Director Alma Har’el’s new “Honey Boy” is a powerful movie, as is the story behind it.
Har’el, recently at the Mill Valley Film Festival, spoke candidly about the film (opening Friday) which was written by and stars Shia LaBeouf.
LaBeouf, a former child actor who appeared in huge Hollywood productions — whose offscreen life was deeply troubled — contacted Har’el after he saw her 2011 movie “Bombay Beach.”
After they met for dinner while the Israeli-born director was working on a music video for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, she says, “The film he responded to was about the child of an alcoholic. And the music video dealt intuitively with trauma and pain that comes from addiction, and mental health. It was incredible to see that he arrived at that. That’s how art works.”
Later, having been diagnosed with PTSD, LaBeouf was in a rehabilitation program during which, as part of his treatment, he wrote a screenplay about his life and relationship with his father.
LaBeouf sent the finished script, titled after his childhood nickname “Honey Boy,” to Har’el.
“I was blown away by it,” she says. “It had so much raw urgency that I don’t see often. I think Shia was scared he was never going to act again. It is the thing he loves the most. Nobody at the time wanted to work with him or talk to him. It seemed like the end.”
Har’el insisted they make the movie. Lucas Hedges plays grownup actor “Otis Lort,” stuck and rehab and writing a screenplay, while child actor Noah Jupe plays the young Otis in flashbacks, and LaBeouf plays his own father.
LaBeouf transformed himself for his role, putting on weight, shaving his head and wearing prosthetics. “My favorite photos from the set are between takes, him walking around like that,” says Har’el.
The actor even had a device inserted into his nose to make his speech nasal and inhibit his breathing, suggesting damage done by cocaine use.
Impressively, LaBeouf never tried to interfere with Har’el’s vision, and rarely appeared on set during Hedges’s scenes. “He could have tried to manage his image and he never did,” she says. “I think there’s an integrity to that.”
LaBeouf even encouraged the actors to improvise, or change what they wanted in the screenplay. “I was the one who was protecting the script!” she insists.
One of Har’el’s finest personal touches in “Honey Boy” is an early montage showing the older Otis in a whirlwind blur of movies and real-life moments, exciting, shocking and disorienting.
“I tried to really find a way to convey what I’ve been seeing with Shia, in terms of how he gives himself to the craft,” she says: “Actors often harness all of their pain and trauma in order to generate meaningful moments onscreen, but by doing that they slowly lose touch with reality. They become so conscious of their internal life that they forget to have their own experience. And I think that gets dangerous. Obviously Shia was brought into that exercise at a very early age, and he didn’t have a chance to develop the tools to keep that sense of self, or know how to protect himself.”
As for young Jupe, Har’el wanted him to be in a healthy environment. He spent weeks with LaBeouf before shooting, and his mother was on set every day.
“We wanted to ensure that everything was talked about and natural with him. Our goal was to not create Honey Boy II 10 years from now,” she says.
The safe space Har’el created on set seems to have worked wonders.
After not speaking for seven years, LaBeouf renewed his relationship with his father. And he’s been sober for a year and a half.
“It takes a lifetime to come back from childhood trauma,” she says. “He’s still in the midst of it. But I’m excited to see him take some really meaningful steps.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, FKA Twigs
Written by: Shia LaBeouf
Directed by: Alma Har’el
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes