Circularity of the moments

Luke Davies on co-scripting Felix van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Felix van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy co-screenwriter Luke Davies with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Crosby Street Hotel screening room
Felix van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy co-screenwriter Luke Davies with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Crosby Street Hotel screening room

Two-time Oscar-winning producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight by Barry Jenkins, whose latest film If Beale Street Could Talk is in the Main Slate programme of the 56th New York Film Festival), hosted a preview screening and reception for Felix van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan.

His latest is based on David Sheff's book Beautiful Boy and his son, Nic Sheff's, Tweak. Co-written with Luke Davies, Beautiful Boy is a relentless look at addiction and the collateral damage inflicted upon a family. Luke received an Oscar nomination this year for his adaptation of Saroo Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home for Garth Davis's Lion, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara.

Beautiful Boy's Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Oakley Bull and Christian Convery
Beautiful Boy's Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Oakley Bull and Christian Convery

Felix van Groeningen directed Belgica and the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown and he teams up again with cinematographer Ruben Impens (Julia Ducournau's Raw), and editor Nico Leunen (Ryan Gosling's terrific Lost River) on Beautiful Boy.

Timothy Hutton, who has a pivotal scene as Dr. Brown in the film, Jon Stewart, Julianne Moore, and "bastion of good taste" music producer Ed Bahlman were among those who attended the evening. Dede Gardner in her introduction suggested to the invited audience to stay seated through the end credits. Following the screening Dede and Jeremy Kleiner introduced the guests to Felix van Groeningen, Luke Davies, David Sheff and Nic Sheff.

Luke Davies, inside the Crosby Street Hotel screening room during the reception, joined me for a conversation on Beautiful Boy.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The Beautiful and the Damned by Fitzgerald - did you put that in? It's shown early on.

Luke Davies: No. I can't remember if that was a production design set dressing. I have read that book. I put in Berryman, John Berryman, the poet, you know, the alcoholic poet. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs Du Mal.

AKT: You put those in the film?

LD: I don't know if you see them there. I just mean in the script at different times they were mentioned.

Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) with his father David (Steve Carell)
Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) with his father David (Steve Carell)

AKT: Bukowski is prominent.

LD: Bukowski is Felix's. I didn't put that in. It's not in the script.

AKT: We were talking about details, for example that the butterflies in Lion were yours

LD: Oh yes.

AKT: I was wondering, are there perhaps any sprinklers or things that are extremely personal to you in Beautiful Boy?

LD: The sprinklers are a memory of my Australian childhood. Swimming pools and sprinklers. What else? You're catching me off-guard. We haven't done any press yet, so I haven't even started thinking about it. You write notes while you're watching it?

AKT: Of course, blind in the dark. The structure of the film - the point when the film lifts off into a different dimension near the end, is really when the father says "No."

LD: Yes.

AKT: Did you plot towards that point? Did you structure it this way?

LD: We always knew that that was a really important turning point moment. Because we have come to love Nic [Timothée Chalamet] through the film, through this swirling circular structure. And of course we've come to love David [Steve Carell].

David (Steve Carell) with his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), the mother of Jasper (Christian Convery), and Daisy (Oakley Bull)
David (Steve Carell) with his second wife Karen (Maura Tierney), the mother of Jasper (Christian Convery), and Daisy (Oakley Bull)

And we understand it intellectually that this is a thing that David has to say at that moment. But in our hearts it's very hard to accept. So it's a painful moment and it's heart-wrenching. It's kind of Nic is at his lowest and yet David has to try and take this stance.

AKT: The car chase, this bizarre car chase following it - it is a relief. That's what I meant when I said "lifting off."

LD: Oh, I'm glad you say that.

AKT: The film is taking wing at that point.

LD: I'm really glad you think that about the car chase. The car chase is like - we always used to laugh about it - the slowest cinema car chase.

AKT: With no one being caught!

LD: That's our one concession to an action movie! A little car chase in Marin County.

AKT: The idea of mourning someone who is still alive is very very powerful.

LD: I love that moment from the Al-Anon meeting where the woman whose daughter has died says "That is a hard way to live." It's true. That's another heart-breaking moment. And that's what addiction is. I hope that that's what a lot of people who are touched by addiction - which is like, it's never six degrees of separation. It's one degree or two degrees.

Everybody has a connection in some way to this situation. But, you know, I hope that people relate to that idea of how terribly exhausting it is to be mourning someone who is still alive, because there's no finality. You're in the worst of both worlds, you know? It's lose lose.

Beautiful Boy poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York - Opens on October 12
Beautiful Boy poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York - Opens on October 12 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And the idea of not being able to help but letting the other person do whatever they are doing.

LD: Yeah. You can't control it. You're powerless over other people's misery even. And the circular structure is like the movie recreates the circularity of addiction. But it also recreates the circularity of the moments of beauty. They come and they go. And they're really painful because when things get really bad it's almost all darkness and fear.

But those beautiful moments still happen. There's a sense that - in the cinematography [shot by Ruben Impens] even - there's a sense that we're clinging to the beautiful moments at the same time as we're circling down and down and down.

AKT: At the moment of fatherly rejection, I was thinking of - of all things - Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8, telling her mother "You should have slapped me earlier."

LD: Oh wow. I've seen that film once but I don't remember.

AKT: What is the story with the Keith Haring letter on the wall?

LD: It's a true thing. They recreated it or maybe it was the real letter. David was like a really connected happening journalist, doing stuff for Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times Magazine, a million things. So he had friends in the rock world because of the profiles he used to do for Rolling Stone magazine.

AKT: A Steve Jobs article? They're all real? They are all his work?

LD: All that stuff is completely authentic. And the art. A lot of the artwork is really Karen's artwork. Karen [Barbour], Nic's stepmother, is an artist.

AKT: At the end, age is turned on its head. The boy is walking like an old man.

LD: Oh yes, absolutely deliberate. I'm very glad you saw that. It's completely deliberate. Actually, Felix decided to keep him with his clothes on. When I wrote it, I wrote that Nic is wearing a hospital robe with the thing in the back, so you can see his backside.

David Sheff, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Felix van Groeningen, Nic Sheff and Luke Davies inside the Crosby Street Hotel screening room
David Sheff, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Felix van Groeningen, Nic Sheff and Luke Davies inside the Crosby Street Hotel screening room Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

But in the end, I think it's a good decision. But yes, in the script I wrote - I can't remember how I wrote it - it's a reversal. The father is like the son, carrying the old man.

AKT: Both actors are great. Timothée Chalamet is so awful at moments as Nic. I mean, he is supposed to be. You just want to slap him, how insincere he is.

LD: Yes, yeah.

AKT: His lies!

LD: I love that moment when his dad says "Did you take Jasper's [Nic's younger half-brother played by Christian Convery] eight dollars?"

AKT: Oh my, yes. Wonderful liar, the beautiful boy.

LD: And he's like: "Why would I do that?"

Beautiful Boy will screen in the San Sebastián and London Film Festivals.

Beautiful Boy opens in the US on October 12 and in the UK on January 18, 2019.

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