As our country faces an opioid epidemic, films about substance abuse are coming out at a much faster pace. Films like 6 Balloons, Ben is Back, and even A Star is Born are a few examples of these types of films this year. Films like Beautiful Boy stand above the rest of these films because they not only have powerful performances but are also based on real people and events.
Writer/Director Felix Van Groeningen takes the real-life events of father and son, David (Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff’s (Timothée Chalamet) battle with addiction and the deep impact it has not only within themselves but within their family. We talked with Van Groeningen about the topic of addiction, the pressures of telling a true story, knowing Carell and Chalamet were the perfect choices, and more.
Drugs have always been a major component in your past films, but Beautiful Boy feels very different somehow. Did you do any extra research aside from using the novels of David and Nic Sheff?
Felix Van Groeningen: I did. I went to rehabs and talked to the people there about their experience. The books are so specific and full of information that I got most of my material from it.
When creating the film, did you work closely with David and Nic?
FVG: I met them very early on. The fact that they had seen my previous film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, they immediately trusted me with this film. They had a very hands-off approach. They said, “We think you’re the right guy to take on our story.” At the same time, they were really open in allowing us into their lives. I asked them a lot of questions over the years, I spent time with David in his house, and it really helped to bring authenticity to the movie.
Did they offer any extra insight that wasn’t in the books?
FVG: I got a lot of material and photos that helped inspire the look and feel of the movie. They were so open with everything. What was amazing is that when they finally saw the movie, they thought we got it. They were honest about how hard it would have been to pull off, but they felt that the film perfectly captures what they really went through. They were really happy with it.
Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet were perfectly cast, both individually and with their interactions together. At what moment did you know they were who you wanted for the film?
FVG: It was a process, but we started off with Steve. After I completed the script, he read it and then he immediately said yes. Then I started working around that. Timothée went through an audition process. He stood out from the beginning. There was something very fascinating about the way he approached the character. This was all before Call Me By Your Name. It was really during a chemistry reading between him and Steve that I knew, and even they felt it. It just clicked. With Steve, it was pretty instant. The moment we started of thinking about him for the part, I reread my script thinking of him playing and I started crying. He was my instant choice. With Timothée, it took some more time, but I was very intrigued by him. Then, when I saw them together, it was pure love.
The film deals with such a dark and heavy subject matter. How has addiction affected your life?
FVG: I’ve always been close to it. My father had a bar, so I grew up in a bar, and alcohol abuse was never far away. I’ve had family members that were in it deep. What I realized when I read David and Nic’s books is that our families didn’t have a way to deal with it. It was so inspiring to see this family sort of getting through it, even though it’s a long road. There are no easy answers, but they do get through it and I found it inspiring. I saw it as a way to give back and learn about it.
The feeling of blame is a major element in the film. Each character is not knowing whether to place it on themselves or the other person. Addiction itself is a disease, so do you think blame should even be part of the equation when trying to help somebody?
FVG: It shouldn’t, but it’s inevitable since its part of the human condition. As a parent, you cannot help but feel responsible for what your kid goes through. We sort of have to find a way to deal with it. I don’t think it’s possible to get it out of the equation, but I do think it’s important to be aware of it. If you can detect it then you can use it more positively.