Felix Van Groeningen: ‘Beautiful Boy shows huge misconception around addiction’


Beautiful Boy, the first English-language film shot by Flemish director Felix Van Groeningen, recounts the real-life story of a father struggling with his son’s addiction

A father’s journey

In the 1990s, a journalist living near San Francisco, California, discovered that his son was addicted to methamphetamines. The drug, which can be inhaled, swallowed, smoked or injected, is as addictive as it is destructive. It has, wrote the journalist, David Sheff, “a unique, horrific quality”.

In 2008, David – already a well-known freelancer for some of America’s biggest national newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and Wired, as well as the author of the last extensive interview done with John Lennon and of Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars and Enslaved Your Children – published a memoir.

It was called Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, and it took the country by storm. An immediate best-seller, it saw David take to talk shows and speaking engagements across the country. Making the story even more intriguing was the simultaneous publication of Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines written by David’s son, Nic.

Movie rights to the books were snapped up, but projects continued to fall apart. Then a couple of years ago, Hollywood producer Plan B contacted Flemish director Felix Van Groeningen (pictured above) and asked him to write and direct a movie based on both the memoirs. Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, opens in cinemas across Belgium today.

Sold by Broken Circle

“The producers loved Broken Circle and because of that, they pitched me this story,” says Van Groeningen, home in Flanders last month to talk about the film, which closed the Ghent Film Festival. “So I read the books and said ‘You’re right, I think I’m the right guy’.”

It seems that when your film is nominated for an Oscar, doors fly open. Van Groeningen is the director of several award-winning movies, including De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates) and Belgica, but it was The Broken Circle Breakdown that made his name internationally. Though it lost the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2014 to Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza, it did not go unnoticed in the corridors of the world’s biggest film studio system.

David and Nic Sheff themselves “had also seen Broken Circle, and they trusted me because of it,” says Van Groeningen. “I have heard them say in interviews since that they thought I would do the story justice and not turn it into a Hollywood ending.”

From the beginning, there was a connection. I really felt for that family and how there’s so much love there

- Director Felix Van Groeningen

Van Groeningen co-wrote the script for Beautiful Boy with an American screenwriter and took Ruben Impens – the cinematographer on all of his films – to California with him to shoot the movie. He was intrigued, he says, “by that family, by what they went through. I felt a real connection with the father story but also with Nic – who he is, what he struggles with”.

He met with the pair before shooting began. “From the beginning, there was a sense of connection, it happened organically. I really felt for that family and how there’s so much love there, and understanding. But there is also a real openness about what they went through.”

It wasn’t always so. David spent years struggling to understand his son’s behaviour – how a smart, privileged kid could wind up half-dead on street corners, stealing from his siblings, destroying his brain possibly to the point of no return.

‘The more you know, the scarier it is’

Following years of obsessive research and of beating himself up for not being able to prevent Nic’s situation, he finally began to understand that love wasn’t enough to save his son, and there was nothing he could do – except watch and wait.

“There’s so much information in the books that is really interesting, but also scary,” says Van Groeningen. “Like David said in the film: The more you know, the scarier it is.”

When writing the script, he says, the challenge wasn’t so much in creating empathy for the family but in making the audience “feel what they go through. Trying to make people understand how hard it is to get sober and how easy it is to relapse. A huge misconception is that addiction is just a lack of willpower”.

Both Sheffs and David’s wife Karen (Nic’s stepmum) were on the set occasionally. “We kind of forced them to come; they didn’t really want to,” says Van Groeningen. While both father and son “love movies and are writers themselves,” they were a bit shy about being on set. “Which I can understand; it must be so awkward seeing someone else play you. And we shot on a beach 30 minutes from where they used to go surfing as a family. I mean, just an unreal situation for them.”

It speaks for the incredible openness of Americans to have somebody from outside come in and take over this story

- Felix Van Groeningen

Which could be said about Van Groeningen shooting a movie in English and in the United States – a first on both counts. “It was great and hard at the same time,” he admits. Europeans “are a little different, and there’s stuff you have to learn about each other and in the way of dealing with each other. But it speaks for the incredible openness of Americans to have somebody from outside come in and take over this story. I mean, it’s a universal story, I hope, but it is a portrayal of a middle-class American family, and you feel that in all aspects of it.”

And, despite there being hundreds of people involved in a Hollywood production, “I never felt restrained. It was a good, creative team, and I felt very supported, and I had all the freedom that I wanted”.

Though shooting a movie in Belgium is a tad bit easier, admittedly. “Ruben and I would joke about it sometimes,” he says. “One time we wanted to shoot in a place that was unplanned, up on this little hill, and the kind of email chain that caused was pretty amazing. And then an engineer went up there to assess where everyone would stand. But in the end, we got our hill!”

Beautiful Boy is playing in cinemas across Belgium

Photos: Felix Van Groeningen at the film's premiere in the UK last month (©Elliot/Splashnews.Com/BELGA); Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play father and son respectively in Beautiful Boy