Ben Lewin had all but given up on Hollywood in the mid-2000s. The Polish-born writer/director behind the Australian films The Dunera Boys, Georgia and Lucky Break moved to Tinseltown with his producer wife Judi 18 years ago. They could only manage the odd episode of Ally McBeal or Touched by an Angel. Judi took a job writing catalogues. Ben became a watchmaker.
"We'd reached the point where we were treading water," admits Lewin, who contracted polio at age six and walks with calipers at 66. "We wanted to move back among family and friends in Melbourne. We'd painted the house so we could rent it out and I was seriously looking for jobs in Australia."
Then, in 2006, Lewin stumbled upon an article by fellow polio sufferer Mark O'Brien, and everything changed. Like Lewin, O'Brien had contracted polio at age six, but a much more severe case. He spent the rest of his 49 years in an iron lung in his plain LA home, checked on by a variety of carers. In the two hours he escaped each day on a gurney, O'Brien was a journalist and poet for the Los Angeles Times. His article, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, documented his quest to lose his virginity before he died. Lewin could clearly relate.
"I just knew this was a film waiting to be made," Lewin beams from his home in Santa Monica. "It was one of those very lucky accidents that really does change your life."
Inspired by O'Brien's article, Lewin wrote and directed The Sessions, a moving, frank and funny drama that may just take him from obscurity to awards season glory.
The modest $1 million film, which some cheekily dubbed "The 40 Year-Old Virgin in the Iron Lung", stars character actor John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Deadwood) as O'Brien, who spends the entire film lying down. Oscar winner Helen Hunt plays his carefree sex surrogate Cheryl, who spends much of the film undressed. William H. Macy is a quiet riot as O'Brien's priest and confidant.
And fair warning. The six sex "sessions" between Cheryl and Mark include everything from "body awareness exercises" to the climactic deed itself. It's confronting stuff, from the blunt sexual terminology to Hunt's full-frontal nudity. It's not the film to see with your parents. Yet Lewin handles the taboo subject of sex and disability with tenderness, maturity and laughs.
"Helen was probably very nervous about it (the nudity) and had to get to a certain comfort level with which she could work. But there was never any discussion about the fact that it was necessary. That was accepted at the outset."
To research the film, Lewin and his wife met the real- life Cheryl and Mark's girlfriend Susan, who held the rights to his work.
"Both of them were important collaborators for us. Susan described their time together as magical. And meeting and getting to know Cheryl, who's now a grandmother and still practising her craft, helped me turn a biopic into a relationship movie that I felt much more confident writing."
Indeed, as The Sessions shows, O'Brien's quest for the sexual experience evolves into something he never dreamed he'd experience - love. Yet raising the $1 million to make it was another matter. No one in Hollywood would touch it. Lewin turned to his lawyer friends in Australia.
"I would start by saying 'it's about a guy in an iron lung' only to have people stare back in this glassy way," Lewin recalls with a chuckle. "Then I'd say it's about how he wants to lose his virginity. And their eyes would open up. And then I'd say that he hires a sex surrogate, and they began to warm to it. People hadn't heard or seen this story before, and they liked that aspect of it. It has a novelty and unusualness to it, and they could see it was not what they originally thought it was."
Lewin's script was soon championed by a Hollywood agent who coaxed Hawkes on board. The others followed, including Adam Arkin as Cheryl's husband and Moon Bloodgood as O'Brien's tender carer and friend. The film was shot quickly in California.
Their gamble was soon rewarded, with The Sessions (then called The Surrogate) premiering at Sundance and winning the audience award and the special jury prize for ensemble acting. It's unlikely to miss out on Oscar or Golden Globe nominations, especially for the career-best performances by Hawkes and Hunt.
"This was a really simple story," Lewin says, "but a very dramatic narrative. So it felt very do-able. I wanted to do it simply but well, and let the power of the story come across. Besides, people in the film industry are famous for not knowing anything. I just had a gut instinct, and I gambled with it. Most of the time, you lose. But sometimes you're right, and it's very gratifying to be right."
Not surprisingly, the Lewins have gone from giving up on Hollywood to being flooded with offers.
"I can't keep up with it," Ben beams. "I've been reading as many scripts as I can but right now I'm busy writing my next film, a psycho- thriller called Bridge of Sighs that's set in a prison.
"But we're still very connected with our family in Melbourne and would like to have another home there pretty soon."