Movies

‘Honey Boy’ Director Alma Har’el On Shia LaBeouf’s On-Set Behavior And Her Controversial Shooting Style

Shia LaBeouf has been famous as much for his “semi-unhinged artist” persona as his acting, and Honey Boy, as much as anything, is an extended attempt to explain himself. But even in the midst of releasing a brutally honest and self-critical portrayal, it seems the guy still can’t help making headlines that bolster his “kooky actor” image. This past week, Indiewire ran an interview with Honey Boy‘s cinematographer, Natasha Brier, who described the challenges of working around what, in the piece, sound like a series of wild demands from a famously temperamental actor.

“[Brier] realized they would not even have the actor on set for any sort of preparation — no rehearsals, not even to block the scene to figure out the staging,” it described. It went on, quoting Brier, “‘We could plan that we were going to do a specific scene on a day, but we couldn’t know if [LaBeouf] was going to be in the room that we decided, or he would decide to do it somewhere else,’ said Braier. […] Braier and the crew didn’t know when the actor would emerge from his dressing room and enter the space. […] ‘It’s like a very sophisticated type of therapy that costs $3.5 million.'”

Putting aside the parts about LaBeouf acting eccentric again, it was an interesting piece about the challenges of cinematography and a more technical look at what makes Honey Boy unique. But according to Honey Boy director Alma Har’el, who helped develop the script with LaBeouf the idea that LaBeouf was only willing to do one take “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

What they seem to agree on is that Har’el, working on her first narrative feature with a background in documentary, wanted to shoot Honey Boy without the help of things traditionally helpful for cinematographers and editors — things like actors “hitting marks” (actors standing in specific spots, usually indicated with tape on the floor) or traditional blocking (a planned choreography of where in the space of the set the actors will move). To get what Har’el wanted, Brier instead tried to light the entire space, and control it in real-time using a series of dimmers, to adjust lighting depending on where the actors would move.

You can imagine how a seeming disregard for normal planning might be irksome or even seem unprofessional to a crew used to doing things a certain way, but the final product makes the case for Har’el’s methods. Honey Boy is quite possibly the best-cast and best-acted film of the year, with revelatory performances from Noah Jupe as a 12-year-old psuedo Shia, LaBeouf as his own semi-fictionalized father, and especially Lucas Hedges as the present-day actor in rehab.

“Daddy issues” are the driving force behinds so many narratives — the phrase has practically become shorthand for the root trauma that any story is really about — but if daddy issues are normally a current that makes the light bulb of an idea glow, Honey Boy is like sucking on a live wire. Partly that’s due to the honest writing, but a lot of it comes from Honey Boy‘s performances, which truly crackle in a way we don’t often see. And maybe getting those had something to do with Har’el giving her actors that kind of freedom, even if it meant occasionally pissing off the crew.

LaBeouf plays a lightly fictionalized version of his own father in the film, an erratic, recovering alcoholic biker and ex-clown, paid by his 12-year-old son to chaperone him on the set of Disney shows. It was a story that grew out of role-playing LaBeouf did as part of his court-ordered rehab, part of his punishment for his public drunkenness arrest in Georgia in 2017 (which included leaked recordings of a TMZ-ready tirade). Har’el worked with LaBeouf to turn this mandatory exercise in self-reflection into a movie.

The two had met years earlier, after LaBeouf had stumbled upon Har’el’s 2011 documentary, Bombay Beach, and written her a fan email. Har’el, an Israeli TV presenter-turned concert VJ and filmmaker, cast LaBeouf in a Sigur Rós video she was making (he made headlines for going fully nude) and LaBeouf produced her next documentary, LoveTrue. In making Honey Boy, they bonded over shared experiences and the trauma of their alcoholic fathers. I spoke to Har’el this week about being inspired and knowing when to stick to your guns.

Can you tell me how you and Shia got to know each other?

We actually met each other years ago. Basically I made a film in 2011 named Bombay Beach and it got released by Focus Features and ended up as a DVD in Amoeba Records in LA. Shia walked into that store looking for a Bob Dylan documentary to research him for a project that he was doing, and because my film had music by Bob Dylan, they mistakenly put it in the Bob Dylan section. So in this act of serendipity, the film ended up in Shia’s hands and he watched it twice that night and contacted me on my website. And then we met for dinner, and talked a lot of shit, about life and pain and love and art, and ended up making a music video together two weeks later for a band named Sigur Rós.

I think that was seven or eight years ago. He also executive produced my second film LoveTrue and financed it when no one else would. And when he got arrested and court ordered to go to rehab/mental health facility, he got diagnosed with PTSD and was doing exposure therapy in there. And as part of his therapy he had to role-play his relationship with his father, which he then recorded and transcribed into a script and sent it to me from there. And that was how the whole thing started.

How much polishing did it take from that first bit of script?

