Director Peter Hedges on Why Austin Film Festival Means So Much to Him
A shared rain's a-gonna fall in The Same Storm
"I love this festival because it's a writer-centered festival," says Peter Hedges, the writer and director of Austin Film Festival 2021 opening night selection The Same Storm. "It's the only film festival I'm aware of that is writer-centric. And writers are, you know, sometimes the unloved, bastard child in the filmmaking world."
But there's Hedges himself, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his screenplay of Nick Hornsby's About a Boy in 2002 – and that was a decade after Lasse Hallström filmed Hedges' first novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which the author also adapted for screen. And, considering Hedges' more recent projects (Pieces of April, 2003; Dan in Real Life, 2007; The Odd Life of Timothy Green, 2012; and Ben Is Back, which opened the AFF in 2018), reckon we'll have to look elsewhere for a sufficiently unloved bastard child.
Hedges smiles, allowing the point. "It's not such an issue for me, because I always just direct what I write," he says. "But I've had a long relationship with the festival, have been coming to it since around, probably, 2000? It's always wonderful to make a film that gets to open any festival, but that we get to open the Austin Film Festival has particular meaning for me."
The Same Storm is what you might call Hedges' pandemic film – filmed during those especially fraught months of 2020, about that socially restricted time, and featuring a cast of 24 performing-from-home actors, a cast that includes Elaine May, Sandra Oh, Mary-Louise Parker, Noma Dumezweni, Moses Ingram, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Alison Pill, Joshua Leonard, and Judith Light.
About six weeks into the pandemic, Hedges watched a Zoom live reading by Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac of a one-act play, "Beirut," staged by New York's Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. "What struck me in the reading was how intimate it was and how moving it was – that each of the actors were controlling their own camera, and they were acting with each other. It felt more intimate than most films do. It was like a Cassavetes film, where it just feels so real and raw, and it was totally moving. And I immediately thought, 'Oh, I can write something that could be performed that way.' And I started writing a play for a bunch of actors that I'd want to be in, tried to write it in a way that the best actors would be willing to do this raw, un-glammed-up work. But as I was writing, I started to think that maybe there was a way to film it, so it wouldn't just be a one-time reading. And I learned of other people who'd come up with different strategies for recording – people were adapting technology. And I saw that we could use people's devices as their own cameras and record not, say, one actor and then the other and then cut them together, but to actually record them at the same time – so that they're actually playing off each other, so it'd feel real and human and full of surprises."
A mosaic of real and human and full of surprises seems a decent assessment for The Same Storm, which debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September. But, while queuing up to see this newest Hedges creation, let's not lose track of the tiles previously set in our own mosaic of journo realities: Why does the AFF have "particular meaning" for the filmmaker?
"I first came to Austin because this was where we were going to shoot What's Eating Gilbert Grape," he says. "And I came with some trepidation, because, as an Iowa-born writer, I wanted Iowa to be represented as Iowa. But I came to Austin and I remember we had a production office Downtown, and I went into the art department, and they had taken photos of my dad's hometown in Iowa. The walls of this huge room were covered with it – every inch of that town had been photographed, as a kind of a reference. And we immediately started scouting. We went to Manor and Lockhart and Pflugerville, and we were finding locations that felt like they could be Iowa. So I was here for the entirety of the Gilbert Grape shoot, for many months, for prep and shooting. It was my first film, and it was an immersive Austin experience, so I have a lot of memories there, powerful memories. And that – that was almost half my life ago."
The Same StormMarquee Feature
Thu., Oct. 21, 7pm, Paramount Theatre.
Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-28. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.