Academy Award-nominated writer/director Peter Hedges brings enchantment to the screen with Disney’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” which opens in theaters on August 15th. The film is an inspiring, magical story about a happily married couple, Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), who can’t wait to start a family but can only dream about what their child would be like. When young Timothy (CJ Adams) shows up on their doorstep one stormy night, Cindy and Jim – and their small town of Stanleyville – learn that sometimes the unexpected can bring some of life’s greatest gifts.
I sat down with Hedges at a roundtable interview to discuss what it was like bringing the project to the big screen. He talked about why he cast CJ Adams in the role of Timothy, what inspires him to do films about family, how he collaborated with D.P. John Toll on the look of the film, and what the challenges were of directing a film that touches upon all different kinds of themes of traditional and non-traditional families.
Question: It’s easy to see why you cast CJ in this.
Peter Hedges: Oh, yeah. But you know what? I never thought, when I heard he was coming in for this, I mean, I love this boy. Every day on “Dan in Real Life,” after he’d done his schooling, the kids were at the building next door doing school. They didn’t film every day, but he would always show up and say, “Mr. Peter, can I sit on your lap?” And so, I’d put him up on my lap. In fact, I have nine seconds of footage on my old computer that they showed me of him saying, I said, “Say cut.” And he goes, “Cut.” And I go, “Cut. Cut.” He really was a standout kid. He’s a great kid. He comes from a great family. I love his parents and his brother. When I heard he was coming in, because he hadn’t done anything since “Dan in Real Life,” I thought, “Well, no way is he going to beat out these kids, but I’m so excited to see him.” He came. His first audition was pretty good, and good enough to call him back. Each time he came back, he just got better and better and then that one time happened, he did a scene, and I just turned to my casting director and I couldn’t believe it. Of course, when I cast him, I had a good cry, because I thought, “Is this gonna ruin his life?” I mean, there are kids, and there are families that don’t know how to handle this. It’s too soon to tell, but I think you saw when you saw him and you experience him, he’s a special guy. I only want good for him.
Q: What is it about family films that speaks to you?
Hedges: Growing up with my family shaped me. I came from a very interesting family. There’s a lot of heartbreak in it. There’s a lot of love. I have made a family with my wife that’s the most important thing to me. You write about what you love, write about what you think about, write about what you care most about, and the good thing about families is we all have them. There are so many different kinds of families. A lot of the stories, like “About a Boy,” are about making a family from a broken family. “Gilbert Grape” is about a family just trying to get through, kids really dealing with a very tough life with parents that are not able to parent well. “Pieces of April” is about a broken family running out of time. “Dan in Real Life” was an attempt to write about a very happy family that had a really dark cloud hanging over one person. And this was about a family, a couple, who want what comes so easily to most people, which is to be able to have a child, and they couldn’t. I know people, people very close to me, who haven’t been able to have kids and I’ve watched them bankrupt themselves trying to get pregnant. I’ve watched them happily adopt in many cases. In some cases, I’ve watched them so torn up, apart from what they had to try to endure to try to have a child biologically that then when they went to adopt, they were asked so many questions, and they were put through so much scrutiny that they threw up their hands and said, “No. We’ll get a cat.” Ultimately, I go to movies, we all go to movies to escape. I mean, I love that experience. But the movies that I go back to, time and time again, are the movies that help me navigate life, help me move through the world, make me see differently, or see what I haven’t seen, or what I take for granted, or remind me that I’m running out of time. I felt like here was an opportunity to make one of those films with all the themes that matter most to me. I also selfishly thought if I really throw myself in and take this wonderful, magical concept that Ahmet (Zappa) has given me, this jumping off point, and then create the film, with the help of a lot of people, that in so doing I will be changed. I will be irrevocably altered as a parent. Though the door is closing quick, because my kids are now 15 and 17, they were 12 and 14 when I started, I felt like there was still time for me to maybe make some adjustments, maybe do it differently. What I selfishly hope is anything I work on, if I’m gonna spend two or three years on it, you want it to be successful, and you want to be paid, that would all be great. But if you’re changed from it, if you’re different because of it, I have confidence that, not for everyone watching the film, but for a lot of people watching the film, they’ll feel it. If I’m surprised in making the film, you’ve got a good chance of being surprised. If I’m laughing to the point of crying as I watch certain scenes, there’s a good chance you’ll laugh. Not always. Sometimes I think things are funny that no one else gets. Sometimes things are very funny that I thought were very serious, so I’m often wrong. That’s okay, too.
