Then She Found Me Finds Helen Hunt

The sense that life can change in a heartbeat informs both the story of “Then She Found Me” as well as the story of how the film got made. In fact, Hunt had been trying to get the project off the ground for a decade, and its gestation was as difficult and delayed as Aprils.

Lipmans novel-her first-was published in 1990, but the film rights had been shopped around to various Hollywood customers a full year before that, when it was still in manuscript form. In 1989, it was optioned by Sigourney Weavers production company for Weaver to play April. Once the book hit the stands, it garnered extremely positive reviews, and suddenly there were numerous expressions of interest on behalf of a number of studios, producers, and actresses. But, Weaver was not interested in relinquishing her rights and extended her option.

During the Thanksgiving holiday of 1990, Connie Tavel, Helen Hunts producing partner (and one of the film's producers was given the novel by her sister. Tavel read the book in one night and immediately thought it was a perfect vehicle for Hunt. When she herself read the book, Hunt agreed, but then learned that the rights were in Weavers hands. She asked if there were any way she could have a part in the project, whether as producer or actor but, at the time, the answer was no. Weaver kept reassuring Lipman that she was going to make the film, but nearly a decade had passed since she took her original option, and no start date had ever been announced.

Meanwhile, in 1998, Hunt won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in As Good As it Gets, and was suddenly in a much stronger position than she had been ten years earlier. She and Tavel took control of the novel and assured Lipman that THIS time the film would get made, even though the task they set for themselves was far from easy.

In reviewing Then She Found Me, the N.Y. Times praised Lipman for having a satirists sly knack for succinctly introducing a character along with his moral failings. This warts and all approach was the very quality that attracted Hunt who liked the fact that the characters are all a little bit crazy. She continues: theyre all a little bit awful, theyre all a little bit wonderful, and that makes perfect sense to me. But, finding the right balance, so that the characters are neither too awful nor too wonderful, was difficult to achieve. In fact, it took Hunt the better part of the next five years to re-write the script, and to address many of the issues that prevented earlier attempts from getting off the ground.

While Lipmans book focuses almost completely on the eccentric relationship between April and Bernice–the Birkenstock-wearing schoolteacher and the stiletto-heeled talk show host–Hunt wanted to deal with all of Aprils relationships, including those she might have with men. Though the book chronicles Bernices attempts to get her daughter new clothes, a new life, AND a new man, the new man in the novel is barely there, and takes the form of a shy librarian who works at Aprils school. The character, Frank, played by Colin Firth in the film, was entirely Hunts creation, and there is no doubt that having him and April fall in love, makes her character less of a loser and a much stronger protagonist.

Longing for a Child

Another important ingredient added by Hunt is Aprils longing for a child. Though this would not have been an important factor had she undertaken the role in 1990, as a woman nearing forty herself, Hunt felt this would now be a pressing issue for her character. Aprils negative feelings about adoption, her difficulties with conception, and the irony of her finally meeting Mr. Right and discovering shes pregnant by Mr. Wrong, form such an important part of the final film that most people would be surprised to learn that very little of this is in the novel. And, yet, it all matches seamlessly with Lipmans original story which is about the many varieties of love, but which is primarily about what it means to be a mother and, more importantly, what it takes to be a mother.

To Lipman, these 5 years of silence indicated that, once again, there would be no movie. When her book was originally published, her son was in the first grade. Now, he was a college graduate who had moved to Los Angeles to work in the mailroom of a leading talent agency. One day, he came across an internal email that bore the heading, Helen Hunt to produce, direct and star in “Then She Found Me. He called his mother, who checked in with Tavel, who confirmed that indeed the project had finally come together. The latest development was that Hunt would now be behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Wanting to Direct

Id been wanting to direct for a long time, says Hunt, who had previously directed several episodes of her long-running hit television series, Mad About You. I knew that it would take a story I felt very personally connected to. Some people just want to direct, but to me, who would want the job unless they really cared about the story Over the long process of re-writing this movie, I became more and more married to it, and created characters who were me all over the place. It started to be true that it would be more tiring to explain to another director what I wanted, than to direct it myself. In keeping with projects many contradictions, she points out that I always swore I would be smart enough not to make the mistake that every actor makes, which is to be in the movie they direct. Finally, it came down to wanting to act in the part.

Given the difficulty Hunt had getting the film financed, its just as well that she doubled up as both star and director. As she notes, given the amount of money I had, and the amount of days we had to shoot, if I had anyone else in there playing the part, it wouldnt have gotten done. She continues, Getting money to make it was unspeakably hard and took a ridiculously long amount of time. When it became evident that the film would have to be made independently, Hunt found herself partnering with the renowned New York- based production company, Killer Films. I had met with Christine Vachon just in general, hoping as an actress that they would think of me for a small movie. Then, when this screenplay was finished, I knew it would be better as a small film. I thought it was a long shot that Killer Films would think of it as their kind of movie, but Christine read it right away, and she said, We love it. We want to make it. Eventually the team of producers found funding and scheduled the shoot for a brisk 27 days. I ended with a very small check, says Hunt, but what that small amount of money afforded was the right to just make the movie with the actors I wanted without anybody giving me notes on the script.

Low-budget Indie

Making the film as a low-budget indie allowed Hunt to stay true to the distinctive tone of her material Funny movies about difficult things appeal to me. Thats a cocktail that works for me she admits. Acknowledging the influence of her As Good As it Gets director, James Brooks, she says, He holds a big place in my psyche about the kinds of movies that move me, and something I think I learned from Jim Brooks is 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 cant really fall in love until youve made peace with betrayal. This movie is, hopefully, a funny movie about betrayal, even though it looks like its about adoption, or about wanting a baby, or falling in love, or getting your heart broken. In Aprils case, I think betrayal looks like its about the Matthew Broderick character, and it looks like its about Colin Firths character, and it certainly looks like its Bette Midlers character, but for her, in the end, its betrayal by God.

Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Hunt never forgot the serious comedy/ funny drama quality in Lipmans work that drew her to the project in the first place. Every movie that has ever moved me, she observes, started by tricking me and making me laugh. I told myself and everybody on the movie, no matter what happens during the story, we are making a comedya comedy about a woman who was adopted at a very early age, wants to have a baby now, and has it in her mind that theres a certain way she is going to have this baby, and thats the only way she can do it. Along the way, there are three loves storiesone with Bettes character, one with Colin Firths character, and one with Matthew Brodericks character. So, my hope is that, like with the movies Ive loved the most, if people are laughing, they wont be ready when something else hits them and they are moved by it.