January 2003 was a really good month for screenwriter Peter Hedges as he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of About A Boy around the same time that his directorial debut Pieces of April, starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, was receiving acclaim at its Sundance Film Festival premiere.
It’s been over four years since then, but Hedges’ second movie Dan in Real Life is coming out next week and it’s sure to appeal to anyone who liked either of those movies, both which showcased Hedges’ ability to look at real life in a light and funny yet credible way, something that we don’t really see in Hollywood movies too often these days.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Hedges about this very different take on the romantic comedy genre–if it even can be considered that–that follows Steve Carell’s title character, an advice columnist and the single father of three daughters, who spends a week on the shore with his extended family, including his boisterous younger brother Mitch, played by Dane Cook. During a run to the store, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), a vivaciously beautiful woman who he connects with, only to learn that she’s Mitch’s new girlfriend. What might play out like an awkward situation comedy, actually deals with a lot of real life issues that anyone can relate to, like fatherhood, family, being alone and finding love.
ComingSoon.net: Great to talk to you, Peter. I really loved this movie and it was so much better than anything I expected after seeing the trailer and commercials.
Peter Hedges: One of the things I like about how they’re marketing the movie is they don’t give much of it away, but it’s a hard thing to say, “Oh, by the way, this is a really complex romantic comedy.” It’s a hard job for them, and they’re trying really hard to figure out how to market it. I guess the thing for me is to just hopefully not turn off enough people so they’ll come give it a chance and maybe they’ll feel the way you did, which sounds like you were surprised that it was more than it actually seemed to be.
CS: I obviously thought Steve was great, and I think that the word-of-mouth from previews after people see it is going to be great.
Hedges: I’m really thrilled you feel that way.
CS: It’s been over three years since “Pieces of April.” I guess the first question is what you’ve been doing in that time? Have you been developing your own scripts and working on other things?
Hedges: I’ve been trying to finish a novel I’ve been working on for a decade. I wrote a script for Tobey Maguire, which I’m hoping to do with Sony next. I had that obligation. I rewrote “Dan in Real Life” and they asked me to direct it. I never thought it was going to be a film I would direct. I was just burning off an obligation to them. They sent me a box of scripts and I pulled out Pierce’s “Dan in Real Life,” and just thought, “I really like this. I think I can help it.” I was to work on it for four weeks, but I wrote on it for five months, and they greenlit the movie on the condition that I direct it. I was going to make a film for Focus, a book they had bought for me and I also had a commitment to write this film for Tobey, and Disney was willing to wait. They basically kept just making it so attractive for me to make the film. They supported ideas like Steve Carell as Dan, and we cast Steve right before “40-Year-Old Virgin” came out. I cast Dane Cook without auditioning him before he was cast in any of the movies you’ve seen him in the last two years. I just felt he was going to be great with Steve, and then I looked far and wide for the right Marie. Steve gave me this direction, “Find someone with a really good heart.” To me, Juliette Binoche is one of the greatest actresses alive. I mean, there’s Meryl Streep and then we go from there, but she’s so high up. When I heard that she’d read the script and wanted to meet, I went to Paris immediately, and I shut down talking to anybody else. I met with almost 40, 42 actresses to play the part. I was just looking for that person who I thought would be very special with Steve, and I learned from “40-Year-Old Virgin” that Catherine Keener and Steve Carell were so good together, it told me that if you find the right partner for Steve, it really can elevate what could be a very simple film. It’s a delicate film, but I wanted it to have some heft and some substance, and I knew that Juliette just made everybody better in every movie she worked on. I thought it would be an out-of-the-box pairing, but that if it worked, it would be quite special.
CS: Was the character always French in the original script?
Hedges: No, no, she was just astonishing, and Juliette would tell you that the character is not even French now. I would just argue that she’s from another place. Juliette actually worked to reduce her accent, and did quite significantly. There’s still traces of it, which I hoped would remain, because I didn’t want to be the guy who cast Juliette Binoche and said, “Lose the accent.”
CS: Or dubbing someone else’s voice over hers.
Hedges: Right, right, get Glenn Close to do her voice. That would have just not been good. Anyway, I brought Juliette to L.A. and put her in a room with Steve, and it wasn’t a screen test, I didn’t do a screen test for the studio. All I did was that I passed out lyrics to “Endless Love” and I had them sing karaoke with each other, and in that little moment of them singing together within seconds after they’d met, it became evident that they were going to be magical together.
CS: I hope you filmed that “Endless Love” duet for the DVD, because that could be a huge hit.
Hedges: I have it, but I have no intention of putting it on the DVD. (laughs) Now every reporter I’ve told the story to is like, “It’s gotta be on the DVD!”
CS: You just hear about all these classic moments when two actors with chemistry first meet and that just sounds like something classic.
Hedges: Maybe I’ll show it to Steve and Juliette and they’ll approve. The next day I had Dane come meet Juliette, and instead of having them sing, I had them dance, and that was quite a hot little moment. It was very sexy, and they really played well together, and they did some improvs.
