Helen Hunt on Her Directorial Debut
(from brinkzine.com 4/23/08)
I'm in a crowded descending hotel elevator talking to a fellow critic. We just had done double duty, interviewing talent from two different films, one "Then She Found Me," starring and directed by Helen Hunt. But we're talking about the other film, which, as we say, "was pretty good but had a disappointing ending." Suddenly, the slender blond standing behind us in the corner says with a panicky voice as her knees buckle, "You don't mean my film, do you???" "No, no, no, no, no, Helen, we're talking about another film." She nearly doubles over in relief, the color returns to her face as she inhales the oxygen she needs, and she smiles confidently as she exits the elevator. I like how much she cares about her directorial debut, her witty-dramatic adaptation of Elinor Lipman's novel about an adopted 39-year-old Jewish woman, April, who is courted by her flamboyant birth mother, costarring Bette Midler, Colin Firth (as her love interest) and Mathew Broderick (as her juvenile ex-husband). But I knew that already from having been present at the following roundtable discussion with the Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress whom I fondly remember as a kid starring in the TV-Movie, "Quarterback Princess." I note my questions.
Q: Having now directed "Then She Found Me," what advice would you give to other first-time directors?
Helen Hunt: The advice I would give is the advice I was given. There was one time when I thought had a relatively large amount of money to make this movie, and then it fell apart. We were all at a very low point, believing it was a foolish exercise to still try to get it made. Like how many version of NO can you hear? And I said to the man who ran the foreign sales company that was the first on board, "What am I missing? Who gets their movie made?" And he said, "There is no magic formula. The people who get their movies made are the ones who don't give up."
Q: You never gave up on this film. The genesis of this movie goes back decades…
HH (laughing): Only one decade. It's going to be as big as the Bible when it's all done, it's taken so long. I read the novel nearly ten years ago. It's beautifully written and much different from the movie. The mother-daughter story is there, but Frank and Ben, the men played by Colin and Mathew, aren't there, and April doesn't wish for a baby. I tried first to get it made as an actress and the adaptation was going to be very faithful to the novel. I'll skip the boring part where I rewrote it a little bit and then put it away for a while and acted in a lot of movies. But it stayed with me. It was the one thing on my desk that kept blinking at me. And very slowly, piece by piece, it came to me—maybe what was missing was what the protagonist wants. Stories are better when the main characters desperately want something. I wanted a baby at the time and that just seemed conspicuously right in the mother-daughter story.
Danny Peary: Your film has three storylines: adopted daughter with birth mother; adopted daughter with her ex-husband and new lover; and adopted daughter wanting to give birth rather than adopt. What do you think links these stories?
HH: What the movie is really about underneath is betrayal. I had read an essay about betrayal and I thought of all the things that are interesting here—motherhood, adoption, family—betrayal is what moved me the most. Ben and Frank were born out a desire to tell that story. One betrays her, she betrays the other. That theme is in all kinds of secret places in the movie.
DP: You have a line April says to Frank: "You might change on me," which I think is key to what you're talking about in regard to betrayal. Why is that theme so important to you?
HH: That's a good question. I think it's because in my life I have felt, "I can handle it, just tell me." Well, we don't get a cheat sheet about what's going to happen, even later today. I think the reason I chose to tell it in this way is that my life is hilarious and it is really upsetting—sometimes four times a day each, you know what I mean? It happens really quickly. So I wanted the form of the movie to be a betrayal in a way. Hey, it's a comedy, except the baby has no heartbeat; it's a comedy, except Frank just said something about your children you never say…I wanted to use the betrayal form to tell the story. Plus I like funny movies, so I was hoping to make a funny movie.
Q: What was it like to juggle romance, drama, and comedy?
HH: Of all the things I was nervous about, that wasn't one of them. People who passed on making the movie said, "We can't tell if it's a comedy or drama." (The other thing they said was, "We wouldn't know how to sell it because though it has famous people in it, it is a small, independent movie.") I had no trouble in my head with the tone changes. My favorite movies disarm me by being funny and hit me over the head by being honest. I knew the tone would work. I also knew that this movie seemed like two different movies—one with the men, and the other with the women. Still I knew there was this betrayal thing at the center of it and all of it would speak to that. I didn’t know if it would be good; I didn't know that 1,500 people would laugh in Toronto, but I knew it was one movie.
