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Beautiful Boy: Shawn Ku

In this heartbreaking feature debut, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen struggle to rebuild their relationship in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy.

Beautiful Boy: Maria Bello and Michael Sheen


Beautiful Boy, the feature debut from writer/director Shawn Ku, is a small, intimate drama that packs an emotional punch. Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) are a suburban American couple whose mundane, everyday life is rocked by the news that their 18-year-old son Sam (Kyle Gallner) has done the unthinkable: he’s gone on a shooting rampage on his college campus, ending in his own suicide.


While that sounds like a ripped-from-the-headlines synopsis, the film goes much deeper than its sensational surface. Bello and Sheen are a couple whose marriage long ago lost its magic; though they live in the same house, they are practically strangers, going through the motions. When the worst thing imaginable happens, they are forced to confront both each other and their own emotions. As the couple, portrayed by two very talented actors, learns how to process, grieve and heal together, Beautiful Boy becomes a raw look inside a contemporary, previously unexamined marriage.


In an interview last week, Ku talked about the multi-faceted impetus for his film, including his original vision of a stagnant relationship, the sudden death of a good friend, and a family connection to Virginia Tech.


Beautiful Boy: Shawn Ku and Michael Sheen
Director Shawn Ku with Michael Sheen


Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?


Shawn Ku: My writing partner Michael Armbruster and I set out to make a story about a relationship that was very fractured. The specific kernel was that it was two people who live together, but don’t really know each other, though they are supposed to. They are married, but somehow they have stopped trying to be in that relationship, and relationships take effort.


And, as we were thinking about the story, [the shootings at] Virginia Tech happened. My parents met, married, and had my sister at Virginia Tech. And so the whole thing sort of shook my family in an odd way—I think mostly because [the shooter] was Asian, and there was this odd connection, and we’d never seen anything like that; it didn’t fit into the profile of the Asian demeanor.


A few months before that, a good friend of mine was flying through on his way back to New York, and stopped in to visit for the weekend. We were up all night catching up, and then we went to bed. I let him sleep in the next morning, and then when I went in to say, “You’ve been in bed all day; why don’t you get up?” I realized he had died in his sleep. It took the coroner about six months to come back with a determination that he had this heart problem that he’d had his whole life, but never knew about.


It was traumatic, of course. I was the one who had to call his parents and give them this news; I’m a stranger, practically, telling them that their son had died, for no explainable reason. I became a very central part of their grief, as the last person to speak to him, the last person to see him. They needed to know—as I think we all hope, when someone reaches the end of his life—was there a solution to the problems he was grappling with? Did he feel he had a resolution? And, any little sort of thing we had just even just mentioned in passing, they wanted to know about.


Tribeca: Wow, so it’s interesting that the one-liner synopsis of the movie—that it’s about the parents of a son who is a campus shooter—wasn’t even your original catalyst; it evolved into that.


Shawn Ku: It’s very funny how that happens. Of course, it’s the main plot point, you can’t hide from it, but we really tried to keep the script focused on this relationship between two people, because that was our original goal.


Beautiful Boy: Michael Sheen and Maria Bello


Tribeca: It's a tough movie to watch. What do you want audiences to take away from your film?


Shawn Ku: The best compliment we get is: “After seeing your movie, I went home and hugged my kids. I hugged my spouse.” You know those movies in your life that you hold onto? That somehow you can’t stop thinking about, and in some small ways, you wonder if they haven’t changed you? Even if just a small handful of people hold this movie in their heart in some way, if it makes them reevaluate how they interact with their kids, or how they participate in a relationship—that would be amazing.


Tribeca: Do you think you have an idea about why someone like Sam, who was loved, and came from—for lack of a better word—a good home, chose to take this turn in his life?


Shawn Ku: That’s the big question for the parents in the movie. The producers and investors would push us—everyone wanted to know why—but Michael and I really had to stick to our guns, so to speak, about leaving it ambiguous. Because I think in life, it is ambiguous.


Some of these kids make crazy manifestos that say “why”: “you were evil to me, I hate you, I want to kill you.” But there has to be more to it, because so many kids are teased and bullied. I was a wimpy little kid; I was bullied in school. I remember this girl who was to an extent terrorized—people would tease her like crazy growing up. And she didn’t go out and buy a gun and mow people down.


So yes, there are these elements that feed in—if mom wasn’t so critical; if dad were more present and available; if these kids didn’t tease him. But a lot of kids suffer from these things, and they don’t go out and commit these acts. So I don’t think it’s ever simple. We’re humans, we’re complicated, living creatures, and we’re this sort of summation of a matrix of things.


Beautiful Boy: Maria Bello Beautiful Boy: Michael Sheen


Tribeca: As an actor yourself, how do you approach actors as a director?


