First-Time Director Peter Hedges Talks About “Pieces of April,” His “Human Comedy”
by Jeremy O’Kasick
After three deals to finance “Pieces of April” suddenly went amiss, I looked like rookie director, Peter Hedges, had struck out. For years the 41-year-old writer-director, best known for his adapted screenplays, such as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (adapted from his own novel) and the Oscar-nominated “About A Boy,” had so gradually pieced together the film’s story he said that it had “entered [his] bones.”
When it all seemingly fell apart, however, Hedges displayed the improvisational reflexes of a seasoned indie pro: he went digital; kept the focus of his determined cast and crew; and went ahead with the production for under $300,000.
The gamble paid off months later when “Pieces of April” premiered at Sundance, receiving a standing ovation and later scoring a distribution deal with United Artists.
The story follows the whims of a rebellious young woman with indie rock attitude, April Burns (Katie Holmes), as she haphazardly cooks a Thanksgiving feast for her dysfunctional family. The holiday meal is a last shot attempt to reconcile with her estranged mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who has been terminally diagnosed with cancer. But all goes to hell from the get-go, as the stove in April’s Lower East Side apartment conks out and she must beg door-to-door for her neighbors to come to the rescue before the family makes their way in from the suburbs. Bring on the fun after the Burns hold a funeral for some roadkill, April pisses off the building’s weirdo prude, and her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), gets ambushed by a pack of thugs.
As a debut film, the feel-good “Pieces of April” does show reserve and daring when it could have gone maudlin. Backed by Clarkson’s solid performance, it takes on issues surrounding motherhood that are utterly disregarded by Hollywood but ones to which Hedges has often returned. And yet, in tone and pace, it marks a shift from his previous works, also focusing on how people from diverse cultures interact and how families deal with a dying loved one.
Hedges, who grew up in Iowa and now lives in Brooklyn, recently spoke with indieWIRE contributor Jeremy O’Kasick about, among other things, the two portentous struggles: being a first-time director and being a mother. (Note: He claims to have firsthand experience in only one of those endeavors.) The film is now playing in select theaters.
indieWIRE: “Pieces of April” was your directorial debut for the big screen, but haven’t you directed a number of productions for the stage?
Hedges: Yeah. When I was a young lad just out of college at the North Carolina School of the Arts, I directed several plays that I wrote. It was essential theater, meaning we had no money, so our set may be six stools and two chairs and eight cream pies. It was a great way to work because we learned to make something without having any money.
iW: Those cost-saving skills must of served you well in making an independent film.
Hedges: Definitely. We made this movie for the equivalent amount that we were working with back then. “Pieces of April” was going to be a 3 to 7 million dollar film and we had three entities, two studios, and one wealthy man and they all backed out. It was quite a blow. We approached InDigEnt, who makes these low-budget digital films, and within 24 hours they greenlighted the movie and two weeks later we started to shoot.
iW: You shot the film in a mere two weeks, how exhilarating and hectic was that experience?
Hedges: It was a terrific way to make this film. It was fast but it never felt rushed. I was afraid that we were going to take shortcuts through the performances and storytelling. But it’s a human comedy about running out of time and we made it in the same spirit that the characters were living that day. It gave a grittier, edgier, rawer feel to the movie.
iW: You seem to have an astounding ability to adapt between mediums whether writing or directing.
Hedges: The assumption is that [my directing] is born out of some profound dissatisfaction with my screenwriting experience. That’s just not true. I knew long before “Gilbert Grape” was made that I wanted to write and direct films. It just took awhile to get here. When I was talking to Lasse Hallstrom [director of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”] I had told him that I wanted to write and direct films and he said that if you’ll adapt “Gilbert Grape” for me, you can be on the set, in the editing room, you can go to location scouts. I will give you an education as a filmmaker. It was great start.
iW: You’ve said that your mother was not the prototype for Joy Burns, Patricia Clarkson’s character. But how did your mother influence this film, specifically your experiences with her after she was diagnosed with cancer?
