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Beautiful Boy director Felix Van Groeningen talks addiction, casting, and building empathy for victims of the opioid crisis

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Beautiful Boy, starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, is director Felix Van Groeningen’s English-language feature debut and explores the difficult relationship between a father and his drug-addicted son.

Speaking on being approached to direct the film, Van Groeningen he had “made a film called The Broken Circle Breakdown, which got Oscar-nominated in 2014 and did really well in the festival circuit. And because of that, I was promoting the movie and a way to do that is to send it out to a lot of producers and to meet with them. And so the producing company, Plan B, had seen it and really loved it.”

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

The director explains that the film is based on two memoirs, ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction’ by David Sheff and Nick Sheff’s ‘Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines’, and that the studio had “been wanting to turn these books into movies for a while and never found a way to do it, but seeing my movie sparked the idea that I would be the right guy to do this. And when I read the books, there was so much in it that spoke to me…

“I just really connected to that family [the Sheff’s] on so many levels, I could also really relate to Nick and his insecurities, and I understood why he would try drugs… I mean I had a very different upbringing but I could really relate to that, and I think one of the most important things that struck me when I was reading the novels is that I understood that… it was an eye-opener to realise that when I was confronted in my life with addiction and people struggling with it, within our family, nearby, that we didn’t have the tools to deal with it.

“So, the true story of this family going through it and having to come to terms with it, realising that there are no easy answers, but still fighting, trying hard, and finding somehow a way through it by never giving up. And really having to come to terms with the fact that it’s incredibly irrational, but somehow finding a way through it.”

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

The screenplay was adapted from the books by Van Groeningen and Luke Davies. The former discusses the challenge that came from trying to combine separate narratives into one film: “It took a while to find what the important thread was for each character. The books do sort of talk about the same things but in a very different way. David really tells the whole story of Nick growing up, and very gradually slipping into addiction, and it’s super detailed. He’s a journalist, so he’s very meticulously describing his research and all of his steps, whereas Nick is more in it, talking about his relapses and a couple of years of recovery.

“You’re really inside the mind of someone whose mind is constantly going around and around, and struggling with this. What I really liked in David’s book was the mythical journey of the father… and with Nick’s book what was really eye-opening was that you see this cycle of shame when you relapse, and once you have relapsed it seems like the only way out is to do more drugs because you can’t get back. You’re so ashamed of what you’ve done that you need to keep using to numb it. That and the fact that after fourteen months clean, working hard, that you still, somehow, can all of a sudden feel the need to use again and relapse. And that there’s no real reason at that point.

“And it’s true that we needed to dramatize it, so you do feel it coming and there are lots of little details that add up to him not feeling good and turning to drugs, but we didn’t want to Hollywood-ise it, or dramatize it to a point that didn’t feel real anymore,” Van Groeningen states.

With Beautiful Boy releasing in the midst of an opioid epidemic in the United States, does the director think the film has a role to play in helping those affected? “Yes, I felt it was very important to make this movie also to change the conversation, to show very empathic insights into this topic. But yeah, we’ve shown the movie and have had incredibly moving comments from people who’ve gone through it and who feel understood, and for all their loved ones too, it seems very important. These are all really small steps, I guess, but very important ones… maybe the film can do that for other people what the books did to me.”

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

“There was a lot of trust from early on, they’d seen my movie and felt that I could take this on,” the director explains of the Sheff’s openness to the process. “Authenticity is something that’s very important in my work, and not being afraid of very emotional and raw things that people go through, but also not tying it up in a bow. That felt really right to them, and they were very open to us coming to them with questions and allowing us into their lives. It was great for the movie, it made it very authentic… It all beautifully and organically came together.”

And beyond this, the casting is also what helped this project succeed. “Timothée went through the audition process, and this was before he was the star that he’s becoming now. This was before Call Me by Your Name, and he was one of many young actors who auditioned. But we immediately were very intrigued by him. And when I saw him in person, it was just like there something about him, he was so invested, and passionate and charming, and super smart. And a great actor, I think he’s really fearless, but you can only really pull that off if you’re very gifted. He blows it away every time.

“And when we put him in the room with Steve Carrell – who was our first choice – it really was… we call it a chemistry reading, and there was a lot of chemistry. They just clicked, and we were all very moved. Sometimes casting for me is like falling in love; sometimes it can take a while, sometimes it happens instantly, but you can pinpoint when it happens. And for me, it happened at that moment.

“I think Steve is an incredible actor,” Van Groeningen concludes. “Coming from comedy but having made that transition into drama some time ago, he blows me away every time. I think it’s incredible how he can make any characters super relatable, and this was important for David’s character. And on top of that, Steve’s just so warm and earnest, and a dad, and a very dedicated family man, so it all just made total sense. I think he does an incredible job at keeping it so close to himself, and because of that he’s so vulnerable.”

Beautiful Boy is out in cinemas the 18th of January, distributed by Studio Canal.

Lead image courtesy of Studio Canal

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