Beautiful Boy – A searingly honest account of the struggles with addiction

It’s a father-son anxiety drama about an apparently unbeatable foe.

Based on two memoirs, one from acclaimed journalist David Sheff and one from his son, Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy is a deeply moving portrait of a family’s unwavering love and commitment to each other in the face of their son’s addiction and his attempts at recovery.

At 18, Nicolas Sheff was a good student, editor of his high school newspaper, an actor in the school play and a member of the water polo team. A voracious reader and a talented artist, Nic was set to enter college in the fall. He had started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, but in his late teens he tried meth for the first time and, as he writes, “the world went from black and white to Technicolor.” Nic went almost instantly from a teenager dabbling with substances to a having a full-blown dependency.

Beautiful Boy is a searingly honest/frank account of the Sheff family’s journey through Nic’s continuing struggles with addiction. Based on acclaimed journalist David Sheff’s bestseller of the same name and his son Nic’s breakout memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, the film presents a unique portrait of the ways addiction can destroy lives and the power of love to rebuild them.

Harrowing, heart-breaking and yet full of joy, hope, and love, Beautiful Boy recounts the rehabs, disappearances, broken promises and rage as Nic sinks deeper into the drug world, as well as David’s efforts to save his “beautiful boy” from the ravages of addiction.

David Sheff, left, and his son Nic Sheff.

Directed by Felix van Groeningen (Belgica, The Broken Circle Breakdown), Beautiful Boy is produced Plan B Entertainment’s Academy Award-winners Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, The Big Short). Nan Morales (Selma) is executive producer. The screenplay by Academy Award nominee Luke Davies (Lion) and van Groeningen is adapted from the books Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff. The film stars Academy Award® nominees Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The Big Short) and Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar, Call Me by Your Name

Note From Felix van Groeningen

When I first read father and son David and Nic Sheff’s memoirs back in 2014, I was viscerally moved. David and Nic wrote from their personal experiences of living through recovery and relapses, but also the moments of life’s joy, innocence, and love. They start out thinking that they have the tools to deal with Nic’s addiction, to “solve” it. They don’t, but they learn a lot along the way. As time passes, there are moments where control seems beyond their reach and they experience how the consequences of addiction affect every fiber of their lives.

Felix van Groeningen

I had thought about making an English language movie in the past but nothing had spoken to mep ersonally, the way the Sheff’s story did. Family dynamics, the illusion of control, the passage of time – these are themes I was drawn to in my previous films. I had dealt with substance abuse in some of my films, and the raw emotions of the Sheff’s story – and how they told it – moved me. Their family believes in unconditional love, and yet they had to come to terms with the fact that there are no easy answers and dealing with addiction is impossibly irrational. I was in some ways daunted by covering the years and extent of their story, but it felt urgent and necessary and, with Plan B as my partners, I felt compelled to devote years of my life to telling it. I never anticipated it would be such an incredible journey.

The Sheff’s invited me into their lives and were incredibly open with me throughout this experience. They were honest about everything they went through, sharing their deepest fears and feelings of shame too. To experience how they live and how close they are is really amazing to see. Although it’s far away from where I grew up, the way David and Nic described their lives, a lot of that felt familiar to me. I grew up in a very different family, but the love between them is something I could really relate to. The core of their beautiful family, which gets tested in a very big way, and the idea of genuinely being there for each other moved me very much.

I make films because they oblige me to process my own experiences and to face the hard things I need to. By diving head first into that particular feeling (dealing with my past, dealing with loss, etc.) through my films, I learn from them. I learn to confront life and, in doing so, I appreciate it all the more. I lost my father when I was only 26 and, in many ways, my father still lives in me through my movies. It’s also why I’m drawn to father – son stories. I want celebrate life through my films. I try to understand what each character goes through, and I hope the empathy I experience is felt by the viewers too.

I learned from David and Nic’s books that my family and I had certain prejudiced towards addicts’ behaviour. We hadn’t seen all the ways to deal with it, ways to try to help. Their story inspired us to make a film, that we hope in some small way, could give voice to so many people struggling with addiction. To show in a simple, honest and raw way, the complexity of the illness.

As we finished the film and I returned to Belgium, I became a first-time father to my son. It is incredible to feel the joy of loving someone that much. I hope this film helps people to feel and understand different points of view and might open the hearts and minds of the people who see it, as the Sheff’s story did for me.

