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Trauma & Transformation: Alma Har’el on Her Shia LaBeouf Drama, Honey Boy

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy

Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy is an emotional prism, generating moments that are warm, traumatic, unsettling and scarring. So, it’s no wonder that the process of constructing such an intimate and emotionally shattering film was equally grounded in feeling. Har’el’s narrative feature debut (her previous features are the documentaries Bombay Beach and LoveTrue) contains Shia LaBeouf’s most gripping performance to date and showcases the two collaborators’ ability to make art containing expressive power and emotional wisdom.

In Honey Boy, also written by LaBeouf, we meet Otis (Lucas Hedges), a movie star who’s sent to rehab and forced to confront his childhood traumas. As he moves closer to the roots of his rebellious behavior, we are introduced to the 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) and his volatile, when not affectionate, father James (LaBeouf), a former rodeo clown. As Otis finds success as a young actor, his father’s self-sabotage worsens. Questions around his ability as a parent, and his fear that he’ll never be of actual use to his son, find them both spiraling into dark, complicated territory. FKA Twigs costars as the prostitute who innocently befriends young Otis at the sleazy motel where he’s holed up with his father amidst audition calls. In scenes that hopscotch from the past to the present and back again, we see the ways adult Otis both benefits and suffers from this time in his life—he uses his past to fuel his art, but at what cost? As Har’el puts it, a thematic question of the film is, “When does the relationship with pain become a dependency for a creative person to function?” 

If it wasn’t obvious already, the story draws from LaBeouf’s own relationship with his father and the complexities around it. Both children of alcoholics, the director and actor found a creative kinship and developed the script after LaBeouf wrote the first draft in court-ordered rehab. I had a chance to speak with Har’el about the collaborative process of the film and how she captured the intimacy of Otis and James’s journeys. At all stages, it was about operating from a place of openness, exploration and emotional truth.

Filmmaker: This isn’t your first collaboration with Shia LaBeouf. What clicked with him? How did your relationship begin?

Har’el: The inception is that I got an email from him to my website, literally. No agents were involved—it was very direct. He picked up Bombay Beach randomly at Amoeba Records while looking for a music documentary about Bob Dylan. My documentary is not about Bob Dylan, but it has Bob Dylan music in it, so they put it in the Bob Dylan section and that kind of changed the course of my life. He bought it, watched it twice in the same night, then emailed me. We had dinner, and it was really clear to me why he was so drawn to the film. I think a lot of the seeds of Honey Boy are all right there. Bombay Beach is also about the child of an alcoholic who has a huge imagination and is looking to find his voice and understand his place in the world while always getting into trouble. And I think that in many ways that Shia is me, so it was an immediate comfort. Both of our fathers are alcoholics, and we had some very real conversations right away. In a lot of ways, Honey Boy started that night, probably seven or eight years ago.

Filmmaker: I get that bond—I’m part of that club, unfortunately, as well. That’s one of the reasons why I related to the film so much. When you meet people who have been through similar traumas in their lives, there is immediate trust. But I wonder—because this story is so personal to Shia—about the process by which you claimed your own artistic independence? Obviously, you had your own take on the story. What boundaries were set to allow you to put your own version of the story on screen?

Har’el: Children of alcoholics, we are very bad with boundaries. So, that’s not an easy question. He sent [the Honey Boy script] to me from court-ordered rehab after getting arrested. There was such urgency to it that I felt I had to make it, and it definitely touched so many of the things that I need to express and think about but can’t necessarily do. Telling people’s stories while keeping my own message, knowing how to respect their subjective reality and my perspective on their life without feeling like it’s a tug of war… 

I think the hard part for us was how to bring Otis to life. What Shia was really focused on was the character of his father—he had a lot less empathy and interest in the character who [resembles him], you know? Which is also a sign of people who go through trauma—[they] mainly identify with the person who has caused them the trouble more than themselves. In the original script, there was no older Otis [played in the film by Lucas Hedges]. It was just [the younger Otis] and his father in a room. We workshopped the script for a few months while Shia was in rehab, and I suggested that we start writing older Otis into it and giving it more perspective. It was a very interesting process, and what was incredible about the way Shia approached it is that he didn’t want to ever come to set when he was not playing his father. So that gave us quite a lot of freedom to [portray his character] with love and humor. He never really saw it until he saw the finished cut because he didn’t come to the edit, either. 

Filmmaker: In your preproduction process, do you usually have a look book to guide yourself tonally? What sort of roadmap do you develop for yourself so that you have the opportunity to play?

Har’el: My goal in general is to take as much as is comfortable and throw it out the window when I get to the set—to see what feels right. That’s what we did every day. I did actually do a visual board and shared it with Shia—shared the tone, both visually and in terms of mood, that I wanted. It was kind of a combination of lines from the script with photos. That was before Natasha [Braier, DP] came on board. When she came on board, I sent it to her and went through every scene, what the scene meant, how it would be expressed through the film and the lighting, and the way it looked. I only storyboard scenes that have visual effects or things involving other people [like stunt coordinators]. But because this is more personal and comes from [real-life] characters, and because it was my first scripted film, it seemed really wrong to do [much of the scene preparation] without the participation of the actors. I think [films] are very much alive when you find it together and very stiff when you have it all planned out. Some of the director’s work, I think, is to find pockets of freedom whenever they can. So, there were certain things that I was extremely meticulous about, like the opening shot of the film. But then, like, [the scenes] in the hotel we would just let happen, covering them to get as many takes as possible and to give freedom to the actors. 