Hedges: Her lack of self-pity and her sense of humor. She did not like her time to be wasted and if she felt like it was being wasted, she was a tigress. But my mother was over the moon about her children, she didn’t have the issues that Joy has. When you have an intimate encounter with mortality as my family and I did with my mom’s death, I took a long look at my life and I asked myself what was the one thing that I hadn’t done that I had really wanted to do. And it was to write and direct a film. I had begun this script years before she was sick. She got tired of her own illness and loved to talk about what her grandchildren were doing and she wanted to hear about what I was writing. She said that it was a story I was supposed to write and she would call and say, “How’s our movie coming along?” She would have loved to have lived to see it.
iW: Did making the film allow you to better come to terms with her death?
Hedges: It allowed me to say a proper goodbye. When I was going to speak at her funeral, I was the last person scheduled and everyone else had spoken so beautifully but I had no words. When I sat back down I was ashamed that I had no words and I vowed then and there that I was going to make something that would be my tribute to her. It came to be this movie.
iW: In all of your screenplays and novels, even “About a Boy” and “A Map of the World,” you return to the struggles and issues of motherhood as well as female relationships. Why is that?
Hedges: It’s a very common theme in what I do. I am curious about the next story and whether there be another mother-daughter or mother-son theme because at some point I’m going to have to start explaining why this is all true.
iW: Can you right now?
Hedges: The reason I am hesitant is because these are all works of the imagination. The only thing in my life that I have written that is anything close to my life would be “An Ocean in Iowa” [Hedges’ second novel]. Everything else I’ve made up. Something happened to me when I wrote female characters in my early plays; it was a real liberation. But the place that stories come from, well, to say its sacred sounds overwrought, but I am careful to protect that place. Not because I’m afraid to talk about my own life, but because they are works of the imagination.
iW: Two things that jump out in this film as being fresh and new compared to your earlier work are the dark humor and dealing with racial issues. Was that a conscious choice?
Hedges: If you knew my early work, you would see some of that humor. There has always been a vicious streak in my writing. There is a facade of pleasantness in my stories, but there is always something seething underneath even in the novel of “Gilbert Grape” there are more sharp teeth than the film. He’s a very angry guy; he urinates on the grave of his second-grade teacher. I suspect that you expect more of that edge from in the future.
iW: What about confronting racial issues?
Hedges: As I get older and into middle-age, I’ve realized that [my writing] can’t just be about a bunch of white people sitting in Iowa. I so wanted to deal with a bunch of different cultures and have them collide in a believable way. April is in love with an African-American man and race is not issue. I love them as a couple and I believe their love.
iW: You had the opportunity to work with extremely young and talented actors with “Gilbert Grape,” from Leonardo DiCaprio to Johnny Depp to Juliette Lewis. How did that experience compare to working with Katie Holmes and Derek Luke?
Hedges: I used to teach high school kids for five summers and I developed a lot of confidence in working with younger actors. I didn’t need to do a lot with these actors. I encouraged them to not to do more than was necessary; I didn’t want it to be overwrought or overly emotional. Katie was game and it was an astonishing performance. She is funny in a way that she was never been funny before. There’s an edge to her that surprised a lot of people. With Derek, we hadn’t seen “Antwone Fisher.” His audition was much like the Leo’s audition for “Gilbert Grape”: it was a revelation. He was the last person we cast and that’s when I knew we were going to be OK.
iW: So what are you working on now?
Hedges: I’m finishing a novel. It’s about a marriage and set in Brooklyn. I also adapted Lauren Weissberger’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” But I have my next movie in mind. And I have my notes and I hope to start writing in January.
iW: Seeing that you shot a successful film in 15 days with almost no budget and then UA picked it up at Sundance, the major studios must be salivating over your efficiency as a director.
Hedges: I have had plenty of offers. But I have to find a story that I have to tell or can’t wait to tell. As I worked on this script, the story entered my bones. The biggest danger to me is to start to believe that I can do anything because this one turned out pretty well. I can’t. All my strength as a filmmaker comes from the story I’m going to tell.