Producer Lee Clay and writer-director Shawn Ku visited Dallas for a screening of their film “Beautiful Boy” at the Dallas International Film Festival this April. In it Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play Kate and Bill Carroll, a somewhat estranged suburban couple who are stunned when their son Sam (Kyle Gallner), a college freshman, goes on a campus shooting spree, killing several classmates and then himself.
“We were looking for a different angle, a different point of view, for the story when we first started talking about this,” Carr explained during an interview. “And because school shootings are, unfortunately, so prevalent—it’s in the news every couple of months, it seems like—that was sort of right at the top of our minds when we were thinking about this story.
“And we had a couple of things personally that drew us to the emotional journey of these characters. I was going through the adoption process at the time, and having to think about being a parent and taking on a child who might have mental health issues in his family history and how to deal with that. And there’s all the self-analysis—what about the things I’m going to do to screw up this kid?
“So what’s the worst possible thing that could happen? And we sort of landed on a school shooting. We really wanted to address it from a different point of view—how the parents would actually be affected and be victims themselves. We by no means wanted to be insensitive—and I don’t think we were. We don’t ever excuse what [the killer] did. We’re just trying to tell a story, at heart a love story, under these really awful circumstances. That was our whole point.
“And Shawn also had some personal connections to such events,” he added.
Ku continued, “When Virginia Tech happened, it was a very traumatic time for my family. My parents both went to Virginia Tech, they met there and got married, my sister was born there, and I think mostly because [the shooter] was Asian, it was a very unusual circumstance for my family. It was just so shocking—it was such a scary act of aggression.
“And I think we can’t help stepping into the shooter’s shoes for a second, wondering how can someone do this? What drives someone to do that? And I think we’re all just trying to understand the thought process, if there is one, behind these kinds of acts. So I think that put us in a place [where we asked] ‘How would my parents feel if that happened, if I did that kind of thing?’
“And also, subsequent to that, a friend of mine was visiting town and died in his sleep, and it was completely sudden and unexpected. And I was the one that had to tell his family and his friends that this unexplained death had happened to their son. And it’s a very difficult thing for parents to process when there’s no explanation—it took the coroner maybe six to eight weeks to come back with the reason why that happened, why he died. And just sitting with that unknown for so long was a very difficult process. It’s hard enough to lose a child, but then also not to know why—it really sent us down a road. And a lot of the incidents that wound up in the film are things that I experienced, because I was a very central figure to their grief.”
In writing the script, the producers, Ku and his co-writer Michael Armbruster did research on actual shootings. But, Carr emphasized, “we made a decision to step back and not try to do anything based on something that had actually happened, because we were trying hard to have the parents be normal, relatable people, so that people in the audience could possibly think of themselves, at least for the duration of the movie, as these two people. How would they handle such a horrific event in their lives?”
“But,” Ku added, “it was affirming when like a week before we started shooting, Susan Klebold came out for the first time speaking about Columbine, and Maria called me up very excited because the way she spoke about her son and the shooting was very much how we were telling our story, and she felt we were definitely right on target.”
“It gets you thinking about all the little moments in life you just let go by, absorbed with something else at that moment,” Carr said.
Ku described the Carrolls as “a family where no one’s really meeting or connecting—they’re interacting in a maybe complacent way, but they’ve sort of forgotten about connecting at all. And they’re all trying to communicate, but the frustration of it all [is apparent]. Relationships take effort, and if you don’t exert it, they just become stagnant, I think.
“They’re people who just coexist without ever really connecting. They just wander through their lives as individuals, bouncing from room to room. But there’s no moment where we really feel them come together until the very end.”
Both Carr and Ku enthused about the way their cast brought the material to life. They were amazed that Meat Loaf Aday accepted a part as a clerk at the motel where Kate and Bill hide from the glare of the media, but equally so at the attitude he brought to the role. “He was pitched to us,” Ku said, and Carr added, “We couldn’t believe Meat Loaf would want to play such a small role.” Ku continued, “It was a testament to his professionalism that he really didn’t want to be Meat Loaf, the rock star. He was really there to be an actor, and such a collaborative actor.”
And while the role of Sam is small, it’s crucial, and both men felt that Gallner had nailed it. “We auditioned quite a few hot young, up-and-coming actors who really wanted to play that role—a role that kids don’t get too often,” Ku said. Carr added, “Kyle exploded off the audition tape in a way that we just both went, ‘That’s the guy. That’s Sam.’” Ku added, “He’s done a lot of horror films, and people tend to look down on actors in them—but you have to start somewhere. The kid is amazing.”
But they reserved their highest praise for Bello and Sheen. “Maria was the very first person we ever thought of for the mother,” Carr said. Ku agreed, describing her as “a natural choice for this—one of the very first people we talked about for either of the roles. So the fact that she wound up in it is just amazing.”
Of Sheen, Ku said, “Michael is just a phenomenal actor.” Carr added, “And he really got the character we were going for, in a very unselfish way. A lot of it is holding things in.”
Ku continued, “As an actor, it’s so hard to play still—it’s so difficult. Maria’s character Kate is a very outward character–that comes out in her lines. Bill comes out in his stillness, and for Michael to pull that off, I am in awe of him.”
Carr and Ku recalled shooting the climactic scene between Bello and Sheen—perhaps the film’s most powerful—in a motel room and being completely absorbed in the moment. “It was like seven takes, and it’s really a testament to what great professional actors these guys are that every take was so moving,” Carr recalled. “And they stuck to the script—that was incredible, to bring that kind of fury and emotion to a scene but also to remember your lines. It’s just mind-boggling to me. But every time I would get completely lost and sort of forget that I had anything to do with what they were saying. It just felt so natural. It was really emotional to see that happen, but I felt very detached from it at that point. It just felt like I was kind of a voyeur watching this very intimate, horrible conversation take place.”
“It’s true,” Ku added, “because after so much time, and I guess because it feels so real when they’re doing it, you forget that we actually wrote those words. It’s like they’re making them up on the spot because it’s so real, the way they’re reacting to each other. It’s a magical thing.”
“Beautiful Boy” is an Anchor Bay Films release.