Peter Hedges takes on his first screen directing assignment with “Pieces of April,” a Sundance favorite based on his own original script about a young New York woman (Katie Holmes) preparing a Thanksgiving meal for her estranged suburban family–and particularly for her mother (Patricia Clarkson), an embittered cancer survivor–who has to ask for her neighbors’ help when her oven breaks down. It’s hardly his first cinematic experience, however: he adapted his own novel, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” for Lasse Hallstrom in 1993, and also adapted books by others for the screen (Jane Hamilton’s “A Map of the World” for Scott Elliott in 1999 and Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” for Paul and Chris Weitz in 2002).
“But I didn’t become a screenwriter because of some horrible trauma done to me by a movie studio or a tyrannical director,” he emphasized in a recent Dallas interview. “I always wanted to direct films, and for me it was a question of finding the story that I could tell better than anyone else–or maybe not that, because I wouldn’t presume that someone couldn’t have made a better movie than I did of ‘Pieces of April.’ But I had to tell this story, and I couldn’t wait to tell this story. So when I knew I had to tell it and couldn’t wait to tell it, then I knew it was ready to be told…. It met a lot of the criteria that I have for stories that I think I should be telling. It had the potential to have a lot of humor and a lot of love in it, and yet it had a lot of rage and a lot of life in it, a lot of messiness, and I felt that the story could be useful. I hoped that it would be useful, particularly after 9/11, when I lived in Brooklyn Heights and we stood on my roof and watched the Towers go. And it struck me, among all the thoughts that were going on–and we lost neighbors and friends in that–how easy it is to tear something down. It’s just astonishing how quickly those buildings fell. The loss of life is the greater tragedy, but when I think of those buildings, and I think of all it took to build them…it’s so easy to destroy something and so hard to make something. But after 9/11, the question was, what do you make? And when I looked at what I was working on at the time, the only thing that was on my shelf of unfinished projects, or projects that I’m trying to make happen, the only thing that felt useful in any way was ‘Pieces of April.’ I’m not saying that it in any way addresses terrorism or stops a war…but it is about the fragility of life and kind of the ever-present tick-tock of life, and how do we proceed when we’re running out of time.”
But the genesis of the film goes back much further, and involves an even more personal moment of loss in Hedges’s life. “I had started so many [scripts],” he recalled. “I have the hand-model movie, the lip-sync movie, the movie about making a movie, and I abandoned them all. But I think there’s another reason why I knew I had to tell [this story]… The reason I wasn’t finishing those other ones is I think I reached a point with them that I couldn’t justify, I couldn’t imagine sitting in a room and saying to people, ‘You need to give us money,’ or ‘You need to give all your effort on behalf of this story.’ There’s a point, there’s a click–I call it a click, but it’s almost an undefinable moment when something goes from being ‘oh, wouldn’t this be nice’ to ‘this must be.’ And for me when it came to ‘Pieces of April’ was when I rediscovered it, because I’d made all the notes for this project and forgotten about it. Years ago, I heard about a group of young people who went to cook a turkey and the oven didn’t work, and they went around their building in New York and borrowed other people’s ovens. And I thought that was a terrific way to throw people together who normally wouldn’t be together. And I was getting tired of writing about Iowa and a bunch of white people in Iowa. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to do something different? Now somehow I still managed to write a story about a family; I can’t seem to shake the family, I don’t know if I’ll ever shake the family. I made some notes based on that idea, about how I’d throw people together, forgot about it, and then five years ago I learned that my mother had cancer. She called and broke the news. She’d just retired, she’d moved back to Iowa to reclaim the family farmhouse, remodel it. This was devastating news. We just were all a mess. Over the next year and a half, my brother, sister and I traveled back and forth to take care of her. She was pretty adamant that we were to keep on with our work. We were to be parents, because we all have children, and in my case I was to keep writing. I didn’t feel much like writing. She would always say, ‘What are you working on? Tell me the story.’ That was her big phrase, ‘Tell me the story-what’s the story?’ But I didn’t want to write. But I did open my files on the computer one day and found a bunch of files for movie ideas. I opened one of the files, and the notes were for ‘Pieces of April,’ about a girl cooking a turkey. She’s named April after the moody month, the rainy month that’s suddenly beautiful, and it struck me that in my notes, it was to be a comedy–Vivaldi with teeth was how I described it in my notes. I wanted it to taste like a milkshake, but have a punch–I like stories that go down easy but also stick around a long time. What took my breath away, though, was when I saw the reason for the meal, the reason she was cooking the turkey. And that, of course, is the big writer’s question–why today? If you can’t answer that, it could be any other day. What I said was the reason she’s cooking the meal was she’s estranged from her mom and that her mom has cancer. When I saw that her mom has cancer in the notes, I called my mom and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what I found.’ And she said, ‘Peter, that sounds like a story you’re supposed to write.’ When that happened, I think that was the click for me.”
Hedges continued: “Then, of course, a couple of other things happened. I made a very clear delineation between my life as a son helping his mother try to live, and then ultimately help her die, and a writer who’s making up a story… It’s hard enough to say goodbye to your mom; I didn’t want to have to be writing about it, too. And yet after she passed, this project was some strange way to keep communicating with her. It wasn’t like I was talking to her, but it kept her present in my thinking and so this movie became not about her, but my tribute to her. And that, I think, propelled me–because this is the one thing I’ve always wanted to do that I never have done… And I finally did it.”
But Hedges quickly corrected himself. “We did it,” he emphasized. “What moved me most in shooting the movie was the extraordinary generosity of everyone who worked on the film. Maybe we were just lucky, or maybe it was because we had no money it was the only way it was going to be, but nobody could compare the size of their trailers, nobody could get caught up in what can be the pettiness of filmmaking. We didn’t have the time. So what kept wrecking me was that all of these people, who could have been working on bigger projects and making reasonable amounts of money, had elected to tell this story. That’s what kept flooring me.”