Q: Hollywood is in the business of selling movies to the mass audience, and mostly to the demographic of the young, teenage male. How do you avoid being put in that box of having to meet a certain demographic?
Hedges: I walked in. Disney had been very clear that they were happy with our previous experience, and would I like to come back. I said, “Well, I don’t really have any Disney ideas.” Ahmet came with his magic, and we walked into a room, and I said, “I want to take the beginnings here and build, and I want to do my thing. I’m just gonna do that Peter thing.” I didn’t tell them what was going to happen. I didn’t know. At that particular moment, they had enough faith or enough stupidity… to be determined, to say, “Go do it. Go do your thing.” I can’t do that thing you’re talking about. It’s not that I’m better or worse. It’s just not in my DNA. So, all I tried to do was, I knew I was making a PG story, I was happy to try to make a PG story. I thought that would be a good challenge. I had just written a novel which was practically X-rated, so I need to take a bath of sorts, and clean it up, and let’s see what I can do. But I’m gonna write about the things that matter to me. They don’t have to make the movie. I was thrilled that they wanted to, but I didn’t think about what they wanted. The few times I did think about, “Oh, I’ll put in a scene here that will get the six-year-old boys laughing,” the call would come. They’d say, “Well, why, what, what’s that? Who …” “I thought you would like that.” “But it doesn’t feel like it’s the movie you’re trying to make.” So I’d go, “Okay.” It was a happy instance where they were protecting me from trying to think what they would want. It was a rare experience, and increasingly rare, because all my filmmaker friends are going, “I can’t even believe you got to make this movie.”
Q: Odeya Rush turns in a wonderful performance. Can you talk about casting her?
Hedges: Yes. I’d love to talk about Odeya. She walked in, I said, “No. She’s just too beautiful. Next.” But then I said, “Oh, read,” and she was great. And then, I put her with CJ. The inspiration for me for that love story was my own love of a girl when I was in 2nd grade and she was in 5th grade. She never knew I loved her, but I just followed her around. I used to hang upside down on the jungle gym and she’d pass by going to school. Last day of school, I followed her home wearing a catcher’s mask thinking she wouldn’t know it was me. She has no idea to this day that I loved her so. I called her once on the phone and just hung up. But, I wanted the girl to be older. I didn’t want them to be the same age, because, there’s a wonderful thing in girls and boys, too, but girls, when they’re still open to being friends with boys younger than them. And then, there’s a point where girls become really interested, this was my experience, so it’s not a fact-based comment, it’s just Peter’s experience. As a young man, I had a lot of girlfriends who were my friends, and then there came a moment when the only boys that were interesting were much older and could shave and had low voices. I think there’s a really sweet window where there’s this kind of innocence. Of course, I love the love story in Lasse Hallstrom’s, “My Life as a Dog.” I love those two people. I really had fun writing that. When the underwater scene came, I was so excited about that. Odeya is a remarkable kid. She’s a great story. She has two sets of twin brothers who are younger than her. She has two older brothers who are much older, but she didn’t speak English until she was nine. But she’s a really good older sister and she loves her brothers so much. She’s a remarkable kid. I knew that she and CJ were gonna be great together. I’m happy to say I was right.
Q: How did you work with your D.P., John Toll, on creating the look of the film?