Writing the memoirs

In 2005, acclaimed journalist David Sheff wrote “My Addicted Son” for the New York Times Magazine. A painfully frank and unforgettable first-hand account of his son Nic’s battle with addiction to drugs including methamphetamine and David’s efforts to save his family ― which includes his second wife Karen and their two much younger children ― during an almost decade-long ordeal.

Two years later, producer Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B Entertainment learned that Sheff had written a book about Nic’s 10-year struggle called Beautiful Boy, and his son Nic had chronicled those years in his own memoir, Tweak. Released simultaneously the two books together created an emotional, multilayered portrait of a single family in crisis. When Kleiner shared the books with his partners at Plan B, producers Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, he proposed an unusual scenario. Each book was moving and important on its own, but the combination was far more than the sum of its parts. Could they make a film that combined both narratives into a cohesive story? “We were blown away by both texts,” says Gardner. “And we believed taking two perspectives of the same series of events and putting them together in a movie would be even more compelling than they were on their own.”

David Sheff

To create a blended narrative based on such sensitive material, the producers knew they would need an unconventional writer and director who could help them shape story in a way that shared both Nic’s and David’s points of view. “We realized the movie was going to be unique in that it is derived from two memoirs about decades in this family’s life,” Kleiner explains. “It had to be painful and inspiring and ultimately optimistic as you travel with them through the many, many years they struggled with their son’s illness.” Kleiner and Gardner had seen a Flemish-language film directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen and were intrigued by his filmmaking style. “When we saw The Broken Circle Breakdown I was completely transported into a world that felt the way Beautiful Boy is meant to feel,” says Kleiner. “Our film is an epic story, but it is also extraordinarily intimate. It sees the beauty in life and the difficulties in life as inseparable and part of the whole experience of being human. Felix’s film also had an innovative, almost indescribable structure that went beyond movie rules and felt rather, like life.”Gardner says Broken Circle Breakdown pulls the viewer into a deeply tragic the story and says, ‘I know it’s uncomfortable but I’m going to take you through it.’ That is exactly what we were looking for.”

Van Groeningen had made five features films in Flemish, including Belgica, which won the Best Director prize in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and The Misfortunates, which was selected as the official Belgian entry for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. By the time his fourth film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, a poignant family drama set to bluegrass music, was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, van Groeningen had become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and a fixture at film festivals around the world.

Not surprisingly, as he racked up awards and critical praise for his work, van Groeningen was inundated with requests to helm his first English-language feature. Although he was intrigued by the idea of working with international stars he had long admired and the prospect of reaching a worldwide audience, the director was painstaking in finding the right project for his first foray into Hollywood. “I read some scripts that were very good, but I always asked myself why I would be the best director for each project,” he recalls. “It was difficult to find material that I felt close to ― until Beautiful Boy. Of course, it was a plus that it had Plan B behind it, but the bottom line was that it felt like the right film for me to do.”

Nicolas Sheff

The Sheffs’ comfortable coastal existence in Marin County was geographically and culturally far from the filmmaker’s own upbringing, but the love between them was something he could relate to. “They are a beautiful family,” he observes. “Each of them genuinely wants to be there for the others. The longing for that kind of family life plays a large part in my previous films. It is something that moved me deeply.”

Gardner and Kleiner first approached van Groeningen in 2014. As they talked about Beautiful Boy, the director saw many of the themes he had explored in his earlier films emerge ― family conflict and loss of control, deep emotion, the passage of time and visual storytelling. “Felix is dedicated to honest expression above all else – he has no patience for artifice, but this results in an extremely loving and patient director – with his actors, with the text, with the ways in which time and memory wend their way through the narrative. It is a quiet ferocity to behold and ultimately borne of a deeply heartening respect for the story he is telling,” said Gardner.

Van Groeningen felt the Sheffs’ books, rich in evocative details, lent themselves to being adapted for the screen. “They were full of little things that I loved,” says the director. “Maybe it’s because both David and Nic really love film, so when they write, they think about images or situations that are cinematic, like when they go surfing. All of a sudden, it’s foggy and dark and David loses his son. That was an incredible metaphor for the entire film. Ultimately, though, it was because the story felt so mythical and universal that I thought it was worth spending three or four years of my life on.”

