Talking ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’ with Peter Hedges

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Earlier this week, I was graciously invited up to the Walt Disney offices in the heart of New York City to interview Peter Hedges, the filmmaker responsible for the new Disney flick ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’. I’d seen the film prior to the meeting and enjoyed it quite a bit (depending on when you read this, the film may or may not be already out in wide release, but I’m a fan of the flick, as you can see here), plus I love ‘About a Boy’ (which he co-wrote with the Weitz Brothers), so I jumped at the chance to speak to Peter. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to chat, due to a busy schedule for us both that morning (and in fact I forgot to take my usual picture to post with this piece…apologies there), but during our too short talk we covered a decent range of topics, from his start as a novelist to his Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, all the way to his involvement in a project I’m anxious to see…not to mention ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’, of course. I hope you all enjoy the transcript of my interview with writer/director Peter Hedges as much as I enjoyed talking with him!

Joey Magidson: First of all, how are you doing?

Peter Hedges: I’m well. I’m in the swanky offices here of Disney Theatrical.

Joey: You used to write novels…?

Peter: Yes.

Joey: That’s got to be really different from writing a movie.

Peter: It is. I always say that…uh, I’ve come to believe that writing a film is like writing a novel with 500 people, so they’re more similar than, let’s say, writing plays and writing screenplays. The novel, you know, is a great form for me, better for me maybe than I am for it, but I’ve just liked writing novels, and it’s a nice balance to go from making a novel to making a film because I like people and I like being with people and when I’m writing a novel I’m not with people.

Joey: You’ve adapted works and now you’ve done an original work. Is there a preference for you, or is it just “whatever the project is at the moment”?

Peter: It really all comes down to story, and some stories you find, while some stories you’re told, and some stories you make up, and uh, in this particular story, the genesis of it came from Ahmet Zappa. He gifted it to me, came with the story and said “here you go, will you take it and run with it?”. It’s a lot like when you have something you want to tell a friend, a story or something that happened. You know, I find this lately, I’m going through my phone, going who’s awake at this hour…

Joey: Been there…

Peter: (laughs) Who can I call for “you won’t believe what happened today”. Usually I know it’s the right story for me to be telling if I have that feeling, like I’m going I want to tell this to a friend or a family member. “Once upon a time, or I was walking down the street and BOOM, this happened”. When a story like that starts to get into my bones to a point where I want to tell it to people, that means it’s a story that I know I probably should be telling.

Joey: It definitely shows in the work! I actually did that exact thing when I got out of your movie, calling my girlfriend and saying “I cried!”…

Peter: But did you laugh too?

Joey: Yes.

Peter: (laughs) Okay, good.

Joey: Part of the reason that I think your movie works so well is the cast.

Peter: Oh, no doubt.

Joey: How did you come to them? I know you’d work with the young actor (CJ Adams) before…

Peter: Yea, CJ had been in ‘Dan in Real Life’ but while he was wonderful in that film, he was 6, only had a handful of lines and we became fast friends, but there was nothing in that experience that when I was writing Timothy Green made me think “oh CJ is right for Timothy”. I mean so much changes in a between 6 and 10…

Joey: Oh yea…

Peter: He came in for auditions, the first audition, and he did a nice job…nice enough that I called him back. I still figured I’d end up casting another kid with much more experience, and I auditioned all of those kids, but CJ kept raising his game and 4 or 5 call backs in I realize “oh, he’s supposed to be Timothy Green”.

Joey: And then the rest of the cast I think is top notch too.

Peter: I do too. You know, Jennifer was, we built everything around Jennifer and she just, I thought brought so much to this film, so much of herself, and also a willingness to be playful and make fun of herself and make big messy parental mistakes on film. Some actors are more vain and careful, but she just threw herself into it. Then when I met Joel and got to see an early screening of ‘Warrior’ I knew he’d just be great and substantial in the role of Jim. What I didn’t realize in both of them was that they could be Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz funny you know? That they could be comedians. I love what they bring to the film and how real their relationship feels and beautifully they interact.

Joey: Indeed. Especially in his case, I was watching the movie wondering when he was going to beat someone up, which actually works interestingly for the performance since he has to bottle it up and be internal…

Peter: It does. It’s a guy who you if he could own his own strength would be incredibly powerful but because of his father and his role in the company…you know, a lot of men right now are emasculated in the 21st century from work and, you know, all the pressures that are on them/yes. You want him to have that heroic moment so that when he finally does, in that particular Jim way, I think it’s really satisfying.

Joey: It was also really interesting to see everyone doing something a little bit different…

Peter: That’s one of the ways you really inspire a cast and really all the people you work with, if you say that you’re going to get to do something a little different her. They run to work faster when they get to stretch in a new way.

Joey: Like how Jennifer Garner had played a mother in ‘Juno’ but this this completely different for her.

Peter: And she gets to go so many different places emotionally, and I think that really appealed to her.

Joey: Also Rosemarie DeWitt getting to play a little bit unlikeable, since everything else I’ve seen her in…

Peter: Yea, you just like her.

Joey: You keep wanting to like her and she just throws you off in this one.

Peter: I know. I’ve always had great casts in my films and this one just leaves me speechless. I’m amazed by my good fortune.

Joey: Definitely. Since we cover Oscars a lot at The Awards Circuit…you’re an Oscar nominee. Simply put, what’s that like?

Peter: Well you know, it was a surprise. Comedies, we were nominated, the Weitz Brothers and myself were nominated for ‘About a Boy’ and I certainly didn’t expect it. The more fun I had though was when Patty Clarkson was nominated for ‘Pieces of April’ and when Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for ‘Gilbert Grape’. I decided early on that I probably won’t be a person who wins awards but I’d like to be the guy who writes roles that gets actors awards, or at least nominated. I think when you’re writing with that ambition, to put something on the page that will really showcase an actor, you write better, you write fuller, you write with more abandon. Probably one of the prouder moments of my career was sitting next to Patty when they showed that scene, you know, shot on a home video camera from ‘Pieces of April’ right next to Renée Zellweger’s scene from ‘Cold Mountain’ and the craft services budget for that film was more than what it cost to make ‘Pieces of April’.

Joey: And I preferred your film.

Peter: (laughs) Well, Anthony Minghella was a better director than I am…big hero to me. But anyway, thank you!

Joey: Lastly, and personally for me…Jonathan Tropper’s book ‘Everything Changes’…

Peter: Yes!

Joey: I’ve been following it for a while, he’s one of my favorite authors and I’ve been waiting for the adaptations of his works to begin.

Peter: I worked 4 years on that project and I love it.

Joey: It’s a tough one…

Peter: I love it and thought I did a great job and it looked like we were going to make it at one moment at Sony. Jonathan, you know, in the interim from when I started writing it to now, has not only become increasingly better a novelist, he’s also become an accomplished screenwriter, and he’s going to be making and taking my…I’m done. He’s reclaimed the project and I’m done.

Joey: Alright.

Peter: Unfortunately I won’t get to make it.

Joey: I’m sorry for you, but greedily I still want to see it, so as long as it’s getting made..

Peter: No no, I want to see it too.

Joey: Well, thank you!

Peter: That was fun!

Well, there you have the full transcript of my interview with Peter Hedges. I hope you all enjoyed and I hope you see ‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green’, which is in theaters now and well worth checking out…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!