Alma Har’el first met Shia LaBeouf in 2011 in a pretty unconventional way — but after you see Honey Boy, you might say it was fate. After coming across her award-winning debut documentary, Bombay Beach — shot on a $600 camera using two small mics — by accident in a record store, he cold emailed her website to tell her how much he enjoyed her work.
“I checked a few times to make sure I wasn’t tripping but there he was in my inbox... Shia LaBeouf?” the Israeli director recently wrote in a filmmaker’s letter for Landmark Theatres.
After that brief double-take, she replied, and the two got dinner. “Within ten minutes it was clear we already knew each other in some ways,” Har’el adds in the letter. “What is it about growing up with an alcoholic parent (or any other dysfunctional situation) that makes you feel forever connected to those who shared a similar childhood?”
It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and one that ushered in one of 2019’s best films.
They kept in touch over the years, often working together. LaBeouf starred alongside dancer Denna Thomsen in a Har’el-directed short film for Sigur Rós, and produced her second feature documentary, 2016’s LoveTrue. And then, in 2017, LaBeouf found himself in court-ordered rehab after a series of altercations with the police.
During that time, he got in touch once more, periodically sending Har'el emails with pages that would eventually become the script for Honey Boy. The film is based on LaBeouf’s past as a child actor, and his abusive relationship with his father, Jeffrey LaBeouf, whom he paid to be his on-set guardian.
But this isn’t just a linear biopic about a difficult childhood. In an added twist, LaBeouf actually plays James Lort, the character based on his dad, while A Quiet Place breakout star Noah Jupe and Ben Is Back’s Lucas Hedges were cast as younger and older versions of Otis, the young actor based on LaBeouf himself. The result is a film that doubles as immersive therapy — it’s raw, brutal, and often violent.
Ahead of Honey Boy’s release, Refinery29 sat down with Har’el to talk about her unusual, and at times shocking film.
Refinery29: You were the one to first suggest that Shia play his father. Why was that important?
Alma Har’el: Cinema is very much entwined with taking risks towards breaking the medium, and breaking the genre. [Shia] playing his father took it from being just a biopic into an impossibly challenging exercise in empathy and performance. That experience of having an actor stepping into the room — a recreation of the room in which his trauma occurred— and getting a chance to not only step into the character that has caused the abuse and have empathy for it, but also see himself as a child. [That] was imperative to create the raw dynamics that are in this film.
Some of the scenes are literal recreations of Shia’s life and of the things he was working on at that time, like Even Stevens. Were there memories or moments that you initially wanted to include, but were too painful or too triggering?
What we showed was 5% of what happened. We could have gone into more painful or more violent times that happened to him in general. There were just so many traumatic events in his childhood. But what was important to us was to keep Noah very safe. We found a way to tell the story, and make it clear what the dynamic was, without fetishising the pain or shocking the audience. Really, the film is about a relationship between a father and son, and that generational pain.
To me, as a child of an alcoholic who had a different story, it was definitely bringing so many of my own memories, and I think that wouldn't have happened if we were clinging to just illustrating only the pain. Because really, what makes these relationships confusing is that they are actually so loving too. And then certain people, their wires get crossed at a very young age. What they know of love is wired with pain, or fear. That’s something that you have to untangle for the rest of your life.
What went into casting Noah as Otis? Were you looking for a specific type of child actor?
Shia was involved in the casting because we had to find chemistry; somebody capable of bouncing back and forth and improvising. There's a lot of improv in the film. When Noah and Shia read together it was just like game over. We knew we had a film. And Noah was able to bring everything he knows about child acting, and also tap into all the things he didn't grow up with, and have immense empathy and intelligence about what was happening.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility to protect Noah from some of the negative consequences?
I really wanted to make sure that in 10 to 15 years, we're not going to be working on a movie with Noah about how he was affected by filming Honey Boy. We had a really safe process. His mom was with us on the set every day, and was a very good partner to me in making sure that Noah, at all times, felt comfortable and safe. And he and Shia spent two months together, almost every day, playing cards together, and rehearsing, and going to baseball games, and hanging out. It really kind of built so much trust between them. I was very moved afterwards, when we went to festivals, to see how strong the relationship is between everybody on the cast because of how we filmed it. It's like a family.
"We found a way to tell the story, and make it clear what the dynamic was, without fetishizing the pain or shocking the audience"
Speaking of family, Natasha Lyonne makes a small but powerful cameo voicing Otis’ mom on a phone call. How did she end up participating?
Natasha can turn any role, even the smallest, into something that you remember. We really didn't want to have just a voice on the phone, and she was very generous with us. Because she's a child actor herself, and she connected to the script very much.
You see her actually for a minute, when she's driving Lucas Hedges to rehab, she's in the car with him. There was a minute where there was more to this part. Initially, the script was told in a linear way, and then we re-edited it, and went back and forth, and actually opened with Lucas. So, we had to drop some of it. The way Shia wanted to explore this and write it, was about the lack of [a] mother. Shia's mother is the most important person in his life. This is about the period in his life where he got traumatised from not having a mother, and being under the masculine influence.
The movie deals with the concept of toxic masculinity through the prism of the female gaze. Is that something you specifically thought about when you decided to direct?
We live in a society that has been brainwashed for decades by a single white male gaze. That has [shaped] most of the stories we have been watching about each other. But if we want to also heal and progress, we have to understand how did these men get created. How did they get these notions of what masculinity is? How did they come to feel like it's okay to overwrite all these women, [or] to not have empathy for people around you? Little boys are not born toxic. They're born free and they're born capable of love and compassion, and they learn these constructs from society and from culture.
If men could see themselves through the eyes of women, and not only the eyes of other men, you could break through the perpetuation of all these ideas that are dominating our men, and liberate them. Because gender is performance. And this film deals a lot with the performance of self, and the performance of gender, which is how masculinity is inherited and indoctrinated.
I read somewhere that you said you often cried behind the monitor on-set, and wanted people to feel comfortable emoting.
On a set like ours, it was important to know that you can be vulnerable and a boss. There are sets where that’s not the case. Somebody once told me: ‘Never do that because the director has to be a leader, and you have to think about it like an army.’ I have never gone to the army. I got released from the army in Israel, on the grounds of not being fit to take orders. I hate the structures of army, and the dynamics. And I don't think that what is good for war is good for art. So, it's true that you have to have soldiers of cinema, but they need to be capable of vulnerability and compassion at any point. We're not trying to kill anything. We're trying to bring something to life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.