Helen Hunt directs, co-writes and stars in Then She Found Me as April, a middle-aged schoolteacher whose husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her and then her bio Bernice (Bette Middler), comes into her life claiming to be her biological mother. Meanhile, April has a romance with Frank (Colin Firth). Based on the novel by Elinor Lipman. This marks Helen Hunt's directorial debut, which took ten years to finally make. She has previously performed in Bobby, A Good Woman, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, What Women Want, Cast Away, As Good as it Gets, Twister and the TV series "Mad About You." I had the privilege to interview her.
THINKfilm releases Then She Found Me on April 25th, 2008.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did the movie finally come together after ten years of working on it?
HH: I had no idea if it would finally come together. 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you shoot the film so quickly?
HH: Colin [Firth] 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.” That was one of the reasons it happened so quickly. We had everything else in place by the time we went to him.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was there any particular reason why the character of Frank is British?
HH: 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. NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to have total creative control over your movie?
HH: I’m almost scared to say it was 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. 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How would Then She Found Me have been different with a larger budget?
HH: This movie would not have been 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 are paintings on the kids’ walls. I couldn’t hire somebody to be that painter, I’ve been in movies where they do that. [I chose] a friend of mine who’s a wonderful painter named Elliot Green. 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you include the line,“You might change on me.”?
HH: 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 [Frank] 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to juggle the genres of romance, drama and comedy together?
HH: 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 art-house 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 stories—there’s the men and then there’s the women—I 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you choose Bette Midler to play Bernice?
HH: 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you learn working with other directors that applied to your own experience as one?
HH: 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. [They] 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 William H. 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.”
NYC MOVIE GURU: What important advice would you give to aspiring first-time directors?
HH: 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 company, “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.”