For filmmaker Peter Hedges, it's all in the timing - 27 East

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For filmmaker Peter Hedges, it’s all in the timing

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author on Jul 28, 2009

So much in life is about timing. For a case in point, consider the career of Peter Hedges, who will be saluted on Friday at the Avram Theater by Stony Brook Southampton and the Writers Guild of America East as part of the screenwriters’ section of the Southampton Writers Conference.

The novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and director is responsible for a body of work that includes “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” “Pieces of April,” “Dan in Real Life,” and “About a Boy,” which received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

Mr. Hedges was only 29 when his first novel, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” was published, and within two years he had adapted it into a screenplay for a film featuring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. As a director, Mr. Hedges seems to have a knack for casting actors who are in the process of breaking through in their own careers, two examples being Katie Holmes in Mr. Hedges’s first effort, “Pieces of April,” and Steve Carrell in his second, “Dan In Real Life,” released in 2007.

But his fortuitous timing began long before he set foot on a film shoot. After growing up in West Des Moines, Iowa, he attended and graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. A year later, he joined forces with the actress Mary-Louise Parker and the director Joe Mantello to found the Edge Theatre. Members of the group moved to New York City, and during the ensuing three years Mr. Hedges wrote and directed 12 plays for the company, no doubt the best in-the-trenches training a writer could have.

His original intention was to be an actor. Next was to be a playwright. That was working out well enough, though he had to teach as an adjunct professor and work temp jobs to pay the rent and help underwrite Edge Theatre productions. But after writing a short play that was a monologue delivered by a character named Gilbert Grape, Mr. Hedges began to think of writing a novel. “I’m still amazed that I took that leap,” he said in an interview near his home in Montauk. “Growing up in Iowa, I never saw myself as a novelist.”

Another dollop of good timing: After “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” was written, and accepted, foreign rights were sold, and one of the countries releasing an edition was Sweden. A copy was put in the hands of Lasse Hallstrom, who had directed the critically acclaimed “My Life As a Dog.” He believed that the author could adapt his own book into a screenplay. Mr. Hedges wasn’t so sure.

“I knew next to nothing about writing a screenplay,” he said. “So I called Lasse up and asked if I could come to Sweden—sleep on his floor if I had to—so that I could talk to him every day while I was writing. He thought that was a good idea. It worked. I left Sweden after a month with a completed script.”

Before the script was sent to various actors, Mr. Hedges was told that Johnny Depp had been given a copy of the novel by Wynona Ryder and had loved it, and that he would commit to the film version if Lasse Hallstrom directed it. Needless to say, that became a done deal, and just over six months later shooting began.

Though the film version would be lensed in Texas, the story takes place in Endora, Iowa. Gilbert Grape tells the story of a young man trying to cope with the responsibilities of caring for a mother who is homebound because of obesity and a mentally handicapped teenage brother. His constant attention to them and issues of change in the small town leave little room for his own needs and ambitions.

The book is populated by eccentric characters and a series of minor tragedies, with Gilbert trying to hold his family together and keep his increasing anger under wraps.

The 1993 film earned DiCaprio, who played the challenged brother, his first acting Oscar nomination. Also included in the cast were Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, and John C. Reilly. While Mr. Hedges has not abandoned fiction writing at all—“An Ocean In Iowa” was published in 1998 and “The Heights” is to be published by Dutton next March—he has taken advantage of being offered interesting big-screen projects. He adapted the Jane Hamilton novel “A Map of the World” for a 1999 movie and three years later the Nick Hornby novel “About a Boy,” with Hugh Grant giving what many consider his finest performance.

Reflecting on his mother’s battle with and death from cancer, Mr. Hedges wrote a screenplay titled “Pieces of April,” and he was able to get the nod to direct it. The budget was a miniscule $300,000, yet in addition to Ms. Holmes he was able to cast such excellent actors as Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, and Derek Luke. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and critics embraced the story of a young woman in Manhattan who intends to make Thanksgiving dinner for her dying mother, until her oven breaks. Ms. Clarkson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

“Dan in Real Life,” released two years ago, was something of a surprise. “I was asked to do a four-week rewrite of a script, and after those four weeks I just couldn’t do it and I offered to give the studio its money back,” recalled Mr. Hedges. “Instead, the studio sent me a box of scripts and said that I was to pick one that I liked better. And in the box I found this screenplay by Pierce Gardner and knew that was what I wanted to work on.”

After a rewrite, Mr. Hedges received a call from the head of the studio that she had already green-lit the film “and that I could cast whoever I wanted,” Mr. Hedges said. “That sort of threw me because it meant I had become the director without even asking for it.”

The story involves a grieving widower with three daughters, Dan, who is heading to his parents’ country home for an annual family reunion. During a roadside stop, he meets and becomes infatuated with a woman, and the feeling is mutual. They part, but when he gets to his parents’ house he discovers that the woman is his brother’s girlfriend. With his daughters’ eyes on them, Dan and the woman spend the long weekend trying not to acknowledge that they are becoming even more attracted to each other.

When looking to cast the lead, Mr. Hedges was familiar with Steve Carrell only from his supporting role on “The Daily Show.” He screened “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which had not yet been released, and knew that he had found his leading man. Once again, he enlisted a top-notch ensemble cast, which included Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, John Mahoney, and Diane Wiest. (In the just-a-coincidence department, the last three all appeared on HBO’s series “In Treatment” this year.)

Mr. Hedges said in an interview this week that he has that hankering to direct again. He has adapted the novel “Everything Changes” by Jonathon Tropper and is now involved in casting. He hopes to begin shooting at the beginning of the year in New York City.

“I’m really excited about directing again,” he said. “Working with the actors and others on a film set reminds me of my younger days doing theater projects. Writing, of course, is a solitary occupation, so I feel fortunate that I can do something collaborative like direct a movie. Also, this is a book I wish I’d written, and this is a story I’d love to tell.”

As a filmmaker, Mr. Hedges might be said to be following in the footsteps of Robert Benton, who began as a screenwriter (“Bonnie and Clyde”) and became a director (“Kramer v. Kramer,” among others). He will certainly be following in Mr. Benton’s footsteps when he is interviewed on Friday night as part of the Stony Brook Southampton screenwriters conference, just as Mr. Benton was last year. The event will include clips from his films.

On Saturday, Mr. Hedges will yield the floor to make way for “A Conversation on Film Writing with Alec Baldwin and Jon Robin Baitz,” which will feature the actor and the playwright in a humorous and practical conversation about what makes great screenwriting as they screen examples of clips from some of their favorite films.

Both events are at 7:30 p.m. in the Avram Theater on the Stony Brook Southampton campus. Tickets for Friday are $25 and $10 for seniors, students, and Stony Brook University faculty and staff. Tickets to the Saturday event are $35/$10. For ticket information, call 632-5152 or visit www.stonybrook.edu/avram.

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