A Stage 32 Exclusive: "Our Year of Living Famously" by Judi Levine, Producer of "The Sessions"

Posted by Judi Levine
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Around this time every year, the major Hollywood studios begin releasing their so-called "prestige" films. Tens of millions will be spent on ad budgets, and then award campaigns, all in an effort to make the case for Oscar gold.

Also, around this time every year, an independent film seemingly comes out of nowhere to challenge the old establishment. Made for a fraction of the cost and with a P&A fund measuring pennies on the dollar of what the studios can afford, the movie needs to stand on its own and rely on word of mouth to carry the news of its merits.

Invariably, this film is a labor of love - A passion project for the producers who spend years shepherding the project from concept to completion. That passion is evident in every frame, in the performances, in the direction, in every small moment.

This year, that film is called The Sessions. It's a beautiful, lyrical film which tells the true story of Mark O'Brien, a poet partially paralyzed due to polio, who spends most of his days in an iron lung. Mark's wish is to lose his virginity. With the help of his priest and his therapist, he contacts a professional sex surrogate in an effort to make his dream a reality.

With a stunning script by Ben Lewin, and knockout performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy - not to mention, a killer supporting cast - The Sessions haunts, inspires, and remains. It's everything storytelling through film should be, but so often is not.

The Sessions premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Film. It also took home the U.S. Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. Shortly thereafter, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the film's distribution rights. This weekend, the film expands to 176 screens. I urge you to seek it out. The film will be heard from come Oscar time.

I asked Judi Levine, one of the film's producers, and a Stage 32 member, to share the tale of The Sessions' long trip from idea to the multiplex with the community. She graciously accepted. I think you'll find the story of the journey as enthralling and inspiring as the film itself. Part I of this Stage 32 Exclusive runs below with more to come next week.



It is very rare to read something that gives you an "aha" moment - that moment when you realize someone's words have impacted you in a way you could never have imagined, perhaps expressed your own deepest feelings more articulately than you ever could. Writer/director Ben Lewin had one of those moments when he read Mark O'Brien's essay On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. Just a few minutes later, and already convinced it would be our next project, my husband and partner of over 30 years (that would be Ben) brought the essay to me. As I read Mark's story, I understood why he was so captivated, but I was not certain that this profoundly personal and moving expose would have the same appeal for audiences. Aside from the fact that a story about sex, disability and religious faith was never going to be an easy pitch, Mark's essay ended on a note of disillusionment that Ben dismisses as a possible "bad hair day" but about which I felt more concerned. Fortunately, Ben was not discouraged by my own reservations and forged ahead to find out more about Mark O'Brien and the world of sex surrogacy to which a door had opened - I'm thankful that he did!

Not long after, we learned that Susan Fernbach had been Mark's girlfriend and literary partner for the five years prior to his death. We spent a weekend with Susan and it was a true meeting of the minds - we haven't looked back since. We never imagined the journey that was to follow, although Ben had a sense that if he could do with film what Mark had done in his short essay - namely move people to view the world and their own relationships in a slightly different way - then it would be time well spent.

During the past 18 years since we moved to LA from Australia, people have asked us "why LA?" "For the promise of fame and fortune, and streets paved with gold!" was my usual cynical retort. Aussies are hardwired with cynicism and I think it's one of the tools that helped us survive the roller coaster Hollywood existence that stretched before us. The first 10 years or so were full of promise, always with a carrot dangling to keep us hoping for the next big break. After a while though, it became harder and, with three children, two dogs, a cat and a mortgage, the need to supplement our dwindling income pushed us to look beyond filmmaking for ways to make a living. Ben started trading in vintage watches and I fell into a job working as a literary editor, producing high-end catalogues for a company that, coincidentally, sold vintage classic cars. I began that job in March 2006 and Ben discovered Mark O'Brien's essay later that year. Experience had taught me that decades could go by before a small independent film reached the screen, so I continued working to support the family while Ben, after a substantial dry spell, launched into writing.

People often ask us how long has it taken to make the film and reach this point - we tend to date this project from January 2007 when we met Susan Fernbach in her hometown in Northern California. Five years later, almost to the day, we sold the film to Fox Searchlight at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Ben spent the best part of two and half years writing and polishing the screenplay - quick turnaround is not his forte when no one is setting deadlines for him! At the outset, we gave little thought to how we would finance the film but we did have one fortuitous event that gave us confidence. Susan had introduced Ben to the real surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and when he went to meet Cheryl for the first time, a close friend went with him. Julius Colman had known Ben for 40 years and had simply accompanied Ben on his trip to Berkeley for fun; but when they left that first meeting with Cheryl, Julius was smitten by the story and offered to put up the first 20% of our budget. We had absolutely no idea what our budget would be at that stage but we knew it would be small (one of the attractions of the story was that it would be fairly cheap to make) and Julius was a man who had been successful in business and was very generous of heart.

