Honey Boy premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival back in January. The film, which is written by Shia LaBeouf, is a fictional yet personal retelling of LaBeouf’s troubled relationship with his father. Honey Boy received rave reviews out of Sundance and since the festival was rumored to be a major awards contender.
Filmmaker Alma Har’el, who is best known for her documentarian work on such films as Bombay Beach and LoveTrue makes her fictional feature film debut with Honey Boy. Alma has shown that she is passionate about this project since the very beginning. On behalf of Awards Daily I was lucky enough to sit down with Alma for a brief chat about the film and what it was like to make the transition from documentary to feature as well as the challenges of bringing Shia LaBeouf’s story to the big screen.
Scott Menzel: Hi Alma, so lovely to finally meet you. Are you exhausted yet?
Alma Har’el: It’s crazy, you would think it’s like the Avengers in here. I’ve been doing press interviews all day, all week.
Scott Menzel: Well, maybe you are an Avenger (laughs). I mean on top of all the interviews, you have been on social media promoting this movie more than I feel like any other director I’ve seen in a very long time.
Alma Har’el: Wow. I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment.
Scott Menzel: You should because it shows you care. You’ve retweeted almost every single reaction from the film, which I think it is great to be that involved as a filmmaker.
Alma Har’el: I’m definitely obsessed. I think that I have been very thirsty for people to see this film. I’m so proud of what we did, but also just feel like that if it reaches people it would help a lot of people. It’s my first film and I’m not a cool person. I’m the sort of person that isn’t cool in any way. I’m just a genuinely an excitable but uncool person about getting this film out there.
Scott Menzel: I think you’ve been doing a great job. I saw this movie when it premiered back at Sundance.
Alma Har’el: Oh really? It’s been a year. Isn’t it crazy?
Scott Menzel: That’s what I’m saying. You’ve been going nonstop for 10 months straight?
Alma Har’el: Yeah and it’s all coming down to this weekend. I know that you focus a lot on awards season and it’s so incredible that we’re even in the running for that. But really what it is about for me is people seeing this film. I just want to get people to see this film. I just want this story to be told. I feel it’s a story that a lot of people need to see and hear. I feel the perspective of it, how it was made and the fact that it has this aspect of somebody really stepping into their own trauma and showing compassion to the person that hurt them but to also find forgiveness and find the steps to heal.
This whole thing with Shia getting diagnosed with PTSD has been such a trip. I had to really educate myself about what that means to even understand what he’s going through. Honestly, I wasn’t aware of a lot of the details of what it means to be triggered, what it means to be hypervigilant and what it means to have a fight or flight reactions to situations that seem like they are going to destroy you and kill you if you don’t act against them. It’s been such an emotional ride and I’m just dying to share it with everybody and for the world to see it. Then I’m sure I’m going to retreat into my quiet existence on Twitter after that.
I feel guilty that I’m so active on certain things. It’s so lovely to see people that just quietly drop beautiful work and then don’t work as hard to promote it. I’ve been just adamant to get it out there.
Scott Menzel: I can totally tell that you’ve been pushing this. It’s your baby and you’ve been pushing it out into the world. When you get a project like this where it’s so incredibly personal to the person who you’ll be working with as a writer, what is the process that you have to take as a filmmaker to make sure that you capture what Shia wants?
Alma Har’el: I come from documentary filmmaking so it’s such a loaded question because it has moral implications, but it also has some implications as to what the genre is when you make a documentary. Here, I definitely had much more than freedom because it is a scripted film. Even though it’s Shia’s story, he named the character Otis. By doing that from the start there is an unwritten understanding that this is also fictional. But saying that I think it’s been incredibly close to home with everything that we’ve done. My job had to do a lot more with the older Otis in terms of the accuracy of it.
The childhood stuff was really in the script from the start when he was still in therapy. The childhood stuff was very much loyal to what happened, but I would say toned down. I would say that we see 5% of what happened to Shia is those years. Obviously, there were things that were a lot more dramatic that we didn’t want to take Noah and drag Noah through them. It was how do you make this film that you’re making with a child actor? You don’t want to make it too traumatic for this child first of all and then just using the photographs and speaking to his mom, speaking to his father and speaking to people that even worked with us on the film that knew his father and worked on those sets because we had so many people on the set in our crews. Our line producer, David Grace, was the line producer of Even Stevens.
So there were so many ways to discover more about what happened with people that worked with us and using all of that. Then when it came to older Otis, it was just really speaking to Carey who is the therapist who has diagnosed Shia with PTSD at the mental health facility/rehab that he was court-ordered to go to. She was very generous and literally allowed me to write down and transcribe the things that he said to her in their meetings.
We used them for the therapy sessions in the film, especially the opening and some of the lines in there. We were just taking them pretty much verbatim from the things he actually said to her including her description of him in those early days when he came in and how she diagnosed the PTSD. She help me understand how to deal with some of the challenges of directing somebody that suffers from this, because I don’t know how much awareness there is about what PTSD is and the way that it can trigger aggression, anger and irritability in somebody and make them feel like you are out to get them when they are scared.
That was something that I had to really tap into in order to tell his story properly. At the same time always keeping some humor about it because it is funny that people were watching Even Stevens, Transformers films and YouTube videos of him behaving in all sorts of ways under the banner of alcoholism and PTSD. How do you really comment on all of that and make sure you tell a story that is about more than the sum of the gossipy aspect?
Scott Menzel: Going off that, Hollywood has this way of doing that to its actors. We often say that “we love them.”
Alma Har’el: And we love the way they explore the shadow. We love the way that they can tap into certain situations that some of us haven’t experienced and certain pain that they know how to explore that we maybe don’t know much about.
