On Honey Boy, director Alma Har’el waded through “a burning mist of pain” to hit upon the raw truth she says she values most. Coming to her via Shia LaBeouf—who began writing the script in court-ordered therapy—the film examines the turbulent coming of age of an actor estranged from his father. From the beginning, Har’el saw a story that could speak powerfully to the therapeutic value of art. But to tell it with emotional authenticity, she would have to convince her frequent collaborator to do the unthinkable: to revisit his traumatic past, from the perspective of his abuser.
DEADLINE: You stood by Shia LaBeouf at a life in his life when no one else would. Why do you think that is?
ALMA HAR’EL: I think that growing up with a lot of addiction around me—alcoholism, mental health issues, things like that—has given me the opportunity to see that it takes time to heal from those things. It takes time to find new tools to deal with life, and especially a life like his, that is obviously very challenging in many ways, in terms of the occupation that he’s in, and the mental health issues that he has, and the trauma that he endured.
I think that people love the narrative of growth. They love the narrative of ‘The Hero’s Journey,’ as we call it—somebody going against all odds and finding a way to overcome something. And they even would like to think that this film is maybe a piece of art that has caused a transformation for him. I often get asked, “Is he okay now?” [They think] the catharsis has happened, the exorcism has been performed on set, and now we have a person who can be part of society, and serve society in the way that society expects him. And the answer is obviously, it’s much more complicated than that.
You know, it’s something that I’ve seen. I’ve met Shia in very special circumstances, where he’s been extremely generous towards me and my work. But I have seen him be generous towards so many other people—people that know him closely, and know his work that he does in his theater, and the way he is with people on his films, like Zack [Gottsagen] in The Peanut Butter Falcon. He has a huge heart, he’s a huge talent, and he struggles with real issues.
The addiction and the alcoholism are only masking the real issues. They’re only bad tools that he’s picked up. He needs to find new tools, but it’s the journey of a lifetime, and I’m sure that it’s not the last time that he’ll have to challenge himself, by showing up and finding new ways to handle what life throws at him.
As an artist, and a filmmaker, and a friend, and as a human being in general, I think that because of the way I grew up, my heart goes out to people that are in this kind of position. It’s funny because it’s like the way I was raised made me more compassionate maybe, and more tolerant of behaviors that other people are not.
People also have different coping mechanisms. I know people that grew up like me that have zero patience for people that perpetuate the behavior that they suffered from. I really feel like there is no freedom without forgiveness and compassion. Even though you have to sometimes draw the line with certain people, I’d like to think that there’s a space between accountability and compassion that we still need to explore as a society, beyond the narrative of, “We fixed this person, and now he should perform according to our expectations.” I wanted to explore that, both in my relationship with him, as an artist and a friend, but also obviously in this film.
DEADLINE: You convinced Shia to take on the role of his own father. Why was this crucial to you?
HAR’EL: I have real interest in making work that breaks our expectations of cinema, and finds a way to capture what it means to be human. One of the things that I feel like we have a hard time doing is forgiving people for being human. I think that by Shia playing his father, there was an opportunity here to expand on what he started doing in therapy. The place that he went to in Upstate New York, it’s kind of a mental health/rehab facility, and the method that they had been using with him, called exposure therapy, includes role-play. So the way this was written, he was already writing scenes, and playing both his dad and himself, while reading them to his therapist.
I spoke to his therapist and told her what we were attempting to do, and she [was] a big help to me. She, first of all, helped me figure out a lot of the rewrites in the script, in the therapy session. At first when Shia wrote this, his main focus was the motel room, and the conversations between little Otis and his dad. But as you see in the film, when he comes in and says things like, “I’m a professional schizophrenic. I’m a piece of sh*t,” these are actual things Shia said when he was committed, to his therapists. She basically gave me access and shared with me some of the things that he said to her, and we used some of them in the film.
In LoveTrue, the film I’d done a few years before this movie, the main method we used to tell these stories is a method called psychodrama, where we created on-set recreations of traumatic moments or memories, and had people play with their younger self. There’s no real way to measure, I think, the success of some of these things. I think the greatest thing it does is bring awareness to the dynamic, and bring awareness to what’s happening subconsciously, subjectively, in somebody’s mind, when he’s battling memories and trauma.
In many ways, I’m almost certain that this movie would bring a lot more catharsis and therapeutic benefits to the people who watch it, [than] to the people who participated in making it. Often, that’s the case with art. But I think that I’ve had, myself, huge benefits from making LoveTrue. In my childhood, on top of whatever was happening in my house, I was bullied in my school, both emotionally and physically, and I had, up to my 30s, recurring dreams about the two people that bullied me. They would reoccur almost every week, and they really only stopped after I did LoveTrue. I’ve never really dreamt about them after that.
I’m not a therapist, but that was my personal experience with it, and I wanted to allow Shia to maybe participate in something similar. That was probably one of the main reasons that I wanted to do it.
DEADLINE: Honey Boy can’t have been an easy film to make, given that you were dealing with real-life trauma and the person who experienced it first-hand.
HAR’EL: It was so painful. It was probably the longest 19 days of my life. It’s been almost a year since we’ve been to Sundance and put this film out there for people, and it feels shorter than what it felt to shoot this film. Every day was like breathing in pain and breathing out love, and trying to get through it, finding the right tools to also work with Shia as a first-time director, and getting to a place where it’s like the first time I’m really seeing him on set, and what happens to him when the fear overcomes him. Again, I’m not a therapist, but I think [he was] both getting triggered by the memories themselves, and at the same time, just the incredible amount of dread that he has about not performing, not getting it right, or not doing what he’s supposed to do, which really brings a very terrified child quality out of him, one that can lash at you.
