Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script.
Originally published in Script Magazine May/June 2011
When a rogue young person perpetrates a Columbine or a Virginia Tech tragedy, we consumers of the media learn a great deal about the background and motivations of the shooter, and even more about the victims. Narratives are created, ironies explored, explanations posited, and fates decided. The victims are mourned and the perpetrator anatomized.
But what about the family left behind? What of the mom and dad who created the home within which a young man’s character, for better and certainly for worse, was forged?
Beautiful Boy, opening in theaters this spring, dramatizes the intense private tragedy on the periphery of one such public tragedy. It picks up businessman father Bill (Michael Sheen) and publishing executive Kate (Maria Bello) on an average day when suddenly they discover the catastrophe wrought by their only child Sam (Kyle Gallner) on his college campus. As cowriters Michael Armbruster and director Shawn Ku set it up, this is a marriage already in deep trouble, destined now to go through even more wrenching changes.
The idea of a “good kid” turning killer was far from the initial impetus. “We had both been doing the larger studio dance for a little bit,” Ku says, “and that can be emotionally difficult at times. We just wanted to write something small and contained and personal, toying with the idea of a failed relationship struggling to get back on track.”
At the time, Armbruster was preparing to adopt a newborn. “I started thinking a lot about mental health history, and the kinds of things that you as a parent don’t have any control over, or that you can influence in a good or bad way based on what you do.” Meanwhile, a close friend had died in Ku’s home. “I was the last person to see and speak with him, and I found myself the focus of his family’s grief,” he says.
When in 2007 a Korean student killed 32 people and himself on the grounds of Virginia Tech—the alma mater of Ku’s own parents— the themes all came together. “We decided to use a campus shooting and yet write nothing about it,” Ku says, in order to shed light on an already tenuous family dynamic. “People who read the script wanted more of ‘Why? What is the root cause?’ But we resisted that, because real life just isn’t that simple.”
Research revealed that the parents of killers, as Ku puts it, “can’t ever really get a chance to grieve, in a way. You become persecuted; you have to run and flee from your life and you don’t get a chance to sit down and process what happened.
“So we were thinking about the idea of family. You grow up with them, you live with them, and you think you really know them ... but there are deeper levels of knowing somebody, and this was something we were trying to explore in the story.”
The film begins with an intricate flashback involving home movies of the family at play years before. “There’s something very poignant,” Armbruster believes, “about seeing an innocent child who turns out to be something infamous—a pre-loss of innocence. And it’s also the parents when they were happy together, and then quickly you see they’re on the verge of splitting up.”
Ku adds, “They were at one point perfectly connected, and I guess after that something changed. They became less a unit and more three entities that happened to live together at home. I think, for us, the first structure of the movie was the dynamic of the relationship in very simple forms, how close they were and when.”
A movie driven solely by an emotional arc has to be shaped very differently from one built on plot and incident. Beautiful Boy developed slowly. As Armbruster describes it, “We spent a fair amount of time eating or having coffee, in a room or outside, just talking about the story before we really committed to anything. Together, we outlined it on a computer, and then we split off and we took different chunks of it to write. Shawn had to write the first 15 pages, and we kind of leapfrogged off each other.
“We started rewriting each other’s pages and then rewrote together in the same room, one person at the computer. Lots of arguing. I don’t even remember who wrote what anymore because it was so touched by both of us.”
The result of this process, the core of the movie, is an assortment of small incidents mostly involving Bill and Kate separately: interactions that parents of the notorious might have with co-workers, friends, the media, and strangers. But even when they’re apart, we are prompted to think of them together.
Ku explains, “We knew that after the tragedy they have to rely on each other, so there’s a false sense of intimacy at that moment. They’re thrown by this new thing that happened, and then slowly they’re going to devolve back into their distance. So we wanted to track that [change].”
