'Beautiful Boy' Director Felix Van Groeningen on Finding the Emotional Logic of Your Movie
Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell shine through this tragic true-life story.
In 2008, David Sheff released the critically acclaimed novel Beautiful Boy, a memoir detailing the harrowing accounts of his teenage son's decade-long struggle with a crystal meth addiction. The same year, Nic Sheff, that very same son, released a memoir of his own titled Tweak. Now, nearly ten years later, director Felix Van Groeningen has taken on the monumental task of combining both of these stories into one multilayered adaptation of a family in crisis.
The medium of film provides Van Groeningen with the unique opportunity to retell this story with the two men's perspectives pressed up against each other, almost as if each could witness another's narrative arc behind a two-way mirror. What we get is a furious chronicle of addiction flashing back and forth between Nic's reckless usage and David's constant search for some sort of understanding as to why it was happening.
Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell give a pair of emotionally rich performances as the father and son, but it is Van Groeningen who was responsible for picking and choosing whose journey we follow and when. One can imagine that's a pretty difficult task when you have such talented actors and such a captivating story at your disposal. I sat down with him at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss how he messed with time and structure to re-work his source material into the story we now see on screen.
No Film School: I think that the film does such a good job of educating people about the dangers of addiction, in particular, crystal meth. As a filmmaker, how do you go about weaving an almost scientific explanation into a dramatic narrative? How did you find that balance?
Felix Van Groeningen: By cutting a lot. During the writing process, there was way more, but it's hard to get it totally right or to get it not to be on the nose. It's got to be important for the characters mostly, right? Not for the viewer. Finding that balance and not being afraid to do a little bit too much. This is especially true in the writing and in the shooting. You can always cut it out when it's too much later on.
Because I've had this feeling before when I'm in the edit, and I'm missing something, or think like, "Here we can be super on-nose. We need to be, otherwise, you don't get it." So, I've pushed to keep things in, when people said, on a script basis, that it was on the nose. And then sometimes, it ends up in the film and is important, but three other things get lost.
"There were a lot of bigger events in the books that seemed appealing, that we eventually realized weren't necessary to tell the story. We had to have just that arc and how David and Nic's arcs are intertwined."
NFS: Yeah, I think that you can always treat editing as another draft of screenwriting, in that way. Let's talk a little bit about the editing process, because you tell the story in such an interesting way, time-wise. It jumps back and forth without any clear indication that a sequence is a flashback. Can you talk about how you found that structure for your narrative? Was that in the edit room or was that something that you had from the get-go?
Van Groeningen: It was in the edit, but the basis was in the script. I mean, there's a bunch of flashbacks. That was very cerebrally thought out in the script. It had more classic transitions, I would say. A lot of my films play with time in that way. It's a way to get a grip on why you use flashbacks.
"In order to be magical, we're gonna have to reshuffle it and find the emotional logic of the movie, instead of imposing the cerebral logic of the writer."
NFS: Why do you use flashbacks?
Van Groeningen: Because it had to be. The story had to be epic. Seeing a younger Nic and a younger David just created so much more of a bond and beauty between them. But in hindsight also, it brings up questions like, "Was I a good parent? Did I do the wrong thing?" You know? Was there already something there that I should have seen? And there are other ways that the flashbacks work, very beautifully, I feel. There's a payoff of something emotional between them.
But going back to how to move from script to the final version, when I see first cut, I often realize these ideas to interweave the timelines are just too cerebral. They're okay, but they're not magical. And in order to be magical, we're gonna have to reshuffle it and find the emotional logic of the movie, instead of imposing the cerebral logic of the writer.
NFS: Was magical realism an objective for you with this piece?
Van Groeningen: No, because the flashbacks are never dreams, right? So we never enter like a dreamy state, unless Nic's on drugs.
NFS: That was some good stuff.
Van Groeningen: Actually if you analyze the film, the playing with time is actually not nonlinear. You move through time chronologically, and from time to time, we jump to different times in their lives. We tried to tell the movie in a normal way and it didn't make sense. So, it was a great script.
NFS: Let's talk about the script a little bit. It's such a unique endeavor adapting two separate novels into one screenplay.
Van Groeningen: It is.
NFS: Can you talk about the challenges associated with doing that? That's an epic undertaking.
Van Groeningen: It's a lot of work because there's so much source material. The reason I wanted to do this, is because I fell for those books, and I felt, the core feeling I got was like, "OK, this gives me an insight into this issue that I've never experienced before and I think I can translate it into a movie. In a simple way, I can convey a very complex issue." You fall for the theme and the basic story, but then there are also for a million details that I loved about the characters. I really fell in love with Nic and David, and the stuff they went through.
But you have to make choices because both books span their whole lives. There was way too much material to put into one film. So it is trial and error. There was way more of Nic at some point and then I started realizing that we had to have a clear arc of him becoming an adult, going from a relapse to rehab to recovery and back again. And with David, it was the same thing.
It was really boiling it down. I guess there were a lot of bigger events in the books that seemed appealing, that we eventually realized weren't necessary to tell the story. We had to have just that arc and how David and Nic's arcs are intertwined. We wanted to show the evolution between how they look at each other and how they evolve as characters; they had to be intertwined.
NFS: Would you just take stuff from one book from Nic's perspective and then like put another scene next to that from David's book? Do the scenes come from different books, or are they like a love child of both of the books together?
Van Groeningen: Sometimes love child, sometimes one perspective, sometimes the other. I was able to make it into a whole because the books read time in a very different way. So I had this whole timeline to figure out what happened when in reality, to get a grip on how it happened. But then we had to let go of that and actually really use the book Beautiful Boy as the frame, inserting Nic's story to carry the other story. That was the first idea, and then we realized that it was just really important to understand Nic, because if we would understand him, then we would feel even more for David's arc. It's so heart wrenching.