It’s fair to say that Felix Van Groeningen has a long-standing interest in parenting and its discontents. The Belgian director’s 2012 film, the Oscar-nominated “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” was about a couple whose marriage and faith are tested when their young daughter develops a serious illness. And his movie before that, “The Misfortunates,” centered on a teenager and his loutish father and beer-guzzling uncles.
But the 40-year-old filmmaker is generating more buzz than ever these days for his new film, “Beautiful Boy.” (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Based on the memoirs of journalist David Sheff and his son Nic, each of whom wrote books about Nic’s struggle with methamphetamine addiction, the movie stars Oscar nominees Steve Carell as David and Timothée Chalamet as Nic.
While in town recently to promote “Beautiful Boy,” Van Groeningen, who recently became a father for the first time, sat down to chat about family, feelings and falling in love.
Q: This is the season for addiction movies, between your film and "Ben Is Back," the upcoming movie in which Julia Roberts plays a mother fighting to save her son. How do you steer clear of the most obvious pitfall for this type of movie: cheesy melodrama?
A: I never really think in genres.
Q: I don't mean melodrama as a genre so much as an overly sentimental tone.
A: It’s all about feelings. When I’m writing, directing or editing, what I feel is the only barometer. What was really important here is that it’s a true story, based on two books. I fell for it because it felt so accessible and relatable and authentic. It made me have more empathy for people who are struggling with addiction.
Q: Do you have a personal connection with that?
A: Yes. In my family, we have seen people lose themselves very much. I grew up in a bar that my father owned in Ghent, so alcohol, in a way, has been part of my life — drunk uncles and that sort of thing.
Q: David Sheff approached his memoir like a journalist. In the film, we see his character interviewing an addiction specialist; he tries drugs himself to see what they're like. Nic's book is more visceral. Where does this film fall on that spectrum between detachment and immersion?
A: Both books are just so open about their authors’ journeys. What I found interesting was that every time both David and Nic think they know everything, they get deeper into the next phase of the disease of addiction. For me, the hardest part about telling the story was how to balance those two journeys. Sometimes they come together, and sometimes they don’t.
Q: One of your most effective storytelling tools — in this film and the last one — is music. "The Broken Circle Breakdown" weaves bluegrass tunes into the fabric of the story. This film features an eclectic soundtrack: everything from the pop-rock of Lennon, Bowie and Nirvana to alternative darlings Sigur Rós and Aphex Twin, with a little Perry Como and some classical thrown in. How did that come together?
A: The way all that works in this movie is really amazing, and I’m really happy about it. But I didn’t set out for it to be that way. It happened along the way.
Q: David and Nic's shared love of music is true to the books, isn't it?
A: Very much. Both of their books reference songs, and they quote songs, and they went to concerts together. David took Nic to a Nirvana concert. So it inspired me. I loved it. That’s how it found its way into the script.
Q: But you didn't sit down and plan out which songs to select beforehand?
A: Only the Nirvana [“Territorial P---ings”] and the John Lennon [“Beautiful Boy”]. The rest came about as we were making this film, mostly in postproduction. I originally had a score, but it wasn’t working. My editor [Nico Leunen] pushed me to do the movie without one. Throw the score out, and only go for songs. It was a bold choice, but it made us discover more, tell more about the characters and have a bolder film. It’s part of what I like about filmmaking: embracing the journey.
Q: A lot of movies use visual tricks to evoke the experience of being high. This one doesn't. Why?
A: It’s mostly sound. I wanted the movie to be an experience, but not a cliche. One of the hardest things to make work is the fact that the narrative is extremely repetitive.
Q: How many times was Nic in and out of rehab? Five?
Q: One exception to your sound-only rule is Nic's journal, which we see is filled with these harrowing and beautiful black-and-white drawings, made while he was stoned out of his mind. Who drew them?
A: You’re going to love my answer because they were drawn by Nic’s little brother, the real Jasper Sheff, an artist and musician who is now 24 and who worked as a production assistant on the film. The art department had seen Jasper’s drawings, and as we were preparing the movie, they asked him, “Would you want to do this?” It turned out amazing, and close to what Nic was doing, but way better, I think. The paintings in the film that you see David’s wife [Maura Tierney] painting are by his real wife, Karen Barbour.
Q: Is all of Jasper's art that disturbing?
A: [Laughing] Pretty much. It’s not all that dark, but it comes close.
Q: Would you talk about the film's theme of family — the parent-child bond — a theme that it shares with "Breakdown"? Why does that interest you so much?
A: Life is very fragile, and we can’t decide who lives or dies. We all have to be aware, if we have kids, that someday they might die, and we will have to go on. I just became a father myself, about four months ago. It’s something I’ve wanted — to become a parent — for a while. We finished the film in April, and in May, my son was born.
Q: Back-to-back births.
A: Yeah. One thing I noticed about the father-son bond in this story is that they’re also almost friends. I had the same thing with my father, and I still have it with my mother, who I call by her name. I don’t say Mom, I say Bea. I felt a connection with Nic because of that.
Q: Steve Carell is on this path from comedy to serious film. What about him appealed to you?
A: Casting is a weird process. There are always arguments either way. But essentially, it is a form of falling in love with the idea of somebody. The producers and I had talked about casting for three years — literally — and we never attached an actor to it. All of a sudden, Steve’s name popped up. I had seen “Foxcatcher” and “The Big Short,” where I think he’s incredible. He can make any character relatable somehow and make you feel for them. Who he is in real life overlaps with the David in the movie. He’s a very dedicated family man; he’s super earnest. I wanted the actor who played David to keep it close to himself, to do it in a very sincere and honest way. I remember the moment I was rereading my script, thinking, “What would happen if Steve Carell played it?” I started crying. I just fell in love.
Beautiful Boy (R, 112 minutes). At area theaters.