It’s been over fifteen years since the world was first introduced to Helen Hunt’s character Jamie Buchman on the long-running hit sitcom “Mad About You” and though she’s won Emmys, Oscars and countless other awards for her acting, there was still another challenge to take on and that was to write and direct a feature film.
Hunt follows in her father Gordon Hunt’s footsteps by directing Then She Found Me, an independent film based on the novel by Elinor Lipman that the actress optioned, adapted and shepherded for nearly a decade before making it herself.
In the movie, she plays April Epner, a woman about to reach her 40th birthday who wants to have a baby, but only learns she’s pregnant after her husband (Matthew Broderick) has left her and she’s found a new man, the single father of two played by Colin Firth. Having been adopted at a young age, April has been tracked down by her birthmother, played by none other than Bette Midler.
Decisions like surrounding herself with such talented actors is only part of what made Hunt’s directorial debut work so well, despite the ever-changing mood and tone of a movie that’s part comedy and part drama. ComingSoon.net had a chance to learn more from the recent multi-hyphenate when she told us about the experience of having total control while making one’s first film.
ComingSoon.net: Colin mentioned how fast this movie came about, that you called him for his part and then started shooting the film almost immediately, which rarely happens when making an independent film.
Helen Hunt: Well, one of the reasons it happened so quickly was because of Colin, because he had a movie to do right afterwards, so he basically said, “I have three weeks”, so I said, “Alright, I will figure out a way to shoot your stuff in three weeks,” so that was one of the reasons it happened so quickly. We had everything else in place by the time we went to him.
CS: Did it matter to you that his character was English?
Hunt: No, but I thought all the more helpful if he left his home, came here, only to be left by this woman for a man who is devoting his whole life to never having to feel hurt again. It seemed like something I could use, that it would be even more devastating to not be home when you have two kids and you’re left by your wife.
CS: The genesis of this movie goes back decades…
Hunt: One decade.
CS: How long were you interested in making this movie? Did you ever want to give up on it and what made you think it would finally come together?
Hunt: I had no idea if it would finally come together, to answer in reverse order. I read the novel maybe ten years ago. It’s very different than the movie. It’s beautifully written and the birth mother and April story is there, but neither of the men are in the book. There’s no wish for a baby in the book. I tried at first to get it made as an actress in a very faithful to the novel adaptation, and then I’ll skip all the boring parts where I rewrote it a little bit, and then finally put it away for a while and acted in a lot of movies myself, but it stayed with me. It was the one thing on my desk that kind of kept blinking for me, and I very slowly, piece by piece, it came to me, maybe it was missing was what the protagonist wants. Stories are better when the main character really desperately wants something and I was wanting a baby at the time, and that just seemed conspicuously right in a mother-daughter story. It’s what the movie’s really about underneath, what it looks like it’s about. I had read this essay about betrayal, and I thought, that to me, of all the things that are interesting here: motherhood, adoption, family, betrayal was actually the thing that moved me the most, so Matthew’s character and Colin’s character were born out of a desire to tell that story. One betrays her, she betrays the other. That theme is actually in all sorts of secret places in the movie. The brother says to her, “I will never tell you to adopt” and then he says, “Adopt a baby.” Like I tried to make that theme show up all over the place.
CS: Can you talk about getting Better Midler to play your mother? Did you know her beforehand?
Hunt: I didn’t know her. I needed somebody funny, so it’s not so hard to imagine that you’d think of her. There’s eight pages of fast, hopefully funny dialogue, so I needed somebody with a good ear, and she’s got the best ear in the business. And her agent suggested I look at “The Rose” again, which I had seen originally, but when I saw it again, I really saw that this was not some accident, like lighting in a bottle that some director captured. This was one of the great female performances on screen, so with all of that… and it has a raw, independent movie quality… so I was reminded of what of course is true, which is that all these actors are smart enough that if she’s in “The First Wives’ Club,” she’s going to be in “The First Wives’ Club” but if she’s in this movie, she’s going to be in this movie, and she really did.
CS: What was it like juggling the genres of romance, drama and comedy together?
Hunt: Of all the things I was nervous about, I was never nervous about that. Many of the people who passed on making this movie said, “Well, we can’t tell if it’s a comedy or a drama” or “We wouldn’t know how to sell it because it’s got famous people but it’s a little independent movie.” I had no trouble in my head keeping the tone in mind. My favorite movies are disarming by being funny and then hit me over the head by being honest. To me, it’s a win-win. I get to go to my favorite arthouse and see actors that I know; it’s not like taking medicine to see this movie. I was nervous about many things, but the tone of the movie, I knew it would work and I knew this movie that seemed like two separate storiesthere’s the men and then there’s the womenI knew there was this betrayal thing at the center of it, and that all of it would speak to that. I didn’t know if it would be good. I didn’t know if 1,500 people would laugh in Toronto when it sold, but I knew that that was one movie.
CS: As an actor, you’ve worked on so many big and huge budget movies, but as a director, you’re now working on a much smaller budget. Can you talk about working like that as a first-time director, having to be limited by the amount of time and money to do things?
