'Honey Boy' Director Alma Har'el On Working With Shia LaBeouf And Finding An Ending In The Editing Room [Interview]

It may become necessary to redefine to word "autobiographical" when referring to the latest work from director Alma Har'el, Honey Boy, based on an original screenplay by actor Shia LaBeouf, who not only fashioned the story of a child actor's relationship with his domineering father on his own experience growing up, but also cast himself as his father character James Lort in this harrowing and all-too-real portrayal. LaBeouf also shows us the Otis character (played as a child by Noah Jupe, currently also seen in Ford v Ferrari) as a young adult struggling with substance abuse and other signs of PTSD cause by his upbringing. Lucas Hedges plays the older Noah, who is eventually arrested and sent to court-ordered therapy (with a therapist played by the great Laura San Giacomo), where he begins to reflect upon his childhood rise to fame and his early struggles with his ex-rodeo clown/felon dad.Having debuted at Sundance in January, Honey Boy is so daring and devastating, that it's difficult to imagine that LaBeouf could find anyone he would trust to direct his own story. But he and the Israeli-born Har'el had been in communication for years before the script was even fully formed, with her guiding him through some of the more difficult structural and story moments.Har'el is famous for her ability to artistically blur the lines between documentary and fiction, effectively utilizing choreographed dance sequences and inspired musical choices in a surreal, dream-like poetic meditation on life. Har'el is a music video and documentary film director, probably best known for her film Bombay Beach, which won the top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Har'el returned in 2015 with her genre-bending second effort LoveTrue (produced by LaBeouf), which blended performance and documentary, using choreographed dance sequences and music in a dream-like meditation on life. And it was her ability to mix the real and surreal in telling true stories that gained her LaBeouf's trust to shoot his story years later./Film spoke with Har'el in Chicago during the recent Chicago International Film Festival, where she discussed her collaborative process with LaBeouf both during the writing and the shoot of the film, using her talents as a documentary filmmaker to capture actors working in a largely improvised setting, and looking for ways to tie the present into the past. Honey Boy is in limited release now, opening wider in the coming weeks.Hi, Alma. I'm glad we were able to make this work finally. How are you?I'm good, man. I know, you'd think we were doing press for Avengers or something. It's really crazy; I'm doing press non-stop, every 15 minutes of my waking hours. I'm astounded at the reaction in a good way and an overwhelmed way.I first saw the film back at Sundance and saw it again recently, and I basically haven't stopped telling people "Wait until you see this movie, because you've never seen anything like it."That's so sweet of you. Thank you. I really appreciate it.As a documentary filmmaker, the fact that this story is so deeply rooted in truth had to appeal to you on some level. Tell me about that connection.Yeah, like you're saying, someone coming from documentary but also coming from non-traditional documentary filmmaking, there's definitely something in the way I approach documentary, which is outside of the genre. As a filmmaker, my quest is always to break the medium a little bit and crack it as much as I can because I do believe that the art of it and the spiritual potential of it lies outside of the genre and outside of the expectations in general of what it means to make film and sacrifice something in order to do it. There is a sacrificial element to filmmaking, and I think this film offered all of those things. It offer the potential to have truth in it, to be raw and real and document something that had urgency and came from a real story of a person who needed to tell it at a point and time that was very defining and almost dangerous to himself. It also had the potential to be a dream and express the power of creativity and self-expression and all of the things that saved my life. In that regard, I had to make it; it felt very urgent.It's interesting you say that you had to make it as well, because clearly Shia had to make it too in order to move forward in his life.True, but I take ownership of making it as well. It was Shia's story and the act of cinematic courage is his. But I wanted to facilitate that and make sure it was told in a way that was both honoring his story and also offering a much bigger story. There is a lot to be said about the struggles that Shia has endured as a child and as a person who suffers from trauma, addition and PTSD, which was the biggest missing piece to explain his behavior. That has been the most educational part and biggest step I had to take as a director, to understand what PTDS is and what is being hyper-vigilant and what is fight or flight and how to direct somebody in a situation where they are triggered. There were a lot of challenges here, but what I think we managed to do hopefully—and from what I've seen in the responses we did—is speak to a bigger story of so many children of alcoholics and addicts and other trauma and how the parents pass their pain to their children. That angle on that story is something I've always wanted to tell. As a child of an alcoholic and as somebody who had to learn new tools in order to live, the loyalty that comes with growing up, to pain, to dysfunction, to actually not seeing things the way they are, is so overwhelming and takes so long to break out of that. The act of Shia is in telling that story hopefully is inclusive for so many other people who need to hear it.It feels like you're using a documentary style of filmmaking, sneaking into the room, and capturing something that would happening whether you were there or not. I know that not how it was...Actually, it was like that a little. I was never sneaking into a room, but we definitely put our crew and ourselves through a lot of trials and errors in order to create and environment that allowed for situations to arise in a really organic ways to who the people are in that scene, and filming it in a way that wasn't ever relying on saying "You have to hit that mark on the floor. You have to say that line first, and then you have to say that line second, and never step on each other." None of that was happening. The whole idea of the filmmaking was to bring the scene to life, to get both Shia and Noah to a place where they felt safe enough to enter the gates of Shia's trauma. But then once they're there, they