“Like it’s easier to remake a bad movie than a good movie, it’s probably easier to adapt an imperfect novel than one that’s just right the way it is,” Helen Hunt observed during a Dallas interview about her directorial debut “Then She Found Me,” for which she also (along with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin) developed the script from Elinor Lipman’s novel and stars in as well. She plays April Epner, a schoolteacher desperate to have a child who’s suddenly dumped by her boyish husband (Matthew Broderick) and attracted to the surly divorced father of one of her students (Colin Firth)—while she’s approached by a volatile television talk show hostess (Bette Midler) who claims to be her biological mother, and this just after her adoptive one has died.
“I read a very faithful adaptation of the novel, and the novel itself, a long time ago, and I tried as an actress to get it made,” Hunt continued. “And everybody thought it was better than most things that they read, but not quite a movie. And I couldn’t totally disagree with them. But it was very hard to rewrite something that was so beautifully written as the book was. There was nothing wrong with it, the characters were perfect as they were.
“So I tried and tried, and put it away. And then I started to think about what was missing so that it could live on the screen. It took me a long time to figure out ‘Oh, she needs to want something.’ Good movies have characters who really want something. It was a story about mothers and daughters, and I was wanting a baby [at the time], and so suddenly I thought she should want a baby. That’s not in the novel. And the idea of betrayal came up, and once I knew that I wanted to make a movie about betrayal, I was able to invent the two male characters that aren’t in the novel and get rid of a beautiful love interest that’s in the novel but just didn’t fit the betrayal story. And I trued to run that [theme] through each character—that was my goal.”
But Hunt’s new script wasn’t an easy sell, either. It wasn’t that potential backers doubted her ability as a director: “I think people thought if you’re going to gamble on somebody, she seems like a pretty good gamble,” she said. “I think one question people had was, is this a big movie or a little movie? Now it’s clearly an indie film…that happens to have four well-known people in it. But then people who might have paid for it [asked] what is it, exactly? Most people liked it, but were just a little afraid that they didn’t know what box to put it in.”
But finally was able to raise backing for a shoot that would run a modest twenty-seven days and require a cast and crew that could accommodate themselves to such a schedule. For Hunt herself, that wasn’t a problem. “I had years of prep,” she said. “I had been preparing for this movie literally for years. I had a long time because no one would give me a check. So I used that time to know the movie more and more.” She also asked advice from everyone she’d worked with, from James Brooks to Emilio Estevez. “I just watched [them work] and asked anything I could,” she recalled.
With the need for everything to fall into place meant that cast and crew had to be shuffled to fit the calendar. But Hunt believes that it worked out for the best. “One thing that directors will tell you is that every time something changes or you lose an element you thought you had…you think your movie’s ruined. But it’s always better for it. It does work out the way it’s supposed to work out.”
And that includes Hunt’s decision to star in “Then She Found Me” as well as direct it.
“I think in general it’s a bad idea, but I think in this case in the end it was the right thing to do,” she said. “It was one of the last decisions I made—to offer it to somebody else or to play it myself. I didn’t enjoy directing myself when I did ‘Mad About You’ [her popular sitcom, which ran from 1992 to 1999]. But in this movie, logistically in twenty-seven days I couldn’t have gotten another actress to…know the movie already, to be free whenever any of these [other] actors were free to rehearse, to never sleep, to change clothes in a car. So it started as a logistical choice, but as I got further into it, I thought the truth is, I want this part. I hadn’t played a part like this, and I thought that was a legitimate reason to give myself the job.”
Especially since there was so much of her in the role. “Salman Rushdie [who has a cameo in the film as a gynecologist] said that if someone asks you how autobiographical a book is, the only satisfactory answer is totally. The truth is, I’m not only my character, I’m Colin Firth’s character. Working in the car outside your kids’ school or sleeping on the floor in your kids’ bedroom—I don’t actually do those things, but I wrote them, they came to me, I imagined them.
“So it’s all me, this movie. I can’t really hide anywhere.”