Ten years after starting work on her directorial debut, Helen Hunt has finally made the leap from actress to director, as she explains to Georgina Wilson-Powell
It’s appropriate, given that Then She Found Me is about mothers, daughters and babies, that the film itself is actor Helen Hunt’s baby, and it’s one that has taken over a decade to be born. The film is April Epner’s story, a tale of a woman betrayed by her husband, bereaved after losing her adopted mother, and then bombarded by her over-zealous birth mother, a brash, glitzy talk-show host, played to perfection by Bette Midler. April learns the age-old lesson – that you can choose your friends, but not your family – and although she may think she has a choice in the beginning, she quickly discovers that family ties will always bind.
In the flesh, Hunt is tall, but with a delicateness that doesn’t always come across on screen – where she often looks lean and every bit the equal of any male actor she is partnered with. There’s also an incredible earnestness when she talks about her film. Hunt has never courted the press, and although actors often have to grow a thick skin regarding rejection, she has taken a very different type of risk. Making the jump from actress to director is more than just a career move for her; it’s obviously a lot more personal than that.
The film started life as a novel by Elinor Lipman, which Hunt decided to rewrite and use for her directorial debut. But even with an Oscar on her mantlepiece (for As Good As It Gets), funding and filmmaking is never easy. ‘An Oscar gives you a meeting; it gives you a shot, but if they don’t like the movie or they don’t think they’re going to make their money back, then it’s hard. People may like your work but they’ve got to trust you with millions of dollars. But it did get me the chance to send the script to great actors,’ she explains.
She also found that adapting a novel is not as easy as it looks, and getting it right took her the first half of the decade. ‘I had a beautiful adaptation of the novel. I gave it to certain studios to try and they all said it’s better than most things, but it’s not quite a movie,’ she recalls. ‘I realised they were right, so it took me time to understand what was missing. It was so hard to drop characters that are beautifully drawn. There’s also no wish for a baby in the novel, and it seemed to me that if I was going to play the part, a woman of my age would either have had a baby, want one or couldn’t have one. She didn’t ‘nothing’ a baby and it seemed like a perfect thing for her to go after in this story of mothers and daughters.’
Not only did Hunt go back to basics with storytelling – as she puts it, ‘the main character has to want something’ – and work towards fulfilling that want, she also developed another theme over and above the basic mother-daughter angle; the theme of betrayal.
‘I couldn’t say exactly what the movie was about really. The best filmmakers I’ve ever seen have always said, “There’s the movie and there’s the movie underneath the movie.” I read an essay by James Hellman called Betrayal and I realised that’s what the movie was about. I hadn’t really seen a movie about love and betrayal together. I wrote the sentence, “You can’t have love until you’ve made peace with betrayal” on my computer and on my desk. So that’s how the men in the movie act – one man betrays her, one man would have already been betrayed and she also betrays a guy.’
For a small indie movie about love and betrayal the cast list punches pretty hard. On top of Bette Midler as mother Bernice, Matthew Broderick plays April’s cheating husband Benjamin; Colin Firth plays love interest Frank, whom April cheats on and April herself, is played by Hunt.
‘I always felt like it was a director’s rookie mistake to cast themselves in their own movie and that I would be smart enough not to do it, but a series of things happened that made it the right thing for me to do. In the end we had 27 days to make the movie. I had Colin for the first two weeks, Bette for certain days and if I had had another schedule to bow to, the whole thing would have collapsed. So it was simpler to work 24 hours a day and do whatever I felt I needed to do, otherwise we would not have made it.’
For Hunt, who was personally tied to the script, her characteristics are evident in the entire tone of the movie and, although she denies it, the role of the mid-thirties woman having a crisis about love and wanting a baby could very easily have been autobiographical.
‘On the surface it’s not autobiographical – I’m not adopted. But if you pull back and look at the whole movie then it is totally autobiographical. There are pieces of me in every character. The couch in the dressing room is my couch and my stepson’s paintings are all over the wall. The things are someone’s things.
‘You’d have to be drugged not to be daunted about taking on all these characters, but I was also excited with the story. I believed in it and that gives you a certain immunity. People may like it or not, it may get picked up or not, but you have that interest. This movie is about everything I’m interested in.’
Any anxiety over the film’s critical success appears to be unfounded as earlier this year Then She Found Me won the audience award at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
‘I first went to Toronto with it, and that was the big Cinderella night. When I found out it was a 2,000-seat theatre I thought I was going to pass out. Then when the movie started it was out of focus and the volume was low – I thought I was going to die. But 2,000 people stood up and clapped at the end and it was sold to a distributor that night.’
Then She Found Me finds Hunt a long way from her days as a child actor or starring in the TV series Mad About You which made her a household name, and she’s very happy to slide behind the camera now instead of posing in front of it.
‘I’m writing another movie, an original story. I’ve no idea how long it will take to get made. It’s similar in some ways and, do you know what? I got to the end of the second one and recognised the same voice. I didn’t even know I had a voice.’
Then She Found Me is on selected release from Fri 19 Sep.
Helen Hunt - A different scene
Helen Hunt is part of a long line of actors who have turned director, but the move has produced mixed results
The erstwhile ER heartthrob has earned plenty of plaudits for his work behind the camera, particularly his study of the semi-delusional game show host Chuck Barris in his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the media drama Good Night, And Good Luck.
It is a tough call whether Eastwood is now more famous as a director than as an actor. It all kicked off with Play Misty For Me (1971) and he has been doubling up as both actor and director since, most recently with the forthcoming kidnap drama, The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
Foster played the mother of a child genius in her first directorial outing Little Man Tate. Her directorial momentum was seriously stymied by her appalling second film Home for the Holidays, however Foster does have a depression era drama called Flora Plum due out in 2010.
Although sadly not credited for directing a Belinda Carlisle video, Keaton has directed three feature films and the documentary Heaven which she made way back when in 1987.
The three time Oscar-winner has directed 1971 coming-of-age drama Drive, He Said, underrated pioneer western Goin’ South and The Two Jakes, a sequel to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
‘Nice’ and ‘liberal’ Mr Redford won an Oscar for his directorial debut Ordinary People in 1980. Previously, the only actor-turned-director to have won the gong was Woody Allen for Annie Hall.
Streisand taped up her breasts and won plaudits for her first outing in the director’s chair, Yentl in 1983. Gaudy romancers The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces followed in the 1990s.
The screen legend has one directing credit with 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks. A western about a bank robber on the run, the film, like the man himself, is strange, stunning and deeply flawed.