The story of how music video director and Honey Boy filmmaker Alma Har’el met Shia LaBeouf is one of happenstance upon happenstance. The actor, so it goes, was perusing the Bob Dylan section of Amoeba Records in L.A. in search of a documentary about the singer, and picked up a random DVD: Har’el’s debut feature, Bombay Beach. Har’el’s documentary about a deprived community at the Salton Sea has a tenuous link to Bob Dylan at best—there are several dance sequences set to his music—so for Bombay Beach to be categorized as such was nothing but a lucky mistake. LaBeouf watched the documentary twice that night, and immediately reached out to Har’el to see if they could work together. It’s the butterfly effect: an Amoeba Records employee could never have guessed that placing a DVD in the wrong section of the store would catalyze a lasting friendship between these two kindred spirits.
After collaborating with Har’el on a Sigur Rós music video and funding her second documentary, LoveTrue, LaBeouf’s next project with the director emerged from his time at court-ordered rehab, where he was asked to write out his childhood memories. He sent his journals to Har’el, who saw a story much like her own; despite having never made a narrative feature before, she insisted that she would be the person to make his story into a film—and so Honey Boy was born.
Honey Boy is much more than a memoir realized on screen; it’s an act of forgiveness on the part of a man at the mercy of his trauma, seeking to understand how he turned out the way he did. The troubled young actor, Otis (played by Noah Jupe at 12-years-old and Lucas Hedges at 22) is a thinly-veiled proxy for LaBeouf, who grew up on Hollywood sets and paid his alcoholic father (played by LaBeouf in the film) to be his chaperone. Honey Boy is unquestionably his story, and yet Har’el infuses it with the ethereal quality of her past documentaries to make it her own. Within the claustrophobia of motel rooms and childhood stardom, truth and fiction, reality and the imaginary bleed into one another to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of innocence ripped away by abuse. The film emulates her fantastical documentaries, but Har’el places authenticity and honesty above all. One of its most striking images comes late in the film—after another heated screaming match between father and son subsides, both instinctively reach for a cigarette and take a puff in silence, smoke filling what feels like miles of space between them.
It’s evident in Har’el’s voice, and the warmth with which she speaks of LaBeouf and her cast, that the film comes from a place of love as much as it comes from pain. During our conversation, she takes lengthy pauses before answering a question—sometimes in the middle of a sentence—as if she is carefully evaluating the impact and meaning of every word she says. If she loses her train of thought, she’ll apologize profusely. “It’s so hard to think,” she tells me at one point. For a filmmaker to be suddenly thrown into the daunting awards conversation after beginning in the world of micro-budget documentaries, it’s understandable that Har’el might be overwhelmed—but Honey Boy feels like it’s only just the beginning.
GQ: When you received that first script from Shia, what about it made you want to make this movie?
Alma Har’el: What made it made me want to do it was the combination of knowing the script and the fact that he didn't have a chance to tell this part of his story, and having that story be something that I have such a good grasp of and understand it so well. I feel like, being a child of an alcoholic myself and somebody that grew up with a lot of my own share of needing to find new tools to deal with pain and art, I really connected with it.
If I were handling a story this personal, I would feel like I was constantly walking on eggshells. Did you feel like you had built up enough trust with Shia to avoid that?
Yeah, I feel like there is a certain responsibility that comes with telling somebody else's story, and I've been very fortunate to have experience with that in my documentary. But I never had to do it in such a way, like I did in this film, and it was possible to do it, because there was a sense of trust between us after all the years that we’ve known each other and worked together.
It's really hard when you when you feel responsible for somebody else's story, but the thing that you have to remember when you do it is that there's also the film itself. You have to take solace in the work itself. And to bring to life, the character of Otis was actually something that helped me focus. Whatever felt threatening was really made easier by the idea that we're telling the story of Otis which is a fictional character.
You’ve said in past interviews that you made this film for the children of alcoholics. Did you feel a sense of responsibility in that as well?
