Director Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges on the set of Pieces of April.

For many directors, a first film is about getting
your name out there and creating a calling card for future projects.
For first-timer
Peter Hedges, however, it’s all about an inner passion. Already
a celebrated novelist (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and
screenwriter (About a Boy), the desire to step behind the
camera on Pieces of April came about when his own mother
was diagnosed with cancer. Picking up the story, which he had written
years earlier, he realized that this was his own tale. He also
knew that, if told right, it would help him come to terms with
his mother’s illness and her eventual lost battle to the disease.

In its initial circulation, the script gained
a lot of attention. “The movie was actually set up on three different
occasions with a budget of $4 to $7 million and then kept collapsing
for various reasons,” Hedges recalls. “Two studios and one wealthy
guy pulled out at different points. And after that third collapse,
I felt pretty discouraged. I felt that there was no reason to continue,
but my producer suggested we call the people at InDigEnt.” Twenty
four hours later, the project was given a greenlight. Four weeks later
they started shooting, and 16 days after that they wrapped. The film
garnered much critical acclaim at its Sundance premiere-and the accolades
keep piling up as the film is being released in theaters. MM caught up with Hedges as he traveled from Phoenix to Seattle, promoting
the film. Here he discusses the challenges of being a first-time director,
adjusting a formerly $7 million film to fit within the $150,000 InDigEnt
budget, and the need to be passionate about any project in order to
make it successful.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Pieces of April had been set up a few
times before InDigEnt got involved.

Peter Hedges (PH): Yeah, it was ready to go. We had been up in
Toronto, where we were going to shoot it as a $7 million film, and had
hired a bunch of crew and scouted locations and then the movie got pulled.
I staggered back to New York and we put it back together. And Katie Holmes
and Patricia Clarkson, who had already been cast, stayed on.

MM: Had you always planned to direct the film?

PH: Always. I would never have let the movie be made
if I didn’t direct it. It was a story I had to tell, particularly after
I rediscovered it and my mom blessed it. I just knew I had to make it.
It’s also a very delicate film in that it aspires to be as funny as possible
and also break your heart. In doing both of those things, it needed to
be done beautifully and carefully and I felt like I understood how to
tell the story.

Most screenplays, I have no business directing-and even screenplays
I’ve written I probably have no business directing. But this one. Not
that I saw exactly how it would be at every moment, but I knew the story
I was trying to tell. And I was able to attract like-minded people who
wanted to tell the same story.

MM: Given that the script was completed with a $7 million
budget in mind, how did you have to adjust the script in order to make
it work within the InDigEnt model and budget?

PH: I didn’t change the script much. The only thing that happened
was that my script supervisor had a conversation with me about how unpleasant
it can be to film in a moving car. At one incarnation I think I had 11
scenes that took place in a moving car and I got it down to four, where
we were actually in the car and it was moving. But that was a change
I probably would have made even if we’d shot it on film.

There were a couple of shots that I couldn’t get-drive-bys and wide
shots and traveling shots-that I thought I needed but we didn’t have
time for. When we cut the film I was prepared to argue for re-shoots
and say ‘I must have those shots.’ But I actually found that they would
have only prolonged what was inevitable, the conclusion that we hurtled
toward. So I found that I didn’t need them, or at least I feel like
I didn’t need them.

MM: One of the ways in which you really
showed off the digital format in a way that we don’t really see that
often is that you created two very distinct looks to represent the
two different worlds of April
and her family. How did you go about accomplishing this?

PH: Well, I wanted it to feel like there was
a great deal of life and color in the New York world and that in the
suburban world the
palette was more muted. But we actually carried a lot of the same colors
over. The one thing we added in the production design, in April’s apartment,
was the color black-the accent color of black. And in the parents’ house
we use an accent color of white. That’s not to play up the racial aspects
of the story, but to give a little more solidity to the look.

It was all handheld. I think that some of it was
just the luck of the different locations and the feel of them, because
I didn’t do one of
those Soderberghian “let’s shoot it with a different filter or with different
colors” to really accentuate. I tried to apply the same cinematic rules
to both worlds, so everything is handheld.

The charge to the DP, Tami Reiker, was to follow
the action and not be led by it; to just keep up. Because nobody’s in control; none of the
characters are in control of this. And yet I didn’t want one of those
wacky Lars von Trier cameras. I actually love those films, but sometimes
I feel like the camera’s just moving to mess with our heads. I wanted
the camera to move only when it had to.

MM: Being a first-time moviemaker, do you
think it was easier to work within the pre-set InDigEnt parameters
because you didn’t have
other experiences to compare it with?

PH: I think because I had an unusual grasp
of the story-I often
don’t have as much command of the story, or feel as if I do-that this
was a really terrific way for me to make this film. Even though I had
to keep adjusting the how of how we realized the story, I did
feel pretty solid about what the story was. If I had gone into this and
had those limitations and I didn’t know what I was trying to do, it would
have been very hard for me.

MM: What are some of the best lessons you
learned on this film that you don’t think you would have learned
had you shot it with the luxury of a larger budget, longer shoot
or on film?

PH: That’s a great question. I learned to trust my writing more.
I learned that sometimes limitations can be quite useful. The limitation
of time and budget forced a kind of rigor in my thinking and in how I
listened to other people and how I learned to express myself to other
people. I think that there’s a lot of waste in terms of time and money
when movies are made; movies spend unnecessarily. I’d love to see if
I could find a way to save on some of the production aspects and filter
it more into salary, so people get paid what they’re worth.

MM: Do you have plans to direct anything else?

PH: I’m looking for a story that I can care
about as much as I care about Pieces of April. And when I find
that story, hopefully I’ll be able to direct again.