Something else that made the books unique, says van Groeningen, was the way in which they each depicted the unbreakable connection between Nic and his dad. “There was such beautiful material in the relationship,” he says. “It was exciting to think about showing that special bond, what they shared and what they were at risk of losing. It’s heart-wrenching, especially because this is a family where there is so much love that none of them can fathom what’s happening. “On top of that, it’s not one person’s story,” he continues. “Nic and David are equally present throughout. Often movies about addiction are about people coming out of rehab and restarting their lives. Or it’s about the experience itself with all its ups and down. I have never come across a film that is specifically about the experiences of a family going through this ordeal. It’s a tough topic, yet the darkness is countered by a love for life, and the highs are really high.”

The common misconception that addiction only thrives in impoverished or deprived situations is debunked in Beautiful Boy, according to Gardner. “It’s a democratic phenomenon that doesn’t care how much money or love or education you have,” says the producer. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some connection to the subject matter. So seeing a boy who came from a beautiful place and had people who did their best to help him is excruciating precisely because it upends our cognitive bias about addiction – this is the place from which we began.”

Rather than try to place blame for Nic’s addiction, Beautiful Boy takes a clear-eyed and intimate look at a family grappling with a devastating and growing phenomenon. “In the past — and to some extent, still —addiction has been perceived as a failure of character or a result of abuse and neglect,” says van Groeningen. “Addicts were kept at a distance. But we’ve come to understand that this is something that can happen to anyone, anywhere.”

Timothée Chalamet as Nic Sheff and Steve Carell as David Scheff

A Pair of Bestsellers

David Sheff says he had never actually planned to publish his book. Writing was initially part of the way he dealt with the chaos and uncertainty of that period of his life. “When I couldn’t sleep, I would just sit and write,” he remembers. “Then I went back to the notes I’d taken in the middle of the night and remembered in a very vivid way how hard it was, how much pain there was.”

Nic began his memoir after yet another unsuccessful attempt at rehab. Asked to leave a treatment center in New Mexico, he disappeared, and his family didn’t hear from him for almost 18 months. “My dad and I didn’t speak for a long time,” he says. “I didn’t reach out because I didn’t want to disappoint everyone again. When I was six months sober, we started talking again. He had also been writing a memoir during that time. He asked me to send him my book and he sent his to me.”

David was shocked by what he read. “I cried on every page,” he says. “I thought I knew what he had been through. But as bad as I imagined it, it was worse.” Nic was similarly taken aback by David’s perspective. He says he never realized how much chaos he had created for his family. “I got to see his experience for the first time,” says the younger Sheff. “I always thought that if I killed myself by using drugs, it was my business and it wouldn’t affect him that much. In fact, it affected every aspect of his life. He was suffering constantly, and I had no idea. Meanwhile, he thought I was having one endless party and now he saw that wasn’t the case at all. I was in a tremendous amount of pain.”

Both men were surprised when their books garnered national acclaim and appeared on bestseller lists. “Neither of us were prepared for what happened,” says David. “People read the books and it just hit them in the gut. We were telling a story that wasn’t being told. Memoirs about addiction from the perspective of a boy Nic’s age didn’t exist. It was so visceral; it was so fresh. And then my version of the story was about what a family endures.”

It was the idea of adapting both books together that sold the Sheffs on the idea of making a movie. “I know that combining the books would be challenging,” David says. “If they had chosen to tell the story from a single perspective it would have been fairly straightforward. But I loved the idea because that’s really what the story is. It’s two very different experiences of the same events.”

David Sheff points out that addiction is a largely misunderstood, often hidden disease whose victims are often reluctant to talk about what they are going through. Perhaps, he hopes, Beautiful Boy can start a much-needed dialogue. “We judge their bad choices. We judge their families. We judge ourselves. We have stigmatized addiction. The judgment is so harsh that we hide and when we hide we feel like we’re alone. We all like to think of it as something that happens to someone else, but it is hard to find a family that has not been touched by addiction.”

From Page To Screen

Despite that, both Nic and David admit to feeling some trepidation as development of Beautiful Boy got under way. They would, after all, be entrusting people they had just met with the most difficult and personal struggle of their lives. “We didn’t want this trivialized or made to feel inauthentic,” Nic explains. “So many families face these issues. We wanted to make sure addiction and recovery were handled in a subtle, complex and realistic way. Talking to Jeremy and Dede, we felt they really got it and would protect us while not shying away from the truth. They were enthusiastic about telling the story right — without any sensationalism.”David concurs: “It was clear we were in the hands of people who would treat the subject and the material and our family in a very trustworthy way.”