Shawn Ku: When we’re in rehearsal, I don’t like to get up and just say words from the script. With this story, I tended to focus on just me and Maria, or just me and Michael, trying to get in the same headspace about the characters.


Michael and I talked about our fears about raising kids, and we shared a lot about our relationships with our fathers: how we perceive of them, who they were to us growing up, and the mistakes they made that affect us as adults.


Maria and I discovered that we studied with the same acting teacher in New York—a pretty phenomenal teacher named Freddy Kareman. She still holds him in her head—he had this little gesture of sort of wiggling his finger, which meant, “You have to be vulnerable like a blade of grass in the wind.” And sometimes all I’d have to do was that gesture, and Maria was like, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right.”


Tribeca: You shot this film in 18 days, in a documentary style. Can you talk about why you made these decisions? As a first-time director, what did you learn?


Shawn Ku: 18 days is tough, but we knew that we were going to keep the budget below a million dollars. We could have made this movie for $10 million, but what are the odds that we would make that money back in the theater? So we had those sort of produce-orial thoughts before hand.  


The hell of shooting is when they tell you you have 25 days, and then they tell you you only have 23. But we went in knowing it was going to be tight, and the cinematographer and I prepared for a long time. A lot of it was coming upon what our style was, and deciding how we were going to “cover” this movie. Some of that is just watching movies [on mute], and saying, I like the way that shot looks or feels. A couple of our touchstone movies were 21 Grams and United 93—when you turn the sound off, they are beautiful films to look at; we were inspired by them in different ways.


So that’s how we came upon our visual language. By the time we got onto set, there was an understanding; we’d already come in thinking of the movie shot by shot. That’s not to say that doesn’t change when you get onto set, but we knew what the purpose of our shooting methods were for each scene—so adapting to the shoot was really quick.


Beautiful Boy: Kyle Gallner
Kyle Gallner

Tribeca: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?


Shawn Ku: This is my second script with my writing partner, and we set out to write something small, but I think as a writer you don’t understand the ramifications, how every little thing you put in a script can kick up the price tag. So when you’re like, “Oh, it’s just a coffee shop. There are a million coffee shops around town—how hard can it be?” You don’t realize that it’s hard to get a coffee shop, because it’s a running business, and you have a scene during the day, and they’re all windows, and you can’t cheat daylight, but they need to be open and running and making money. You can’t just sort of get one that’s going to shut down for a day for you—things you just don’t really think about as a writer that complicate a movie. So there’s that level.


And then as the director—it’s all about the preparation beforehand. By the time you actually get on set, to a certain extent, you turn off your mind; you’re running by instinct, reacting to what’s going on. I rarely really look at my script while I’m on the set; I’m sort of relying on all the homework I did to carry me through it. It’s like I’m an actor on stage; I’ve done my rehearsal, and then the curtain opens, and I’m in a way performing.


I can’t imagine being a journeyman director who gets a project like a week or a day before a movie goes into production. That must be insane, trying to do your preparation and work at the same time.


Tribeca: Was there a “lightning strikes” moment—for better or for worse?


Shawn Ku: There are those brilliant improvisational moments that actors bring. You hope for those happy accidents. For example, one of our really powerful moments was when the cops tell Maria her son is dead. It’s completely an exercise we used to do in acting class, where the teacher would throw you out of the room and set up a scenario to surprise you. She said that doing that scene took her back to those days, when you have to sort of not expect anything. She opened the door and these people are looking at her, and they tell her her son is dead, and she screams, “LIAR!” at them. It was sort of a magical moment. On screen, people are thrown by that.


Tribeca: So that wasn’t in the script?


Shawn Ku: It was not at all in the script; it was completely improvisational. She didn’t even know she was going to do it. It was one of those instinctual actor things.


Beautiful Boy: Michael Sheen and Maria Bello


Tribeca: What’s up next for you?


Shawn Ku: I’m totally one that believes in having a jillion irons in the fire. Right now I’m waiting for that one iron to get screaming hot so that I can brand something with it. There are a couple of things percolating.


What makes Beautiful Boy a must-see?


Shawn Ku: I love comedy as much as the next guy—sometimes the stupider the better; I’ll see The Hangover II. But I feel like there must be some sort of collective consciousness craving more serious movies, because we keep making them. Even if it’s not for every Joe Schmo out there, I wish it would be.


My fear is that people will see this as just a movie about a school shooting, and I think it’s so much more. When people do see the movie, they are really able to extrapolate what we are saying into their own lives, and the ones who are touched are really touched. So it would be nice if people could take time out from their big blockbuster summer movies to come and see a little movie that might help them reflect on their lives in a different way than just letting out a laugh here and there.


Beautiful Boy opens on Friday, June 3. Find tickets.


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