It’s an interesting question because there’s certain things in the film, that I find to be some of the strongest moments, that are actually exactly like they were in the first draft. The time that he spent in that motel while he was doing Even Stevens — I still believe that is the heart of the film. The part that required a lot more development was more bringing in the character of older Otis [the Shia character’s name]. It was like seven, eight drafts or something. I wanted to give it some perspective and comment on this idea of generational pain and the inheritance of addiction and pain and PTSD.

It was really all very quickly done though. Really like three weeks after Shia got out of rehab, we were already in pre-production. Then we premiered the film in Sundance and we’ve been talking about it for a year now.

I read an interview with your cinematographer and she was talking about how Shia could only stand to do one take for of a lot of these scenes.

To be completely honest, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it was a combination of the writer taking liberties with what she said or her speaking to the fact that sometimes we would do eight to 12 takes and each take was different. From the start, I really wanted to make sure that there was a way to explore the space we were shooting in and let the people improvise in it — to move around and never have like marks on the floor that they need to hit and just kind of be free.

I wanted to capture it like it’s a documentary. I’m a first-time [feature] filmmaker and Natasha, obviously is one the greatest cinematographers in the world, but she comes from a very different discipline. Even though she’s extremely creative and was open and tried to bring my vision to life, I think that there was a lot of anxiety around the way I was working. Everyone from my script supervisor to her — the whole crew, really — would tell me “you only had one take of that.” And I’d say, “No, I had eight takes of that.” They’re like, “Yeah, but they never did the same thing in each take!” And I said, “I know, but I know how to cut it. I’ve been shooting documentaries where people never do the same thing twice. They just live and I find a way to cut that.”

Another thing that did happen though — there were a few scenes, to be fair to that article, probably two scenes — that were just extremely painful to film. They were triggering, and they were causing Shia to go into hyper-vigilant mode, as they say in PTSD. And his therapist had to help him deal with those days. On those scenes we did probably have only two takes of each.

Because he was really recreating some of the more painful moments and conjuring them in the room, the way we worked was just to say, “Okay, you get to where you need to go and come in and we just shoot.” We’re not going to say, “Okay, stop here and let’s make sure the light hits you in the right way.” I think those days left a strong impression on everybody more than anything else. It was just very hard to balance as a first-time filmmaker to get your crew to trust that you still have a film when you’re taking such bold decisions. I think people were very worried about that. But I think the film speaks for itself.

During the film there were a few times I thought you might be dropping hints about the reliability, or unreliability, of Shia as a narrator. Like where he’s accusing his father of repurposing other people’s share stories in AA.

Right, and then the therapist kind of cuts in and basically tells him that he has to start writing and he has to tell his own story. And I think that’s definitely kind of like a hint, or a wink, at the things that we do know that happened. Not just to Shia as a narrator and as a writer, but also to his own father, and maybe where is the source of that. To his fear of repeating that or coming to terms with the fact that he did do things like that in the past. Not just like dealing with the idea of borrowing and quoting and plagiarizing or however people like to refer to it, but it was, I think, something to be said about the fear that can cause a person to feel like he’s never really done anything of his own.

I think that Shia has revealed himself to be one of the most exciting writers and voices. But I do know how frightened he was to put down his writing and how much he danced around it, and that’s something that he’s definitely coming to terms with too.

I read that you and Shia bonded over similar relationships with your fathers. What was your relationship with your father like and how do you think that affects the film that you guys made?

My relationship with my father…my father is an alcoholic. He’s probably the funniest person I know. He has the biggest heart. He’s sensitive in ways that are hard to reconcile with the world he lives in. He’s never really found a way to function in this world in a way that maybe other people have. And when I was very little, him and my mom would separate very often. They kind of went back and forth maybe 50 times and every time they would separate — her way of coping with it would be to stop talking to him and asking him to not come into the house. When we would go to meet him we would go to see movies together.

He never had a house of his own or an apartment. He was always staying with friends and people that would let him sleep at their house. I think they started separating when she was still pregnant with me. But the real separation took place when I was five years old and I think since that age, moving on all the way through my whole life until I left the house, whenever they would separate, which would last months and months and sometimes years, we would go to see movies together. I just think cinema has informed some of my own relationship with my father and my wish for him to get better.

It’s been really, in many ways, a personal movie for me. I just care about Shia so much. I don’t think people know what PTSD is. I think people know that soldiers have it or as Percy says in the film, “Isn’t that something only soldiers and black people have?” I think that we don’t really understand what PTSD is, how it works, what it means to live in a state of fight-or-flight all of the time. Or how aggression and alcoholism and violence or abuse or a lot of these things that sometimes come from PTSD are related. And arguably James, who was in Vietnam, which is based on Shia’s real father, arguably he had PTSD too. So I think it is something to take into account when watching this film, the nature of generational pain and how things are passed down generation to generation.

‘Honey Boy’ hits theaters November 8th, from Amazon Studios. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.
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