My "Beautiful Boy": David Sheff on Bringing His Family's Story to the Big Screen
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In "The David Sheff Solution," The Fix interviewed the National Book Award-winning author of Beautiful Boy about his struggles as the father of a child with a substance use disorder. Now David Sheff’s story has been vaulted to the next level of national prominence. On October 12th, Amazon Studios released the feature film Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carrell as David Sheff and Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff.
As opposed to being intimidated by this move into the public eye, David Sheff is excited. Since helping his son Nic find the path of long-term recovery, Sheff has dedicated his time and energy to raising awareness and continuing his efforts to reduce –and ultimately remove—the stigma surrounding addiction. Without stigma, Sheff knows from firsthand experience, prevention efforts will improve and treatment will become more accessible. Indeed, Sheff’s ultimate goal in allowing his story to be brought to the big screen is to bring greater compassion and understanding for this disease. Given our similar focus at The Fix, we are thrilled to again speak with David Sheff.
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The Fix: Beautiful Boy is a rare combination of both your most deeply personal work as a human being and your most successful book as an author. Was it hard to decide to expose such a story to the world, particularly in a visual format that lacks the distance of the written word? Was it difficult to let go and give director/writer Felix Van Groeningen the space to tell your story?
The direct answer is yes. It was hard. Even from the beginning, exposing our family to potential criticism in a public forum was worrying. It has been worrying from the very beginning when I first decided to write about what was happening to my family for The New York Times Magazine. I remember asking a friend of mine to read the manuscript after I first wrote it. She was an editor, and I respected her opinions. I must admit today that her response surprised me. She told me, “You can’t publish this. There is all this stigma against addiction, and your family will be judged harshly.” As you can tell, she really counseled against moving forward.
At that point, I already had made the commitment. I had talked with everyone involved, including Nic, and we decided to move forward. When it came out, there were no negative consequences at all. In fact, it was the opposite. I heard over and over again from people who had been impacted by addiction. It was all about sharing stories, and people seemed relieved to be able to share. They had kept their experiences quiet because these were their deep, dark secrets. They also had felt that they would be judged. It was so positive that the article and then the book led to the creation of such an open dialogue in a variety of ways from in-person to on the phone to online messages in emails plus on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s important to note that every word in that book I scrutinized. I wanted to make sure that I said what I wanted to say while also protecting everyone involved. It ends up being really complicated. I felt everybody had suffered enough, and I didn’t want to increase anyone’s suffering. As a writer, I tried to be as meticulous as I knew how to be. The idea of allowing someone else to tell our story was scary in a different way: I knew I would not have that kind of control.
Before it happened, the idea of doing a movie had never really occurred to me. To begin with, the writing started as a way to get through the night. The writing was a way of expurgating this deep, dark turmoil that I was experiencing. When we were approached about doing a movie, the first guy turned out to be the right guy. We were approached by Jeremy Kleiner, one of the principals at Plan B Entertainment, and he was sincerely moved by both of our books. He cared deeply about this issue because he had been through it with friends while also being deeply affected by the Dad’s perspective and the family story. He felt it made it different from the vast majority of addiction memoirs. The key point he made was that addiction was not portrayed in either of our books in a simplistic or clichéd way. He made the commitment to make a movie that would show the complexity of addiction, the fact that there are no easy answers.
Although Jeremy was just starting out at this time, we believed in him and in Dede Gardner, his partner at Plan B, along with Brad Pitt, who is the CEO and started the company. It seemed obvious to make the decision to make the movie with them. Since then, they have won Academy-Awards for making 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, but this was before they experienced such incredible success. When they brought on Felix Van Groeningen, the director of the movie, I was even more convinced. He’s a genius, and I was incredibly impressed and moved by his past films. Like the producers, he was connected and committed to the material. I knew we were in good hands, and I knew they would tell our story in all of its complexity.
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Steve Carrell is an American comic icon. In movies like The Office and The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, he has made us laugh (although he showed dramatic chops in Foxcatcher). What do you think of his portrayal of you in this film?
There is no doubt that he’s a comic genius, but he’s so much more as well. Steve is an astounding actor, and I knew that long before this movie. Indeed, Nic and I remember so clearly the experience of seeing him in Little Miss Sunshine together. He was heartbreaking in that movie in such a beautiful way, and it was a moving experience for us to see that film together when it first came out in the theaters.
When I met Steve, he was so sincere, warm, and committed to telling the story right. The other thing I realized was that he connected to the story as a father. It was not the drug experiences that drew him to the story, but the opportunity as a father to play a father desperately trying to help a child. He understood the deep desire as a parent to do anything we can to protect our kids. He expressed how badly he wanted to play that role because of the emotional component of the story.
