Nine years before Mark O’Brien died, the 36-year-old poet and journalist, who was also a polio survivor living in an iron lung, decided he wanted to lose his virginity. Until then, he’d always been ashamed of his sexuality, which he believed served no purpose save to mortify him when he became aroused during bed baths. So, like any true writer, he recorded his thoughts: “I rationalized that somebody who was not an attendant … would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage and hipbones protruding like outriggers,” O’Brien wrote in an article titled “On Seeing a Sexual Surrogate.”
O’Brien died of complications from bronchitis in 1999, but five years after his death, another polio survivor, filmmaker Ben Lewin, chanced to read that essay and was inspired to turn it into a film. The result is “The Surrogate,” premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23. The film spotlights how O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) hired a professional surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), with the counsel of his priest (William H. Macy). Along the way, the poet and the surrogate forge an unexpectedly close relationship, as O’Brien battles Catholic guilt and Cohen Greene, who is married to a Jew, converts to Judaism.
Lewin, who lives in Santa Monica and is married and the father of three children, ages 12 to 26, came across O’Brien’s article at a turning point in his own life. By 2006, he said, his television career had waned and, feeling “desperate” about providing for his family, he made a living selling high-end watches. But he continued to write and was penning a sitcom, about a man who trades his disabled person’s parking placard for sex, when he came across O’Brien’s article. “I was as affected by it emotionally as anything I’ve ever read,” Lewin, 65, said at home recently. Lewin, who wears a brace on his left leg, was sitting at his dining room table, his crutches next to him.
Like O’Brien, Lewin contracted polio at age 6 and spent time in an iron lung: “I have no memories of being able-bodied,” he said. “Just a tummy ache the night I became sick, and fragmented memories of being on a gurney. So there was that personal level of, ‘OK, Mark and I had been through some common experience,’ but where I really embraced his story was when I realized it was about everyone’s fear of sex. Mark, perhaps without knowing it, had expressed a kind of universal journey.”
The filmmaker also shares a kind of caustic wit with the late O’Brien, a disability activist who wrote articles with titles like “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed.”
As Lewin did research for the film, he tracked down the writer Susan Fernbach, who was O’Brien’s life partner for several years. He also viewed Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 short documentary, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” in which O’Brien speaks of his triumphs and frustrations while encased from the neck down in the massive iron lung, where he spent most hours of every day.
“Initially I thought, it would be easy to translate Mark’s [surrogate] article into a movie — and then it wasn’t,” Lewin said. “The problem was, the article was very sexually explicit, and while rereading my first draft, I thought, ‘I’m not sure I can deal with all of these erections and ejaculations — how can we deal with this?’ But then, as I expanded the character of the priest, I found that the ‘gory’ details could come out in the confessional.”
Another turning point came when Lewin met Cohen Greene, who explained that a sexual surrogate (now called a “surrogate partner”) works with sex therapists to help clients suffering sexual dysfunction, using methods such as sensual touch and often intercourse, with verbal feedback.
“You could see that there was something special between her and Mark,” Lewin said. “She had never worked with someone that disabled, or who had sent her poetry, and I had a feeling that the relationship had gone beyond merely the mechanical aspects of how you have sex. So I developed the idea that it became a journey for both of them, and Cheryl was comfortable with that. I showed her the script before I sent it anywhere else.”
Lewin’s own polio hit during the global epidemic of the early 1950s, just three years after his parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Melbourne, Australia. After attending a school for the disabled, he mainstreamed and eventually became a criminal attorney before officials in the budding Australian film industry sent him to film school in London in 1971. Lewin went on to make films in England, Australia and France, and then moved to Los Angeles to follow his Hollywood dream, directing series such as “Ally McBeal” and “Touched by an Angel” in the 1990s.
Lewin also made a series of public service announcements about people with disabilities, which was “like ‘coming out’ for me, in a way,” he said. He was startled, however, when a woman who had cared for him when he had polio turned up as a consultant on one of his films. “It was quite a traumatic encounter,” he said. “I don’t know how the mind works, but we immediately stopped the shoot and called for the psychiatrist. … I was processing things I hadn’t thought about in a while.”
On the set of “The Surrogate” in Los Angeles, Lewin’s concern was how to depict sex and disability without being exploitative. “One thing I was determined not to do was to have any kind of fantasy sequence where Mark imagined himself as able-bodied,” he said.
Hunt worked closely with Cohen Greene to get the surrogate sessions right: “A lot had to do with the physical parts of it,” said Cohen Greene, now vice president of the International Professional Surrogates Association. “With clothes on, I showed her the kind of touch I used; she focused intently on my movements.”
In the film, Hunt appears fully nude in several sequences, in order to bring a realistic quality to the surrogate sessions, Lewin said. She initially had concerns about how those sequences would be shot: “I told her they’d be done just like the rest of the movie — in a fairly banal, direct way, with no fancy lights or music,” Lewin said. “Sex scenes can be very awkward,” he added. “The crew tends to become very solemn, and the first time Helen took off her clothes, they were all on best behavior.”
The scene in question was to show Cohen Greene immersing in a mikveh during her conversion to Judaism, and everyone was silent as Hunt disrobed. Then Rhea Perlman (“Taxi”), who plays the mikveh attendant, blurted out, “Wow, what a body.” “That not only added levity, it made a difference for the rest of the shoot,” Lewin said.
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29.