Yeah. I really consider all of them [children of alcoholics] as my brothers and sisters. I think that all children that grew up in any house that had addiction or generational pain or trauma or something that has crossed their wires—from an early age, their ideas have been tangled with pain or sorrow or violence or lack of security or any of those things. They all usually have similar symptoms that they have to battle for their life. I think that it was a goal of mine to really make sure that I have finally helped the community to show those nuances.
You’ve worked with Shia on a number of projects over the years. How do you think your collaborative relationship has developed over the years?
The first project with Shia was when we first met—he reached out to me after I made my first documentary [Bombay Beach]—was the Sigur Rós music video, and that project was really something that informed a lot of our relationship because it was a dance piece and we filmed it over two days. I didn't really work with him as an actor until this film but he was also an executive producer on my second film [LoveTrue], and he's been a big supporter of a lot of projects that I've managed over the years, and it was really a privilege to start working on something like this with him for the first time as a scripted director. It had its own challenges because I was discovering for the first time in many ways how to resolve the kind of expectations of steps that are usually run in a certain way. I definitely wanted certain freedoms that would allow me to run in a way that also accommodated some things that I do that are more driven by improvisation, or documenting behavior that arises from improvisation. A lot of those things had to be handled very carefully because we're also making a safe space for Shia to make this performance of his father.
I read that you got your start VJing at concerts. How do you think that’s informed the rest of your work?
I got to see how the images I create or edit speak to people in real time. A lot of times as a filmmaker, you put something out there or you sit in the dark, and people are facing the screen and you don't necessarily see their faces or their reactions. They watch the work but you're not making it anymore, it's already done. When you do performance art, video or film, what you're doing is actually editing the piece in real time as a live performance, and you're seeing the faces of the people that are watching it whether they're watching it in the gallery or a club, you're seeing them reacting to it in real time and watching you—and that's been a very strong influence on what I do, and the way I would like for it to reach people and affect them.
Your films have this lyrical quality to them with this loosened grip on reality, but at the same time, they’re driven by empathy and have incredible intimacy and authenticity. Do you find yourself trying to strike a balance or does that come naturally to you?
No, I definitely try to strike a balance, both in art and in life. I think that it's becoming harder and harder in real life, more than it is on screen in a way. I think my natural inclination in life is to balance those two ends. I think that there's a part of life that very much lives in all of us which is the part that dreams and doesn't speak a practical language between archetypes and movement. And then there's a part of us that is alive in all of us that seeks love and approval and recognition and support and safety. And I think that those are things that I have been always trying to balance in my life and on screen.
I think you make these distinctly American films, as well, about people trying to achieve the American Dream but life and circumstances get in the way and make it difficult for them to do that.
I guess I see it a little differently. I'm an immigrant, I'm from Israel. I definitely grew up in a country that has been affected by the American Dream, a country that has always been in conflict, a country that politically is entwined with the Palestinian people and has not figured out a way to really give Palestine its place. And I think that America has been, on one hand, making it possible for Israel to exist and sustain itself, but at the same time, has also affected the dream of peace in many ways because it has created an unbalanced situation in the Middle East—in many countries, not just in Israel. So, the American Dream has also been a nightmare for many around the world. And I think inside of America too there are many people that live at the edges of society, and perhaps their lives are somewhat proof of the complexity of the idea that there is an American Dream.
My first documentary, Bombay Beach, was filmed in the poorest county in California, and it was promoted and sold as the new vacation destination, and now it's consumed by meth addicts and lack of education and health care to the people who live there. And I think telling those stories as an immigrant and showing the good people that live in this country that have fallen into the traps of the American Dream and couldn't sustain the demands of the capitalist expectations of them—while actually being myself, an immigrant that has found a career here and found loves and found friendships and found safety—that conflict that I live is something that I deal with all the time because I myself am enjoying parts of the American dream and also seeing the pain that it can cause.
What was the Honey Boy casting process like? I thought Noah was brilliant.
