Director Felix van Groeningen Makes English-Language Feature Debut With "Beautiful Boy"
Director Felix van Groeningen (r) and cinematographer Ruben Impens on location for "Beautiful Boy" (photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Inspired by two memoirs, filmmaker calls upon long-time collaborators to help bring story to the big screen
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Director Felix van Groeningen had a significant career decision to make when mulling over what might be his first English-language film. However, the choice became clear when he read two memoirs offering different perspectives on the same story. “The two points of view really drew me in--the perspectives of a father and his son inspired me,” he explained.

Those memoirs--one from journalist David Sheff, the other from his son, Nic Sheff--yielded Beautiful Boy (Amazon Studios). The film is a deeply moving portrait of a family’s love and commitment to each other in the face of their son’s drug addiction and his attempts at recovery. Steve Carell portrays David Sheff while Timothee Chalamet plays Nic. As Nic repeatedly relapses, the Sheffs are faced with the reality of how lives can be destroyed by addiction--with tough love the only antidote. Van Groeningen and Luke Davies penned an adapted screenplay for the story which is harrowing, heart-breaking and anger-invoking while at the same time marked by joy, hope and love.

Beautiful Boy and its performances now find themselves in the Oscar conversation, which is a welcomed deja vu for Flemish filmmaker van Groeningen whose The Broken Circle Breakdown earned a 2014 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (Belgium’s entry) and a Cesar for Best Foreign Film. Two years later his feature Belgica premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where he won the Directing Award (Dramatic World Cinema). Also among his other credits is The Misfortunates which debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

With English as his second language, van Groeningen found comfort and value in his process which calls for extensive rehearsals, in this case two weeks worth, with the actors (the cast also included Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan and Timothy Hutton), affording him the opportunity to explore various aspects of characters and performance. “After just a couple of days, I felt a trust building between me and the actors. We created a safe space and developed a language to talk about the material.”

Also helping the director tackle and ultimately do justice to the story was his decision to tap into a pair of his long-time collaborators--cinematographer Ruben Impens and editor Nico Leunen. Impens lensed five previous films for van Groeningen, including The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Misfortunates and Belgica. And Beautiful Boy was the fifth film that Leunen had worked on with van Groeningen, the others also including The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Misfortunates and Belgica.

“They are filmmakers who help me create,” said van Groeningen of Impens and Leunen. “We don’t have a set way of working. We just spend time together, discuss things and are always open to each other’s suggestions. I find that after 15 years of working together, we don’t have to talk through things quite as much. There’s a special understanding.”

Van Groeningen added that during rehearsals, he, Impens and Leunen “start to build a style for a film that makes sense for us without having the pressure of the whole crew there watching us, with the clock ticking.”

At the same time, van Groeningen was open, happily, to new collaborators such as production designer Ethan Tobman whose contributions to Beautiful Boy included the construction of integral large sets, most notably the Sheffs’ home where the story of Nic’s addiction begins. It’s a dream place, situated in rustic nature with an artistic vibe--a place so inviting and feeling so safe, you’d hardly think of it as where a monstrous addiction took hold.

Van Groeningen was drawn to Tobman based on the production designer’s stellar work on director Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, designing a world of fantasy and reality as seen through the eyes of a boy who’s held captive with his mom. “His work is so smart and well thought out,” said van Groeningen of Tobman. “He makes a metaphor work. His sets become part of the story. He doesn’t make sets shine. He makes them super authentic to support the story.”

For van Groeningen, a personal dynamic contributed to his understanding of Beautiful Boy. He recently became a father. “Now that I have a kid, I can relate more to it (the memoirs “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” by Nic Sheff). This is a hard story to tell. It’s a hard film. Maybe I couldn’t have made it if I hadn’t been a parent.”

This is the fifth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.


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