Pieces of April
Feature and roundtable interviews by Dominic Varle
USA, 2003. Rated PG-13. 80 minutes.
Cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson,
Derek Luke, Sean Hayes, Oliver Platt, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr,
Alice Drummond, Sisqo
aving fled the suburbs for the Big City, April (Katie Holmes) is the black sheep of her family. Estranged from her dying mother, the ironically named Joy (Patricia Clarkson), April offers to host Thanksgiving at her scruffy New York apartment. Her father, Jim (Oliver Platt) seizes this olive branch, knowing that this Thanksgiving may be their last together, and brokers a détente between the two. Writer/director Peter Hedges posits April frantically trying to cook the turkey in an oven that doesn't work while her family drives in from the 'burbs. Cutting between these narratives (and adding a distracting and largely redundant third involving April's boyfriend Bobby, played by Derek Luke) reinforces Hedges' race against time theme.
Pieces of April is an understated story "about the preciousness of time," according to Hedges. Hedges, whose short résumé is long on acclaim (he also wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy), makes his directorial debut with the independent April. Originally slated to cost in the region of seven million dollars, but made in the end for just three hundred thousand after the production budget fell through several times, it's rather difficult to see where the balance could have made this simple film, simply told, any better than it is. Despite several faltering steps, Pieces of April is so littered with moments of true humanity that the film is ultimately irresistible.
Written as a tribute to Hedges' mom, who died three years ago, Pieces of April appealed to the four leads (Holmes, Clarkson, Platt and Luke) for the same reason. In Derek Luke's words, "These characters are real, and roles like this don't come along that often." That the cast and crew worked only for a percentage of the box office, and the gusto with which the actors tackle their roles, speaks volumes to their commitmentand the paucity of credible scripts in circulation.
Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
In New York, Hedges and members of the cast sat down with reporters to discuss the inspiration for Pieces of April, the economics of the "studio system," and why it's probably a good idea to give Marilu Henner's recipe for tofu meatloaf a wide berth. What follows are highlights from those interviews.
Question: Is it true that your inspiration for Pieces of April came from your own situation with your mom?
Peter Hedges: I made my first notes for it eight or nine years ago, but I didn't start the script until I found out my mom was sick. I didn't feel like writing [at that time], even though Mom insisted that I carried on. When I went back and found my notes for April, I'd forgotten that the mother character has cancer. So I called my mom and told her that, and she said "that sounds like a story you should write."
I wanted to be her son when she was dyingI didn't want to be a writer taking notes. Afterwards, I wanted to make something with meaning out of Mom's situation, [to show] that I'd learned things from someone who wanted to live but who was dying. It was only after she passed that I really started writing April. I should be clear, though, I did not write our story at all.
Question: Did you always want to direct this movie as well?
Peter Hedges: I spent so many years trying to become an actor, trying to be a person that I wasn't. Straight out of college I formed a theater company with Mary-Louise Parker, and over a three year period I directed twelve works for the Edge Theater. I don't know anything about directing, but if you love actors, know your story and hire a great company, then anyone can direct a film. I've wanted to direct for a long time, but it had to be a story I wanted to tell. The writer's job is to find the story that he should tell.
Question: There's a strong theme of humanity, of truth in the other films you've written.
Peter Hedges: I learned early on that there are all sorts of stories I have no place telling. I want to write stories that don't help you escape life, but embrace life. I think it's a fantastic thing to be alive. I feel like there's a certain kind of laughter missing in the world. Look, I can't stop terrorism; I can't cure cancer. But I can put some stories out there in their own quiet way that talk about tolerance. I've always written for actors, and if you want to write for good actors, you have to write parts that are surprising, that are human, and that allow them to go to a wide range of places.
Question: Can you actually cook a Thanksgiving turkey?
Answer: Well, I'm the youngest, so there is no pressure [to cook]; we just have to show up. I tried to make a tofu meatloaf recently, from the Marilu Henner cookbook. It was kinda soupy; I just cooked it for like, a really long time.