Hedges: One of the goals was to put something really beautiful in the world, but also to find beauty in the ordinary. We found images that were iconic and universal. We looked at the pop, the paintings of Edward Hopper. Wynn Thomas, our production designer, John Toll and I talked about a kind of selective realism, where you have enough that it feels real, but you don’t have as much clutter, so there’s a kind of elegance to it and yet it feels real. You look at a Hopper painting, there’s a chair. There’s a light. There’s an ashtray. In real life, there’d be socks and 20 other things. But it says it, and it’s very selective, so that there are a lot of frames in the movie, there are a lot of times you could stop the movie and you’d see almost a painting. John Toll’s a master of light, one of the greatest DPs on the planet. I am trying to improve every film I make and become more of a director. I’ve been more of a writer who directs. And so we just really set out to… I mean, it’s a movie about nature, and I wanted the leaves falling to align with Timothy’s leaves and that the passing. I think autumn is such a mournful and wonderful time. It’s when you feel the beauty, but you also feel that it’s fading. As a person in the autumn of his life, I just gravitate toward movies in the fall, probably because I love all those Bergman films.
Q: Why did you decide Timothy should be ten years old?
Hedges: Well, if he was younger, he wouldn’t be capable of a lot of what he’s capable of. If he’s older, then he’s a teenager. Some of the early ideas that Ahmet had was that we watched him develop kind of quickly. You watched him. But, the qualities they were wishing for were not the qualities the baby would have. Those were qualities that a ten year old could manifest. I think that’s the best I can do with that. It just felt right, and I didn’t want to watch him evolve.
Q: You mentioned the influence of Edward Hopper. And then, in the film, there’s the non-traditional theme, and his paintings are also non-traditional. How challenging was it to bring that to the script and then bring that to the screen?
Hedges: Well, for me, to tell this story without those things, there’s not much use for the story. I mean, it’s a story for now. And, the truth of the 21st century, these bumpy broken years of the 21st century, is the economy is in the tank, and more and more people are infertile. There’s a drought. We didn’t really go heavy on the drought, but there’s certainly a sign that says “drought warning.” We didn’t do the brown. I probably would have made the grass a little browner. That may be the only concession I made to the studio was it just doesn’t look as brown, but the idea was to make the movie feel relevant, to feel like it’s from now. Yes, there’s a magical element. Yes, they get this kid in a magical way for a period of time. But ultimately, at the core of the film, it’s a story about loving and longing, and that the magic that happens is magic that occurs when you love, and when you yearn, and when you don’t give up. If I want to feel despair, I watch the news. I don’t want to suggest that there’s this alternative world where everything’s happy. So, I want to tell a story that says, “Yeah, I know. I know you’re scared about the economy, because I’m scared. I know it’s unfair that you can’t have children, because I know people that can’t have children.” I know that parents are trying too hard and messing up all over the place. I know that kids are crossing their arms and going, “Why do I have the worst parents in the world?” I know all that’s going on, because it’s going on in my house, and it’s going on in your house. So, is it possible to have a story that feels relevant and hopefully has an artistry to it, but also has a sense of possibility? So there’s something out there that’s saying “Don’t give up,” and “Yeah, you made a mistake. Make a better mistake.” I literally made the kind of movie that when my kids were younger, I wished I could have seen, or when I was a kid, I could have seen, so maybe I would have eased up a little on how disappointed I was in my parents. I’m very proud of the scene in the movie where they say, “We don’t know anything. We’re idiots. We’re horrible at this.” The fact of the matter is, in my experience, I don’t know a parent who hasn’t had that conversation with themselves, like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Q: Did you have CJ, Joel, and Jennifer spend time together before shooting?
Hedges: Yes. We had a little rehearsal process. But because of Joel’s schedule, he was doing a film in Cambodia, we did it in December. I was actually still rewriting the script, and we worked for two or three days and we hung out. I thought we were going to cook meals together and things, but we did a lot of improvs together. Joel and Jennifer did a lot of stuff together. They played soccer with CJ. I mean, the truth is, they didn’t really need a lot of time. Because we filmed the scene where they were told they couldn’t have a child on the second day. We started shooting with the Uncle Bub scene in the hospital, a very hard scene to do, but the end of the second day we shot that scene where they were told they couldn’t have a kid. It was six takes. The only other time I’ve seen footage like it is when we shot Leonardo finding Mama Grape dead. The footage of Leonardo and the footage of Joel and Jennifer in that scene, it is very hard to pick. The takes were so emotional. In fact, they were so emotional, I was, like, “I can’t, I mean, I …” I actually went with the least emotional take, just because of where the movie needed to go. But where they were, and where they were able to go… I remember, I think two in the morning that night I got an e-mail from Jennifer. I don’t remember the words of it. The spirit was, it was just, like, “I’m in. I get it. I’m on. That was amazing. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do.” She was up. Joel was up. I was up. We were, we just knew. You look for that moment when you know what your movie’s about. It’s a movie about people who want a kid and the movie isn’t over until they get that kid. Yes.
