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Nic and David Sheff on Beautiful Boy, surviving addiction, and fighting stigma


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The award-nominated biographical drama Beautiful Boy explores the difficult journey and relationship of a father and his drug-addicted son, using the two autobiographies by Nic and David Sheff to paint a moving and empathetic picture of addiction.

“Weird does not begin to describe how bizarre it was,” David states on first seeing the film. “I mean it was weird, but it was also really devastating because it’s so sad, and such a reminder of what our family had been through. But on the other side of it, it was sort of amazing to see that on screen… And I was sort of watching it in two different ways: one was really hard to watch, and the other I was just in awe of how the writers and Felix [Van Groeningen] could take these two complicated perspectives from books and put them into a movie.”

Nic agrees: “I felt the same way. It was super difficult being reminded of those parts of our lives. I remember I was watching it and there’s a scene in the movie when the boy’s girlfriend overdoses on heroin, and I got to that point in the movie and I realised what was happening. And of course I’d read the script before, but I’d completely forgotten. And it was almost like a punch in the stomach because it was such a reminder of that time, and how terrifying that had been.

“And Felix, Timothée [Chalamet] and Steve [Carell] did such an amazing job that the movie felt really real. So seeing it was like having to relive these things and yes, it was really painful, but it was also a reminder of how far we’ve come. And the fact that I’ve been sober eight years now, and I’m married, and I have this great relationship with my dad, and my little brother and sister, and my mum, and my step-mum… coming out of it was like the realisation of what a miracle it is that we survived it. And how cool it is that we get to go around and talk about these really important issues.”

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

Though David and Nic weren’t involved in adapting the books into the screenplay, David nonetheless explains that seeing the writers intertwine his and Nic’s perspectives together was “amazing, because we get to see it a little bit from the outside. And we get to watch how complicated it was, and how Nic was in such pain and the dad – me – was in such turmoil, and how they intertwine and how one action affects the other. And how it was, again, it was enlightening to see that. To be able to see it from a bird’s eye view, of looking down on everything that happened to us; Because when you’re in the middle of something, it’s like being in the trenches of the war.”

“I would say that going through this process, the cool thing is that, because we’ve had to relive and rehash every detail of everything that we went through as a family, it’s really allowed us to heal and to move on in a way that’s been really healthy and powerful for us,” Nic explains. “Because I don’t think there’s anything that still exists that we need to avoid as a subject, because we’ve really had to face it all and work through it all, and because of that we’re closer than ever. It’s such a relief to feel like we can face our past and not feel the same amount of shame or anger that we used to have.”

Having their story out there, both with the books and for the film, has led to great numbers of people reaching out to them, the Sheffs state. “The response has been only positive,” says David, “and I think the thing is that so many people are going through a version of what we went through, and a lot of times it is drugs, and a lot of times it isn’t. Sometimes it’s other struggles. And I think people feel that their life is affirmed – because often we live in our bubble and we don’t talk about what we’re going through because of fear, or we think we’re going to be judged and we’re ashamed – so when they see the movie I feel like it’s the realisation that ‘We’re not alone’, and that’s what I’ve heard over and over again…

“Because it’s so often kept secret, I would get these letters from people, pages upon pages of them telling me their stories, saying they’ve kept their relationship to addiction secret for years from their friends and family, because they’re too ashamed to admit the truth. I think both of our worlds have changed in a way that is so connected to being part of supporting a community that is suffering.”

“I feel so grateful that we get to have these conversations with people, and I think that was our hope with the movie… that when the books came out, we were able to go around and talk about these issues and share with them, and it feels like with the movie coming out, it gets to be like that, but bigger,” Nic agrees.

With about ten years separating the books’ release and the film’s, the urgency to share their story has undoubtedly increased. “In the US, 200 people are dying everyday of overdose,” explains David Sheff. “When the books came out it was about half that, so it’s gotten so much worse. And it’s a problem that, again, because there’s a stigma around it, people don’t talk about it. The results can be catastrophic, so now more than ever, anything that can encourage this conversation about drug use and addiction is really valuable. The fact that the movie is coming out now heightens its importance because of that.”

Images courtesy of Organic Publicity

And Beautiful Boy certainly brings forward a different portrayal of the causes behind addiction. “There is still this misconception that people have, that addicts become addicted for some sort of reason,” Nic explains, “or that you have to be able to point and say, that it’s because someone had a bad childhood, or that someone is weak-willed, and that’s why. But addiction really is a disease, it’s a brain disease, and there is no ‘why’, and it doesn’t matter why anyway! I think helping to spread that message is really powerful, and it’s something that we really take very seriously. That misconception that addiction is a choice is still very prevalent, and the more we can work to combat that, the better.

“I’ve read reviews of the movies and of the books, in a negative way, that say like ‘This kid had such a perfect childhood and his parents loved him, so why would he be addicted?’ and it’s sort of angry about the fact that I became an addict despite not having some traumatic event happen in my childhood. And that completely misses the point, of course, that no one wants to be addicted. Like if I could drink a glass of wine like a normal person, I totally would. But the fact is that I have a sort of brain chemistry that means that, when I put a substance into my body, I literally cannot stop. And I think that the more we can raise awareness about that issue, the more people can have compassion for those who are struggling, as opposed to blaming or thinking of it as some sort of moral failure.”

Since the books came out, Nic Sheff has had a successful career in television writing, working as a writer and producer on 13 Reasons Why, The Killing, and has also started writing features. “And even with that being my career focus, recovery is such an important part of every day of my life. I have a ton of sober friends and I’m really actively involved in my own recovery program; It’s a daily exercise in doing all these things to stay sober and be emotionally stable and happy.

“The cool thing – and this is something that my doctor always says, that the reason she loves working with addicts is because if you’re working with someone who has cancer or something, you can get their life back to the way that it was before, you can cure them of the cancer and their life will go back to how it was. But what’s incredible with addiction is that, when people get sober, it’s not just that their life goes back to the way it was before they started using. Their life gets so much better than it ever was. That process is why it’s so rewarding to work with addicts.”

Beautiful Boy is out in UK cinemas now, distributed by Studio Canal.

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