CS: Is that a technique you learned or started when you made “Pieces of April”?
Hedges: No, no, I didn’t get any rehearsal on “Pieces of April” at all. You know, I come from the theatre and I taught acting for many years in my 20’s, and developed all sorts of approaches to things. It just felt like this needed to be a joy-based movie and made in a particular way. I didn’t need to see if Juliette Binoche could act or Steve Carell could act, it wasn’t the issue. The issue was how would they be together, so I wanted to find something that would kind of accelerate that process, and get them out of their heads and just have them play. Juliette leapt into singing; Steve looked me like, “Am I out of mind?” And I said, “Yeah, I kind of am, but go ahead.”
CS: It sounds like a fun way to start a project.
Hedges: It was, it was. Steve was unable to rehearse for this film, because of his schedule, and I rehearsed everyone but Steve, so we kind of built a family, and he kind of came into it.
CS: Which probably works because he’s supposed to be the outcast of his family.
Hedges: It ended up working. Steve and I were talking just yesterday and said, “That probably ended up helping the movie.” Which is hard for me, because it’s a little hard to sell the actors that they needed to rehearse without the guy who’s in every scene. Fortunately, I cast really kind people so it worked out.
CS: Going back a bit, since this was a spec script from another writer and you being a writer who did his own material, how did Disney approach you to work on it and then convince you to direct it?
Hedges: I was rewriting a script for a friend who had a film deal with Disney. It was almost a well-paid favor, and he went off to direct another film, and I was left to rewrite his movie without him, and I said, “I’m not doing a good job. Let me pay you back.” And the studio said, “No, we’re going to send you a box, and you pick another script and rewrite something.” So I started this almost like burning off an obligation. I just liked the script when I read it and thought I could help it. After they read the script and said I could cast whomever I wanted and it was greenlit, I went “Wow, that’s surprising.” I’m at an age where how many movies am I going to get to make? I have kids and I don’t like being away from them, so it’s gotta be something really special to go make it, but what they kept doing was every time a Steve Carell idea came along or Juliette Binoche or what if I hire a 23-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter to score the entire film? They kept saying “yes” and the more they said “yes,” the more I began to think this may be possible in this day and age to actually make a studio film in the way I want to make films, which is actor-driven, ensemble-based, not have to go for the obvious and the broad. Obviously, I knew that this was ultimately a sweet and affirming story, and I wanted to make that kind of story. I’ve written many plays and novels and dealt with a lot of darker issues, and I can do that and I’ll do it again, but I just felt the world needed and I needed to tell a story that lightened the world a little, that brought a little laughter into the world. When I met with Juliette, I said, “Why do you want to do this film?” One, she’d seen “Pieces of April” and she’ll only work with directors she admires, so I was flattered and honored, because if you look at the directors she’s worked with, I can tell you that I’m the least talented director she’s ever been directed by and I’m okay with that. I’m in an amazing club now, but she also said, “Peter, the world needs to laugh, and I would like to help.”
CS: You mentioned that you wanted to avoid the obvious. Disney’s becoming known for their broader humor comedies, but what I liked was that it all seemed very natural. Was that mostly in the writing and having the script right before you started, since you didn’t get to rehearse as much?
Hedges: You know, a lot of my work in the writing was to make a shower scene feel organic. I mean, some people will say, “Ah, it could never happen” but I actually think you understand it. Make sure it’s motivated. Make sure it’s earned. One of my favorite scenes in contemporary cinema is Albert Brooks dripping sweat in “Broadcast News” or that incredible scene in “Sideways” when they spy on those wacky people making love and he’s trying to reclaim the wallet. Those are wild, wild scenes, but they’re completely earned. You get why they do it, and that’s when cinema is just thrilling, ’cause you go, “Oh my God. That’s possible?” That’s what I want to see when I see a movie. I want to see people that I could be doing unthinkable things. For me, where that stuff crosses the line is when it’s completely unmotivated. You just go, “No way.” The proverbial jumping of the shark, and what you try to do is just make sure those moments are earned, and sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t get it as well as you hoped and you hope no one else figures it out. That’s what we try to do.
CS: You had an ensemble cast in “Pieces of April” but you were working with two or three actors at a time, but in this one, you had a really huge cast with a lot of people running around. How much time did you spend in Rhode Island with everyone?
