Director Felix Van Groeningen on making ‘Beautiful Boy,’ winning Aspen Film’s Independent By Nature Award
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Beautiful Boy’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Sunday, Sept. 30, 5 p.m.
How much: $25 ($20 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: Sunday’s screening will be followed at 7:15 p.m. by the presentation of Aspen Film’s Independent By Nature award to director Felix Van Groeningen; aspenfilm.org
THIS WEEKEND AT ASPEN FILMFEST
FRIDAY, SEPT 28
Noon ‘On Her Shoulders,’ Isis Theater
2:30 p.m. ‘This Mountain Life,’ Isis Theater
5:30 ‘This Mountain Life,’ Crystal Theater, Carbondale
5:30 ‘What They Had,’ Wheeler Opera House
8:15 ‘Momentum Generation,’ Wheeler Opera House
SATURDAY, SEPT. 29
10:30 a.m. Documentary Panel: Taking it to the Extreme, Wheeler Opera House
2 p.m. ‘Kusama: Infinity,’ Isis Theater
4:30 ‘Shoplifters,’ Wheeler Opera House
5:30 ‘3 Days 2 Nights,’ Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
7:15 ‘Studio 54,’ Wheeler Opera House
7:30 ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
SUNDAY, SEPT. 30
11 a.m. ‘Spirited Away,’ Isis Theater
2 p.m. Secret Screening, Isis Theatre
5 ‘Beautiful Boy,’ Wheeler Opera House
5:30 ‘The Price of Free,’ Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
7:15 Independent By Nature Award
7:30 ‘Momentum Generation,’ Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
Felix Van Groeningen had no choice but to make “Beautiful Boy.”
“I had to,” the Belgian filmmaker said in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t not make it. I tried to pass on it, but it kept coming back. It was meant to be.”
His preoccupations as a director, his compassionate touch and his ability to pack an epic scope into an intimate and human story suit him perfectly to this real-life tale of a drug-addicted young man and the father who struggles to help him get sober. Van Groeningen couldn’t say no.
This searing drama, with Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff and Steve Carell as his father, David, based on their memoirs, is Van Groeningen’s first English-language film and his first time working with American movie stars. A big moment, if an inevitable one, for the 40-year-old Belgian filmmaker after the international attention his work has drawn since his Oscar-nominated breakthrough “The Broken Circle Breakdown” five years ago.
“Beautiful Boy” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and will be released in theaters nationwide in October. It will screen Sunday at Aspen Filmfest, after which Van Groeningen will accept Aspen Film’s Independent By Nature Award.
The nonprofit film society is reviving the prize — which has not been given since 2009 and had previously gone to luminaries like Bob Rafelson, Angelica Huston and Harrison Ford — to honor Van Groeningen at this auspicious turning point in his career.
“He is exemplary of what we want this award to be about,” Aspen Film Executive Director Susan Wrubel said. “He is independent by nature. He is a breakthrough director who has made several successful films in his native language and with ‘Beautiful Boy’ he has knocked it out of the park with an adaptation of a beloved memoir and he’s done it with two of the top actors working right now. He’s someone whose name people may not know, but after this awards season he will be on everyone’s radar.”
Van Groeningen said he doesn’t know what his next film project will be, that he doesn’t make long-term creative plans and he’s not married to the idea of making English-language films with American actors.
“Things need to happen like it happened with ‘Beautiful Boy’ — I come across it, I fall in love with it, and it gives me the energy to dive in for a couple of years of my life spend day and night for three or four years working on it,” he explained.
Van Groeningen adapted the film from two bestselling memoirs: David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy,” about dealing with his son’s crystal meth addiction, and “Tweak,” by his son Nic Sheff. The film, from a screenplay by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies, combines the two to offer a view both from the outside and the inside of the downward spiral.
The books’ openheartedness and honesty hooked the filmmaker, who felt he could say something new and vital in this cliched cinematic territory of addiction and recovery through telling the Sheffs’ story.
“I felt very close to David and Nic,” he said of reading the books. “It’s very important for people to see this, to show an empathetic look on the people going through it and the people who love them.”
The books both cover about 20 years — Nic’s childhood through this early adulthood — and many of the same events from different perspectives. Van Groeningen covers the whole stretch and both views. It deftly fills in flashbacks. So, as Nic descends into hellish addiction we catch glimpses of him as a smart and sweet kid, see the close and loving relationship he has with his father, follow him through his early adolescent angst and see him bond innocently with his father over a joint.
“I wanted the movie to be epic, so I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with flashback to show the scope of the story and to show how David was questioning himself,” he said. “‘What did I do wrong? What am I losing? How did my kid end up here.’”
The result is a film that’s less about the trainwreck of hardcore addiction and more about the fragility of sobriety, the long and brutal road to recovery both for addicts and the people who love them.
