Helen Hunt is an Oscar winner (for “As Good As It Gets”) and a four-time Emmy winner (for “Mad About You”). Now she has a new title to add to her esteemed collection: filmmaker.
Hunt directed her first feature, “Then She Found Me,” which played at the South by Southwest film festival ahead of its April 25 theatrical release. She also co-wrote and stars in the romantic comedy as a New York schoolteacher whose adoptive mother dies just as her birth mother (Bette Midler) shows up out of nowhere. At the same time, her husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her as she falls for the father (Colin Firth) of one of her students.
The 44-year-old sat down with The Associated Press in front of an audience to discuss the challenges of this new role. Some excerpts:
AP: So when we were waiting to come out here in the filmmakers’ lounge, a gentleman approached you and was just effusively praising your movie. What’s it like to get that kind of reaction from other filmmakers?
Hunt: It’s the best compliment because they, you (to the audience), are the people who know how ridiculously hard it is to get a movie made, much less to finish it, much less to be treated like this. It takes a lot of perseverance.
AP: The movie premiered at Toronto, now it’s playing here. What’s the experience been like for you to take the movie to film festivals and share it with people?
Hunt: Well in Toronto, we didn’t have a distributor, so after close to 10 years of trying to get it made, I thought it was ... I heard so many no’s, different kinds of no’s over the 10 years: polite no’s, rude no’s, big no’s, little no’s. And I thought it was possible, even probable, that it would screen in Toronto and I’d fly home and say, “I did it.” And it was uncharacteristic for this movie, a Cinderella night where ThinkFilm, which for me was the dream place to have it, bought it that night at 2:30 in the morning. So this is really the fun part, to get to have other filmmakers see your movie.
AP: You had directed several episodes of “Mad About You,” including the series finale. What told you back then that you wanted to be a director?
Hunt: I wasn’t sure that I did. I knew that it would take a story I felt very personally connected to. Who would want that job unless you really cared about the story? That’s not true — some people just want to direct. I, over the long process of rewriting this movie, became more and more married to it, created characters that were me all over the place. Then it started to be true that it would be more tiring to explain to another director what I wanted than to direct it myself. And people have asked, “What was it like to be acting and directing?” For this movie, it all felt like one thing, one big birth.
AP: Certainly you’ve been on film sets your whole life, but having to wear that hat, how did you know that you could do it?
Hunt: I did not (laughter). How could you know? I know as I was working on movies, many times I thought, “If I ever direct, I’m going to remember that” or “I’m not going to do that.” So I certainly had a lot of different kinds of directors to think about when I was deciding how I wanted to be during these 27 days.
AP: And who influenced you?
Hunt: God, so many people. Jim Brooks — he holds a big place in my psyche about the kinds of movies that move me. Funny movies about difficult things appeal to me. That’s a cocktail that works for me, and this movie is, hopefully, a funny movie about betrayal, basically. It looks like it’s about adoption or it looks like it’s about wanting a baby or falling in love or getting your heart broken. But for me, I had to come up with — and this is something I think I learned from Jim Brooks — that you have to have the one sentence that you hang onto when you make a movie, and everything falls in line behind that. For me it was: You can’t really fall in love until you’ve made peace with betrayal. ...
And there are other directors who shall remain nameless that I remember feeling like, “That’s a mistake.” I worked with somebody once who, the camera operator — who arguably knows more than anybody — gave a suggestion and this director shot him down. And I remember, just, that’s it, you don’t get a second shot at getting someone from the crew to give you their point of view. You either create an environment where people feel welcome to give you their opinions or you don’t. So I knew that I wanted to be prepared enough that I would be brave enough to hear people’s ideas. And I did.
AP: How did you respond when people came to you with ideas?
Hunt: Just shot ’em down (laughter).
AP: As well you should ...
Hunt: It’s my movie! No, as — whatever — stressed or tired as I was, I was never too stressed or tired to hear somebody’s idea, ’cause I was very alone, to tell you the truth. I did not have, you know, the Coen brothers have the other Coen brother (laughter). I didn’t have anybody. I was just me, hoping this all made sense.
AP: I’m glad that you mentioned Jim Brooks because there are a lot of lines and a lot of the tone in your film that reminded me of “As Good As It Gets,” in terms of a really poignant moment that’s also sweet but doesn’t go all the way into maudlin. How do you achieve that?
Hunt: I mean, that’s writing and then hiring good actors, and if you’re making a movie that’s funny, there’s just an ear. People either have an ear to do eight pages of rapid-fire dialogue or they don’t and (Midler) just has the best ear of anybody.
AP: It’s a very interesting cast, though, besides Bette Midler. I love that you chose Salman Rushdie as your gynecologist. Where did that come from?
Hunt: He really is my gynecologist (laughter). That’s the weird thing.