I must admit, however, that when I saw the movie, I still couldn’t imagine anyone playing me. It just seemed too weird. It really is disconcerting when you think about it, and, as a writer, I tend to think about things. When I finally saw the movie from beginning to end, I feel like he nailed it. He captured how hard it is and how hard it was for me to go through this period in my life. He captured what it’s like to be a parent of an addicted child, somebody you love more than anything and all you want to do is save them, but you keep running into obstacles like the denial and the horror of addiction. He captured that difficulty of helping someone who is angry and rebellious and lashing out at you as you try to save their life. I lived through that anguish, and that anguish is in every nuance of his performance and his expression and in his acting. I really was blown away and felt that he got it. Before I saw him do it, I honestly doubted whether anyone could do what he has accomplished in this film. You see his optimism and his crushing defeat, then you see him become optimistic again and then his desperation as his son keeps relapsing. The up and down and up and down is so powerful, but even more powerful is the through-line of his love for his son.
How did you and Nic decide to move forward with the movie project? Did you both feel from the beginning that your book and his book should be turned into a combined film? How did you decide to combine the Beautiful Boy story with Nic’s Tweak, or was this choice made by the filmmakers?
The choice was completely made by the filmmakers. It was inconceivable at first that they would be able to pull off two such different takes on the same story in a single film. However, I had heard how valuable it was for other parents to read Nic’s book and develop a new perspective on what their addicted son or daughter was going through. At the same time, it was really valuable for a lot of kids to read Beautiful Boy to get a sense of what their parents were going through, both from the perspective of the how much they suffered and the depth of their love. Many kids don’t realize how much a parent’s love is a constant in the process of trying to help their child recover.
Still, each story had been told in book form with over three-hundred pages dedicated to each story. The idea that somebody could pull it all together in a two-hour movie was hard for me to imagine. It was not at all our choice, and it felt like they were jumping into the deep end of a stormy ocean without a life vest. Also, there was no precedent for it. I can’t think of a movie that was ever based on two different memories; one from the parent’s perspective and the other from the child’s perspective. I wasn’t sure that it could be done.
However, you really got the emotional journey through the parent and the kid. I knew it was going to be challenging, but, once they made the decision, they never looked back. Over the two years that it took to make the movie, they kept to the course, and I feel they did it masterfully. It was a hard choice to make in the beginning, and it definitely was the decision of the filmmakers.
As an aside, Nic did amazing in his interview. I was so impressed by the depth of his compassion and the veracity of his gratitude.
He’s an extraordinary example of recovery in practice. All the time, I hear from people who are so discouraged because they’ve been through years of watching a child’s descent into addiction. I hear it about other family members and friends as well. They just don’t feel like recovery is possible.
We are so lucky that Nic made it. Any parent is lucky that has a child who makes it. Nic’s drug use was so extreme, and the combination of drugs that he was doing was truly dangerous. He put himself into so many life-threatening situations during those dark days. There were so many times when it could have ended up differently. Tragically—and I feel so deeply for them because I could have been there— so many parents now experience the unforgiving horror of that outcome where they lose a child. Given Nick’s recovery now, we were very lucky.
My experience seeing Nic go through this process has been incredible. People that go through recovery and come out the other end don’t just survive. Because of all the hard work that needs to be done, because of all the suffering, because of all the self-examination required to get sober and then stay sober, they become some of the most extraordinary people that you’ll ever meet. In fact, John, you are a case in point, and that journey from addiction to recovery, as you know from your own experience, can be inspiring to other people that you meet along the way. People that come out the other side can have the most rewarding and fulfilling lives afterward.
I hear from so many families that are close to losing hope or have lost hope. Their relationships have been shattered, and they can’t imagine them ever being put back together. My experience with Nic has shown that families that do explode; [families that] feel—amidst the ruins—that it’s almost inconceivable that they will survive it—they do survive it, and they can survive. Recovery is still a possibility. If they do the hard work and give it time, they can be closer than ever. I believe we can say that about our family.
Nic and David Sheff
Image Credit: Reed Hutchinson for UCLA Friends of Semel
If this movie could accomplish one goal, what would you want that goal to be? What do you believe can be achieved?
I feel the biggest impediment moving forward to end addiction, to face this disease in all its difficulty, to prevent people from becoming addicted and to treat people that do become addicted, is the ongoing stigma. Too many people keep their problem hidden because they are judged. People don’t go get treatment because they are hiding the reality of their addiction. When people start to get treatment, if they have the normal challenges of the usual ups and downs, if they relapse, they are judged very harshly. Being judged in such a way is the last thing needed by somebody who is addicted. They already feel terrible about themselves. They are caught in a cycle that’s like a vise, and they don’t want to be doing the terrible things that they do to themselves and to their families.
I hope the movie can show people that addiction is not about choice. It’s not about a young person going out and doing these things just because they want to have fun and party and get high. It might be about that a little in the beginning, but it quickly shifts. Essentially, it is about pain and suffering and a desperate attempt to find some sense of peace within themselves. Addicted people talk about this hole inside them that they are trying to fill. The hole can be anything from an undiagnosed psychiatric problem like depression or anxiety to untreated childhood abuse and trauma. Whatever it is, I have come to see that it is about a pain that the person is trying to self-medicate.