After sending David and Nic The Broken Circle Breakdown, the producers put van Groeningen together with the Sheff family very early in the process to allow them to get to know the man who would be telling their story. He quickly earned their blessing. “We clicked immediately,” the director says. “I felt I had their trust from the beginning in part because they had seen my previous films and believed I was the right match to tell the story. But over time we built a very personal bond.”David says watching van Groeningen’s earlier movies convinced him they were working with an artist. “We felt honored that he was interested in making this movie.” The Sheffs invited the director to spend time at their Inverness home for a first-hand look at their lives. “He spent hours with us,” says David. “He even slept on the floor of our little cabin. We took walks on the beach. We hung out. We ate some good dinners together and just talked and talked and talked. We showed him photographs and videos of the family and he asked a million questions.”

David was convinced that van Groeningen wanted to make a film that would be authentic to their collective experiences. “I also felt his passion and connection to telling a story that was true,” he says. “One of the things that I appreciated from the very beginning was his commitment to showing addiction in all of its complexity.”

Staying with the Sheff family gave van Groeningen an even deeper understanding of the bond between father and son and forged a lasting connection among all of them. “Nic and David were both so open,” he says. “They were completely honest, even about their deepest fears and their feelings of shame. It wasn’t intentional for us all to become friends, but that is what happened. We kept in touch after shooting ended. In fact, when I spent the next year in Los Angeles, I took up surfing with Nic as my teacher.”

Although Van Groeningen has created highly personal, elegantly constructed screenplays for most of his films, the producers wanted to get started as soon as possible and his schedule was already full. “I think he couldn’t imagine doing something that he didn’t also write,” says Gardner, “so we asked how he would feel about having someone else write the screenplay in anticipation of eventually joining up with the writer and doing the shape-shifting that all filmmakers do.”

Luke Davies

Screenwriter Luke Davies, an Oscar nominee for his work on Lion, initially met with the producers in 2014 to share his ideas on how the two books could be adapted into one screenplay. Davies has his own history with addiction, having survived nearly a decade of heroin use. He wrote a novel, Candy, about an intense love affair between two drug addicts, which he adapted with Neil Armfield into a 2006 film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish. “I initially had doubts about whether I wanted to circle back to the subject matter of addiction,” says Davies. “But then I realized I had never dealt with how my problems affected my father. In some ways, I was reconnecting with him and trying to understand how he may have felt during the years of my addiction. That completely changed my attitude.”

Davies and van Groeningen met for the first time in Davies’ native Australia, where they spent time discussing the books. Later, and in between sessions in Paris, they joined Plan B in Los Angeles for the painstaking process of merging Nic’s and David’s points of view. Davies recalls, “the books are complementary in the sense that you see what was happening in Nic’s crazy consciousness at the same time David was going through agonizing times. The question was how to unify the emotional journey. We didn’t want it to feel like two different films jumping from one perspective to another.”

Combining David’s and Nic’s points of view was challenging, van Groeningen says, but ultimately one of the more compelling aspects of the project. “We decided that the trick was to have one character sometimes disappear, so we could be completely immersed in the other’s life for a while. Staying with just one of them brought a fuller understanding of that character. For instance, we watch Nic and see how and why he relapses. With that information, we return to David and see how that affects him, and so on.”

Each time Nic and David go through the cycle of rehab and relapse, it changes their perception of themselves and each other, he says. “The characters in the movie had to find their own arc,” he says. “David’s book is written from the vantage point of looking back. But the movie has to show what’s happening in the moment. Balancing those arcs and juxtaposing them with each other was essential.”

The pair collaborated to create a script that chronicles a deeply emotional experience for son and father alike, while avoiding passing judgment on either of them. “Writing together was a beautiful, chaotic wrestling match,” says Davies. “When we went down a path that didn’t work we would unfold the chronology and start at the beginning. When we felt we had a solid structure, Felix put his director’s vision into the script and took it down the home stretch.”

The pain the Sheffs go through is not uncommon in America today. Beyond that, however, Davies believes their story will resonate for anyone who has raised a child, even those whose families have not been affected by addiction. “Nurturing a child is one of the fundamental parts of the human experience,” he says. “As the child becomes fully grown, the parent has to let go and let the child fend for himself. This story is filled with joys and anxieties that all parents can relate to.

The film amplifies and intensifies some of those anxieties, according the screenwriter. “For David it raises primal questions: Have I been a good father? Can I protect my son against these monsters? Which is what the addictive forces tearing Nic apart really are. In some ways, it’s a father-son anxiety drama about an apparently unbeatable foe.”