Filmmaker Alma Har’el on Shia LeBeouf and the Truth of HONEY BOY – Sarah Knight Adams interviews

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Honey Boy director Alma Har’el is best known for her documentaries Love True and Bombay Beach, the latter of which was awarded the top prize at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Honey Boy, her first narrative feature film, premiered in the dramatic competition at Sundance 2019, where Har’el won the Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft. Honey Boy is based on the volatile upbringing of actor Shia LeBeouf, who wrote the script during his ordered re-hab stay. He reached out to Har’el and asked her to direct the feature film about his life, with him playing the character based on his father, a rodeo-clown, haunted with regrets.

Sarah Knight Adamson: During the Honey Boy post-screening Q&A at the 919 Film Festival, in Chapel Hill, NC, the audience felt that in the film, in some respects, Shia Lebeouf is paying tribute to his dad — in terms of helping him with his acting career. Can you speak to that?

Alma Har’el: He’s given him a lot of pain, and he has used that pain in his career, but he’s also given him his love. The way that he helped him and trained him and worked with him as a younger actor was a huge part of his life and his passion for the craft.

Adamson: Can you tell me what winning the Sundance Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft means to you?

Har’el: I’ve been trying to become a filmmaker for so long. I didn’t get into it at a younger age, in a very easy way. I could never afford to go to film school. Just last week, a few days ago, I had this surreal experience of going to Times Square when all of the ads for the film launched on the screens. And remembering being 19 and working as the bartender at a strip club on 42nd Street. Dying to study film and not having the money and me and another dancer in that club were taking in night courses at The School of Visual Arts and learning how to shoot Super 8 films because that’s all we could afford. So, I think it’s just been such a beautiful long journey to get here. I tried to get both of my first films into Sundance, and they didn’t get in.

The first one, Bombay Beach, didn’t get into Sundance but then ended up winning at the Tribeca Film Festival. Then my second film, Love True, also didn’t get into Sundance. I started to try to get into many labs. Writing labs, and directing labs, the documentary labs, and didn’t get into any of them. So to come in with my first script and film and then to win that award definitely feels special, and it was definitely a night I’ll always remember.

Also, I find that over the years that I’ve met so many people in that institution that do so much for women filmmakers, and learned to understand that there are so many other people that are trying. Carrie Putnam from the Sundance Institute and the initiative that she has implemented and of course, the Sundance Institute itself.

Adamson: I’ve read about how Shia contacted you and the immediate connection you had, both being children of alcoholics. Can you tell me how this bond helped in the process of bringing the film together?

Har’el: I think the children of alcoholics or adult children of alcoholics — in general, for anybody that has experienced childhood trauma, it’s been a big part of their lives trying to find new tools. What happens to all of us is that our wires get crossed very early on. The way we experience love has to do a lot with how we experience pain. So all of these wires get crossed between love, and pity, and pain, and responsibility, and our sense of self, and our sense of reality is often questioned. There are many things that you can recognize with somebody who is extremely empathetic, sensitive, and stable in their own world. And I think that when I met Shia, we just connected really easily based on all of that and also on our interest in a certain kind of performance.

In my documentaries, I have really experimented a lot, found a lot of people, in what I like to call performance of self. Which is not really purely a documentary. Neither a performance, a scripted performance. And I think that what Shia strived for in his acting is to get closer to performance of self as opposed to just acting some character. To really bring that character as closed into himself and then touching it in a way that almost breaks the pale cinema. I think he achieved it in this film. That was something from the start; we wanted to find a way to do that, and this is what makes this performance so raw and so special and why it feels so different from other performances.

Adamson: How old was Shia when he started smoking cigarettes? I know his dad gave him the cigarettes, he looked so young. Why do you think his dad would do that? To appease Shia, or did he want a drinking buddy?

Har’el: Yeah, he was very young, maybe 10. He also, as you can see in the film, he started to smoke marijuana, weed, at a very young age. And use alcohol. Now, for the first time in his life, he’s sober. He’s been good. I think it was because… I don’t know…guessing here. I think that often, from my experience that people that live in the world of substance and use substances, they often minimize the effects and they want to share their experience with their children.

Adamson: Honestly, there were parts of the movie that were really hard to watch, but the scene I found very disturbing was the phone conversation with young Otis (the Shia character as a boy) and both of his parents. He was on the phone with his mother who ordered him to say those horrible things to his dad and then having to repeat the dad’s horrible words back to the mother. Emotionally, that would hit a child to the core. I know what that does to a child as I’ve taken many child psychology classes. Was that based on something that probably happened?

It was definitely something that happened a lot. Shia wrote that in the script and it was one of those things that when I read it, I knew it’s going to…well, I couldn’t wait to film it. I also feel like a lot of kids that went through a divorce, often your parents talk through you. They don’t want to talk to each other, so they talk through you. They send you with messages. Tell your dad to do this, tell your dad… Or sometimes even lie for me about this because it would help me to get that.

So many things like this happen when you are a kid of parents that are divorced, and we just capture that. That’s what’s genius about it — that it at the same time also captures, a young actor learning how to basically use his abilities to perform and to prepare for performance — but performing for his dad. By performing for his mom and his dad.

Adamson: I read that you made this film for all children of alcoholics, and I thank you for that, and best of luck with the film.

Sarah Knight Adamson November 4, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Honey Boy is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for November 8, 2019

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Sarah Knight Adamson

Chicago-based Sarah Knight Adamson is the film critic for the Internationally syndicated radio show Hollywood 360, broadcast on over 90 stations. She has served on film panels for the Chicago Public Library, been a juror at film festivals, and writes about film for Naperville Magazine. She is founder and publisher of Sarah’s Backstage Pass website, where her written work appears.