Three Men and a Film–The Beautiful Boy interview



By Gary Murray


The makers of the new film Beautiful Boy are a happy-go-lucky trio of young men who have crafted a film very different from their basic personalities.    At times, one is amazed that such charming individuals could find such a morose center for their motion picture.


Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku and directed by Shawn Ku, the story of Beautiful Boy is about a mother and father who have their world turned upside down.  Their college attending son goes on a killing rampage, like the events at Virginia Tech.  These two individuals go through all the stages of grief while trying to put together both the pieces of their lives and the why of what happened.  It is a sobering look at the darkest side of relationships and how love can overcome the greatest obstacles.   As a part of the USA Film Festival; Shawn Ku, Michael Armbruster and Producer Lee Clay were available to talk about their work.


Michael said of the genesis of the story of Beautiful Boy, “We were looking for a different angle, a different point of view for our story.  Unfortunately school shootings are so prevalent and they are on the news every couple of months.  That was sort of at the top our minds when we were thinking about this story.  We had a couple of things that drew us into the emotional journey of these characters.  What is the worst possible thing that could happen?  That is how we landed on this school shooting thing.  We really wanted to address it from a different point of view, how the parents would be affected.”


Shawn Ku added, “When Virginia Tech happened, it was traumatic for my family.”  Shawn’s family has many connections to the university.  “Because he was Asian, that was a very unusual circumstance.  It was so shocking, such an act of aggression.  We have to wonder what would drive someone to do something like that.”


The film stars Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as the distraught parents.  According to Shawn, research on these types of parents was difficult.  He noted that the parents are driven from their lives and fade into the background. 


“They are persecuted in such a way,” added Michael.  “The research was about how these events are covered.  The onslaught of media and how that would affect them, the procedural aspects of the media (was the focus).  We really made a decision to step back and not try to do anything based on anything that happened before. We tried to make the parents normal, relatable people so that people in the audience could relate.” 


Producer Lee Clay said, “In many ways the movie is about the attempt to communicate and the inability to communicate at the same time. Maria is someone who reads for a living but she is looking for mistakes.”  The job of Maria’s character is a book publishing editor.


Shawn added, “We wanted a family where no one is meeting and connecting but are drifting in a complacent way.  They have forgotten about connecting at all. I feel like our relationships evolve that way and if you don’t observe them they become stagnant.”


Lee Clay finished with, “They are a group of people who just co-exist without ever really connecting.  They just kind of wander through their lives as individuals–bouncing from room to room.  There is no moment where they come together as a couple until the very end which is a nice resolution.” 


One of the hardest roles to cast was of the killer, a role that eventually went to Kyle Gallner. The trio admitted that they had auditioned quite a few up-and-coming ‘hot actors’ for the role.  Shawn said “It is not a role that kids get too often.  He really was just amazing.”  Added Lee Clay, “Kyle exploded off the audition tape in a way where we went ‘that’s the guy’.”


Shawn said that they rehearsed for a few weeks but it was all a discussion of life, not just a reading of lines.  “It was about drawing those people out of them.  It was very deep at times and very light at others.”


For these first time film makers, they each had different lesson learned. Lee Clay explained, “When you are making a film of this budget you have to be willing to do everything.  Everyone is working for scale, if that. It is all about finding ways to work efficiently, work quickly,” 


Then Shawn said that they were initially budgeted to shoot digitally and two weeks before they decided to shoot Super 16.  The production guys told Michael and Shawn, “We got a plan and we got a budget. We can lose labor here and make it work.”  Clay ended with, “It is all about making a plan and sticking to it, Making sure that everyone on the set has a real team atmosphere, from producer to interns.” 


Michael was very matter of fact about the most difficult aspect of making Beautiful Boy. “The hardest part is just getting it going.  Everybody is scared to be the first person in. That is a nerve racking kind of thing.  We were able to get the script through the gatekeepers and into the hands of the talent.  Once Michael and Maria came on it became easier.”


Michael Armbruster has nothing but praises for his lead actor, Mr. Sheen.  “Michael is such a phenomenal actor.  I know that when we first considered him, people were like ‘Huh?’ because he is so quintessentially British. The role is for a normal American guy.  I guess I just knew.  He’s such an amazing actor; I knew he could do it.”  Shawn added, “I’m in awe of him and I’d love to work with him again.”


Michael finished the interview trying to justify some of the darker aspects of the story.  “We are trying to tell a story, essentially a love story, under these really awful circumstances.  That is what we kind of come back to.  In that same thought, he’s a monster and there is no excuse for what he did.  By no means do we want to be insensitive.  It is art for us.  We are trying to express something and convey something to get people to think in a different way.” 


The interview finished with Shawn Ku saying, “There are two sides to every coin. It is really easy for us to see these people on TV and they are two dimensional on the screen.  It is easy for us to say they are pure evil.  They are human, there has to be a human side.  It is safer for us to believe that there isn’t.  We are just trying to be human about it.”


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