Q: You talked a little about the importance of time and time running out. Did you ever dance with the idea of keeping Timothy there somehow and making him stay?
Hedges: I think Ahmet’s original idea was that every time Timothy’s parents said no, he’d lose a leaf, to the point that then he got sick, he got very sick and he died. And then, they realized they had made mistakes, and their tears, I mean, metaphorically or literally, would land on him and bring him back to life, and then they would have him. I felt like the parents’ job is to say no. In fact, it’s like, you should just go to school for “No.” You find different ways to say no. You say no, but they think you’re saying yes, maybe. But you’re saying no a lot. So I was like, “Ah, that can’t be it.” But did I think about keeping Timothy there? It felt like he needed to be like a leaf, like he needed to go. Now, I guess he could have grown back. But I think when I hit on the idea that it was an adoption story, that the way to tell the story was that a couple… I studied the films of Bob Fosse, because I was looking to see if I could write less linearly. I looked at the film, “Lenny,” which is a really interesting film, and all the characters in “Lenny” are interviewed throughout the film. So, in my first draft, all the characters in the movie were interviewed. Like, the adoption people went to Coach Cal, and he said, “Well, Timothy,” and then he told the whole Timothy story. And then, he went to Ms. Crudstaff, and she told her story. But it made for a very episodic script. The scenes were all good, so it was a very liberating way to work, but then I went, “No, no, no. It’s about them trying to adopt.” The fact that they go, and they say, “Look, we’re going to tell you a story, and you’re gonna find it hard to believe,” was a very liberating thing. You look at “Forrest Gump,” which is a story being told, or “Edward Scissorhands” is told that way. Winona Rider’s an old woman telling the story of how snow came to be. And, “The Princess Bride,” it’s not a movie I know well, but I know that there’s a story being told in that.
So, it’s not like I’m inventing storytelling here. But when I realized it was a story about adoption, some people would say, “Well, shouldn’t Timothy come out of the car?” And I said, “Well, no, no.” And, “Shouldn’t the boy come out of the car?” And I’m like, “No, no, because it’s not. They didn’t want a boy. They want a kid.” It was important to me that a girl get out of the car, and not a baby, but a ten year old. And, like Timothy. And that she not look like her parents. That’s all I care … I said, “We’re gonna find a girl that doesn’t look like them.” Because you don’t have to, you don’t have to be my biological child for me to love you. You hand me a baby, hand me a ten year old, hand me a 12 year old, and say, “This is your responsibility,” I’m in. I know that from when I was a baby holder at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. When I was 22, I held babies that were crack-addicted, and had AIDS, and were very sick. The first baby I held, I held every day for a month. On my 23rd birthday, I walked in and that baby had been adopted, or taken away, and I didn’t get to say goodbye and I fell apart. I knew the minute I held that baby the first time, if they came to me and said, “You’re gonna raise this baby,” I had no money, I was a poor actor-writer in New York, I just knew. And so, it seemed that what was more important was not that Timothy stay, it was what Timothy taught them. And what he taught them was that they’re ready. He tells them at the end, “You were always ready.” But then he says, “Never give up.” He showed them that they’re ready to make mistakes, and they’re going to. He was like a great mirror to them. He was what we’d all like to get a little trial run before we have kids. Like “Can I just have a few months of practice?” so you get some of those mistakes out of the way. What seemed fun about this whole idea was that you could accelerate the way they make mistakes. That was another reason for him to be ten, because if you watch him grow, they grow with him. You make a lot of mistakes but you spread your mistakes out over such a long period of time that you don’t realize how many mistakes you’ve made. But, if you can compress them, it’s just a lot more fun.