The trailer for Dan In Real Life set Jeremy off a little bit when it debuted; click here to read his original write-up wherein he bemoans the casting of Juliette Binoche as Dane Cook’s girlfriend. Some weeks later Jeremy and I were at a screening and ran into Drew McWeeny, aka Moriarty of Ain’t It Cool News; Drew told us that he had spoken to Peter Hedges, the director of Dan (as well as the director of Pieces of April and the novelist and screenwriter of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), and that Hedges was pretty miffed about what Jeremy had written.
Fast forward another couple of weeks and I get a phone call from one of the Disney PR people. It seems that Hedges had specifically requested an interview with CHUD.com. I asked if he had specifically requested Jeremy, and if he had also specifically requested a duel. He hadn’t, and I ended up getting on the phone with Hedges, who is about as nice and even-keeled a guy as you could ever hope to talk with. As we got to the end of our interview, I had to ask him about his reaction to Jeremy’s piece; his reply really makes me think about the weird relationship between the people making the movies and the people writing about them on the web.
But that’s not the only good part of this interview. Peter Hedges is engaging and generous with his thoughts, which is a real treat for me as an interviewer. I recently talked to a famous screenwriter/director and it seemed like all he wanted to divulge was his name, rank and serial number. Hedges, on the other hand, has a lot to say.
Catch Dan In Real Life in theaters starting this weekend and decide for yourself if casting Binoche as Cook’s girlfriend was a mistake, or if it works in context.
By the way, I should explain my opening question. There’s a very nice line in Dan In Real Life – ‘Love is not a feeling. It’s an ability’ – which turns out to be something actor Derek Luke said to Peter Hedges while they were filming Pieces of April.
Does Derek Luke get a special screenwriting credit for this one?
Thank you! You are the first to bust me. I was just talking to people and I said, I have to give Derek a call and let him know I stole his line. He’ll be happy, he’ll be flattered. And I stole a couple of lines from my kids and from my brother in law.
That’s how writing works.
That’s how it works. But I wish, actually, if I could do it over, I’d put a special thanks in for Derek, that would be great. I can’t wait to work with him again, so we’ll work through it! You’ve clearly done your homework, because no one else has busted me on that at all. You’re the first, and you’re my last interview, so you’re the only one!
You talk about stealing some lines from your kids, which is how writing works. But does that mean a lot of Dan In Real Life is you in real life, too? How much of this is fictional, how much is real?
First of all, the original idea came from Pierce Gardner, the first writer. What I did initially was take what he had done and tried to enhance it, help it, bring out some more of the adult themes in the story. I continued to work on it and added some stuff, but I haven’t sung in a talent show or met a Juliette Binoche-like being in a bookstore. It’s mostly a work of fiction, but little moments creep in, little lines.
How about the family? Is there any relation between that big family and your own experiences growing up?
I have three siblings – two brothers and a sister – so I guess that matches up. My family is much messier than this family. I felt having written What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Pieces of April that I had dined out quite a bit on dyfunction with a capital d, and this film was called Dan In Real Life and not Dan’s Family, so it was nice to say what if they’re not a perfect family but not a strife-riddled or angst-ridden family. They’re doing okay, they get along as best you can when you’re in one house, but what I hoped would happen is that Dan would feel a bit alien to his family, that he would be adrift.
There’s a choice that you make when Dan meets Marie [Juliette Binoche] that’s interesting to me, and I wanted to ask you about it. There’s something old fashioned in that meeting, where they hang out, talk, have a moment when they’re having breakfast, but nothing else happens. They don’t share a kiss, they don’t even hold hands. Later on, when Dan is falling for her, you run the risk of having that come across as maybe a little bit extreme on his end because there was no physical moment. Why did you decide to go that way?
Well, let’s think about Dan for a second: here’s a man who is a widower. Clearly we know that his family would like him to find someone else, but he’s out of practice. He encounters this slightly ethereal being, they meet and obviously the first part of their meeting she thinks he’s a worker, and of course he’s not. Then they’re having a conversation, they’re connecting, and then the phone rings and she needs to go. As he’s trying to keep up with her, that’s when he learns she’s in a relationship. So there hasn’t been the time… one, I don’t he would just kiss anybody, he needs to dip his toe in and test the water. By the time he connects and has his heart begin to thaw, she has to go. She doesn’t even want to give him her number, and he’s forward enough to say that he wants to finish the conversation. It’s slightly old fashioned, but maybe not. It almost plays in real time, except for the scene where they’re out talking by the water, so they haven’t spent much time together. What was important to me, and what I tried to bring to the scene, is that time almost stops and these two people connect beyond the ‘I find you attractive’ way, but they actually make a connection that goes somewhat deeper. With that connection occurring there was the hope there could be something more, and then the clear sense that there can’t be. All those things happen – it just felt like that was a key section; if we land that they connect, then everything that happens after will feel more painful and more comical too, on some level.
