Shia LaBeouf and Alma Har'el's Almost-True "Honey Boy" Tackles Family Alcoholism and PTSD

By Dorri Olds 11/10/19

In rehab, LaBeouf used a flashlight under the covers to write what he was learning about mental illness and alcoholism. These notes evolved into the screenplay for "Honey Boy."

Alma Har'el and Shia LaBeouf
Har'el and LaBeouf became close friends, bonding over what they had in common: alcoholic fathers, Jewish mothers, and deep emotional scars.  Image via Author

Actor Shia LaBeouf, now 33, wrote Honey Boy during his 10-week lockdown in court-ordered treatment, which he nicknamed “head camp.” That was the sentence for his highly-publicized 2017 felony arrest for public drunkenness, obstruction, and disorderly conduct—a charge that could’ve landed him seven years in prison. Since then, much has changed for LaBeouf.

"I want to thank the police officer who arrested me in Georgia for changing my life"

This week, only two years post-rehab, the Hollywood Film Awards honored LaBeouf with its Breakthrough Screenwriter prize. Now sober, his acceptance speech was all gratitude, with the first shoutout going to Savannah cop Arthur Bryant:

“I want to thank the police officer who arrested me in Georgia for changing my life. I want to thank my therapist and my sponsor for saving my life. I want to thank my team for being part of my life and my parents for giving me life.”

LaBeouf’s mother Shayna Saide, who accompanied her son to the ceremony, teared up during the award speech. Honey Boy is based on a thinly-veiled story about a child actor named Otis Lort—played by Noah Jupe—and his bitter ex-rodeo clown father James Lort, played by LaBeouf. Before LaBeouf’s stay in rehab, he had been estranged from his father Jeffrey for seven years. LaBeouf gives a powerful performance as the elder Lort, a deeply disturbed, bitter alcoholic whose drinking destroyed his marriage, his career, and scarred the psyche of his young son. Yet, these complex characters display an obvious love for each other.

The screenplay is a slice of LaBeouf’s life. The movie begins with Otis as a preteen, so it doesn’t include earlier scenes such as his parents divorcing when he was only three, nor the violence he witnessed at age nine—overhearing a man raping his mother in another room. In LaBeouf’s last rehab stay (his third), he learned about his PTSD.

The daring, vulnerable script originated with email correspondence between two close friends. The actor, holed up in a treatment facility, used a flashlight under the covers to write what he was learning about mental illness and the family disease of alcoholism. He shared his innermost thoughts with Alma Har’el, an award-winning Israeli filmmaker he’d first met in 2011 after seeing Har’el’s Bombay Beach, which won Best Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) that year.

Alcoholic Fathers, Jewish Mothers, and Deep Emotional Scars

They met for dinner and soon found much in common: Both had alcoholic fathers, Jewish mothers, and deep emotional scars. LaBeouf produced Har’el’s second doc, LoveTrue (2016), which also premiered at TFF.

While LaBeouf was writing about his experiences in treatment, he described painful memories that were surfacing. Har’el recognized the seeds of a cinematic story and encouraged him to keep writing.

The process of revising the script was a group effort with director Har’el at the helm. The moviemaking team included 12-year-old Jupe, Lucas Hedges as Otis in his 20s, and Byron Bowers as Percy, a kindred spirit for Otis during his rehab stay. LaBeouf and Har’el were open to everyone’s input.

We reached out to Alma Har’el to find out more.

How did making your first feature film compare to documentaries?

AH: This film felt like a documentary even though a large part of Honey Boy was scripted. It was a combination of Shia’s real-life story, his dreams, and adding fiction. Regarding the documentary part, it was very important for me to find out as much as I could about where real events in Shia’s life took place. I spoke with both of his parents to understand as much as I could. His mother Shayna Saide provided so many photos. We used as many as we could in the credit sequence. It was to help bring the story to life as much as was possible.

How true to Shia LaBeouf’s life was it?

We were making a film about [the fictional] Otis—not about Shia. Much of the movie was inspired by real-life events and whenever [possible], I wanted to rely on those truths. It was a big help that Shayna, Shia’s mother, was on set with us every day, all day.

Was his father offended by the portrayal of him?

I don’t want to speak for him, so I don’t want to say what he felt, but I could say that he sent me a very warm message after he read the script. Then he sent me messages on Facebook almost every day. I think that [brought] good luck on the shoot. When he saw the final film, he was extremely happy for Shia.

Was it like an AA living amends for him?

It was. I think it was exactly that in so many ways.

How do you feel about the use of the word “god” in 12-step programs?

Yeah, it’s very challenging, but it is, as they say, your higher power, so it’s up to you to define what it is. I think that’s the power of these programs. It is the power of the people that support each other and come back to share things together and find …their own higher power. Much [of it] is a personal journey. [Everyone] has their own terms. But, yeah, I have my challenges with that. That’s been one of my biggest challenges—to find what those destinations are outside of religion. I think gods can be real even if it’s not the god everybody else is praying to. It is certainly about figuring that out for yourself—a personal journey.

Can you add anything to that?

Well, it’s like, what is that thing that makes you present? What makes you have faith in something bigger than yourself? Also, the part of Percy was written much more religious at first. It spoke about god-related steps in rehab….When Byron Bowers [was cast] in the role, he rewrote that part for himself so it was based on his own experiences.

What was it like when you said something but didn’t realize it was a trigger. Did Shia have to take care of himself by taking a walk or was it smoother than that?

It was a lot more intense than that! We had to deal with very, very intense situations, often on set, but we did it with privacy when we could. We always made sure that Noah, and all of us were feeling safe. I’m very happy that we were all able to … be present.

Do you mean present for the difficult topics in the script?

Yes. We all went through these deep feelings and learned so much.

About each other?

Yes, and about PTSD. I also feel like our movie could help children of alcoholics [who may be] struggling. We didn’t want to [shy away] or disregard anything.

Was it cathartic for Shia?

An exorcism! And not just for him. We let demons come up.

Noah Jupe said he went into this movie as a child but left as a teenager. Did you see that metamorphosis taking place?

I’m not a mother so I was really glad his mother was on set with us every day, and Shia’s mother too. They became close allies of mine in directing. We were all very intimate on set, having … intimate discussions about everything. I loved watching Noah’s perceptions and his ability to express himself emotionally and see things in a deeper way. It was happening, but I hadn’t really seen how much he’s grown until we took a break after Sundance. It was obvious then that he’s now a teenager just by the way he walked. He has physically and emotionally grown up so much. It’s so funny when we were sitting together doing the Q&A, some of us teared up when he was talking…from how much he’d grown up and what an amazing young man we were seeing.

Honey Boy is now in theaters.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.