I believe the next crucial stage came in the middle of 2010 when I was at my own emotional low point. I felt that we had struggled long enough in tinsel town and that it was time to leave LA. I remember calling Ben from work one day and telling him that I needed a light at the end of the tunnel and, for me, that was returning to Australia. I started the process of having our dogs immunized and I arranged for the house to be painted. By that time, we had submitted the screenplay to a number of development companies, as well as funding bodies in Australia, and had been rejected by the best them - well, basically, all of them! Ben was less eager about uprooting and, realizing that conventional avenues of financing were unlikely to work, suggested we simply raise the finance by asking all our friends and family to chip in. Ben headed off to our hometown of Melbourne and began making calls. Cold calling and begging for money was unfamiliar territory for both of us, but it was our only option. People were always polite, even when the answer was "no", but again we had a stroke of good luck when our second angel came on board. Maurice Silman was another successful businessman who had been a patron of the arts for many years but, like Julius, had never invested in films. He read the screenplay and offered up another significant slice of the budget, bringing us close to half of what we needed. The rest we pieced together with small and very small amounts from everyone and anyone we knew until we reached our goal.

With the budget in the bank, we were able to move into the next stage - casting. During the months before, our producing partner Stephen Nemeth had come on board. Stephen is a native of California and known throughout Hollywood, and he introduced the project to our casting director Ronnie Yeskel. Ronnie loved the story and brought years of great casting experience, passion and commitment to the challenging task of finding someone to play a man who couldn't move from the neck down and who spent much of his time in an iron lung. It was Ronnie who suggested John Hawkes and her instincts couldn't have been sharper. Ben took just a little persuading - "that old craggy meth addict in Winter's Bone couldn't possibly be the younger, softer Mark O'Brien he was looking for!" But Ben looked at everything John had done and, after one two-hour meeting, both men knew that Hawkes was the guy for the role.

With John Hawkes on board, Hollywood pricked up its ears and word was out about a screenplay with a great role for a woman in her 40s. We had never imagined having access to the wonderful A-list actresses that were coming our way, but when the call came through that Helen Hunt wanted to meet with Ben, we all sat up. Another two-hour meeting and we had our two lead actors.

This project feels like it has been charmed from the beginning. Although Ben feels that the casting process is the most difficult, it is also very exciting - if the casting is successful, filming can be much easier, but if the casting goes awry, it can be very difficult to overcome. We had a wonderful cast and crew that we called our surrogate family, and the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting that we received in Sundance was a testament to the skill and talent they brought to the film.

There's so much more to tell about production (what do you mean we need more money?), post-production (do we really have to edit the film in our garage?), submitting to the Sundance Film Festival (what? More money?) and then the thrill of standing ovations and bidding wars (they said this would never happen!)... More next week.

The Sessions - Official Trailer

JUDI LEVINE is an accomplished producer who has worked in Europe, Australia and the United States. Her work reflects an inclination towards stories with a sense of humor, although her unique wit and sense of irony has not confined her to the field of comedy. She produces eye-opening documentaries as well as dramas and, whatever the field, her passion is for stories that are both compelling and honest.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Levine began her producing career after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in film and drama, and working her way up the production ladder. As her choice of projects reveals, part of Levine's charm is her acute awareness of vital issues. Her documentary, YARRABAH - A TEEN ODYSSEY, is the moving story of a life-changing experience for 15 Aboriginal teens. The film follows their journey towards achieving an impossible dream and captures an experience with far-reaching consequences.

Levine's producing credits include the critically acclaimed comedy feature PAPERBACK ROMANCE starring Anthony LaPaglia and Gia Carides and PLEAD GUILTY, GET A BOND, which won an AFI award for Best Screenplay in a Short Film. Her broad production experience also includes the UK feature SACRED HEARTS, European co-production THE FAVOR, THE WATCH AND THE VERY BIG FISH starring Jeff Goldblum and Bob Hoskins, and numerous award-winning Australian mini-series, among them "Waterfront," starring Greta Scacchi and "The Dunera Boys," starring Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell. Of her documentary work, "The Migrant Experience," a six-hour series examining Australia as a migrant nation, is a highlight. The documentary HOLLYWOOD GOLD, which was made for The Discovery Channel, is a wry insider's look at the jewelry trade of Beverly Hills and Hollywood that guarantees audiences will never view the Oscars the same way again.

In addition to her producing career, Levine has mastered the art of networking in the toughest movie town in the world. As a result, she has presented at various forums and conferences, and was a panel-member at the 2004 Los Angeles Writers Conference talking about independent production and "working the independent scene from a networking perspective." Expanding on her experiences in Los Angeles, Levine developed the seminars "Jump Start to Hollywood" aimed at helping young hopefuls find an easier path to establishing themselves in the US. In addition to lecturing in the US, she toured with her seminars around Australia.

Levine is married to writer-director Ben Lewin and together they are the proud parents of three children whose strongest genetic trait is their eccentric sense of humor.

PLEASE take a moment to "LIKE" The Sessions page on Facebook! This only takes a second. Even if you have not seen the film, a "LIKE" represents support for independent film.


Judi is available to accept remarks and answer any questions in the Comments section below. This is your chance to pick the brain of an award winning independent producer. Take advantage!

Thank you.


Part II: A Stage 32 Exclusive: Our Year of Living Famously
Making Movie Magic
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