Going with the old fashioned thing, and I’m not using this in a negative way, but the whole film feels sort of old fashioned. There isn’t a lot of dirty talk, not a lot of double entendres or sex jokes. You could get away with a lot more in a PG-13 than you did. It’s more family friendly; was that on purpose, or is that just how it evolved?
I’m certainly conscious that we’re in a time where the dirty talk comedy is dominant. It’s quite a time for those films. For me, I just felt with this film could I make a film that was for adults that I could bring my kids to? I have a 13 year old and a 10 year old, and I was about to make a different film that I realized I wouldn’t want them to see for another five years. I thought, I’m going to have to move away for five months to shoot this and be in an editing room for a year, if I’m going to work that hard and be away from my family that much I want to make something I can bring them to. I don’t expect you to know my plays or the novel Gilbert Grape, but I’ve been known to write some very dark and dirty material. It’s not that I’m against it, and it’s very fun to do; it just didn’t seem necessary. There are some allusions to things, but they came from people I think might speak that way. I didn’t think Dan would go that low; I didn’t think he needed to.
Speaking of your novels and plays, I’m always fascinated by people who are – and this is going to come across totally wrong – real writers who get involved in Hollywood. Writing a novel is so different from writing a movie because a novel is totally your vision; even when you’re directing that script I imagine there are levels of compromise you have to deal with. I’m curious what keeps drawing you back to Hollywood.
Actually writing novels and writing screenplays is not that different for me. I feel like writing a screenplay is like writing a novel and getting really smart people to help. I’ve always wanted to direct films, and I come from the theater. I trained as an actor; I love actors. Getting to work with actors, really great actors, which I’ve had the good fortune to do on many occasions, is the best part of filmmaking for me. To me the perfect life would be – and it’s the life I sometimes get to manifest – is to be a novelist and a screenwriter who gets to direct his own scripts. For me, sitting in a room for two or three years – and my novels take even longer – alone each day, that’s lovely but there are times when it’s just nice to work with other people. I don’t find something being completely my vision that exciting, actually. What’s really terrific is to have a vision and then hire people you know are going to help advance it. When you go to work and you have Juliette Binoche and Steve Carrell and Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney and Dane Cook and Emily Blunt comes for a week, you have these great kids, you get to create an environment that will hopefully allow them to thrive, and then you get to work with an editor like Sarah Flack in post – you have these people and you’re just not alone, you’re in a community. It feels a lot like what it felt like to do plays with my friends when we were poor. I like the social connections, and I like the collaborative effort that a film brings. Also, movies have a reach that no other art form that I work in has. My novels sell, and people read them, and that’s lovely, but I can sit in a theater quietly, no one even knows I’m there, and there will be three or four hundred people watching my film and I can hear them laugh and I can feel if the air turns cold and emotion has entered the room. The movies reach people in ways that theater and novels no longer do. Also, there’s a pragmatic aspect to it – I can make a living. My kids can eat and my mortgage gets paid. But I truly love films, and I love a good book.
I’ve noticed that the people I know who are pure screenwriters end up pretty bitter and frustrated – not always, but often – and people I know that write novels often struggle because they don’t get the number of readers. I have found for me that if I can balance between the various forms it’s a pleasure. It’s working for me right now. I don’t know how many more movies I’ll get to make, but hopefully I’ll get to do a few more.
Are there ideas that are novel only or play only?
How do you know?
A novel tends to be pretty interior. I’m careful with my novels; my new novel I’ve been working on for nine years, and I keep trying to remind myself as I work on it (I’m almost done) is to do all the things I can do in a book that I can’t do in a movie. ‘How do you shoot that thought?’ But when I was writing Gilbert Grape, I thought it was a play. I wrote it as a monologue to deliver at this faculty recital where I was teaching, then I turned it into a play, but I realized all I wanted to do was to have Gilbert tell the story so it was a long monologue that became a novel. That surprised me. To answer your question you listen to the story and figure out what’s the best way to tell that story. Plays tend to obviously not have as much story as there is in a film or a novel. Big events happen offstage, so it’s more of a conversation – for me. I haven’t written a play in a long time, and I hope to again, but I’ve been kind of mired in this novel for so long that I can’t start a play until I finish the book.
I was talking to Drew McWeeny from Ain’t It Cool News, who told me that you had noticed a snarky thing one of the other CHUD writers, Jeremy Smith, had written about you.