The distance is exacerbated by their differing coping mechanisms. Says Armbruster, “Kate is definitely pushed more for an explanation and Bill is more into survival mode. But at different points, she just needs to get away, and he starts to think about it more and how much he is to blame. Part of it is just reacting, and part of it is where you’re not being chased by the media and you are alone with your thoughts. What happens? How does your mind search for answers, for comfort, or some sense of future? Is there any possibility of returning to happiness in your life? It was sort of all of the above at different points in their journey.”
“The question that everyone asked is ‘why.’ And we had to pose that question but we wanted to not answer it.”
Ku adds, “In the midst of Act Two, we did a lot of discussion about timing in a relationship, and I think most people can relate to the sense of when someone reaches out at just the time when the other person pulls away, and vice versa. There’s this odd distance between them, like two magnets that are similarly charged, there’s always just a little air space between them. When one moves forward, the other moves back.”
Armbruster goes on to explain that they were careful not just to chart each character’s lowest moment, but to ensure that each moment happened at different times. “Kate is fake-strong through most of the movie—fake strength, because she hasn’t coped fully with what has happened. There’s this moment after they are driving, looking for a restaurant to go to, and there aren’t even menus at the table so Bill has to leave. And there is this crowd in the restaurant and there’s nothing to distract her, it’s just her alone. So, she has her breakdown moment, but it’s not the same time that Bill has his moment, which happens later! I think, structurally, it helped to look at it that way.”
A roller coaster of a week culminates in a major confrontation in a motel room. “We knew that was a big scene,” Armbruster remembers, “and we wrote it over the course of a couple days. We were almost like those two people in the room acting it out.”
The story eventually winds up in a certain hopeful place but not—just as Ku and Armbruster anticipated all along—attached with tidy explanations. “We didn’t want to come to a place of reason,” Ku says. “The question that everyone asked is ‘why.’ And we had to pose that question but we wanted to not answer it.” The writers’ conviction was that the speculative “why” in Bill and Kate’s minds is far more important, and interesting, than any conclusive “why” in Sam’s.
“I think it’s natural,” says Ku, “especially for parents, to assume that they are responsible for whatever choice a child makes. [Bill and Kate] are both dealing with that assumed guilt as best they can, be it denial or facing it or circumventing it, at their own time.
“But they both come to a place where they find a moment that they feel like they went wrong. Kate hangs on to the memory of a Christmas party where she forces her son to sing a song: ‘Ohmigod, that’s where I damaged him.’ And similarly for Bill, he hangs on to this idea that he wasn’t there enough. Instead of helping his son when his son called for help, he hung up the phone. So they both feel responsible. Not that we’re saying they’re responsible.
“I personally think,” Ku adds, “that the parents are not the ones who did it, and so they’re not to be held to the same [standard] that we would hold to the perpetrator. However, in our search for why, and how much it has to do with upbringing, you can’t help but look at the parents to search for answers.”
Both Ku and Armbruster seem energized by the chance to work the kind of ground previously trod by the likes of John Cassavetes or, more recently, by Derek Cianfrance in Blue Valentine. Says Ku, “For me, at least, the types of projects that I was being given the opportunity to explore didn’t necessarily bring up something as complicated as this [story]. They tended to be sort of younger, lighter fare and there is only a certain level of complexity that you can put into a movie that is made for a younger viewer.”
Armbruster notes that emotionality is hardly absent from big-studio work. “I know that for a couple of jobs I did, it was because of the emotion that [the studios] had found in another script that I actually got the job, and so they were looking for that sort of thing, which is nice. But the frustration comes in because it’s a certain type of story, with a certain marketing campaign pre-thought out, and a certain type of target market that they’re looking at. So to do a Beautiful Boy is a lot harder, to really focus on that emotional depth and plumb that territory.”
Ku couldn’t agree more. “Nothing against Hollywood films; we all love those big movies. But sometimes they want things to be wrapped up in a nice sort of bow at the end. We all want a happy ending. We all crave a happy ending. But life is not always that cut and dried. Things don’t always end ‘Ta-da, it’s over; everyone lives happily ever after.’”
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