Scott Menzel: Absolutely. But then on the other side of that, where you have…
Alma Har’el: Cancer culture?
Scott Menzel: Well, not just cancer culture but I’m talking about as soon as someone starts messing up. If they have an alcohol problem or a drug problem, everyone’s so quick to turn on them. No one was there to help Shia out when he had his mental breakdow. Everyone was just using it as a form of entertainment. Do you remember that?
Alma Har’el: Yes. I think that I was at that point where he was in rehab, sending me these pages and he thought nobody would ever want to make this film and nobody else would speak to him. I was probably one of only people that would agree to talk to him and read them. So I saw the consequences of that. But what I also think is really interesting in general, like you’re saying, is that as a society, we really love to tap into resources and people are resources to us that can enrich our culture or can make us feel a certain way, or can entertain us or can make us feel that they are on a path of growth, fame or something that we can be inspired by or creatively do things for us and help us go through things.
Then at the same time, the minute that they show signs of stepping away from the narrative we are comfortable with, we begin to exile them. So it’s extremely painful to watch when it’s somebody you know and love. I think the compassion, forgiveness, and being there for somebody when they don’t fit your expectations or when they don’t sit together with the story you like to tell yourself or other people is a really hard thing to do. It’s the hardest thing to do. It’s not really easy but it’s easier to have compassion for people that always show growth, always fit the catharsis or the victorious hero story of somebody that goes through something hard and then succeeds to overcome their challenges.
It’s harder to love somebody that falls down again and again. I definitely grew up more with people like that. I grew up with a father who’s still an alcoholic, that has a lot of awareness to his situation and is still drinking. He’s still the person I love the most. Him, my mom and my family. I love them so much. I have seen both my father and my mother struggle with a lot of things through their lives and not always coming out winning. It’s something I think we have to ask ourselves as a society is, how much space are we allowing? How much credit are we giving? Not just to actors but in general to people in our lives and to people in society at large that are not on a victorious path, that is not on the hero journey. How much love and compassion can we show them?
Scott Menzel: I think that’s a great question to ask people especially nowadays. It’s so easy to point fingers and blame them without knowing the full story. One of my friends said, “If Shia wants to get nominated for this, he’s going to have to go on an apology tour.” I didn’t get that. “Why does he have to go on an apology tour?” It was personal to him and the media made a mockery of it. I think they should be apologizing to him for treating him that way after learning what he went through.
Alma Har’el: I think there’s so many issues here. I think that a lot of people don’t necessarily know that this story is also under the hospice of mental health. By the way, Shia has gone on an apology tour many times. This movie is in many ways him trying to make an amends. As part of his 12 step program, he has been doing that for quite a while now. So I do understand your friend’s wish to have some accountability and I think we live in a time where it’s a challenge to find nuance between our wish for accountability in the culture and our wish to cancel anything that is not easily understood or easily fixed.
Scott Menzel: I have to ask one last question before I’m forced to wrap up. I love the cast that you’ve put together for this. I know everyone’s talking about Shia, but Noah is phenomenal in the film. Lucas, as well, even though not in it all that much, but I love Lucas and he’s great.
Alma Har’el: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: When you tackle such deep dark subject matters and you are working with someone as young as Noah, what kind of precautions do you have to take?
Alma Har’el: It’s funny because you don’t want to make Honey Boy 2. You don’t want to have this thing where in 10 years it’s going to be Noah telling his story about how when we were watching Honey Boy, he was actually doing this and that. I think one of the most important things was to understand what’s his support system. Spent time with his family. Both his father Chris and his mother Katie was such a big part of making this film.
I know that Katie who’s an actress herself and a writer has just been like a partner, I would say, more than just a stage mom. None of those cliches apply to her. She was just extremely sensitive, open and helped me guide Noah and helped me make sure that he’s always feeling comfortable. If there’s something that he doesn’t tell me or if there’s even like the slightest change of mood that he’s showing or something in his behavior that maybe he’s telling us something he can’t even express that we would all be aware of it.
There’s always still things you learn about the having a child actor on set that it’s actually not the things you would think. I think that actually his relationship with Shia was extraordinary. Shia was so protective of him and even on the days that he was triggered and had a harder time controlling himself, he was always protective of Noah and he always had this amazing relationship with him from the start.
They spent about two months together almost every day, juggling, playing cards, a magical gathering and going to baseball games, spending time with Noah’s family and his brothers. Noah and his mom lived in Shia’s house and Shia went and lived in a motel because he wanted to live like his father did. Everybody was so intimate with each other and open about what we are trying to do. When we walked into the set, walked into that room and had 11 days to shoot all of that dialogue, I would say that the two months before that has actually informed the intimacy and connection that we had.
Noah’s mom was a big part of what made that successful. But then you still hear things. Today we did this Twitter live thing as part of the stuff that Amazon’s doing to get it out there. They asked Noah, “What was your favorite memory?” And he said, “My favorite memory of the whole time on the set was getting hit in pie with the face. I loved that day.” And he said, “But it was painful. It was like a slap in the face.” I said, “It was painful when the pie hit you?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You never said that to me.” And he said, “Yeah, it was kind of painful when the pie hit me.”
It’s like you never know every detail. You can have all the teachers, the therapists, the parents and everybody on set and you’ve tried to protect everything. There always could be something and that’s the challenge of working with child actors. It’s really something that is a question to be asked. How much can you push them? What is okay to do? I’ve been asking that every day and I’m still learning the answers.
Scott Menzel: Thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really loved how thoughtful all your answers were.
Alma Har’el: Thank you, man. It was really nice meeting you.
Honey Boy opens in limited release starting November 8, 2019.