Filmmaker: I was having a discussion with a friend about how there is such a thing as intimacy coordinators on sets today—someone on set when there are sexual scenes, specifically to make sure that the people involved feel comfortable. Like, they have an intimacy coordinator on HBO’s Euphoria. Could you talk about how you made your actors comfortable since there are so many emotionally intimate scenes, such as the scenes between the young Otis and FKA Twigs’s character? 

Har’el: The conversations we had prior to every scene were extremely revealing about what every person would feel about what scares them, what they’re worried about, where are their goals, what they feel comfortable with and how we could help each other. It was extremely open and forgiving and intimate. Shia was entering his own trauma, right after stepping out of rehab, so there was a high risk all the time in terms of his own psyche and the pressure he was putting himself under. And we all came together to go through it with him. When I interviewed people for the film—maybe naively, I wanted the people to work on it with me [to be] people who had some sort of relationship to alcoholics or suffering from trauma—almost most of them had that. It was kind of, as they say, triggering for people, but it was also really transformative. My second film, LoveTrue, was where I learned how to do what we did. That film was all based in psychodrama—creating dramatic situations that are either in your imagination or based on things that happened to you. People would play with their younger selves, who would be played by actors. That’s what this film was, too. Shia was playing out his memories with his younger self. And you can’t do something like that without intimacy and trust. 

Filmmaker: How do you run a set? Are you someone who says, “Put your phones away. No phones on set.” Do you have a morning meditation? How do you run a set when you’re dealing with this gentle, delicate subject? 

Har’el: There wasn’t always the best situation on every scene, but we learned slowly what worked and what didn’t. I’ve done commercials with big crews and stuff, but in my own films, it’s always been me. I operate the camera, I do the sound, and if someone is helping with those things, it’s maybe one more person. This was my first [dramatic feature], and I had to learn in real time the best practices. Certain things worked and certain things didn’t. There were moments when everyone felt comfortable and protected, and sometimes they weren’t. It was not like a sterile environment, where it was like, “OK, we are going into open heart operation, please don’t contaminate the set.” It was sometimes wild and sometimes hectic and dirty, and sometimes it was really full of intention and focus. There was madness—I mean, we shot it in, like, 21 days. It was everybody doing their best, and sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we didn’t.

Filmmaker: Well, I have to ask you, there’s a line in the film that just punched me in the gut in the best of ways. When [grown-up Otis] says to his therapist, “The only thing of any value that my father gave me was pain, and now you want to take that away,” I really connected with that and saw that as a through line in the film. It makes you realize how much this film is about identity, which is reflected in your choice to thread together the scenes of the grown-up Otis and the younger Otis, because his identity is built around the pain his father gave him. Hearing that the film was originally going to be chronological and that the timelines got interwoven in the edit is interesting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that line of dialogue and whether it informed the structure of the story, particularly in the edit.

Har’el: The film initially was written in a chronological way, and then in the edit I felt that that by setting it up differently, we could appreciate and understand the impact of what happened and unravel the mystery that I feel like a lot of young people go through—especially people struggling with addiction or with trauma and abuse. There is a sense in your 20s that you are some sort of a detective trying to figure out who you are. Any clue you can find is helpful. It can be in the form of a dream. It can be in the form of a story that somebody tells you about your parents that you didn’t know. It can be about going to therapy and understanding something about yourself. I really wanted to capture that feeling of somebody realizing what it is they need to do in order to stay alive and function in this world. Which I think is one of the biggest experiences that many people in their 20s are facing—I certainly know I did. What really helped me survive, I guess, and become a person who can experience happiness and love was creativity and expressing myself. Finding my voice and being a creative person saved me. I think that when Otis says that line what he is referring to is that trauma has been one of the best tools that he has for creativity. He has been an actor tapping into the pain that his father has been giving him. Giving up on that would probably make him feel like he cannot be who he is or make the art that he makes. I’m not offering answers for that question, I just think it’s a question for everybody to ask when the relationship to pain yields creativity. When does the relationship with pain become a dependency for a creative person to function?

Filmmaker: As I was watching this, I kept thinking of this quote by Sidney Lumet: “All good work requires self-revelation.” So, where are you in this? What are some of the artistic revelations you had while working on this?

Har’el: I don’t know that I ever looked at it like that. I really made this movie for all children of alcoholics, who are all of my brothers and sisters. There is a lot of focus in the culture about addiction, but what is the effect [of addiction] on the generation after? Also, as a woman director, people expected me to have a woman lead. But we always see masculinity through the eyes of men, and hopefully when you look at this film you can see a different side of it. And my own father was such a defining figure in my own life, in so many ways, not just because of his alcoholism, but because of his own passion for art and movies and expression. He’s not somebody who has gotten to become a creative person himself, but he definitely has the soul for it. I was going through a huge process with myself with this film, and I feel like every person who sees it will. There’s the fun thing about the meta aspects—like, “Oh my god, Even Stevens, I never knew!” And then there’s a whole other side where you’re like, “Oh shit, that’s my dad and me.” I’m interested in projects like that, things that are mythological in many ways within our culture but at the same are actually so intimate and private to us. And this was something like that. 

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