Director of ‘Beautiful Boy’ Felix Van Groening on the power of cinema

The Belgian filmmaker's first feature foray into English is a entirely heartfelt ode to Nic and David Sheff's powerful story.


What originally drew you to David and Nic Sheff’s story?

There’s something unique about the idea that these are two books with the two points of view about the same thing: when I read the books I felt it had the opportunity to convey something really complex emotionally. The books were eye-openers to me; how because this family keeps on going, because David keeps on trying even though he has to eventually let go, the whole journey is filled with unconditional love – it’s very inspiring. I felt it was really important for personal reasons, and when I read the books I fell in love with the family. All the little things I needed as a director to feel I could make it work visually.

Do you relate to either of your lead characters?

Hmm, yeah. It’s two things: when I was younger I definitely experimented with drugs and could relate to Nic’s insecurities and that lead to experimentation. But he sadly had that gene that made him become an addict and I didn’t, so I was lucky. What I understood through Nic’s book was how difficult it must be to stay sober when you have that problem, and I really wanted to convey that. And David’s just such a great dad, I also had parents who fought for me – there’s something beautiful about beautiful parents. Plus, I’ve just become a father myself! I learn from my films and I learn from life through my films: I’m more encouraged to take things home through my films.


At points it felt alike to an exploration of grief…

It is a kind of understanding of life and, as David describes it, he has to comes to terms that he cannot choose for his children to live or die. Which is startling and devastating, and also liberating. These are moments you get to which make you appreciate life more. It’s cyclical, right? You might arrive at a point, and then three months later you might worry again, especially with children.

After forming such a connection to the books did you have cast members specifically in mind?

I approached Steve [Carell] first. I’d been thinking for years about actors but it took a while to get to someone I was sure with. I love Steve, and who he is overlaps with David in real life so it made a load of sense to cast him. Then we started to search for Nic, we did a big audition process and Timmy [Timothée Chalamet] was one of the young actors who excited us and amazed us – he just has something about him. He’s very, very talented and fearless. Plus, he has a natural charm, you have to fall in love Nic and that’s what happens with Timmy – he’s genuinely sweet and very open.

How was it to work on a story about real people and have them directly involved?

It’s sometimes awkward, especially at the beginning. You soon realise that! But it’s been an incredible journey, they were very brave to let us take on the story, and very open and honest. They were very trusting of me and throughout the project they let us into their lives and allowed the movie to be authentic. Thankfully they love the movie and are very grateful for it – it couldn’t have gone better.

What 5 films have shaped you as a director?

Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. Alfonso Cuaroón’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part II and The Prophet.

What’s next for you?

I’m waiting to fall in love with my next project!

Beautiful Boy is in cinemas today, 18th January 2019.

18 January 2019