Beautiful Boy is the story of a child who cracks under the pressure of being an 18-year-old and deals with it by shooting up his college and then killing himself. Shawn Ku, director and co-writer said, “We were influenced by the Virginia Tech shootings, which had a great affect on my family, as the shooter was Asian.”
Ku, who earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Harvard University, has come a long way from chemistry labs. In addition to being a writer-director, he is also a skilled dancer who opted to go to Broadway to perform in a slew of musicals. For Ku, it was a very personal tragedy that spawned the core ideas of a family dealing with tragedy in Beautiful Boy.
“I’d lost a friend very recently,” Ku explained. “He went to sleep one night and never woke up. I had to be the one to tell his parents that he died, and I shared with them in their grief. Having to hear from someone that their son had died—someone who was a complete stranger to them—influenced us greatly.”
Michael Armbruster, Beautiful Boy’s co-writer, has also come a long way from his roots: chocolate. He worked at a division of Nestle as their head of marketing making candy commercials. “We did a lot of research around these types of events, more of how they’re covered by the press and what the procedures are,” Armbruster said while discussing Beautiful Boy, taking the idea of parents losing a child and adding a very modern twist of the media into the mix. The idea of exploring how parents would deal with a terribly tragic, public and yet very personal event appealed to Armbruster. “I was going through the adoption of a child at the time and thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent and what you’re inheriting—what you have control over and have no control over,” he said.
While the backdrop of Beautiful Boy is a terrible shooting, the movie is really about the story of Bill and Kate, the parents of the child who dictated the abhorrent tragedy, played to perfection by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello. If it weren’t for them being in the movie, the film wouldn’t have been made. Ku said, “Michael and Maria worked for scale. All of our talent worked for nothing because they wanted to work on the project. A lot of us deferred our pay because we wanted to.” It was the material that brought the talent into the movie, including such amazing character actors as Alan Tudyk and Meat Loaf Aday, as well as up-and-coming younger actors like Moon Bloodgood and Austin Nichols.
But the movie is Maria Bello and Michael Sheen’s, which is something that they didn’t take lightly. The two actors did everything they could to make sure that everyone was taken care of and comfortable dealing with such a serious film. Ku said, “I was told the set was a joyful set. And it really was. We had very little stress, per se. Obviously things happen and you take care of them, but it was a smooth shoot. A pretty light set. A lot of that comes from the top: Maria and Michael were professional. There was no sort of diva attitude at all; they were there to do something important. That being said, off-set they were completely approachable. They’d have lunch with the crew. They were really warm and open, when you’d think they’d have to be in character and dark all the time; it wasn’t that way at all.”
Beautiful Boy can be a very difficult movie to watch, as it puts viewers in the shoes of parents who have to deal with an unthinkable tragedy. Armbruster didn’t provide any easy answers as to why the tragedy was perpetrated by Bill and Kate’s son: “We shied away from saying why, because the movie is really about these two people and how it affects them. We think it’s much more interesting and complex that they don’t have any sort of satisfactory answer. They tend to blame themselves and they blame each other and they try to blame the kid’s surroundings and all that stuff, but you’re just sort of left with this emptiness that you have to move on, and I think that makes it much more complex and interesting for these characters.”
The movie was made for very little money and shot in 18 days, so it was important that everyone stay very professional. “We believe in being really prepared. We went in knowing it was 18 days, so when you wrap your mind around that, a lot of creative choices are made based on that,” Ku stated.
So far, the response to the movie has been very positive. Both Sheen and Bello are getting a lot of positive buzz about their raw performances. Ku appreciates that, but hopes that the movie has a longer lasting impact than a few awards for the movie’s participants. “People come up to me and say, ‘After I saw your movie, I went home and hugged my kids. I hugged my wife.’ To a certain extent, that’s all we care about—[that] it’s touched people and made them reexamine how they are as people, how they are in a relationship.”
Beautiful Boy is a very special movie, made to explore a very difficult and trying issue. It was made by very dedicated actors and a director and writer who come from very non-Hollywood backgrounds. If this is what it takes to make a movie that will have a lasting impact on an audience, it’s about time that Hollywood takes notice and realizes that movies can have a longer lasting impact than just however long it takes viewers to get to the end of their popcorn buckets.
Beautiful Boy is now playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse.
For more information, visit the film’s official Web site.