'Beautiful Boy' Director Felix Van Groeningen On Casting Timothée Chalamet Before He Was A Big Deal And More [Interview]

Certainly a work that will be discussed come awards season is Beautiful Boy, the latest from Belgian-born director Felix Van Groeningen, whose 2014 movie The Broken Circle Breakdown was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Beautiful Boy was adapted (by the filmmaker and co-writer Luke Davies) from the best-selling memoir of the same name by acclaimed writer David Sheff, as well as the companion book "Tweak," by his son Nic Sheff, whose journey through drug addiction, recovery, relapse and survival serve as the basis for both works, each told from a unique perspective over many years.

Steve Carell delivers a strong central performance as David, with Timothée Chalamet (cast for this role before any of his memorable 2017 works were released) taking on the role of drug-addled Nic. The film also stars Maura Tierney as David's current wife, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife (and Nic's mother), and Kaitlyn Dever as Nic's drug-buddy girlfriend Lauren, with whom he commits the ultimate act of betrayal against his family.

/Film spoke to Van Groeningen at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Beautiful Boy was the Opening Night screening. We covered such topics as how the memoirs ignited personal memories from his own life; casting Carell and Chalamet; and his warning/message of hope in the film's final moments. The film is currently in limited release, opening wider over the next few weeks.

I'm curious about the process of taking two stories and bringing them together into a single film. I realize the two memoirs aren't telling the same stories, but they are covering a lot of the same ground from very different perspectives. What were the challenges that you and your co-writer had in bringing these two perspectives together?

Felix: We do shift with them depending on the who the focus of the scene is, but it was challenging mostly because of the volume of material. One book is already way too much to adapt into a movie because there are always a bunch of scenes that you really love that you cannot use. So with two books, the problem is doubled. But it was also what made turning these stories into a film unique. I realized that trying to get David's story of this father trying to save his son was something that, in this form, we hadn't seen. On top of that, if you could include the point of view of the person who is going through this and tell it from the inside and try to get inside his head and fell how hard it is not to relapse, or when you relapse, how this cycle of shame pulls you in deeper, or if you've been sober for this long, how temptation is always lurking around the corner—how hard it is to stay sober and fight day by day to get through it.

That's the villain of the film: temptation.

Felix: Yeah. So combining them and having them switch between the points of view so when you're with David, you could be with David, so you would miss Nic and not know, like David, where he was, and you would have the same anxiety as he had. Then we switch to be with Nic in other moments, so you could experience the relapse with him and with that information arrive with the family. From the beginning, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I saw that it was going to be unique, because it would give you an incredible insight into what the issue of addiction is for a whole family.

One of the things you capture that I rarely seen in any film about addiction is the idea that sometimes relapsing happens for no obvious reason. Many films show it happening as a result of bad news or a high-pressure situation, but here, it just happens. Was it important for you to show that?

Felix: It just hits, absolutely. There are always little reasons that trigger it, so it's not completely random. We had to embrace that unpredictability and the repetitiveness because that's authentic, that's what they went through, that's the irrationality of it that drives people insane. But it happens, and you want to get it right. When I read the books, it really was an eye-opener for me, in the sense that I had seen addiction near to be, and from afar too, but really nearby in my family. I've seen part of my family impacted by it, and I noticed that many in the family didn't know how to deal with it. In the beginning, the Sheffs think they have the tools but they don't, but somehow they do get through it, and sharing their story was really important to create understanding about it.

Were you worried that the material was too heartbreaking and soul-crushing for audiences to handle? You balance a bit of the darkness by showing the family in happier times in flashbacks. You get a real sense of how close the David and Nic truly were.

Felix: I fell for the beauty of this family and the fact that they do believe in unconditional love Broken Circle Breakdown juggled that same thing—celebrating life by going through an ordeal, but coming out the other side as a stronger person. It's a cathartic experience.

As much as this family does believe in unconditional love, there is that one moment where David has to say "No. I'm done with this version of you." He's not saying he doesn't love Nic, but he is saying that he can't do anything for him anymore. Nic has to want to get better and take the necessary steps. I know a lot of parents watching this might think they would never do that, but of course they would.

Felix: David in real life came to that point. In the script, we had to meticulously craft their arcs to come together at that point. What David reached at some point was what he had to be okay with. He realized that his son would die with or without him, or he could not choose for his son to live or die. That's true for all parents. It's a tough way in which he had to get through that, but it's true. If you get there as a parents, while still being there, while doing everything you can, it's a healthier way to be. He has another family to take care of, and it's hurting them to see him go through this, so setting that boundary to protect those people was important.

Steve Carell is best known as a comedic actor, but he's certainly done his share of dramatic work, and has a couple more big films [Vice and Welcome to Marwen] later this year. How did you first think of him to play this part?

