PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival is famous for discovering fresh talent: Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Carey Mulligan among them. But one of the writer-directors most likely to make waves at this year’s festival hardly fits the mold. He’s 65-year-old Ben Lewin, a TV veteran whose last narrative film credit came 18 years ago.
Lewin’s “The Surrogate,” which premiered Monday, is an affecting drama about a middle-aged disabled man who wants to lose his virginity, and anyone who sees it would scarcely guess that its author is of a certain age. The movie is filled with sharp wit, full-frontal nudity and frank conversations about sex. “As a director, you don’t need to have youth on your side,” said Lewin, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif.
“The Surrogate” is based on the life of Mark O’Brien (played by “Winter’s Bone” star John Hawkes), who contracted polio as a child and was largely paralyzed.
A poet and journalist, O’Brien wrote about his disability — he breathed with the help of an iron lung and was transported in a gurney — with candor in the book “How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence.” O’Brien was featured in the 1996 documentary short “Breathing Lessons.”
Lewin, who himself had polio at age 6 and walks with crutches, didn’t set out to make a feature about O’Brien. Instead, he was surfing the Web “looking for tasteless material about sex and the disabled” for a sitcom idea he called “The Gimp.”
Lewin came across O’Brien’s 1990 story “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which described his losing his virginity at age 36. “I stumbled across this article, and it really affected me — enough to make me want to commit the next five years to it,” said Lewin, whose TV credits include “Touched by an Angel.”
O’Brien died in 1999, but Lewin was able to track down women who were close to him, including Cheryl Greene, a “sex surrogate” who teaches clients one-on-one how to have intercourse. “It was a real turning point,” Lewin said. “There was a question in my mind, ‘What’s the difference between what she does and what a hooker does?’ Part of the answer is, the sex surrogate keeps notes.”
As written by Lewin, O’Brien is an articulate and self-deprecating observer of his life. “I can be a bit time-consuming, but I’m worth the trouble,” he says early in the film. Determined not to die a virgin, he turns to a priest (William H. Macy) to discuss his options.
With the priest’s reluctant blessing, O’Brien contacts Greene (Helen Hunt). Hunt boldly pulls a full Fassbender, stripping naked as she tries to teach O’Brien how to make love and “stop acting like you’re going to your own execution.”
Stephen Nemeth, whose Rhino Films served as a “Surrogate” producer, suggested that Lewin submit the film to Sundance. “Ben has a great sense of humor about disability and himself,” he said. “The film could have been something very different but for his attitude and levity. And he’s a very hip guy — he’s exposed to everything in pop culture.”
Lewin seems unworried about his own job prospects going forward but is concerned about how “The Surrogate” might be received. “I think there are some audiences that aren’t going to relate to the movie,” he said. He rewrote an early “Surrogate” draft because he feared it was too explicit.
He said his own disability hasn’t hurt his career. “If you look at the types of directors out there,” he said, “I’m not as weird as most of them.”
Nemeth has high expectations for the film and its maker. “I think it’s a very important film for the disabled community and will change how we see the disabled and sexuality,” the producer said. And if Lewin is discovered in Park City, Nemeth added, “That will be the coolest thing that has ever happened to him or to Sundance.”