The director of Amazon’s ‘Honey Boy’ explains how Shia LaBeouf’s stint in rehab led her to make the most honest movie of the year
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- Business Insider spoke with “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el about turning Shia LaBeouf’s troubled childhood into a movie where LaBeouf plays his father.
- LaBeouf sent Har’el the script of the movie, which he wrote while in rehab, where he was forced to go after a public intoxication incident in July 2017.
- LaBeouf had to see his father before the movie was made. The two hadn’t seen each other in seven years.
- Har’el had an unconventional way of shooting the movie, having everything ready on set so when LaBeouf showed up in an emotional state they could film immediately.
- “Honey Boy” opens in theaters on Friday.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Alma Har’el admits there were times when she could see hints of the aggressive person Shia LaBeouf was known for in the tabloids. She wouldn’t think much of it, though, as that persona was far from the sensitive actor who loved her first movie, the 2011 documentary “Bombay Beach,” which led to them becoming friends and collaborators.
But by July 2017, after she saw a video TMZ obtained of an intoxicated LaBeouf shouting expletives at a Savannah, Georgia, police officer and charged with public intoxication (later footage showed him shouting racist remarks to a black officer at the police station), she was extremely concerned for her friend.
“It was like another person that comes out of him,” Har’el told Business Insider by phone of LaBeouf. “It’s only after he was diagnosed with PTSD that a lot of the anger and aggression that happened in his past make sense.”
Sentenced to community service and one year of probation, LaBeouf was also court-ordered to attend a drug rehab facility. There, through counseling, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder stemming from his troubled childhood with his father. He recorded the sessions he was having with his counselors that forced him to look back on his childhood and transcribed them. Perhaps because he’s been an actor since age 10, that transcription evolved into a script. Suddenly he was molding his painful past into a story about a child actor named Otis Lort and his relationship with his father, James.
Soon after, with no notice, Har’el received a script in the mail titled “Stamen,” the word for the male fertilizing organ of a flower. It was authored by Otis Lort.
“And with the script were two photos of Shia with his father when he was a very young kid, which broke my heart,” Har’el said. “I saw those photos and I knew I had to make this film.”
Though LaBeouf had given the characters different names, the script told the story of the warts-and-all true relationship he and his father Jeffrey had when the actor was 12 years old and the star of the popular Disney Channel show, “Even Stevens.”
At the time his parents were divorced and LaBeouf was living with his father in a hotel not too far from where “Even Stevens” was shooting. LaBeouf paid his father to be his chaperone. Jeffrey would drive him to and from set every day on his motorcycle and watch over him on set.
But back at the hotel LaBeouf had to deal with his father’s dark side. There was verbal and physical abuse. Jeffrey — a Vietnam vet and former rodeo clown — was also struggling to stay sober. Though in his eyes he was trying to toughen up his son, in reality he was severely damaging him. (LaBeouf’s father has not publicly disputed his son’s recollections.)
This is all laid out in “Honey Boy,” in which LaBeouf plays his father, named James in the movie; Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) plays 12-year-old Otis; and Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) plays 22-year-old Otis.
Thanks to LaBeouf’s deeply personal script, along with Har’el’s visually stunning storytelling (which marks her narrative feature debut), the movie “Honey Boy,” named for what LaBeouf’s dad called him as a kid, has found Oscar buzz due to its honest subject matter.
But making the movie was far from easy, as Har’el had to be part filmmaker and part therapist.
To make the movie, LaBeouf reached out to his father for the first time in seven years
Har’el first questioned if it was in LaBeouf’s best interest to even be on a film set, as filming was to begin two months after LaBeouf left rehab.
“There was a lot of doubt both with his therapist and with him and with his mother,” Har’el said. “But we all felt after having all these discussions that it was something we want to try to do together.”
Then there was the matter of getting LaBeouf’s father on board. There were the legal reasons to get his blessing, but Har’el also wanted LaBeouf to talk to him as part of his rehab.
“Shia hadn’t spoken to him in seven years,” Har’el said. “I told him, ‘Go out to see him, tell him you want to make the film. Read him the script.'”
LaBeouf did just that. He traveled to Costa Rica, where his father lives, and spent a few weeks with him. She said they spent days having conversations, which were recorded and used to flesh out some parts of the story. That included the ending, which was not yet part of the script, and the role of James.
“The share scene in AA that Shia does as James, that was written from the recordings of his father when they were talking,” Har’el said.
When LaBeouf and his father got around to reading the script and talking about a potential movie, Har’el said LaBeouf didn’t initially say he was going to play the role of his father.
“He told him that Mel Gibson was going to play him, because his father really loves Mel Gibson,” Har’el said. “But later he told him the truth.”
Beside who would play him in the movie, LaBeouf’s dad was concerned about one element being perfect: his rodeo clown routine.
In one scene, James is dressed as a rodeo clown and goes through an act where he stands on his head and a chicken is balanced on his backside. Har’el came to find out that was a routine LaBeouf’s father was known for and said he was “very serious about it being authentic.”
Har’el had an unorthodox way of making the film, as no two takes were ever the same
Coming from a documentary background, Har’el took an unorthodox approach to shooting many of the scenes. She would have everything set up for a scene so when LaBeouf was called to set, cameras would start rolling. Cinematographer Natasha Braier (“The Neon Demon”) would adjust lighting so it would cover a wide range of the set, giving the actors a huge amount of freedom on each take.
Har’el did all this partly so the performances didn’t feel staged, but also because she was aware of her star’s mental state.
“Shia really was working himself up to very painful moments, and we weren’t going to then say, ‘Can you stand here and wait, we need to tweak the lights,'” Har’el said.
It’s been reported that LaBeouf did most of his scenes in one take. Har’el said for very tough scenes there were two takes but that most of the time there were actually eight to 12 takes per scene.
“A lot of times no take would be like the other,” she explained. “People on the set would ask, ‘How are you going to cut that? He did something there and he did something else there. You only have one take of that.’ But because of having filmed documentaries and being a cinematographer and editor myself, I have a way of cutting those things. I see the cut. Some moments in the movie are cut between six or seven takes.”
Regardless how it was done, the emotion being captured was clearly evident. Har’el said for some scenes it wasn’t just the actors crying, but her and other crew members behind the camera as well.
“It was so raw and so real,” she said.
LaBeouf cried while watching his father see the movie
After wowing audiences at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Amazon Studios quickly snatched up the rights for a reported $5 million.
Since then, the movie has become a critical darling (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and has made LaBeouf the latest Hollywood comeback story.
But beyond all that, “Honey Boy” has reconnected LaBeouf and his father.
Har’el said before Sundance, LaBeouf sent a steaming link of the movie to his father to watch on his computer. His father watched it and set up a video chat camera so that LaBeouf on his computer could see his father’s face as he watched the movie.
“Shia sent me a photo of both of them doing this,” she said. “Shia was crying watching his father looking at his screen.”
And what did his dad think of the movie?
“I think his dad was really happy with it,” Har’el said. “It was really hard for him to see it. He felt sometimes that wasn’t him, and sometimes he felt we really captured him. It wasn’t smooth sailing. He was really happy it was made and sent me a lot of loving messages on Facebook afterwards.”
“I’m sure it was really hard,” she continued. “But he was very proud of the rodeo clown sequence.”