Beautiful Boy - Michael Sheen and Maria Bello
Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) and Kate Carroll (Maria Bello) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment / Justina Mintz

Writer/director Shawn Ku was signed to direct at Warner Brothers while still a student at USC Film School, and was later nominated for a Directors Guild Award for his work as director and co-choreographer of The American Mall, and MTV musical movie.

As a performer he’s appeared on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning shows Fosse, Miss Saigon and The King and I.

Beautiful Boy marks Ku’s first full-length movie. It tells the tragic story of Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen), the parents of a teenage high school student who buys a gun and massacres both teachers and students alike. All they have left is each other and their shared grief and confusion.

Did you talk to any parents of any children or did you write this out of pure intuition?

Beautiful Boy - Director Shawn Ku and Michael Sheen
Director Shawn Ku and Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment / Justina Mintz

[Screenwriter] Michael Armbruster and I didn’t want it to be about a specific incident that’s already happened. We looked at a lot of them, and a lot of the research was to make it as realistic as possible, in terms of how these things are investigated, what happens in the immediate aftermath and how it’s reported on the news.

It really was our intent to put ourselves in their shoes when we were writing it and to hopefully have that come across to the actors and then ultimately to the audience.

In terms of the event, my parent went to school at Virginia Tech. They met there, they got married, they had my sister there, and it was a very difficult experience when the shooting happened, because we’re Asian and the shooter was Asian, and we felt this odd connection to it in some way.

Have you heard any criticism from parents of victims of one of these school shootings?

We actually haven’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite. This woman came up to me after a screening and she said, ‘To a certain extent I always blamed the parents, after seeing your film I realized that that was completely unfair of me to do.’ So it’s been really positive.

How did you get Maria Bello onboard?

My first meeting with Maria, I was convinced I would have to go in and hard sell myself and convince her why she should do this movie with me. And I sat down and she said, ‘So when are we going to start shooting?’ She was sold by the time she finished the script.

What about casting Michael Sheen?

Michael Sheen had quickly captured my attention in The Queen and Frost/Nixon. It was clear to me that he was a brilliant actor who could do anything. Initially my collaborators were concerned that he might not be able to do an American accent.

I never once brought up the subject to Michael. It wasn’t until he showed up on the first day of the production, speaking like an American, that I knew where Bill was from.

One of the interesting characters in the film that epitomizes both sides of the public’s reaction is the motel clerk, who feels rage and than empathy for the couple. How did you go about casting Meat Loaf for the part?

Beautiful Boy - Maria Bello and Meat Loaf Aday
Kate Carroll (Maria Bello) and Motel Clerk (Meat Loaf Aday) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment / Justina Mintz

Meat Loaf’s people approached us. I was floored by that because I remember seeing him in Fight Club and thinking, ‘This guy is a genius.’ He’s Meat Loaf, it was really hard to think of anybody else after that.

We definitely wanted that glimmer of hope for these people that they are not in it alone, that if you open up to someone, even a total stranger, he will be open to you. They’ve shut themselves down they’re so afraid of being persecuted in some way, and he’s sort of the glimmer of hope in society.

One of the choices you made was to have the camera very close on Michael and Maria, in some cases uncomfortably close. Can you talk about that choice?

We definitely wanted to feel apart of their lives. We made the choice very early to have a documentary style, because right now that’s sort of our language and what real is. But in terms of proximity, the cinematographer and I talked a lot about it.

We definitely wanted a feeling of being there with them; we wanted to give the camera a personality so that it would convey emotion to the audience.

Visually, I wanted the film to feel very real and ordinary – not overly calculated and posed. It wanted that feeling of being an innocent bystander caught in the middle of an unexpected argument.

Was there ever a scene where you find out what the boy’s motivation is for his act?

Beautiful Boy - Michael Sheen and Maria Bello
Sam Carroll (Kyle Gallner) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment / Justina Mintz

Quite consciously we decided we weren’t going to understand it, because that’s where the parents are coming from. It just felt trite for us to say, ‘This is the reason I did it,’ because it’s so much more complex. Everybody is bullied, and everybody feels these moments when they don’t belong, but not everybody goes in and buys a gun and takes people out.

So there’s much more to it than, ‘I hate you, I’m going to kill you.’ And the story, in a sense, has nothing to do with it.

We see other emotions in Hollywood movies, but not grief being played out in such a realistic way. What was the difficulty taking on this subject?

It was definitely a concern for us, because you assume people want to go to movies to be uplifted in some way. In the back of our minds we wanted to uplift but, to a certain extent, this was the story that we came upon and we have to appreciate it for what it is and hope that other people can too.

After one of our screenings in Toronto, this woman came up to me and said, ’Thank you so much, I finally feel like someone has understood me.’ I got the feeling that her child had done something horrific, and she never felt like anybody could understand her. I feel like we gave her some catharsis, and that was great. That felt fantastic.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.