How Helen Hunt did God
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Hollywood star Helen Hunt has received acclaim for directing and acting in Then She Found Me, the story of an observant woman who has a crisis of faith after facing betrayal.
It opens like a vintage Woody Allen film, in the thick of a Jewish wedding. Bride April Epner (played by Helen Hunt) is marrying fellow schoolteacher Ben (Matthew Broderick). Upping the Jewishness, via voiceover, April proceeds to introduce the framework for the next 104 minutes, by way of a dark "Jewish story, an ordinary Jewish joke". We then jump to April's life in sudden crisis. She's 39, desperate to have a child, and her husband Ben wants to separate. Add to that: her adoptive mother is dying and she is attracted to Frank (Colin Firth), the similarly abandoned father of one of her schoolchildren. Then her mother dies, and into her life bursts her birth mother, eccentric TV talk-show host Bernice Graves (Bette Midler), who she's never met before.
Thereafter follows the story of how this 39-year-old observant Jewish woman overcomes the prickly fate dealt her. Which means a comedy of unbearableness complete with Jewish wedding, Jewish funeral, Shabbat references and an incredibly moving recitation of the Shema. Unsurprisingly, some critics have labelled Hunt's directorial debut, Then She Found Me, which is based on Elinor Lipman's novel of the same name, an inherently "Jewish" film.
"I guess it's Jewish and it isn't," explains the 45-year-old over breakfast at a hotel in London's West End. "I wanted to be very specific with April's faith and how she practises her faith. And her particular version of losing faith in God."
Hunt, half-Jewish, half-Methodist, became attached to Lipman's novel after reading it when it was published in 1990. At the time, the actress, with 17 years of TV work under her belt, was interested in producing an adaptation of the novel and starring in the lead role. On finding that Sigourney Weaver had optioned the rights, she gave up on the idea.
Two years later, she became a household name after being cast as Jamie Buchman, the female lead, opposite Paul Reiser, in the hit US TV sitcom Mad About You. The success of the show finally led Hollywood to open its doors to her, and she appeared in the blockbuster Twister (1996), before winning an Oscar in 1998 for her performance as a single mother/waitress opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997). By then, she was directing episodes of Mad About You. Inspired, she put in a call to Elinor Lipman. On learning that the film rights to Then She Found Me were available again, she promptly snapped them up.
After leaving Mad About You in 1999 and completing a dizzying run of further high-profile roles in Hollywood films such as Dr T And The Women (2000), Pay It Forward (2000), Castaway (2000) and What Women Want (2000), Hunt came to a clearing and set about adapting Then She Found Me. Nearing 40, newly divorced from actor Hank Azaria, and desperately wanting to become a mother, she added these personal issues to Lipman's plot. Then, she struggled to find a unifying theme for the film.
"I worked for an embarrassingly long time to come up with a sentence that I could call the theme of the movie, and finally, after a long time, it was, ‘You can't really love until you've made peace with betrayal'."
The breakthrough came by way of an essay.
"I read an essay by a Jewish Jungian writer - of which there are not very many - named James Hunt, called Betrayal. And I happened to read it as I was searching for the theme of the movie. And I realised that what was most exciting to me about the mother-daughter relationship in this movie had to do with betrayal."
The essay's theme enabled her to weave in her wishes for a child and her pain over the divorce from Azaria.
"There's no wish for a baby in the novel. All of that was born out of reading this essay and looking for ways in which all the characters in the movie could be the victims or perpetrators of betrayal. And ultimately, I wanted to try to make a funny movie about betrayal."
Once that theme was set, Hunt, in the role of producer, director, actress and co-screenwriter, touted her screenplay around Hollywood. No one wanted to finance the film.
Eventually, she found a partner in independent production company Killer Films. The film was assigned a tiny $4m budget. By that time, she was pregnant - by her present-day partner, producer Matthew Carnahan.
"I do remember having a reading of the movie when I was eight months' pregnant in my living-room. A good amount of the screenplay was written before [her daughter, Makena Lei Gordon Carnahan] was born. But the two things were very entwined."
Once she had given birth, in 2004, she set about fine-tuning the screenplay. As someone who has called herself a "quarter-Jewish" by way of her paternal grandmother, was she not daunted by the task of faithfully adapting the inherently Jewish identity of Lipman's novel?
"In the book, April is Jewish and her parents are Holocaust-survivors. While I didn't keep that detail about her parents, I didn't see any reason to take her Jewishness away."
How did she go about authenticating the Jewish detail in the film?
"There's a rabbi in Los Angeles who I became very close with. Three or four families that I'm friends with, she's their rabbi. And I got to have long conversations with her about this movie. Because I wanted to get it right. Get the prayer at the end right. It's very delicate stuff. Translating the Shema is pretty bold. And I do not profess to have it just right. But I have it just right for her [April]."
Under the rabbi's guidance, Hunt finished the screenplay and assembled a cast which includes Salman Rushdie playing an obstetrician.
"I wanted it to be clear in that scene towards the end of the movie, when I pray, that I didn't have a Jewish agenda or a Judeo-Christian agenda. And I thought, if I found an Indian actor, then we might not be able to absolutely assume who anybody's praying to. What I'm saying is that I wanted to completely invest in her [April's] Judaism, but then, right at the end of the day, it's simply about her particular version of lost faith."
The film, shot in 27 days, premiered in September 2007 to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival.
"I was pretty stunned because it sold out. And the movie started, and it was very out of focus, and the volume was three points lower than it should be. And I thought, this is where I die of humiliation. I got them to get it in focus and turn up the volume, and about 15 minutes in, the audience picked up. At the end, 2,000 people were standing up in ovation and that was the big fairytale night in a sea of ‘No, they won't make it'."
What did Elinor Lipman make of the finished film?
"She has been like the gushing auntie. The film's very different from the book. But she loved it."
After investing so much of herself in it, has Hunt found the experience of making the film healing?
"I don't know. Not quite yet. I'm still exhausted."
Exhausted or not, Hunt is delighted that audiences are responding to the film's philosophical underpinnings.
"You could say it's about parenting or loss or love. But the common thread for me is betrayal. Betrayal is not an accident outside of God's plan or God's will. It's part of it. You can't really love someone if you are white knuckling them into never betraying you. Including God."
Then She Found Me opens on September 19