Addiction, substance abuse and their family wreckage are career-long concerns for Van Groeningen, who has brought a stunning sensitivity and compassion into his work on alcoholics and addicts. His “The Misfortunates,” from 2009, is a sort of mirror image of “Beautiful Boy.” It chronicles the life of a Belgian boy raised by a dissolute and drunken father and his hard-drinking uncles. Van Groeningen managed to make even that neglectful and occasionally abusive father figure, played by the Belgian actor Koen De Graeve, a sympathetic and multi-dimensional character.
You can see it also in films like “Belgica,” about the fast life of two brothers running a music club, and in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” which includes a climactic overdose.
The filmmaker feels a kinship with the addicted and recovering, he said, because his life — like most — has been touched by it.
“It wasn’t strange to me, in that I did experience that in my family in a very different way,” he said.
He is drawn to this dark terrain, he said, because he is always looking for hope in the hopeless.
“All of my films are hopeful in the end,” he said. “There is, in a weird way, a lesson to take from them in the end.”
Running through his works are also themes of children in pain with parents powerless to help them, most famously in “The Broken Circle Breakdown” about bohemian bluegrass-playing parents losing a young child to cancer.
As the dad in “Beautiful Boy,” Carell’s David is at first baffled and eager to cure his son. A successful journalist, he dives deep into research and reporting on meth, its effects on the brain and how to deal with it (one of a handful of laughs in the film comes when he tries the drug himself to better understand its allure). As Nic’s trips to rehab, 12-step meetings and stints of sobriety are followed by ever-increasingly death-defying relapses, David is slowly convinced of his impotence to help his son. Though he can’t stop loving him, he slowly realizes he has to let him go.
“I come from a very loving family, but that was also broken in a sense,” said Van Groeningen, who was raised by parents who divorced but continued living together and raising him with their new partners. “So I do have this longing for the ideal family. That’s what my films start with. But I also make them go through an ordeal.”
Van Groeningen was aiming to capture the interior struggle of the addict. He wanted to take the familiar cycle of the addict’s life — spree and remorse, recovery and relapse — and to make it viscerally real for viewers.
“This cycle that they always go through, I think people know it, but to experience it is a different thing,” he said. “To see how relapse is always lurking around the corner, how small it can seem but how quickly it grows into something way bigger because of this cycle of using and being ashamed of it and needing to use more because you feel ashamed you relapsed.”
To pull that off, he needed a transcendent actor. He found one in Timothée Chalamet.
The performances he elicited from Chalamet and Carell in the co-leads are deservedly garnering Oscar buzz. Chalamet tosses aside the cliches and histrionics of the movie drug addict and finds tortured depths beneath Nic’s twitchy, slurring exterior.
Van Groeningen cast Chalamet before the actor’s breakout as a star in 2017, when he played the asshole boyfriend in “Lady Bird” and the precocious, lovesick teen in “Call Me By Your Name,” which made him, at 22, the youngest Academy Award nominee for Best Actor since 1944 and announced him as a sex symbol and perhaps a voice-of-a-generation artist.
In Chalamet’s audition, Van Groeningen recalled, they ran the scene where a teen Nic smokes a joint with his father.
“What Timothée brought was an enormous amount of authenticity,” said Van Groeningen. “What I was surprised by was how he could capture this feeling of being 18, being close to his dad, and at the same time having these little secrets.”
He also challenged Chalamet, in his audition, to try the climactic coffee shop confrontation between a strung-out Nic and a desperate David.
“Seeing a Nic who is that far gone, but realizes he is that far gone — when I saw that it was clear that was how it had to be,” Van Groeningen said.
Chalamet’s interpretation drove the film’s depiction of Nic, the filmmaker said, as an addict who actually wants to get clean but cannot, as a kid who means it when he says he wants to make his parents proud and to get sober, who experiences true joy riding a bike and driving down the Pacific Coast Highway during stretches of sobriety but who unwittingly finds himself scoring drugs again in Haight-Ashbury or raiding a medicine cabinet. Chalamet spent time with the real Nic, visited rehab centers and kept an addiction counselor on set to keep his depiction honest and authentic.
More Americans than ever, right now, have an addict like Nic in their lives. Before the end credits role on “Beautiful Boy,” Van Groeningen flashes grim statistics on screen about the opioid epidemic in the U.S. and a statement about it, placing the film squarely in conversation with the ongoing crisis. The political and social mission of the film, Van Groeningen said, is to help viewers see addicts as human, and to show addicts and their families that they’re not alone.
“I think I’m fairly liberal and open, but I’ve made mistakes in how I looked at people who were struggling,” he said. “So having that conversation from a place of empathy is what I really hope the film does.”