Hedges: We had a week with everybody, ten days with the daughters. We cooked dinner together, we did some improves. We blocked scenes. I hired an actor to come play Dan for a week. They also put together under my direction, a little family talent show where they each performed a song, accompanied by Sondre, and they also wrote letters to Steve that started with the words, “Dan, you may not remember this, but ” and they told him stories. So they basically created their own family history and then told it to him. Dane sang, “You’re the Wind Beneath the Wings” which is amazing, and Norbert Leo Butz and the other siblings sang “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” The girls sang “We Are Family.” It was an amazing rehearsal process, but you know, you did bring up the cast, and the one thing I remember from “Pieces of April”–and part of this is you’re talking to someone who gave birth and they don’t remember their labor pains–one of my happiest times on “Pieces of April” was the period where I had Oliver, Patty, Alison, John and Alice Drummond, I got to work with them for six straight days. I loved working with Katie and Derek, but we always had different actors coming into their scenes, day players, and we never got to have that kind of ensemble feel that we had the first half of the shoot in the first seven or eight days. I thought, “Here’s the deal with ‘Dan in Real Life.’ Here I gotta have 19 or 20 actors in a house, and instead of having them for six days, I’m going to get to have those actors for 7 weeks.” Since the only reason I really direct films is because I love working with actors, that’s the primary reason I like doing it, then I get an opportunity to hire great, great actors, actors I like that are fun to work with, but who also happen to be brilliant. If I can do that, then this is a good second movie for me, it’s obviously much bigger and more people, but I get to replicate my favorite part of doing “Pieces of April.” And that’s what I did, and by having John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest and Norbert Leo Butts, the fantastic Amy Ryan, all of them, and those three daughters.
CS: And you have Emily Blunt showing up for a cameo.
Hedges: Yeah, she came for a week, and I mean that girl is going to take over the planet. Even the guy who played the cop, Matthew Morrison, is a Tony nominated actor, I mean one of the best New York theatre actors we have, great singer, and he comes for a day to play the cop. I was just excited to go to work and work with them.
CS: I know that a lot of this was based on Pierce’s family gatherings. Were those experiences you shared yourself or something you related to?
Hedges: I relate to it. My sense is that the family gathering was a jumping-off point for him, but where the movie got really alive for him in his scripts was when he began to veer away from his family, and made Dan a widower, because Pierce isn’t a widower, he’s happily married. We all come from families and basically for me, it was never a family story. It’s a story that takes place among a family but it’s Dan’s story and rightly or wrongly, I knew that I didn’t want it to be about everybody, I wanted it to be about Dan, and that was in keeping with Pierce. In answer to the question, yeah, my wife’s family gathers at their big family house in Vermont and there are fifteen or twenty of us at a time, piled in, we’re all sleeping on the floor and cooking together. Definitely had those experiences, and that helped inform it.
CS: I always wanted to ask about the singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche, because you hear this great music and you see the credit and you wonder, “Who the hell is this guy and where did he come from?”
Hedges: Well, again, for me the touchstones or the models of possibility were–and these are iconic films–but “Harold and Maude” with Cat Stevens, “The Graduate” with Simon and Garfunkel, and I felt because I had such resistance to putting music in “Pieces of April” but was able to, working with Stephen Merritt from The Magnetic Fields. That was a good experience, but it came after we shot the movie. I thought, “What if I bring in someone really early and the music becomes a character in the film.” So I begin this exhaustive search with the help of people who know more than me about music, and I listened to hundreds of musicians, so many CDs, I still have stacks in my office. I kept listening to this one artist, and there was something about this music that felt kind of timeless and beautiful, and there was a love component but there was a sadness to it. I knew nothing about him. I called up and said, “Who is this guy I keep listening to?” They said, “Oh, he’s Norwegian and he’s 23″ and I said I had to meet him, and I did. I basically gave him “Harold and Maude” and “The Graduate” and explained to him what kind of movie I wanted it to be. I wanted the music to feel completely organic to the film and wanted a hand-made feel, and I heard a trumpet. I wanted the music to kind of feel like the people in the house could play it if they were musicians, but I also wanted him to write songs. He came to rehearsals, he visited the set, he would show up and play themes for me. I’d walk around directing scenes and in between takes, he’d sing songs for everybody. The cast fell in love with him. I knew we were going to use that song at the end, because that was the first song of his that kind of grabbed me–he wrote that when he was 17–I thought it was the movie. Then many of the songs he wrote, maybe 4 or 5 or 6 for the film, and I used a preexisting cover of the Elvis Costello song for football scene.
CS: The next thing you’re going to work on is that Tobey Maguire movie you mentioned?
Hedges: Yeah, I’m going to finish this and then rewrite the Tobey Maguire script, and that could be my new movie. I have an original idea, too, that may come first.
CS: Thanks for the time and I can’t wait to see the movie again after hearing about how it was made. Maybe this can be a model for how others can make organic-feeling movies in the future.
Hedges: You know what? I had a good writer friend say to me, “Look, Peter, I really want this movie to succeed because I love you, but I really need this movie to succeed.” I have had more writer-directors talk to me and they’ll say that they’re really pulling for this movie, because they want more movies like this to be able to be made. I worry. It may be too sweet. It may not be vivid enough in this culture to sustain. I mean, we’ll see. I’m actually feeling pretty hopeful.
Dan in Real Life opens nationwide on Friday, October 26, and you can also read our interview with one of Hedges’ cast, Amy Ryan and check back later in the week for video interviews with the rest of the cast.