Felix: Because of a couple of other films that made me aware of his incredible talent, like The Big Short and Foxcatcher. He has this incredibly ability to make any character he plays relatable. He's also, in real life, an incredibly sincere and earnest person. I really fell for him. It took a long time to find the right person; we never attached it to anybody. I was going over names fro a long time, and as soon as his name came up, I was like "That would be amazing." I was re-reading my script, sitting on a train in Belgium, thinking, "What would this be is Steve played this?" and I just started crying. I knew this was it. And his performance is incredible; he crafted it masterfully, I believe. He's a very precise actor, which is funny because he's also a master of improv, and how he juggles the two together is really impressive.

There is a school of filmmaking that allows improv to get to the dramatic heart of certain moments—films by everyone from Mike Leigh to the Duplass brothers. Did Carell do things that weren't scripted to dig a little deeper into the character?

Felix: He went back and forth, never totally improv and always working really hard to stay close to the script and make it work. Since I'm the writer/director, I would also rewrite is necessary. But sometimes, yeah, or I would suggest or he would ask "We're sort of stuck; let's do one and go with the flow and see what happens." I don't like too much improve because you can lose yourself—I like to work more focused and get somewhere I think I need to get to—but sometimes you need to liven it up. Timothée too, he's super committed and incredible talented and fearless, but also he wanted to get it right and was sometimes worried we didn't have it, so I had to comfort him and tell him it was good. Then I would say "We got it but maybe we can try something, do whatever you want," and when he was free from the anxiety, it would be mind-blowing.

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If I read correctly, you cast Timothée Chalamet before he blew up last year.

Felix: Correct, before there was Chalamania!

Exactly. So did he just audition for you? What was it about him that stood out from the rest?

Felix: He auditioned, yeah. From the first tape that I saw, he captured something very truthful. It was scary, in a way because he was really going at it in some of the tougher scenes. Again, he's fearless to have done that, and then he's switch to something much more vulnerable. His range is incredible. He wanted us to fall in love with Nic, also; that was important. He has that charm. He came back a couple of times, each time growing the performance, and then the last time was the chemistry reading with Steve, and they were hugging like father and son halfway into the scene. It just clicked.

There are two sets I want to ask you about. The diner set that we come back to a couple of times, each time they end up there, it feels like more and more of a battlefield, this place that was their special place for so long. Talk about the use of that space—was that a set or a real place?

Felix: It's a real place but we redecorated it, and it was inspired by a real place in San Francisco, Caffe Trieste, which is a famous place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of The Godfather. Adapting a book to a film is about translating a feeling into a recurring themes or elements that start to make sense in the story. What was really inspiring to me was that this was a place that they went when David was taking care of five-year-old Nic, and they would spend a lot of time together, when they had this pure, beautiful bond. And it is the place where David asked Nic to come back—it's a scene where he wants to get through to him and try to help him. He tries to get him into treatment or come home, and he asks himself "Why did I choose this place?" This was in the book. That was a great concept. Going to this place where they have shared memories, and David brings Nic there to try and make him feel something about past. It's not that innocent of him; it's desperate. And you're writing scenes, and there's this really important one scene that could happen anywhere, but it makes sense in the movie to happen there. Everything becomes connected, like taking two books into one movie; it's about boiling it down to its essence.

The other location we visit quite often is the family home. I feel like I know the geography of that house. Again, it's a place that's supposed to be sacred ground, and Nic ruins that by breaking in with his girlfriend at one point. But the house is a member of the family, in a way.

Felix: It's a safe space until it's not anymore, right? A lot of what you're talking about was intentional, and it took a long time to make that work. David has created this place for his family to be safe, to grow up outside the city, far away from drugs, from the dangers of life. You wouldn't expect somebody doing drugs there, which is really what it was in reality. But the mythical element of that was really beautiful. And in the film, the look and feel of it, the fact that there are huge windows all the way around, it allows nature to come into the house. Then at night, it changes. When David can't sleep and he's up waiting for Nic, it's dark—the bright windows looking outside are these pitch black holes. The way the bedrooms are designed is meant to give each person their specific space, their position in the family. David's office has all the glass and is looking out over his family. And then there are all these scenes that are all related to coming home, going back, Nic not wanting to stay home, David asking Nic to come home, all of which climaxes with Nic breaking in.

I'm assuming David and Nic have seen the film. What do they think of it?

Felix: They were really moved. I can't even imagine what it is to see that. But they had time to adapt to the idea, and we became good friends over the years. They were really open and allowed us into their lives, so the look and the feel of the movie became authentic because they were open into letting us into their lives and picking up elements that made it into the movie. I guess they loved it; the thought we really got it right and are supporting it and happy that it's out there. The whole point of them sharing their stories is that they can be honest about it and have conversations about it, and the movie is doing that, hopefully, in an even bigger way.

You put up statistics at the end of the film, which takes this very personal story and makes it a cautionary tale for all addiction. Why did you choose to include those statistics?

Felix: It felt important to bring the story to today, since this crisis is still going on. Nic wrote that, actually. The movie is period, and we wanted to bring it into the now. But part of that title card says that Nic got through it, and people who recognize themselves in him, there is help out there.

Thank you for talking, Felix. Best of luck with this.

Felix: Thank you so much.