Ben Lewin’s ‘The Surrogate’ wins at Sundance, and beyond

Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” has taken two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival:  The Audience Award and the special jury prize for ensemble acting in the competition of United States dramatic films.

The awards – and the sale of the film for $6 million to Fox Searchlight – are remarkable not only because “The Surrogate” is the first movie that Lewin has made in more than a decade.  Sundance is renowned as a launching pad for young directors, but Lewin is 65 and had earned a living selling high-end watches since his TV directing work (“Ally McBeal,” “Touched by an Angel”) dried up some years ago.  After making films in England, France and Australia, the Melbourne-born filmmaker wondered if he still had a chance in showbusiness. 

He risked everything to make “The Surrogate,” the story of a quadriplegic polio survivor (John Hawkes) who hires a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity in his 30s.  Lewin had his mortgage, and the challanges of supporting his young family, including three children aged 12 to 26.  When I interviewed him before the festival, at his modest cottage in Santa Monica, he was only cautiously optimistic about being accepted in dramatic competition at Sundance.  “I wouldn’t crow about it,” Lewin, himself a polio survivor who walks on crutches, said at the time.  “But it is kind of personally gratifying to know one can pick oneself back up again, and it’s not easy in the film business; actors, particularly go through this ordeal.  And I suppose it comes at a good time.  I was thinking, ‘My God, I still have young kids.’  But one of the elements that really motivated me was desperation; film is the only thing I know how to do well.  So there is some inner satisfaction in learning that you can reinvent yourself.”

Now with his Sundance awards and buzz that the film is Oscar-worthy, Lewin is looking forward to further projects.  He told me he could see reviving plans for an irreverent sitcom called “The Gimp,” about a man who trades the use of his handicapped-parking placard for sex.  “There are only two subjects,” sex and death,” he quipped. 

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Lewin has optioned the rights for a book, “Happiness through Superficiality,” and has a thriller called “Bridge of Sighs” which combines both sex and death: “It’s a story about capital punishment and the redemption of the executioner – a psycho-thriller.”

“The Sundance experience has been phenomenal,” Lewin told The Herald.  “I’d never have expected all that. It’s about as warm and fuzzy as it can be. But I’m not about to get caught up with any buzz.”  He added: “For many years I got sick of writing, so I’m glad I can say that I’m a competent filmmaker and a competent parent. I’m having fun at the moment, standing up for grey power. There’s nothing like having some sort of rebirth, at my age.’‘