I think Noah is a revelation. Everybody that sees this film can't miss the performances that he's given. I'm honored to see him grow, too, because he started making this film, I think, 12 going on 13, and now we're doing all these festivals a year later, and he's blown up. And he's just a teenager. So just seeing how much he grew, and how much he has given to this film and, at the same time, how much he is capable of as an actor and as a young man in terms of his perception of the complexity of what we're doing has been really mind blowing.
I thought Lucas was incredible as well. I feel like he emanates Shia without doing an impression of him. Was that something you were consciously trying to achieve?
Yeah, Lucas and Noah are both so ethereal. Especially the way they connected with each other is so moving and the fact that they have connected with Shia in such a deep way and were capable of borrowing a lot of his behaviours. Lucas managed to tap into a lot of the things that he's been doing and his mannerisms, but not do an impression on him and actually focus on understanding him and what it is that drives him and how he has become the person he is today and what causes PTSD and all of those things. It felt like a miracle when I met Lucas for the first time because I was so torn on the casting process and found it so difficult to find somebody that can play Shia while Shia is in the film. And when Lucas came, it kind of presented an opportunity to do something that I maybe couldn't have even envisioned before I met him. He had a real spiritual way of approaching this project and not making it literal, but at the same time, relying on a lot of truths—and just like you said before, in the same way that I have to balance between the dreamy and abstract and the real and intimate, I think Lucas has done the same thing with his performance.
You posted a video of Lucas singing Lana Del Rey on set. For such a heavy film, it seemed like a really fun set to be on.
Yeah, Lucas had a really fun way of working on this role, and his way into things is very different from any other actors that I know. I think that a lot of actors—and obviously Shia does—use pain or use a lot of their own trauma in order to tap into certain roles and certain moments. Lucas uses his imagination and music—just the way he can train himself and get himself lost and guide the character—it was so much fun diving into it from that perspective and just seeing the way he gets to the place you need to go to. It's completely different from anything I've ever seen.
The opening shot of the film really struck me. Would you be able to walk me through how that scene came together?
I love telling stories and showing who somebody is without having a lot of exposition, and finding creative visual ways to make a statement and capture who somebody is in one shot. It's something that I wanted to try and do with this film when Shia sent me the script. I suggested that we do a take on one of those films because I felt they really represented the way that he was always puppeteered in a way on these big films and how much he wasn't treated as a human, but as one of the props—not props but just, like, one of the... I don't know. These films are so big, and for somebody that grows up from a young age on these sets, you participate in them as a bit of a marionette. I just wanted to really make sure that we captured that in a visual way instead of saying it. I love watching all of these YouTube clips of Shia every time he says "no, no, no, no" on a Transformers movie. And I wanted to really show the mayhem of those sets, and how big they are but also how much you are in service to them when you do it and how much you are tied to this operation that is bigger than you. And the size of it, it's kind of hard to grasp.
We didn't have a big budget and obviously had to find an economical way to make that statement. I wanted to make sure that both the shots of [Otis] and the shots of him exploding were telling that story together. So, we ended up really prepping the shots and doing a lot of rehearsals, and experimenting with each one of the explosions separately, and studying all the visual effects that are possible. And after putting together something that was very choreographed, we just did it once and that's what you see in the beginning of the film.
I was looking at the credits and I saw that you had four chicken wranglers in the crew. Are chickens the most temperamental actors to work with?
[Laughs.] No, actually I have to say that Henrietta, as we like to call her, is an extraordinary star. We just wanted to be safe and make sure that no chickens were hurt and that none of them were overworked so we had a lot of backups, but she actually always killed it in, like, two or three takes, so we ended up only using mostly one chicken. Yeah, I learned a lot about working with chickens and definitely I could say that some of them are born for the screen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
We tracked down the source of confusion for cell phone users everywhere.
On the Uncle Fester of Savile Row and the right’s sartorial choices.
Originally Appeared on GQ