If this film can help with anything, I hope it opens the door to greater compassion and understanding for this disease. Without the burden of the stigma, we can move forward and actually help the people that need our help. We need to help people by overcoming stigma by focusing on effective prevention and treatment. People who are addicted are not weak. They are ill, and they deserve our compassion.
At the Colorado Health Symposium in August, you start your keynote address after watching the film’s trailer by saying, “I’ve only seen that once, and it’s hard to watch.” What parts exactly were so hard to watch? Was it a combination of Nic’s descent into addiction and your inability to stop it? Did you have any PTSD-like reactions to the film, or was it a cathartic experience that freed you from the lingering demons of the past?
Wow! That’s a good question. I guess the answer is both. It brought it all back, and it’s not like I had forgotten. However, when we get past traumatic experiences in our lives, we do put them in a place that we can live with. I feel like I had done that to some degree, and it made watching the film challenging. The experience of seeing it again opened up the whole thing again, meaning it opened up the old wounds. I just remembered how hard it was and how hard it was to watch Nic suffer. I felt again how hard it was for all of us to survive as a family.
At the same time, it was amazingly cathartic to process what we had been through as a family. It was another version of writing the book, which had been really cathartic as well. It also was an affirmation of the hard work Nic has done to get sober and to stay sober. It was a reminder of how lucky we are to have come out the other side. While watching the film, I would look over at Nic sitting next to me and get so emotional. I would start to cry and I feel like I’m about to start crying right now because I came so close to losing him. It was a reminder of how close I came to losing him.
In another sense, it was cathartic because I felt like it mirrored the experience of so many other people. It was a reminder of how many of us are in this together. When Beautiful Boy first came out in 2008, I thought it couldn’t get worse in terms of the number of people that were dying from addiction. The number then was about 36,000, and that doesn’t include people dying from alcohol-related causes. Of course, we know that in 2017, it was 72,000 dying from addiction-related causes alone, twice the original number. Things have gotten so much worse, and that’s why I feel that this movie is coming out at just the right time. So many people are suffering, and I hope this movie can help bring us all together and make us feel that we are not alone.
You talk about how hard the disease of addiction is on families. Should families see this film together? Should parents take their teenagers? If they do, how should they prepare both themselves and their kids for the film and what should they do afterwards?
Wow! That’s another good question. I guess what I would say is that every family is different. A reality that many of us would prefer not to face is that every kid is going to encounter drugs as they are growing up. It’s a prevalent reality in the world. Many parents ask me if it’s too early to start talking about drugs with their child if they are a freshman in high school. The clear answer is no. It’s not too early to start talking about drugs to your young, young child. Drugs are pervasive in our culture, and kids are curious by nature. They are confused, and it’s our responsibility to provide them with quality information to help lift that confusion. It’s our responsibility to shed light.
Still, every family and every parent has to determine what’s appropriate for their own child. When it comes to seeing this film, that decision needs to be made for each family. In general, if your child is mature enough to see explicit and disturbing scenes of drug use, then I think this film could provide an amazing way to start that conversation in a family. What does it mean to use drugs? Why do people use drugs? What are the potential consequences to using drugs? These are crucial questions. Before watching the film, there should be a conversation that provides some education. In other words, a conversation that opens the door to a conversation. The best part of such a conversation is if parents can get their kids to talk.
It reminds me of this recent work I’ve been doing with Jarvis Masters, a California inmate at San Quentin on death row. I’ve spent a lot of time in the prison, and I recently sat in with a group of inmates in the program as they talked about their experiences and their lives. They are trying to face the consequences of their actions by doing restorative justice. When I was leaving, I happened to be going to talk to a group of teenagers that night. I asked these men: “I’m going to talk to these kids tonight. Is there anything I should tell them? Is there anything anyone would have said to you that would have helped you growing up so you could have made better decisions later on? Maybe you would not have fallen into addiction and fallen into crime?”
A lot of the men had really interesting things to say. At the end, there was this one guy who has been super quiet the whole time. He said something under his breath, and I couldn’t hear him. I asked him to say what he had said again. He looked up at me and said, “When you talk to these kids tonight, don’t say anything. Just listen to them.”
I thought that was incredibly powerful, and that’s the message I would give to parents. Try to engage your kids in conversation and really figure out who they are and what’s going on in their lives. Then, it’s super important to continue the conversation after the movie. Keep talking and, more importantly, keep listening.
Finally, people in early recovery should be careful when deciding whether or not to see this film. Given the explicit drug use and the unvarnished reality of addiction presented in the film, it may not be the best choice so they should talk it through with their counselors, therapists, sponsors or whomever they are working with to maintain their recovery. The research tells us that such scenes of drug use can be triggering, and that’s the last thing we want to do with this movie. Part of the reason the movie is so powerful is because the filmmakers committed to telling the truth, and that truth is that drug use is not glamorous in the slightest, but rather horrifying to watch.
Beautiful Boy is now playing in select theaters; it opens everywhere on November 9th.