Question: What was the appeal of this movie for you?
Answer: Well, the strength of the character I play is in what he doesn't say. My favorite scene is the Thanksgiving dinner with the Chinese family who are the ones that say, "Mi casa, su casa." That's such a New York moment. It's such an American moment. It's such a Thanksgiving moment. And yeah, it's a very New York moment. That's the great thing about Thanksgiving, it's just about families, food and football.
Question: How old are you?
Luke: [to Personal Assistant] How old am I?
Personal Assistant: [to Luke] You're in your mid-twenties.
Luke: [to reporters] I'm in my mid-twenties.
Question: Like you have them do in Pieces of April?
Peter Hedges: Right. My job as a dramatist is to find out where these characters want to go, and make it as hard as possible for them to get there. But I don't want to write my life. I live my life. I want to make up a new world. And when I realized that Joy is dying, well, if ever there was a character that dared you to dislike her, I finally had that character. There are no brakes on her car. She has permission to say and do whatever she wants.
Question: When you consider the emotional ground that the film covers, it's a short movie.
Peter Hedges: Well, it's a movie about the preciousness of time, so I like that it gets in, tells its story, and gets out. If there'd been a bigger budget, there'd have been more pressure to make it longer. As it is, it's eighty minutes, and that's all it needs to be. When I watch it, it feels complete to me. There was a lot of studio pressure to make the end scene bigger, but for me a lot of what makes this movie is what is not said, what you don't see, and that is my own way to respect an audience.
Question: Do you feel like you got to make the film you wanted to make, even though the original budget fell through?
Peter Hedges: We had six million in funding three times, and three times it fell through. But the bigger the budget, the less an audience is trusted, and that's the difference between a big-budget film and a small-budget film. People love conversation, and movies are conversations, and an audience has to participate; it has to fill in some blanks. The best conversation I'm going to have with you is if I trust that you have a brain and can figure this out. I want to make accessible movies for bright people, but I don't want to play games and be coy. But there's a reason we only had three hundred thousand to make this movie: because these kinds of movies scare people. The better the script, the less money there is. That's just the economics of the studio systemOliver [Platt] said it best, "Films written by committees and designed to appeal to the greatest number of people." But they're less fun to make.
Question: How did you get such a great cast for so little money?
Peter Hedges: Oliver had read the script when it was a six million-dollar movie, and came on board when it was a three hundred thousand-dollar movie. Sean Hayes called from the set of Will and Grace, asking for the part of Bobby. I explained to him that role was going to be played by an African-American, so he asked to play Wayne, even said he'd fly to New York and read for me. I said "there's no need, you've got the job." Katie I had from the beginning. She loved the part and she just stayed with it; Patty came on board for the third incarnation. Of course, then I had to say to them, "Remember those salaries we talked about? Well, they're gone." But they all own a piece of the movienot as much as they shouldand they all said, "We're in."
Question: They own a piece of the movie?
Peter Hedges: Indigent [the production company] has a very progressive model for how to make a film. Basically they give us a chunk of the profits from the film, and we distribute it among everybody. The actors got $200 a day, the crew got $100, and I got paid $10 to direct and $10 for the script.
Question: And you got Derek Luke the same way?
Peter Hedges: Derek had just finished making a movie with some director called Denzel Washington, but we'd not seen Antwone Fisher, only Derek's showreel. So our producer cashed in his frequent flyer miles, and we flew to LA to meet Derek, who gave the most astonishing audition I've seen since Leo DiCaprio for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? We offered him the part right then.
Question: So, with the all the funding problems, it's taken you a while to get this film made?
Peter Hedges: Yes, there was also the Writers Guild strike, and 9-11. I looked at everything I was working on after 9-11 and this film was the only thing that mattered to me. In its own small way, it's about the fragility of life, the ticking of the clock.
Article and interviews
© November 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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