In 2005, acclaimed journalist David Sheff wrote My Addicted Son for the New York Times Magazine.
it is a painfully frank and unforgettable first-hand account of his son Nic’s battle with addiction to drugs, including methamphetamine, and David’s efforts to save his family, which included second wife Karen and their two much younger children, during an almost decade-long ordeal.
Two years later, producer Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B Entertainment learned Sheff had written a book about Nic’s 10-year struggle called Beautiful Boy and his son had chronicled those years in his own memoir, Tweak.
Released simultaneously, the two books created an emotional, multilayered portrait of a family in crisis.
When Kleiner shared the books with his partners at Plan B, producers Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, he proposed an unusual scenario.
Each book was moving and important on its own, but the combination was far more than the sum of its parts. Could they make a film that combined both narratives into a cohesive story?
“We were blown away by both texts,” says Gardner. “And we believed taking two perspectives of the same series of events and putting them together in a movie would be even more compelling than they were on their own.”
To create a blended narrative, the producers knew they would need an unconventional writer and a director who could help them shape the story in a way that shared both Nic’s and David’s points of view. “We realised the movie was going to be unique. It had to be painful and inspiring and ultimately optimistic.”
Kleiner and Gardner had seen a Flemish-language film directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen and were intrigued by his filmmaking style. “When we saw The Broken Circle Breakdown, I was completely transported into a world that felt the way Beautiful Boy is meant to feel,” says Kleiner.
“Our film is an epic story, but it is also extraordinarily intimate. It sees the beauty in life and the difficulties in life as inseparable and part of the whole experience of being human.”
Gardner says The Broken Circle Breakdown pulls the viewer into a deeply tragic story and says: “I know it’s uncomfortable but I’m going to take you through it. That is what we were looking for.”
Van Groeningen had made five features films in Flemish, including Belgica, which won the best director prize in the World Cinema Dramatic category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and The Misfortunates, which was selected as the official Belgian entry for the 2010 best foreign language film Oscar.
By the time The Broken Circle Breakdown, a poignant family drama set to bluegrass music, was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best foreign language film, he had become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
Not surprisingly, Van Groeningen was inundated with requests to helm his first English-language feature. He was painstaking in finding the right project for his first foray into Hollywood.
“I read some scripts that were very good, but I always asked myself why I would be the best director for each project,” he recalls. “It was difficult to find material I felt close to – until Beautiful Boy.”
The Sheffs’ comfortable coastal existence was geographically and culturally far from the filmmaker’s own upbringing, but the love between them was something he could relate to. “They are a beautiful family. Each of them genuinely wants to be there for the others.”
Something else that made the books unique, says Van Groeningen, was the way in which they each depicted the unbreakable connection between Nic and his dad. “On top of that, it’s not one person’s story,” he continues. “Nic and David are equally present throughout.”
The film opens in SA today.