I Did It To Survive: An Interview with the author of Beautiful Boy and his son, the Beautiful Boy
Although based on a true story, when we settle down to watch Beautiful Boy we approach it as a work of fiction. There’s Steve Carell, he’s playing a man named David Sheff, a writer whose son is in the grip of a drug addiction. And there’s Hollywood sweetheart Timothée Chalamet, he’s playing that son, Nic Sheff, living out a devastating cycle of recovery and relapse. Amy Ryan plays Nic’s mother, and Maura Tierney plays his step mother. We’re told that what we’re watching actually happened. We’re told that David and Nic are real people, who went through all that we’re seeing on screen. But even though we know this, there is a disconnect between the fact and the fiction. We eat popcorn, maybe we drink a beer or a glass of wine as we slouch into a cinema seat, all things you wouldn’t dream of doing if sat face-to-face with these real people as they recount the most painful years of their life.
To watch Beautiful Boy, and then be faced with the living and breathing David and Nic. Well that’s an uncanny experience. That brings it all home.
“It’s our lives, it’s not fiction,” says David, “it’s us, it’s our family and we’re exposing ourselves.” Handing over your work to a filmmaker would be a nerve-racking act for any writer, but all the more so when that work is so personal, so honest and so vulnerable. “When we wrote we were in control of every single word. Here we’re handing over the power to other people.” Beautiful Boy shares a title with the best-selling book ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction’ written by David. It’s an eviscerating read of sucker-punch honesty, recounting the ten most trying years of Nic’s addiction to various drugs but, most significantly, to crystal meth. Nic told his side of the story in another book, ‘Tweak: Growing Up On Crystal Meth’ a full-disclosure confessional about his life with a drug dependency.
No sooner were David and Nic’s books published than film studios were bidding for the rights to dramatise their story. That honour would be granted to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, who hatched a plan to combine the books into one script. At one time Cameron Crowe was attached to write and direct, with Mark Wahlberg tapped to star as David, but it wasn’t until 2015 when director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) came aboard that the film we now have started to take shape. “It was this crazy project,” says Van Groeningen, “Adapting one book is already difficult, but two is harder, there’s so much material.” But to Van Groeningen it was a challenge worth pursuing. “The books had been an eye opener for me, for how society and I, myself, too often look at addiction as a failure.” With that realisation, Van Greoningen had found his reason to make the film: to translate what he now understood about addiction to cinema audiences.
The script, written by Van Greoningen and his writing partner, Luke Davies, had to forge its own narrative. “I always knew David’s was the core story, that we would start and end with the father trying to understand his son,” says Van Greoningen. While Nic is always present, conspicuous even in his absence, Beautiful Boy is a story about a father, helpless against the addiction that has taken hold of his son. “It’s about figuring out addiction,” says David, “Steve Carell’s character is always saying ‘What is going on with my son? What can I do to help him?’” and through asking these questions, through the frustrations and failures that follow, David reaches a place of understanding.
The beautiful boy of Van Greoningen’s film is, of course, Timothée Chalamet, and this is a crucial moment in the actor’s seemingly pre-ordained rise to the top. “It’s eerie watching Timothée, because he’s so much like Nic was. The energy, that charisma, it was all him,” says David.
On screen Chalamet shares a passing physical resemblance to Nic, a slight build, shaggy hair and a youthful smile, but it goes much deeper. His performance captures something elemental about Nic. “When I was using there was always two sides to it. The side where I was belligerent and yelling at people, breaking into my parents’ house and being completely out of control,” says Nic, “Then there was this other side where I felt so much guilt about what I was doing, and shame, I could almost watch myself exhibiting this behaviour and I was horrified at what I was doing.” Chalamet holds onto these two warring characters throughout his performance; even during his most desperate, strung out moments, there is an underlying sensitivity at play. “Timothée always has that layer of the Nic we fell in love with in the first place,” says Van Greoningen. “He has this beautiful energy. He’s mesmerizing. It was important that you fell for his charms the way David does.”
Beautiful Boy is inevitably (and for fair reason) placed alongside the long history of films about addiction: Trainspotting, The Basketball Diaries, Requiem for a Dream and, more recently, Heaven Knows What. But Van Greoningen’s film takes a markedly different approach to this theme. “From the beginning Felix was very clear that the problem with those movies was that normally the endings are wrapped up into a bow,” says David. But broadly speaking that’s not how these stories end. “I was trapped in this cycle for ten years where I would get sober and I would try putting my life back together,” Nic begins “but I would still be in this tremendous amount of pain and I would reach out to drugs to try to feel better.”
He likens his existence to Groundhog Day, living in a cycle of addiction where the high is followed by rock bottom, intervention and a period of sobriety, before a moment of blindsiding pain returns things to the start. “It felt like making a movie that was different because it captured the hell that families go through,” says Nic. The troubling truth about addiction is that there is no cure. Recovery doesn’t end, it’s a permanent state of being, something that is fought for thereon out.
“I did it to survive, I didn’t plan on publishing anything,” says David of his book. “Writing was a way to make sense of chaos and terror.” What began as an exercise in self-preservation, writing as a way to cope, has since taken on a new purpose. “It became a way of communicating what we’ve been through and of connecting with other families.” After publishing their books, David and Nic have become voices of experience and authority in the conversation about drug addiction and the way society deals with such an affliction. “I went all around the country and spoke at high schools, I talked to all these young people who were feeling exactly the way that I was feeling at that young age,” says Nic of his campaigning, “Through being so open and honest it was allowing them to do the same thing.” For David and Nic, making the film was a way to further the reach of their story and to open up that cathartic dialogue with even more people. “We’ve had incredible conversations with people who’ve seen the film and talked about their own relationships, with either their family members who’ve been addicted or reflecting on their experience as addicts themselves.”
“It’s beautiful to know that they are a strong family now as before,” says Van Greoningen. His first child, a son, was born in April 2017 right after he finished making Beautiful Boy. “I had wanted to become a father for a while. I was ready for it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s changed me in the way I look at the movie, but I’m sure that me wanting to make this movie had something to do with me wanting to be a father.” While Van Greoningen spends time with his family, the film he made is being released in cinemas around the world, continuing the therapeutic work started by David and Nic. It might never be wrapped up in a perfect bow, but that’s pretty close to a happy end.
Beautiful Boy plays on Curzon screens from Friday 18 January