Hunt: I mean, this sounds like something that people just say, but it’s really true. This movie would not have been as goodlet’s assume it’s goodit would not be as good if I had a ton of money to make it. Something would have gotten messed up. I don’t know what it would have been. There would have been more opinions. Some of the ideas I had wouldn’t have happened because I would have had money to buy the thing. Colin talks about his wife who’s a painter who left. “She’s painting the world with her boyfriend,” he says, so I wanted there to be paintings in the house that really made an impression. There’s paintings on the kids’ walls. I couldn’t hire somebody to be that painter, I’ve been in movies where they do that. A friend of mine who’s a wonderful painter named Elliot Green, I used his work. He came out there and painted on the walls. There was a hundred of those a day, choices that I think were interesting and specific, but only happened because I couldn’t afford to buy one.
CS: What about keeping the swearing in the movie? I know that a studio would probably have wanted to take that out to get a lower rating but it stayed in and felt more natural for it.
Hunt: I think that it’s not great writing if people are swearing every five seconds. That’s lazy writing a little bit, but when people swear in this movie, it’s very pointed and on purpose. People may like it or not but I definitely chose it purposefully.
CS: What does it mean to you as an artist to have creative control? Did you feel you had more creative control in this project than others and was that very satisfying?
Hunt: Yeah, I had just about, I’m almost scared to say it, total creative control, which is one of the benefits of having ten cents to make the movie is that there was no one standing next to me saying, “You better do it like this.” That was the bad news and the good news. I didn’t have anybody to turn to, but the good news was that I didn’t have anybody to turn to, so that put me back with myself, and it was very satisfying. I would love it if someone would hand me some big beautiful part that I would sit in my trailer and come out when I’m ready and play with my daughter. I can barely remember what that’s like but that would be great. I also like making movies like this. I wrote another one that I’m going to work to get made, and I really enjoyed the process a great deal.
CS: Is the new one completely from you or is it also based on a novel?
Hunt: No, it’s an original idea. Tonally, it’s similar, it’s funny and dramatic and comedic at different moments. It’s got mothering, but in a very different way. There’s a 17-year-old boy who’s the lead in it. I know nothing about 17-year-old boys, so I’m hoping to meet one so I could do a better job writing him.
CS: There seems to be some Helen Hunt moments like the scene where you’re on the couch and you say “You’re looking at me.” If a male director made this movie, he’d probably cut that out. Was that an important line for you?
Hunt: It was. It was a way of implying that she had never felt seen in that way before, and it was important that they fall very much in love so that they could be in so very much pain when it fell apart, so that’s that part of the movie.
CS: There also was a line at the end: “You might change on me.” Why was that so important to you?
Hunt: It’s a good question. I think it’s because I know in my life I have felt like, “I can handle it. Just tell me.” You don’t get a cheat sheet about what is going to happen, and I think the reason I chose to tell it in this way, is that my life is hilarious and really upsetting, sometimes four times a day each. It happens really quickly. I wanted the form of the movie to be a betrayal in a way. It’s a comedy, except that he just said the thing about your children you never say, so I wanted to use the form to help tell the story, plus I like funny movies, so I was hoping to make a funny movie.
CS: You took on the challenge of directing yourself in this tough role, so what’s the most important advice you’d give to another first-time feature film director?
Hunt: The advice I would give is the advice I was given. There was one moment where I had a relatively large amount of money to make this movie and it fell apart. We were all at a particularly low moment of believing this was a really foolish exercise to try to get this movie made. It was like how many different versions of “no” can you hear? And I said to the man who runs the foreign sales companythey were the first ones on boardI said, “You see this happen. Who gets their movie made? What do they do? What am I missing?” and he said, “It’s the people who don’t give up. There’s no magic formula. The people who don’t give up end up getting the movie made, and the people who do, don’t.”
CS: Is there anything you learned working with different directors that you’ve applied to your own work as a director?
Hunt: Yeah, I’ve learned what I want to be as a director and what I don’t want to be as a director. The best directors I’ve worked for know the movie they want to make, are clearly the boss. “Everybody can relax, I know what we’re doing.” And at the same time are smart enough to take some suggestions from an actor who now knows the part better than you who wrote it. Can take suggestions from members of the crew, all members of the crew. If someone says, “Am I wrong or does that extra look like she doesn’t fit into the party?” That person just saved me and I’m going to get the credit for it. On the other hand, I’ve worked with people who are threatened by a camera operator saying, “I wonder if…” So the movie I made before this movie was “Bobby” and Emilio Estevez, like his father, is the kindest and most gracious guy and he was wrangling Anthony Hopkins and Lindsay Lohan and Sharon Stone and Bill Macy, and not enough money and a period movie, and he did it always with more elegance and more grace than I had. But I remember sitting on the set as I was getting close to making this movie saying, “Remember how he’s being because that sets the bar.”
CS: What do you see as the target audience for this film and how do you see it making a mar in such a busy time of year?
Hunt: There are theaters now that are not just little arthouses or run huge movies. I do feel like there’s this middle place that “The Good Girl” and “Juno” and hopefully this movie, there is an audience for it. People who want to see grown-up movies that are also a pleasure to watch. My hope is that those are the people who will go see the movie.
Then She Found Me opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 25, and in other cities on May 2.