“We wanted to make a film that would make people think about addiction in less black and white terms” - hmv.com talks to Beautiful Boy writer Luke Davies
Currently in cinemas and nominated for a clutch of awards, complex drama Beautiful Boy has been a resounding success with both critics and audiences alike.
Starring Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, the film chronicles the strained relationship between a father and his drug-addicted teenage son and is New York Times writer David Sheff's real-life experience with his son Nicholas.
Adapted from memoirs from both David and Nicholas, the screenplay has been written by Luke Davies and sees Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen make his English language debut.
Davies first found fame in his native Australia with bestselling novel Candy, which was then adapted into a film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish. The film, which was inspired by Davies’ own struggles with drug addiction, told the story of a poet who falls in love with an art student who gravitates to his bohemian lifestyle, and his love of heroin…
Before release, we spoke to Davies about why he was reluctant to take the film on and his new big-budget adaptation of Catch-22...
How did you first come to get involved with Beautiful Boy? Has it been a long journey?
“It has been a long journey. The book got optioned by Plan B, which is Brad Pitt’s company, where it almost got off the ground, but it ended up stalling and died. I first got involved when Jeremy Kleiner, the producer at Plan B, asked to meet me. He’d just nabbed Felix to direct and he was looking for a writer to work with him.”
We’ve read that you weren’t all that keen…
“I took the meeting very reluctantly. I have my own history and I’d written Candy. I was broke and I needed a job, but I was very wary about writing another film with drugs at the centre. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Anyway, I read the books and I really liked them, but it was a lot for me to go down that path again, so it was a lot to wrestle with. Initially, I decided I wasn't going to do it, but my agent persuaded me to take the meeting anyway.”
What changed your mind?
“A few days before the meeting Phillip Seymour Hoffman died. My dad, who isn’t the type to open up about anything, at all, sent me an email. In the email, he said to me, ‘Luke, I suppose you heard about Phillip Seymour Hoffman dying. I remember you saying to me about going to dinner with him in Berlin and how great it was. I feel like this family is so blessed’.”
“He was referring to a dinner we had in Berlin, I was there with Candy, and he was there with Capote. So we all went to dinner, me and him, Heath Ledger, all the Capote people, and we had a great time. At that time I was 23 years sober and Phillip had been sober for 23 years, right up until the days before he died. I think the email was my dad’s way of acknowledging how fragile sobriety is. For me, that was so moving. I made me think I should go for this job. It was the father and son relationship, there’s none of that in Candy. I felt like I had a message to spread and I went into the meeting wanting the job.”
This looks like a film that if it had been handled insensitively, it could have been terrible. Writing about addiction and recovery isn’t easy…
“There were a lot of paths for this film to go down which would have made it a bad film. It was always going to be a difficult film to make coherent, you’re bringing two books together. One of the big concerns was how to make sure the film wasn’t judgemental about the cyclone of addiction. That isn’t satisfying for everyone. People have their own perceptions about addiction and they bring that to the film. We wanted to make a film that would make people think about addiction in less black and white terms.”
“Equally, I didn’t want it to be a drug-a-logue, this isn’t Requiem For A Dream. The key to the story is the father and son relationship. I wanted them to be together as much as we could. The family is the centre of this film and that love keeps you turning up, no matter how bad things get.”
You’re bringing together two books, was that a challenge? Did you have to pick a point of view?
“It’s not Rashomon. They are two different books and it is two very different points of you, but it’s the same story. You’re not grappling with a he said, he said clash. We were grappling with trying to make the bewilderment and the chaos engaging for the audience.”
What was your relationship like with David and Nick? Were they involved much?
“I got to know Nick really well. He wasn’t in the engine room with me and Felix. Both he and David were quite nervous about what we were going to do with the books and so they both stepped back and let us get on with it until the script was well down the line. Socially, I got to hang out with Nick and get to know him. I wasn’t digging for anything, the book was so good as source material. I didn’t get to know David at all, I didn’t meet him until the premiere. That was just logistics. We’ve hung out a lot since and I’ve seen their relationship up close, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Steve Carrell has been attached for a while, but quite a few actors were linked with the role of Nick, when did Timothee come into the mix?
“Quite late. Like everybody else, I saw Call Me By Your Name and it knocked my socks off. Steve Carrell was a total no-brainer, but for a long time, Timothee was just another kid, he was coming in and auditioning. Then Call Me By Your Name started to screen and he rocketed up the pecking order. I liked it so much in fact, that I called up my old flatmate David Michod, who was looking for his Henry V and I told him about Timothee, saying you’ve got to check him out. That’s how he found his Henry.”
You’ve got some interesting projects coming up, you’ve got Angel Of Mine...
“Angel Of Mine is me working with this great Australian director, Kim Farrant. It was a French thriller L'Empreinte de l'ange, a really great, under-the-radar release. It’s about a woman who believed that another woman’s child is her child. It’s a very strange story, you either have to interpret it as having supernatural elements or being about a crazy woman. It turns out to be not exactly either of those things. That’ll be out in 2019, but I’m not quite sure what its path is yet.”
You’ve got Catch-22 too, very exciting…
“My leap into television, that’s two years of blood, sweat and tears right there. Two years spent trying to wrestle that dense, difficult novel into a six-part series. You’ve got 40 characters in the book, cut down to 14 or 15, that was a lot of work. We shot it all in Italy and it’s all coming to Channel 4 where you are.”
How was it to make?
“It’s a giant black comedy and it’s period loyal. We’ve got two Mitchell B-25 bombers, we found two that worked and we used them. Then there’s a huge CGI team putting loads of them in the air and putting together all these battles. It looks amazing.”
As novels to adapt, they don’t come much more iconic...
“It was a big challenge and I’m really nervous about it. Can you live up to the power of the book? You have to reduce so much, even with six hours to play with, it’s a swirling, dense, 500-page novel. I co-wrote it with David Michod and we had to make so many choices, so much to reduce. How will the world take it? I don’t know, it’s out of my hands…”
Now that’s done, do you have anything else going on?
“I’ve written a western for Tom Hanks. It’s based on a novel called News Of The World and it’s a beautiful two-hander. It’s a man who travels around 19th century Texas reading the news to people. He goes from town to town and he reads the news to them. He was made bankrupt a few years earlier and he’s a little bitter and unpleasant.”
“Then he’s given the job of transporting this little girl across Texas to her only living relatives. She was kidnapped six years earlier by the Kiowa tribe, who have now decided to abandon her, making her a bundle of rage. And Tom Hanks has to take her across Texas. It’s a very elemental movie, a buddy movie and I’m hugely excited about it.”
Beautiful Boy is out in cinemas and will be released on DVD later this year.