So, it was very challenging. I think that having compassion for the person who’s caused you the most pain, but you love the most—and then doing that while seeing other people, like Lucas [Hedges] and Noah [Jupe], performing you, or a version of you, in front of you—I can’t imagine what it must have felt [like] for him. Creating the space through all of that was very much a psycho-magical-cinematic experience, and I think that the rawness of that is on the screen. At the same time, we had extraordinary moments of humor and love and tenderness, within this storm of pain and blame and hardship.
But yeah, it was really hard. I remember my producer came to set and was like, “I’ve made 70 films, and this is the hardest film I’ve ever made. If you can survive this, you can do anything.” I remember that gave me actually a lot of hope, because while I was doing it, I was like, “I’m not sure I can ever do this again.” And he said, “This is not a normal film, you have to know that. You have to know that you are taking all the responsibilities as a director, but so much more. You’ve created something here that is just so complicated to even comprehend, the meta aspect of what we’re all doing.”
It was kind of like a vortex that we all entered, and when we look back at it, when I talk to Lucas and Noah, we’re all like, “Wow, it was so encompassing.” I think I didn’t have one private, personal thought through the whole process. I’ve never felt like that, where something takes over your mind in such a way that it leaves no room for anything else. For all of us, it’s been that.
DEADLINE: How did Shia’s father react, when he first saw the film?
HAR’EL: I was extremely nervous about showing the film to Shia, and to his dad. Shia only came to see a cut when I had a final cut, and I remember he had two notes. One of them was, “We need to age [the father’s] hand when he’s hugging Noah.” The other had to do with something in the scene when he’s in the restroom at the end, and that was it. He was crying for probably 15 or 20 minutes. The editors left the room, and we just sat there and cried for quite a while, without really saying anything. Then, we hugged and started talking, and brought back the editors and spoke about these two little notes, and walked out into the elevator. I remember that day very clearly.
Showing the film to his father after that, you never know what somebody’s going to say, and how they’re going to respond to being portrayed in such a way. The first thing I saw was two images that Shia sent me of him watching his father—him crying, watching his father watching it. That was the first time that I understood from Shia that he really loved it—or accepted it, I should say. I hadn’t yet at that point really gotten a clear reaction from him, even though he was always on Facebook with me. While we were making the film, he would leave me messages every morning, and was very communicative.
But then, a few days ago, he posted on Facebook, on my page for the first time, about the film. He wrote that he watched the cut many times, and that he laughed and cried and accepted it, and thanked me for doing a great job, and said that it’s a wonderful film that exposes so much. So, that was really, I think, the closure I was hoping for.
I come from documentary film, so when you make a film about somebody, it’s really interesting to see that, only at the end, you really understand what their expectations were. Because a lot of people are in for the ride, but you never know how they’re going to deal with seeing your perspective on their lives. And I’d actually gotten to a place in documentaries where I felt like I can’t do it anymore. In my last documentary I said, “I need a break”—and then I make this, which ends up being a version of that.
So, it was important for me to receive that message, but I also feel that this film has become about so much more than Shia and Jeff’s life. When we go to the screenings and Q&As, there are young people that are coming for the fifth, sixth, and seventh time to see the film, and I could see that they’re treating it like a meeting—like an Anonymous meeting. I have been to ‘the rooms’, as they say, and I know what it feels like when people are coming back, and I know why they’re coming back. I know that they’re coming back for something that they need to feel, and hear, and confront. They’re not coming back for me or Shia; they’re coming back because they needed this film.
DEADLINE: It seems like from the get-go, you and Shia have found a rare kind of creative kinship in each other. You’ve spoken to the ways in which you identify with Shia as a person. But what is it that connects you as artists?
HAR’EL: I think we see things that other people can’t see, and obviously, whatever it is that we see means something to both of us that maybe doesn’t mean the same to others. But to us, it’s the difference between touching that raw truth and presence of an actor or a story, and just faking it, just performing it.
There’s incredible films out there that do a great job of creating the feeling of life, a sense of life, and there’s incredible actors that can perform a character, but it’s a different thing than really being that character for that period of time, and somehow managing to capture something, in a way that it has its own life. To create a world that has its own life, as opposed to copying the life of another thing, and pretending that’s life…I think that’s something we both really are obsessed with and interested in, and it’s so hard sometimes to share that with people that don’t see it.
By the way, it’s not like we agree on everything. Obviously, Shia is such a specific individual, and I couldn’t be more different than him, in some ways. But there’s certain things that we look at that we both feel, right away, are not honest, or are just sh*t, and other people celebrate them. So, I think having that trust that we can keep each other honest, and tell each other when something is sh*t, even if it hurts, that’s been something, from the start, that we’ve been able to see and do in each other’s work.
And again, that doesn’t mean that I love everything Shia does, or Shia loves everything that I do. There were a lot of moments making this film that I had a certain visual that came to me, and I’m the kind of person that really works intuitively. When I see something, sometimes I just have to shoot it, and I know I’ll only find out in the edit why. I had certain things for this film that weren’t in the script, that ended up being in the film later on, and made sense to Shia later on, but at the time just seemed to him like a visual privilege that doesn’t come from the real needs of the truth.
The hardest thing for Shia and me to do is not to weaponize truth with each other, and respect that each one of us has their own truth. Because I do come from working through dreams and visuals, and finding sometimes my truth through that, while Shia really is always character first. The way I think we are able to do really interesting work together is by finding a way to respect each other’s truth, knowing that each one of us sees something that maybe the other person isn’t seeing.
But we would point out to each other if it’s sh*t—if it’s garbage, as Shia likes to say. It’s hard to live sometimes in a world that can celebrate some of the fakest sh*t out there and tell you that it’s great. So it’s like, when you live in a world that keeps telling you that what you know to be true is not true, it’s good to have a partner that can see what you see.