‘The Surrogate’ sells at Sundance — for $6 million!

When I spoke to filmmaker Ben Lewin of “The Surrogate” recently, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” and more than a bit cynical about his film’s chances at the Sundance Film Festival, but turns out he need not have worried.  His fact-based movie—about a paralyzed 36-year-old who hires a sexual surrogate to lose his virginity—sold to Fox Searchlight for an estimated $6 million, Variety said—one of the largest sales if not the largest so far at the festival. The movie, which reportedly cost an estimated $1.3 million, sparked offers shortly following its well-received premiere on Monday afternoon, according to The Hollywood Reporter

The drama revolves around Mark O’Brien (played in the film by John Hawkes), a poet and journalist who has lived in an iron lung since contracting polio at age six.  Helen Hunt portrays the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who teaches him about his sexuality, while William H. Macy is the priest who counsels O’Brien.

Fox Searchlight is the same distributor that bought Steve McQueen’s NC-17-rated “Shame,” a searing drama about sex addiction that, alas, did not receive a best picture nod when the Oscar nominations were announced this morning.  Like “Shame,” “The Surrogate” features plenty of full frontal nudity, this time by Hunt as she conducts each of four sessions with O’Brien.

During an interview at Lewin’s Santa Monica home, I asked the filmmaker if he felt validated since “The Surrogate” had been accepted in dramatic competition at Sundance.  (Lewin is 65 and has not worked much in Hollywood for the past 15 years; rather he has been selling high-end watches to help support his family, which includes three children aged 12 to 26.) 

The Australian-born Lewin – who in the 1990s directed episodes of “Ally McBeal” and “Touched by an Angel”—replied to my question in a roundabout manner, stating that some of his friends had been disturbed to learn that he was risking so much on an independent film. “They had really sincere personal concerns about whether I was crazy,” he said.  “Here was someone with a young family, with financial responsibilities, and I was going off and making a film; it was like I was following the classic Hollywood lie, and they were seriously concerned that this was going to come to no good.”

Were Lewin’s friends worried that he would lose his home?  “Yes, all of that,” he said, as his wife, Judi, one of the film’s producers, nodded from the other side of the dining room table. “So I think they were probably happier about the whole Sundance thing than me…I see the dark side of everything.”

“How do you know I’m cynical?” he continued.  “ One day the phone was not ringing, and the next day [after the film was accepted to Sundance] everyone wants to be my friend.  Am I supposed to take that seriously?”

Lewin came across O’Brien’s story while he was surfing the Web, researching an irreverent sitcom he hoped to create called “The Gimp,” about a man who trades his handicapped parking placard for sex.  I mention that a number of Lewin’s past projects (such as his film “Paperback Romance”) involve, well, sex.  “Yes, there’s only two subjects, sex and death,” he said.  “And I guess one way or another if you’re not doing action movies, about people killing themselves, then you’re doing movies about people fornicating and getting together.  So I definitely fall into the relationship movies sort of thing.”

With early “Surrogate” reviews suggesting an awards-worthy performance from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” star John Hawkes, we hope to see Lewin at the Oscars next year.