When Alma Har’el set out to direct November’s Honey Boy, she knew the stakes for star Shia LaBeouf were dangerously high. LaBeouf had written the autobiographical script during a court-mandated stint in rehab following a drunken altercation with police in 2017—one of several such reputation-tarnishing incidents over the last decade. “[Shia] was scared he might never work again,” says the Israeli American director. “There was a lot on the line: his mental health, his sobriety, his relationship with his father, and his career.”

Honey Boy depicts the disturbing chapter of LaBeouf’s adolescence that contributed to his recent PTSD diagnosis: From 2000 to 2003, while starring in the Disney Channel hit Even Stevens, he lived in a motel with his abusive father, Jeffrey. But in a bold twist to biopic canon, LaBeouf, 33, revisits history by portraying the character inspired by his dad, James, while his own avatar, Otis, is played first by Noah Jupe, then Lucas Hedges. “It was kind of incredible to see that Shia [identified more] with his father than with his own character,” Har’el says. “He refused to come to set anytime he wasn’t in a scene; he didn’t want to control how we portrayed him. It would have been a vanity project if he did.”

Har’el, 42, is grabbing a quick lunch at the Hollywood coworking space that serves as the headquarters of Free the Work, a global talent-discovery service she founded to spotlight underrepresented creators. “We’ve got to put the same urgency and technology into discovering talent that we do into finding a new restaurant or song,” she says.

Sipping an iced matcha tea, her red curls shrouding a denim jumpsuit, Har’el explains how Amoeba Music’s filing system brought her and LaBeouf together eight years ago. The actor was browsing the L.A. store for a Bob Dylan DVD when he came across a copy of her 2011 debut documentary, Bombay Beach (Dylan’s music is featured on the soundtrack). LaBeouf was so captivated by the film—an unorthodox blend of narrative nonfiction and choreographed interludes that won best documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival—that he watched it twice in one night and then reached out via her website.

Har’el directs Labeouf on the set of Honey Boy.

Monica Lek/Amazon Studios

Over dinner, they discovered an uncanny connection: “We are both children of alcoholic clowns,” jokes Har’el, who was born in Tel Aviv, the daughter of struggling Polish immigrants. Jeffrey LaBeouf was trained in commedia dell’arte, whereas Har’el says her father was merely “extremely funny and irresponsible.” During her parents’ periodic separations, her dad would take her to movies like Enter the Dragon and The Princess Bride, which served as her only formal film education. “When you have a certain childhood, movies help you deal with reality,” she says.

When Har’el’s sophomore doc, LoveTrue, failed to secure funding, LaBeouf sent her a check. The pair also worked on a NSFW video for Sigur Rós’s “Fjögur Píanó.” Har’el gifted Hedges a framed handkerchief from that shoot, stained with LaBeouf’s blood, to help him prepare for Honey Boy. “There was no shortage of inspiration on this movie,” Hedges says. “If we suffered from anything, it may have been that we were obsessing too much.”

LaBeouf trusted Har’el to help tell his story because “her films feel like gestalt therapy,” he wrote via email, referring to a psychotherapeutic approach involving role-play. “Shia came out of rehab in the rawest place of his life,” she says. “It was sometimes scary to come to set, knowing he was going to deal with pain.” Hoping to infuse the film with some levity, Har’el had Hedges imitate LaBeouf’s meme-generating habit of yelling “No, no, no!” in various blockbusters, while Jupe re-enacted his Disney days. “Oh my God, we watched so many Even Stevens episodes,” says Har’el, laughing.

She pulls up a Twitter thread of fans matching scenes from Honey Boy’s trailer with clips from the series. “Shia has tremendous, undeniable comedic abilities,” she adds. “At a certain point, some of the humor got left behind, but I saw a chance to bring all his strengths together. I would say, ‘This is going to be your best performance, because you’ve been preparing for it your whole life.’ ”

This article appears in the December 2019 issue of ELLE.

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