This is such a new thing – that kind of feedback on such a visceral level so quickly, how does it effect you as a creative person?
What we’re referring to is one of your writers wanted to track me down in my Prius and beat me up for casting Juliette Binoche opposite Dane Cook -
For the record I want to say that I looked it up and he said he wanted to track down your Prius and fuck up your gas mileage, not you!
Oh is that right? Well, what I’d like him to do is first buy me a Prius. I don’t have one yet, although if I get one I will name it after him. Here’s the thing: I’m okay if you have that feeling after you’ve seen the movie, but don’t start dissing on my film when you haven’t seen it. The implication on that – and I’m not answering your question, I want to address what he said directly – the implication in what he said is that one, Juliette Binoche didn’t have a mind of her own. She wanted to be in the film, she met Steve and Dane, and she was excited to work with them. Two, if you see the film and you didn’t buy what we did, that’s different. What can I say? You saw the work, you saw the work we did and it didn’t work for you. If you were to look up my theater reviews and some of my novel reviews, I’ve been pounded in ways that it’s unbelievable, especially early in my career. I’m okay with that; you have to have the skin for that.
[What Jeremy wrote] made me feel like, just give it a chance. Just see. See what you think. So I kind of feel that it’s so easy to tear something down. I don’t mean to exploit 9/11, but one of the million thoughts I had after that happened is that it’s so easy to tear those buildings down, but it’s so hard to build them. It’s too easy. I always heard, and I think it’s true, is that the only criticism you should write is what you would say if you were sitting across the table from that person at dinner. Because very likely one day you will be. For me, your site is a site I admire, and there’s this guy saying this, and I’m like, give it a chance!
I only mentioned it to Drew because the online writing is really impacting how movies are getting distributed and how they’re perceived, and I actually find it really thrilling. There’s a democratization of the critical process. So while you have to put up with some of that, more people are getting a voice. It’s a much more fractured and complex world, so bring it on. But give it a chance. If you walk in thinking it’s such a horrible idea… I didn’t force her to be in the film, I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to take you and destroy your career,’ she’s a brilliant woman. What’s amazing to me, when I heard that she read my script and wanted to do it, she didn’t know Steve or Dane; she met them, and we worked together so she would be comfortable. I cast Steve and Dane before they took off, I cast them two years ago. I cast Dane before he got in all those other movies. I didn’t know he would be in all these films, I just saw him and thought he’d be great as the brother in the film. She wanted to do the movie because she liked Pieces of April and she liked the script. She only picks a movie based on the director. What I felt when I read it, it caught me off guard. I was trolling through the site and there it was, and I was like, ‘Oh no, you haven’t seen it!’ I’ve never written a critic; I’ve met many who have reviewed me terribly and I smothered them with kindness and they squirmed because they never thought they’d meet me, but I just feel like give it a chance. It’s hard enough to make the kind of movie we’re trying to make and put it out in the world in this time of high concept movies, so just give it a chance. If you don’t like it, I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry and there are so many good movies, go see one of those. If you’re halfway through and you’re in pain, get up, go, get out of there! Sneak into something else. It’s not for everybody.
The truth of the matter is that Juliette wanted to do this film because she said the world needs more laughter. Steve and Dane both came to the film because they wanted to do something out of the box for them. They didn’t want to be just what everybody expects them to be. I heard Dane Cook the actor, not Dane Cook the comedian that everybody either loves or hates. I hired a guy I thought would be great in the film, and I think he is. Steve, to me, gives the performance that very few of those guys could ever give. A performance so rich and deep and complex and brave and still satisfies people who want to laugh, but in a different way than he did in Anchorman or Bruce Almighty.
So anyway, that’s all! I know I’m going too long on this, but it’s like just give the movie a chance. Maybe you’ll be surprised.
I know he’s going to see it, so I’m curious what his final take will be. I’m sure he’ll write about it.
You know what, he may not like it. He may not be able to get past his immense disdain for Dane Cook. I just don’t want him to think she was victimized in any way. We loved her up, we celebrated her, she made everybody better, and she’s here in the hotel talking to press. It was a great, great time. It’s okay. I’m a big boy and the movie will… it’s a strange thing when you’re proud of something and love the way you made it and… I thought this might happen when I saw Dane’s career begin to just explode in so many ways. I had always hoped, privately, that he wouldn’t do anything, just wait and do Dan In Real Life and people would see what a great actor he is. But people have their own careers and make their own choices and I don’t even want to be in a position to manage any actor’s career. They need to make their choices, but I am really proud of him.