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It was a tough Aussie 1st Assistant Director’s unexpectedly teary endorsement of Juliette Binoche as an actress who “makes everyone better” that convinced Peter Hedges to cast Binoche in Dan In Real Life, he happily admits in this Q&A …

Novelist, playwright, screenwriter and film director - Peter Hedges is perhaps best known for his 2003, directorial debut, Pieces of April. But he is also the author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (the writer of both the novel and the screenplay) and is an Academy Award nominee for his adaptation of Nick Hornby’s, international hit, About A Boy. Hedges returns to filmmaking with Dan in Real Life, a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of an extended family holiday in bucolic New England. It tells the story of a widowed newspaper advice columnist (Steve Carell) who falls in love with the one woman he can’t possibly possess (Juliette Binoche).

It's been a while since your last film, Pieces of April...
It’s been four years... But I’m at an age where I don’t need to make just any old thing. I’m primarily a novelist. So I sit in Brooklyn and write my novels. I’m also very slow at it (laughs)… Yes, it could have happened sooner, but I’m glad it didn’t. It’s nice to have that luxury of time. I’m probably only going to make a handful of movies, anyway. So I’d like to make them right.

What's it like going from working on a book to the collaborative effort involved in filmmaking?

For me, getting to write novels and make films is the perfect life. This year, I’ll have a writing year. Next year, maybe I’ll direct. For me, that works. What I loved about this film, in particular, was that I didn’t have to do it alone. I’d been aching to be back in that environment where you make something with people.

Do you have a preference between the two?
It would be directing what I’ve written. My other great passion, of course, is working with actors. Watching actors bring something to life that I dreamed up or someone else dreamed up that I helped re-dream - which is the case here with, Dan in Real Life. Pierce (screenwriter, Pierce Gardner) was the first writer on this project. I took his script and then added my sensibility to it while trying to honor his initial impulses.

Do you have specific actors in mind when you're writing?
Yes. I usually have an actor in mind. And when you don’t, you just put Meryl Streep in (laughs). Even if it’s a 12-year-old boy, you ask yourself, “Would Meryl Streep want to play this kid? Would an actor of stature want to do this?” I trained as an actor. And while I wasn’t particularly great – or even good – I know what actors love to do. They love to surprise themselves. They love to play.

Still, Dan in Real Life, is a departure for you - your first big Hollywood film.
Even though it appears to be a big budget movie, everybody worked for less. Much less than they normally get paid. We made Dan in Real Life for a reasonable amount of money. Granted, it was 100-times what I had for Pieces of April. But most movies like this one have budgets which are double or triple than what we had to work with. For us though, it was an advantage. It enabled us to keep it classy and not make it as broad as a lot of American comedies are.

Steve Carell is one of the top performers working in Hollywood today. How did you get him?
It was a coup… I met Steve two years ago for this movie, before The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out. He has great taste and great representation.. They had tracked this project. And they approached me and asked if I would I meet with him. Now, of course, it would be a different story. Because Steve has become a movie star. Two years ago, he was on the verge of becoming a movie star… I’ve found that the best way to cast a film is to actually cast people who want to be in it, as opposed to chasing people. On Pieces of April, I chased a number of performers. I went everywhere, begging them to be in the film. I’ve since learned not to beg anybody. With Dan in Real Life, it was there on the page. Steve saw it. And he was interested.

Did things change after the release of the 40-year-old Virgin?
Nothing changed. He didn’t renegotiate his deal. He didn’t ask for more money. I’m telling you, with every other actor in Hollywood, their agents would have said: “Pay us, ten times more…” But Steve knew that if we kept the cost down, they would leave us alone and let us make our movie, our way. And he was right.

How did you cast Juliette Binoche?
My co-producer works with Anthony Minghella a great deal. I’d been on the set of Breaking and Entering and went to dinner one night with the First AD (Steve E. Andrews). I said to him, “If you could work with any actress in the world, who would it be?” This is a tough Aussie, by the way, who’s worked with everybody. He started to tear up. And he said, “Juliette Binoche.” Why? “Because she makes everyone better.” This was coming from a guy who had probably never cried in his lifetime. Well, I thought… I want that.

Eventually she read the script and wanted to meet. I knew from The 40-Year-Old Virgin that the dynamic between Steve Carell and Catherine Keener was really special. That’s what made that movie great - not the broad male based comedy, but the love story between that grandmother and Steve Carell. Catherine Keener has that quality where women really respect her and men all like her. Juliette Binoche is similar- women adore her and men love her. We needed somebody who could walk into a room and our on-screen family would fall in love with her. She also had a willingness to push herself in a new way… The reason a lot of actors agree to work with me is that they get a chance to do something different. I also think that makes it thrilling for the audience. You’re surprised by what these actors can do… It wasn’t hard for Juliette to do what she did. She’s just never been given the chance to be funny in an American comedy.

You also put together an impressive supporting cast - Dane Cook, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney...
You know, I saw 100 actors just to cast the cop in this film. He has two lines. We cast a Tony nominated actor for that… Still, I felt that all of those actors in the ensemble were under-cast and under used. I told them when I hired them, “You’re not going to have enough to do, but you’re going to be very important. Because if every body is exquisite, the whole movie will be lifted as a result.” Every day I would run to work. Because I wanted to work with those people.

The film comes across as very, well, very real...
It was the only way to make this movie. You make it in a real house with the best actors you can find who are going to play. One bad actor in that group, or, one bad scene, and the whole thing could have unraveled.

The music is also quite special
I find almost every American film is over-scored to a point that I can’t even watch it. As a result, I often watch movies with the sound down, because I can’t bear the music.

In Pieces of April, I cut the whole film without any score and only added the music later. There are only five scored cues in that entire film. For Dan in Real Life, I set out from the beginning to find a singular artist that could score the entire film. I must have listened to well over 500 artists. But I kept listening to this one artist. I didn’t know who he was. But his music was timeless, haunting, complex and melodic. I just thought “Who is this guy?” Then my music supervisor told me – Sondre Lerche. “He’s Norwegian and he’s 23. And the song you love, he wrote and recorded when he was 16.

It turned out he had an apartment in the building where my therapist has his office. We talked for an hour. And I was nervous. The guy looks like he’s ten years old (laughs). I bring him Harold and Maude. I bring him The Graduate. And I tell him: “I don’t think the studio is ever going to go for this, but I’d like you to score the movie.” He left the room and came back with his guitar and says, “I wrote this song two days ago. It seems like it fits.” I passed his CD’s onto the head of music at the studio. And they agreed. That’s how Sondre came to score the movie.

What about the title of the film, Dan in Real Life. Can you claim credit?
That title was Pierces’ (screenwriter, Pierce Gardner). And I’m so grateful for it. I was able to use it constantly in pre-production. In terms of the production design. In terms of the actors I hired… The movie needed to feel like ‘real life.’ Even the look of the film – to try not to make one of those bright American comedies, but instead give it some weight.

Is that difficult to do on film?
No, not at all. What’s difficult is to get them to let you do it. You have Steve Carell and Dane Cook in a movie and you tell them it’s going to feel ‘real’. One of the scenes, which is very successful, is a dramatic moment where Steve and Dane are just standing there doing the dishes. That’s it. Here are these two iconic comedians and you feel like you’re peeking in on a very private, quiet moment…

Did you have any trepidation about re-working another writer's script?
No. I owed the studio four weeks of work on a project. I was just trying to help the script. I spoke with the writer who was happy that I was brought on. He felt he had taken it as far as he could. At that point I wasn’t even directing it. I just thought I was helping it become a movie that I’d like to see which would retain the spirit of his original script.

Where did you shoot it?

Rhode Island. Part of the reason we started looking there was because Steve Carell had a summer house nearby. I figured if we could shoot there, he’d be more apt to stay on the movie (laughs)… In the end it didn’t matter because his family wasn’t going to be in the area by the time we were finally ready to film. And if it had been done on a soundstage, it wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

You started your career as an actor. Any desire to act again?
I do. But it really comes down to this: If I’m acting, I’m keeping a real actor from a job. And that’s untenable to me. What else do I need? I get to write books. I get to write and direct films. I get to teach when I want. And I can do plays. At some point you say, ‘That’s enough.’

Your films explore sentiment, yet are utterly unsentimental - how do you achieve that balance?
Here’s the secret: It’s not sentimental for the characters. They’re not in sentimental places. They’re trying to do things… Here, Dan Burns is trying not to fall in love with the person he should be with. In Pieces of April, Katie Holmes is trying to cook a meal for her mother… Mostly, though, it’s a matter of taste. I like stories that affect me emotionally, but don’t cheat. Cheating would be taking short cuts - adding music to induce a response that isn’t organic to the story, for example. Also my instincts are to go against the grain. If it’s a funny scene, go against the comedy. If it’s a dramatic scene, go against the drama… To make a romantic comedy that’s like all the others isn’t interesting to me.

What are your expectations for Dan in Real Life?

They’ve already been met. I wanted to make a movie that I could take my kids to. One that my wife would love. That the actors who worked on it would be proud of. And that the studio would be thrilled with… I’ve had a number of writer and director friends who have come up to me and say, “We want your movie to succeed because we like you. But we need your movie to succeed because it’s really hard in this climate to make a film like Dan in Real Life.” Well, it is very hard to do. A human comedy that isn’t broad or groin based humor that walks that line? It’s very hard to get those movies made. If this one is well received, maybe it will make things easier… I don’t have delusions about it being Citizen Kane. But it has its place.

What was the biggest challenge on Dan in Real Life?

I wasn’t conditioned to run the distance that a big movie requires. Pieces of April was a short prep and a short shoot. I felt like I was exhausted when I started this one. I was a beat behind, the whole time. I had several moments where I felt great despair. That I was doing a terrible job and the movie was going to fail. There was a period in the first or second week where I was so tired I thought I was losing my mind. So I had a little conversation with myself where I said, if I can’t find joy in this job, I’ll never do it again. This is what I’d dreamt of my entire life. And it was here. And if I couldn’t find joy in it, then I would no longer do it. And then it turned around… The stamina that’s required, I wasn’t prepared for. I think I am now.

Published June 26, 2008

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Peter Hedges with Steve Carell


Pieces of April

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