Maria Bello, Michael Sheen: The tragic love story of ‘Beautiful Boy’
At first glance, Beautiful Boy — now in theatres — may not sound like your typical summer movie. But trust me, when Oscar season 2012 rolls around, watch out. This powerful film deserves to be nominated for major acting, directing and screen writing awards. The wheels were already set in motion for Oscar buzz when the movie earned the International Critics Discovery Award at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
Boy is the tender and tragic story of a couple (played by Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) who have drifted apart and are on the verge of a separation. Suddenly, they’re devastated by news that their only son, 18, has massacred fellow students and teachers at his college, then killed himself. Through this unimaginable horror and the ensuing emotional roller coast of confusion, disbelief, grief, regret, blame and guilt, the estranged husband and wife must struggle to communicate, commiserate and reconnect.
Sheen and Bello told The Dish Rag that the hardest part of making this film was not the mere 18 days of shooting. It was their intense preparation going over the script, the trajectory of the relationship, the characters’ past histories.
“One of the things you have to do with a script like this is to talk about and reveal things about your own life and that’s the hard part,” admits Sheen. “Once you get past all that and are comfortable with each other as actors, there is a spontaneity, and a sense of joyfulness and playfulness on the set.”
Both actors appreciated the way Shawn Ku (writer/director/editor) and (co-writer) Michael Armbruster conveyed the overpowering sense of isolation and solitude in the film, often in a documentary style with a camera looking into one room from another room.
“We shot everything very documentary style,” said Ku. “There are lots of shadows and light. We would light an entire room and while the actors were blocked, the camera didn’t know where they were going to move so it’s only when a person starts to speak that the camera reacts and pans to them.”
Armbruster and Ku admitted that their script was inspired by the decade old slayings at Columbine and particularly at Virginia Tech.
“My parents went to school at Virginia Tech,” Ku said. “They met there and they got married. Also, the shooter was Asian so that brought it home a bit more. Also we wanted to deal with the parents of the perpetrator, not the parents of the victims. No one has ever shown what it’s like for those parents. And they don’t talk to the press about it.”
More inspiration for the script: The sudden death of a visiting friend from an undiagnosed heart condition made Ku a central figure in his friend’s family’s grief. And Armbruster was in the process of adopting a child which brings up lots of issues and fears about child rearing, parental responsibility and genetic inheritance.
Structurally, Ku sees this movie as a love story. But it’s got a unique approach. He explains, “For the characters to have a solid marriage, then be hit by tragedy and come back from it, that’s been done before. We wanted something less familiar, a horrible tragedy that ultimately brings two disconnected people back together.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers hope that their audience will react the way so many already have — uplifted.
“They tell us, I went home and hugged my kids, or, ‘I went home and hugged my wife,’ says Armbruster. “Another woman whose child had committed a violent crime came up afterwards and told us that this was the first time she’d ever felt like anyone had told her story.”