When I tell Helen Hunt that the first scene of And Then She Found Me seems strange – it’s set at a Jewish wedding, and I didn’t buy Hunt as a Jewish girl – she laughs gently. I’m assuming that’s because in scene two it becomes clear that her character, April, is adopted.
Then again, maybe she’s just humouring me because I’m from Toronto and this city has been lucky for her. It was at last year’s Toronto Film Festival that Then She Found Me got distribution, after Hunt had stuck with the project through a decade of rocky production.
“After 10 years of no’s, I had a real Cinderella moment in Toronto – 2,000 people on their feet, and they seemed to really be moved by it,” she says in that familiar flat tone of hers. “Then it got distribution in Canada and the United States at 2:30 in the morning.”
No surprise that TIFF-goers responded to this touching, comic story of a woman desperate for a child who’s descended upon by her own birth mother. What’s amazing is that Hunt made this well-crafted movie after helming only a few episodes of Mad About You. But she wasn’t all that uptight as a first-time director.
“My overall experience of the movie was not one of pressure,” she says. “It was one of desire.”
Hunt asked old friends James Brooks and Warren Beatty to look at rough cuts of the film.
“I wanted a fresh brain to tell me what I was missing. Each of them had a good set of seemingly small suggestions, but problems are small only once you’ve fixed them. When you haven’t fixed them they seem glaring, and they threaten to ruin your movie.”
Hunt plays the baby-hungry April as a dissatisfied woman, constantly on edge – kind of tight, I suggest.
“Tight is apt,” she says. “I think it’s funny to contrast one woman (April’s mother, Bernice, played by Bette Midler) who is glamorous, facile, intuitive, intimate and eloquent with another who’s tight, jittery, not glamor-ous and out of her element.
Opposites are funny. I wanted April to be a halting, stuttering woman with a sense that she can’t keep up.”
But Hunt was directing herself, and that left her without what every actor needs – a shit detector.
“I think it’s a mistake to direct yourself, but circumstances pointed to this being the right thing to do. I had to prepare, because I knew I couldn’t do what I usually do with a good director. You do all the homework and then you go unconscious and pour yourself into the material.”
Hunt did have great actors aboard. She says Midler had just the right energy for the film, and she thinks Matthew Broderick, who plays the self-centred husband, is underrated.
“It’s easy to forget what a good actor he is,” she says. “If you think about The Producers or Ferris Beuller or the other big movies, you forget about Election. And then if you think about his film work, you forget about his stage work, and if you think about the big musicals, you forget about the straight plays. He’s such a consummate actor.”
When he plays the scene in which he announces he’s leaving April, he bursts into tears, just as Michael Murphy does when he dumps Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.
“It’s entirely possible that I totally stole it, because that movie made a big impression on me,” Hunt confess-es. “It wasn’t a conscious steal. I would not be surprised if I thought I wrote it but really I stole it. I didn’t mean to.”
Unlike many actors who really want to direct, Hunt’s not quite given up on acting.
“If somebody writes a good story, I’ll be there. I really don’t care what size the screen is or whether it’s onstage. It doesn’t feel any different whether I get to play eight pages of dialogue on the street with Bette Midler, on a sound stage with Jack Nicholson, in a studio with Paul Reiser or on a stage with John Turturro.”
Then again, she could wind up directing a lot more if Then She Found Me becomes the sleeper hit of the year. She likes that idea.
“From your lips to God’s ears, said the quarter-Jewish girl.”Oops – guess it’s time for me to stop stereotyping.
She talks about how she changed the novel And Then She Found Me is based on:
She talks about Bette Midler:
She talks about how she worked with the actors for this indie pic: