I am a huge fan of Peter Hedges, who wrote the book What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and wrote and directed Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life. No one is better than he is at showing us messy families who sometimes hurt each other, do not always understand each other, but really love each other. I loved talking to him about his new film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” an endearing fable about a couple named Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner) who try to come to terms with their inability to conceive a child by writing down the qualities they wished their child would have and then burying the list in the garden. Somehow, a little boy who has all those qualities appears, calling them Mom and Dad. And he has leaves growing out of his ankles. Hedges wrote the screenplay based on a story by Ahmet Zappa, the son of rock legend Frank Zappa.
What made you decide to take on this project?
What I’m looking for is a story. Sometimes I adapt someone’s novel. “Pieces of April” was original. “Dan in Real Life” was a rewrite of a script. In this instance, I sat down with Ahmet Zappa and he said “I have an idea about a couple that can’t have a kid and he grows out of the ground and he has ten leaves and they’re ten qualities,” and there was so much of the story that didn’t exist, but there was this incredible jumping off point. I felt like I could write about things that matter most to me — being a parent, and family — and yet there was this magical element that I never would’ve thought of. There was some preexisting story, but so much of the story didn’t exist. Most of the characters weren’t even in the story that I first heard. I kind of adopted his concepts and he was so encouraging that I bring all of myself to it. With the help of all my collaborators, I just kept writing draft upon draft upon draft. I feel like it’s comparable to someone who’s adopted a child, and they feel no less the parent because they actually are the parent.
Very apt! And you had a real casting challenge to find the child for this movie.
Sometimes it’s right in front of you; that’s a theme that I’m going to write about in the future. We did a nationwide search and who knew that a boy who had only been in one film before when he was six, playing a small role in my previous film, “Dan in Real Life,” would be the kid we cast as Timothy Green.
I didn’t think he had enough experience to play Timothy because he’d only done that one film, but we kept doing callbacks and there were a lot of amazing kids who came in to read, but they weren’t really Timothy. CJ is just a remarkable guy, and he kept coming in and after three or four callbacks it started to dawn on me and the casting team that we had our guy, and so, obviously, if you don’t have the right Timothy, you’re going to have the wrong film. And he was the right kid. He’s really a special guy, and we have a great trust of each other—he taught me a great deal, I think more than I taught him.
I love it when Joel Edgerton says instead of “Have a wonderful day!” just “Have the day that you have.” The movie’s very smart about being a parent and what our hopes are and what our mistakes are.
The number of times I catch myself telling kids “Have fun,” my kids, “Have a great time,” and “Do well.” And I started to realize in my own life, I’m constantly putting pressure on my kids when I think I’m being supportive, so we have to be careful about the words we say. Which is, you don’t have to have a great day. You can have a terrible day. Have the day you have. Just have it. And so it seemed to me that the act of parenting is always an act of revision. You constantly—in my case, with my life—you are constantly evaluating each other, refining our tactics, developing new strategies….right when we figure our kids out, they change.
Ahmet brought a magic element that I would never have thought of, but what I could bring was all this experience having been a parent and all the mistakes I’ve made and we’ve made and all the things we’ve done right. I felt like, here was an opportunity to explore the crimes and misdemeanors of parenting, all the great parental crimes and the minor parental crimes. And here were characters that were going to have an accelerated learning experience, they were going to be thrown into it.
Nature is brilliant, because when you conceive a child, and then you’ve got those months to prepare, and then the baby comes out and the baby sleeps and you have time to kind of evolve and figure out what the next stage requires. But for Jim and Cindy—this is what they want more than anything—they suddenly get a ten-year old boy, and they don’t have the tools or the experience. They’re just going to do a lot of the things we do, but do them maybe in a bigger and more delicious way, and hopefully it will be relatable, identifiable, and we’ll see ourselves up there. We’ll see at times the parents we hope we are, but oftentimes we’ll see the parents we are horrified to realize that we also are. I think for me, if I write it well, it will also be a chance for me to maybe find some new ways to approach the remaining time I have with my kids while they’re still at home.
What do you think families will talk about when they see this movie, afterwards? What would you want them to talk about?
What I always hope is that people will end up talking about their own lives or thinking about their own lives. They think about their kids or their parents. The good news is that everybody’s a kid (or was) and for people that aren’t parents, everybody has parents or had them, so I hope they’ll see themselves up there. For me, the great films or even the good films remind me that time is ticking and that life is fragile and that we’d better get living and be more alive and be more willing to love. Frequently, I go to these movies where I forget about my life, and I escape, and then as I’m leaving I have this feeling, I feel work begin to creep back in and by the time I’m home, I’m thinking about the bills I need to pay and I just had a vacation from my life. There are other times where I have a feeling that I’ve gotten to take a vacation but I also feel like I’ve been nourished or I feel more energized to be better, to be more, to be better, to mean more, to live more fully, and that’s what I’d like people to feel from this movie. Probably the simple version would be, you either go home and you wake-up your kid if they’re a baby and hold them, or you call your mom or your dad and you check-in on them or you squeeze the hand of the person next to you and go for some ice cream and you say nice things to each other, maybe something like that.