new level of intimacy in his crippled body. John Hawkes gives a star turn as O'Brien and Helen Hunt is bold and brave as his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene.
In our quest to broaden our discussion with women working in Hollywood, we sat down with Judi Levine the producer of The Sessions here in Toronto for a discussion.
Women and Hollywood: I was reading the notes, and my first question was how did the project come to you, but then as I’m reading the notes I realized the project came to you because you’re married to the writer/director, Ben Lewin. So talk a little bit about how you both came to this project.
Judi Levine: I think that partly Ben had reached a point where he was tired of writing. He’d gone off to do other things, just to clear out his head, and then he was trying to develop a project which was really a television sitcom, also kind of a tasteless sort of thing about disability. While he was researching that idea he stumbled across Mark O’Brien’s original essay on seeing a sex surrogate and said to me, “I’ve just read this extraordinary story. Here, read it.” So I read it and I said, “Yeah it’s fantastic. It’s very moving.” But it finishes at a point where Mark and Cheryl part ways and it was very, very sad. I looked at him and I said, ever the producer, “You can’t finish a movie like this. The audiences are gonna slash their wrists and they’re never gonna recommend it to anybody. It’s too depressing.”
So he was very taken by the story and couldn’t let it go. He kept looking at other stuff and then discovered that Cheryl Cohen-Green (the sex surrogate) was still around. And we discovered that Mark’s girlfriend Susan Fernbach was still around and we were able to get in touch with her.
So suddenly we had a wonderful happy ending, which was great, and it just sort of grew from there. The first thing we did was meet Susan, who’s absolutely fabulous to really to ask her permission to do it and to make sure that she felt comfortable with Ben as somebody taking on Mark’s story. And we got on really well. Then she was able to connect Ben with Cheryl.
WaH: Do you think it helped that Ben also had polio, in terms of making the connection with the people in Mark’s life?
JL: I think it may have had some influence on his connection to the material, but in the end when you see the way audiences respond to the story, and I feel very strongly that it has a much broader reach, had he not had polio he may still have responded in some way, because we’ve all been in that situation, where you’re learning about sex and you start to date and all of those things.
WaH: So there are a lot of definitions of the word producer. So what was your producing role? Some people bring money in, some people bring talent in, some people make the trains run on time.
JL: In general, I see myself as both a practical and a creative producer. When I’m working with Ben I really can be hands-on all the way through. I’m actively engaged in editing his writing and the development of the story as the script is growing. With this particular project I was actively involved in bringing money to the table. We don’t have any studio money or the development money. It’s entirely privately financed. We were calling people up and saying, “wanna put some money in our movie?”
WaH: And on set, were you in charge of a lot of pieces of the puzzle?
JL: Yes and no. I was involved in that less than I might normally be because I still needed to go to my day job. We weren’t being paid for anything because it was our ticket to health insurance. So I was working all the way through, until May of this year.
WaH: So even after you premiered in Sundance you’re still working full time?
JL: Yes. I took my two weeks annual vacation to go to Sundance. The shoot was Tuesday to Saturday, so I was on set Saturdays and night shoots, and occasionally during the week if something was happening that I felt I needed to be there for. We only had a 23 day shoot, so it wasn’t like there were months of things, and we had a phenomenal first AD that I was able to rely on to keep things running smoothly on set and the production team was taking care of everything else.
WaH: It’s a small movie.
JL: It’s a small movie. A lot of that was dealt with after we finished shooting. We were editing at the house, so I came home after work and could sit down and look at stuff.
WaH: Talk to me about those phone calls to raise the money how do you do that? Tell people how to do that. I mean, do you send them the script ahead of time?
JL: I think we were very fortunate in some ways, because we have some friends who have made a lot of money in their lifetimes and others who are just I think very loyal to us. The very first start was with a friend of ours who happened to be with Ben when he went to interview Cheryl, and because he was there and listening and very engaged he said, you know, I’ll come in with the first amount of money. I think that’s the thing. The hardest to get is the first lot of money, no question about it.
WaH: And is it a million dollar budget? Is it a ten million dollar budget? Is it a $250,000 dollar budget?
JL: It’s at the low end of that spectrum. Generally, not discussing the budget, but it’s at the lower end of that spectrum. And basically, once we had one person, then the phone calls were more or less like, okay we already have somebody who’s in for this much, and we’re accepting investments from 5,000 dollars up, and we’re gonna offer you your money back plus a small percentage. And I’ve had a lot of our friends and investors have said to us, “We never thought we’d see our money again.” So it’s a great for us to know that we’re gonna be able to pay them back with a bonus.