needed to be free to behave with each other and improvise, to move around the room. We had to come up with a way of filming that would allow for that, and Natasha Braier [director of photography] was an amazing partner, in terms of coming up with solutions that were both technical and, I would say, spiritual, in order to accommodate this kind of filming. From her finding ways to have a lot of lighting set ups, and then she would operate lights in real time with wi-fi and iPads, and we're operating in the room, so I could follow them like a documentarian. Sometimes we had nine or 12 takes of a scene, and each one of them was different. My being a first-time filmmaker, a lot of the crew including my cinematographer, worried that I would never cut, and I don't necessarily know how to build a scene like that. But for me, it was very clear as someone who shot documentaries, that people behave differently all the time and don't do takes. And then editing with my collaborators, I knew that they would cut together. It was very untraditional filmmaking in order to get the feelings you needed; things were happening in real time, people experiencing things, it brings up emotions or memories, and they respond to it from being in the moment and being present, and documenting that instead of telling them "That's not what you're supposed to say or where you're supposed to stand while you're saying it."One of the things you do is draw a very clear line between how this boy was raised and grew up and how he turned out as a younger man. Did you try to synch up in any way the performances that Lucas and Noah gave in any way, or did they watch each other?Oh yes. From day one, it was really important to me that they created this character together. First of all, Lucas was present in Noah audition—he sat in the room. We started working right away together, and they both flew in two months before the filming, on a film that has no budget for things like that. We have more money for press than we did for filming. We shot the principal photography in 19 days and two more days later. In the preparation, we worked on physicality, to find small things that they both could do like each other. There was a lot of serendipity in this because Lucas used to juggle as a kid, and Noah had to learn how to juggle, and he and Shia had to learn how to juggle for weeks. With Lucas and Noah, we worked hard to have them spend time together and learn each other, work on mannerisms, how they stand when they're angry and need to feel protected. It was very much like we were all working together to bring Otis to life, and they were working with the same speech coach. We also had a timeline of how their behavior and dialect evolved over the years. We had them watch Shia's films and show from when he was young—hours of Even Stevens and interviews and how his speech was affected by cultural things and playing characters that left an imprint on him. We really studied that and worked on it together.This is not an indictment of being a child actor; we've seen that before. He clearly has a talent for this work. We get a sense that Shia saw acting as an escape from the life he was living. Did you get a sense of that?His life as an actor was undoubtedly less intense than his real life. What you see in the film is probably 3 percent of what Shia went through as a child. One of the biggest moments of Shia's childhood is not in the film, when he was present at his mother's house when she was raped—he's spoken about that before. We don't get into that in the film, but there were many years where she was affected by that. He had an extremely traumatic childhood and developed PTSD, and then he used his pain and fear and all of the things that he suffered from to make his performance more real. Like he says in the script, when Lucas comes into the therapist and realizes that he's been using trauma reminders his whole life, but she's telling him he has to avoid trauma reminders. All of that dialogue, I spoke to Shia's therapist who diagnosed him with PTSD and literally wrote word by word things he said to her when he came in and go diagnosed, and I put that into the script. A lot of those things are as real as they can be and come from her very generous agreement to share with us some of the therapy session they had.Did I read somewhere that the script he gave you didn't have an ending, and that you had to create it in the editing room?He wrote an ending to it, but it was a conversation between Otis and his father that he'd hoped to have. We filmed it, but it didn't feel like an ending, it only had little Otis and James in the room; it didn't even have older Otis yet. But we developed and workshopped it, and he wrote some things when he came back from Costa Rica. But when we filmed it, it didn't feel like the ending, but in the last day of Lucas's shoot, I woke up in the morning, he was about to leave, we were already shooting in the motel, and I had the idea for the ending. I called Shia and we were both so very excited about trying to make that happen and filmed it. A lot of it also came together in the edit. That scene that we did film is now a dream sequence that Lucas has when he dreams that he goes to see his father—that was the original ending. It just seemed more like a dream Shia had because meeting himself wasn't what he thought it would be when he wrote it.As an outside observer, what was it like watching Shia the actor play opposite Shia the barely fictionalized character?It does come from the work I'd been doing before this, which was called LoveTrue. It's a film that deals with psychodrama, and we had people in it and playing with their younger selves, who were portrayed by actors. So the scenario in Honey Boy was inspired by that too, and Shia was a financier of that movie and executive producer. When I filed it, I got to see people talking to their younger self, and I have to say, it was really one of the more therapeutic and spiritual things I've ever seen in the medium, when you really allow things like that to happen.Before I let you go, I want to say thank you so much for bringing Laura San Giacomo back into my life on the big screen.I know, I love her so much. I was looking for somebody that role—you're going to laugh—and I saw a lot of actresses, and I wasn't following her career, and she does a lot of television, but I haven't seen any of that. And I was with my casting director and I said "Where is that woman that says 'Cinder-fuckin'-rella' in Pretty Woman?" She said, "Laura?" "Yes!" So we brought her in...no, she recorded herself for me, and I watched it with Lucas and we were like "That's it!" Isn't she wonderful?Alma, thank you so much. Best of luck.Thank you, man. I appreciate it.