"The Sessions" tells the story of the late Mark O'Brien, a Berkeley poet and journalist who spent much of his time in an iron lung, and how, in his late 30s, he hired a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity.
The film shows what happens after O'Brien, who was paralyzed by childhood polio but maintained sensation in his body, signs on for six sessions with a surrogate who takes a therapeutic approach to sexuality, thus setting up a set of challenges that start with logistics. (O'Brien was able to spend only a few hours per day outside the iron lung, and traveled by gurney).
Poignant, funny and sometimes uncomfortable, "The Sessions" features some of the most authentic-seeming sex scenes in recent cinematic memory. The scenes become all the more revelatory with the knowledge that actors John Hawkes and Helen Hunt did not rehearse them and were barely acquainted when they shot their first scene together.
"We filmed the sex scenes in chronological order," director-screenwriter Ben Lewin said last month by phone from San Francisco, where he was joined by Hunt and Hawkes. All were in town for a screening of "The Sessions" at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
"There was an unspoken commitment on our parts to use the fact they didn't really know each other. She undressed him for the first time on camera, so she really did sweat on it. And there was an element of spontaneity to the performances that gave it energy."
Hunt said she appreciated the lack of rehearsal time. It also helped that Hawkes "is a world-class actor," she said.
"Sometimes you are really in on what the other actor is doing," Hunt said. "(But) I wasn't really in on what he was doing at all. I just got the sense he wanted to make things easy for me, and I know I wanted to make it easy for him. It just sort of happened."
Hunt, 49, and Hawkes, 53, said they wanted to do justice to the real-life people they play.
Hunt, winner of an Academy Award ("As Good As It Gets") and four Emmys ("Mad About You"), had not heard of sex surrogates before signing on to the film.
"It wasn't until I started talking to the real woman that I realized how great (the part) would be," Hunt said. "It was her vibe. Her volume is louder than mine, her eyes are open wider than mine, her enthusiasm is more unbridled than mine."
O'Brien's real-life surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, introduced her to the term "sex positive," Hunt said. Meeting Cohen Greene helped bolster Hunt when she eventually had to shed all her clothes on camera.
"It was walking into a room 'here we are, let's take our clothes off,' " Hunt said.
The character is thoughtful, but also exceptionally straightforward as she tries to get past O'Brien's deep-held inhibitions about his body and his sexuality.
Hunt's character composes notes, much like a therapist, after each session. At one point, she explains the difference between a surrogate and a prostitute.
A prostitute wants repeat business. She does not.
"I wanted to put that line in the movie," Hunt said. "Because people don't know."
O'Brien wrote about his experiences in an essay titled, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."
Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for his performance in the 2010 film "Winter's Bone," read as much of O'Brien's writings as he could find. He also watched "Breathing Lessons," director Jessica Yu's Academy Award-winning 1996 documentary about O'Brien. (O'Brien died in 1999).
"I watched Jessica's film, and in the first minute, I thought, 'Wow, poor guy,' " Hawkes said. "When the credits rolled 25 minutes later, I thought, 'Wow, amazing guy.' I hope we capture some of that."
Hawkes learned to use a "mouth stick" like the one O'Brien put between his lips so he could type and dial a phone. Hawkes approximated O'Brien's curved spine by placing a soccer ball under his own spine.
"I was intrigued by the idea of not using any kind of body double or prosthetics," he said.
Hawkes' performance also plays up O'Brien's keen sense of humor. "The Sessions" includes several laugh-out-loud moments.
"It is truthful humor, not cheap-gag humor," Hawkes said.
Before completing the script, Lewin met with Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's girlfriend in the last years of his life, and "I felt like I had permission to highlight that side of him the sharp, witty brain," he said.
Lewin also is a polio survivor. That is part of what interested him in O'Brien's essay when he came across it on the Internet, Lewin said.
But O'Brien's story "wasn't just speaking to people with polio," Lewin said. "There were universal things in it. I think it represented a lot of people's early feelings about the awkwardness of sex."
Lewin, who uses crutches, said that "by the time I was a young man, I was quite independent." He could not relate fully to O'Brien's physical bounds. But he does have insight into how oddly people can behave toward the disabled.
Sometimes when he is out with his wife, Lewin said, people address only her, as if they are assuming he cannot speak.
"I probably have a sense of humor about it that other people don't have," Lewin said. "My disability probably gave me license to see things from a funny point of view."