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Putting 'Pieces' together

October 16, 2003|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

"I wouldn't say I was interested in writing in the solitary sense," Peter Hedges says. "I was more interested in making an event, making theater. I didn't realize that I was a writer or have a desire to write until I was in college."

As an actor struggling with his craft at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Hedges wrote a play to showcase the talents of a friend. The success of a second play was an epiphany. "I looked outside and there were 200 people in line because everyone had run around campus and told [them] they had to come," he recalls. "It was nice that it was such a clear moment, because I had worked so hard in drama."

Today, Hedges is not only a playwright but a novelist and screenwriter; he recently added filmmaking to his resume. The first-time director's "Pieces of April," a comedy-drama that opens Friday in selected theaters, made its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Katie Holmes as an angry, rebellious young woman who attempts to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for her somewhat judgmental family. The cast of indie favorites includes Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke and Sean Hayes.

The 41-year-old Hedges, best known for his plays "Baby Anger" and "Good as New" and the novel "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, actress Susan Bruce, who plays one of April's less helpful neighbors, and their two sons.

When he moved to New York in the mid-1980s and formed the Edge Theater, he discovered: "If you can write plays for your friends, then you can keep working and that makes the temp jobs bearable. I did anything I could do, but all the while I was making plays with Mary-Louise Parker and Joe Mantello," among others. "I wrote 12 plays for them over a three-year period, and I consider that the most creative time" in my life.

"When we made 'Pieces of April,' the way we made it, it felt oddly familiar, as if I'd gone back to the best of those days, because we didn't have any of the frills or any of the comforts," he says.

While doing theater, Hedges worked on what began as a monologue about a young man riding his bicycle, talking about his small town. The piece evolved into the novel "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and was published in 1991.

Swedish director Lasse Halstrom expressed interest in making it into a movie, and Hedges suddenly found himself not only writing the screenplay but also participating in casting and location scouting as well as being on-set. He was well aware of how rare it was for a writer to be accorded such a privilege and recognized that it would be invaluable when he directed his own movie.

"Gilbert Grape" led to Hedges getting more jobs adapting other people's novels. His screenplays include "A Map of the World" and Nick Hornby's "About a Boy," for which he shared an Academy Award nomination with Chris and Paul Weitz.

In 1998, Hedges published his second novel, "An Ocean in Iowa," and currently is finishing a third. He doesn't yet expect to make his living from novels and puts them aside when Hollywood calls. He recently adapted Lauren Weisberger's "The Devil Wears Prada" for Fox 2000.

How does he know what form an idea will take? "I knew 'Pieces of April' was a movie because I wanted to see these cultures collide. I knew I wanted it to be in too many places to be a play, and I knew that I wanted it to build from moments that transcend language, in some sense."

Once he had a script, getting the movie made wasn't easy. Three times, financing arrangements fell apart at the eleventh hour. The last time, Hedges was packing his bags to go to Toronto to begin pre-production on what was to have been a $6-million feature shot on film.

He called Gary Winick of InDigEnt, the company that has produced a dozen low-budget movies on digital video, including Winick's "Tadpole."

Winick says he told Hedges: "You should be directing. You need to do that for you. If you want to make it for $300,000 instead of $6 million, then let's do it."

Despite drastically lower salaries, the cast and crew stayed with the movie. Because of the bare-bones digital budget, Hedges could film in New York, which he felt was important to the story.

Working with what was roughly 1/20th of his original budget and shooting in a expeditious 16 days turned out to have hidden benefits. "We had to do what was essential," he says.

In late 1998, Hedges' mother, Carole, became ill with cancer and he and his siblings traveled back and forth to Iowa to care for her. She urged her son to continue writing. When he returned to New York, he went through his old files, and came across an idea for a movie about a moody, volatile girl -- named April after the unpredictable month -- attempting to cook a Thanksgiving turkey despite an uncooperative oven. What stopped Hedges in his tracks was the reason April was cooking the turkey: She was trying to reach out to her estranged mother, who was sick with cancer. He had found his story.

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