Q: Did you know Bette Midler before offering her the role of your long-lost birth mother?
HH: I didn't know her or Colin. I needed someone funny, so it wasn't so hard to think of her; and there's a lot of dialogue so I needed someone with a good ear—and she's got the best ear in the business. And her agent suggested that I look at "The Rose" again. I saw it when it came out, but when I watched it again I realized that her being so good wasn't an accident or lightning in a bottle that her director captured. This was one of the great female performances on screen. And that film had a raw, independent quality, which made an impression on me.
Q: Colin said that he shot his scenes quickly because he had another movie already scheduled when he agreed to do your movie.
HH: One of the reasons the movie happened so quickly is because of Colin. He said, "I have three weeks." And I said, "All right, I will figure out a way to shoot your scenes in three weeks." We had everything in place by the time we went to him.
DP: Did it matter that his character was English?
HH: No. But I thought it was helpful for me to use the fact that he left his home and came to America, only to be left by his wife. It would be even more devastating to not be home when you have two kids and are abandoned. He's a man who is devoting his whole life to never having to feel hurt again.
DP: When people pick out "Helen Hunt moments" in the script, they might say one is the scene April and Frank are lying on the couch and she says to him, "You're looking at me." A male might cut that out of the script, but was it important to you?
HH: It was. It was a way of implying that she hadn't been seen in that way before, the way he sees her. It was important that they fall very much in love so they can be in so very much pain when it falls apart. So that's an important moment.
Q: As an actress you worked in big-budget movies, but now as a director did you feel limited by the amount of money and time for you to do what you wanted?
HH: This sounds like something people just say but it is really true: This movie would not have been as good—let's assume that it's good—if I would have had a ton of money to make it. Something would have gotten messed up. Some of the ideas that I had wouldn't have come about because I would have had the money to buy things to solve problems. For instance, Colin talks about his wife, who was a painter, before, he says, she went off with her boyfriend to paint the world. I wanted there to be paintings in the house, on the kids' walls, that made an impression. I couldn't hire someone to do the paintings, as has happened on movies I've been in. I got the idea of using the work of a friend, who is a wonderful painter. There were a hundred similar choices I made every day that were interesting and specific, and that happened only because I couldn't afford to buy things.
Q: What did you learn about directing while acting for various directors?
HH: I learned what I want to be as a director, and what I don't want to be. The best directors I've worked for know the movies they want to make, are clearly the boss, and let everyone relax because they convey they know what they're doing. At the same time they are smart enough to take suggestions from an actor who now knows the part even better than they who wrote it, and to take suggestions from all members of the crew—because they can save you. I have worked with directors who have felt threatened by a camera operator making a suggestion that something can be done better. The movie I made before this was "Bobby," and the director Emilio Estevez, like his father, is the kindest, most gracious guy, and he was wrangling a cast with Anthony Hopkins, Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, and William H. Macy, and he hadn't enough money to make a period movie. Yet he did it always with more elegance and grace than I had. I remember sitting on my set and thinking how he did it, because he kind of set the bar.
Q: Do you feel you had much greater creative control than in films you've been in as an actress alone and was that very satisfying?
HH: Yeah. I had—and I'm almost scared to say it—total creative control, which is one of the benefits of having only ten cents to make a movie. There was nobody standing next to me saying, "You had better do it like this." The bad news was that I didn't have anybody to turn to; the good news was that I didn't have anybody to turn to. That put me back to relying on myself, and that was very satisfying. I would love it if someone would hand me some big, beautiful part so I could sit in my trailer and play with my daughter and come out when I was ready. I can barely remember what that's like, but it would be great. I also like making movies like this. I wrote another one that I'm going to work to get made. I really enjoy the process a great deal.
Q: What is that film?
HH: It's from an original idea. The tone is similar: It's dramatic and comedic at different moments. It's got mothering, but in a very different way. There's a seventeen-year-old boy who is the lead character. I know nothing about seventeen-year-old boys, so I'm hoping to meet one so I can a better job writing him.
Q: Who do you see as the target audience for this movie? The heavy ethnic-Jewish thing probably won't play well in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and there's a lot of competition out there right now.
HH: Uh, oh. I won't make money, but I want others to make money. I don't think this is an art house movie. There is an audience for grown-up movies that are a pleasure to watch. I hope it will come see my movie.