All the ‘Pieces’ come together in indie film

Genevieve Giambanco

Playing quite the directorial alchemist, Peter Hedges conjures new film, “Pieces of April,” using the typical independent film recipe: a disappearing budget, digital camera and a luxurious filming schedule of 16 days. These conditions indefinitely remain the inside joke of the independent film industry, turning the film making process into a nerve-wracking game: a race against time, money and talent. Juggling titles of both screenplay writer and director, Hedges (wrote screenplays “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “About A Boy”) takes full credit for the cinematic masterpiece of what is ” Pieces of April.” A polished accomplishment amidst endless aspiring scripts, “Pieces'” low-profile story attracted a high-profile entourage once circulated among the Hollywood hills. The players include Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke, Alice Drummond, Sean Hayes and Sisqo. Yes, Sisqo, the long-forgotten “Thong Song” chart-topper.

The eclectic cast complements the movie’s premise exquisitely. Smudged-eyeliner doting wild child, April Burns (Katie Holmes), invites her family for Thanksgiving dinner at her dilapidated Hell’s Kitchen apartment in New York City. Awaken by boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), April reluctantly takes to two tasks: cooking a turkey and preparing an encounter with her deliberately estranged family. April’s mother, Joy Burns (Patricia Clarkson), is the reason for her culinary efforts, seeing as Joy’s cancer-ridden state creates an urgency in April to host a memorable dinner to rectify herself with her mother and family. The film wrestles with both situations, delicately teetering with both the comedic and dramatic elements plaguing April throughout the duration of the film’s one-day setting. The real-life drama of Joy’s cancer, April’s black-sheep disposition and the unquenched relationship between the two leaves viewers vulnerably as putty directly in Hedge’s hands. Comic relief interjects skillfully by means of the mundane – the delirious rhythm of family life, an uncooked turkey and broken oven, neighborly interaction. April oven-hops between the hospitality of her neighbors, who all contribute to preparing April for her family. Hedges throws a hodgepodge of characters on-screen to bring both the everyday and the unusual and create a scene of individuals you wouldn’t expect to see together: an immigrant Chinese family, a comic African-American couple, a meticulous toupee-toting loner and more. A storm of faces collide to create Hedges’ moving, less-is-more script. Details and situations unravel in the intent way that a masterful piece would; nothing is revealed or easily presented, the viewer relishes the puzzle of information the perfectly-cast actors divulge. Expect the constant clenching and easing of a tear-driven tight-throat – until the end, that is, where Hedges allows a release from the seamless construction of ” Pieces.”

Prepare to hear this film’s name buzzing around to household-name status, as it proves to be one of this years most fantastic cinematic ventures.

Genevieve Leon: You were very articulate and honest after the screening when answering questions last night. Do you ever get bored with the same questions and turn the interview experience into a fill-in-the-blank game?Peter Hedges: There are certain things that are just true, so to make up a different answer would just be dishonest. But certain things become truer the more you talk about it. I find the process really thrilling, I guess, because we’re really proud of the film. It’s very easy to tell the truth, it’s very hard to lie. I think that would make it a lot harder.

Oliver Platt: You’re much more relaxed and less guarded if you believe in the movie. You know what I mean? It’s tricky when you’re on the road for some big, dumb blockbuster.

GL: How’d you get involved with this movie?

Oliver: Well, Peter and I were lovers once (laughter).

PH: And Oliver broke my heart.

OP: I checked out the script, and then Peter and I had a chat and that was that, it was pretty simple.

PH: What was amazing was that he’d be willing to make the movie under the quick conditions. Everybody was willing to do it knowing the lay of the land: it was digital video, 16 days, and they wouldn’t get paid what they’re worth.

OP: Oh, he’s all gracious humble and stuff, but the fact of the matter is that people like us are dying to get sent material like that. And when we do, you’ll find that we’re going to show up for work.

PH: Well, good actors want to do good work – It’s true. If you know you’re going to make a low-budget film, it makes you write a lot harder because it means you want to write something that’s going to attract good actors.

GL: So you didn’t write it specifically for casting any one particular actor?

PH: I wrote it for the best actors I could find.

GL: How’d you come up with the story?

PH: Well, it came in a couple of different ways. Years ago I heard about a group of young people who had a turkey they were trying to cook their first Thanksgiving in New York. They borrowed an apartment; the apartment had an oven that didn’t work so they had to go around the building to borrow other people’s ovens. I thought that would be a terrific way to throw people together. And then my mom was diagnosed with cancer five years ago during a time when I was traveling a lot between cities, and one day, I opened a file on my computer, taking my mom’s wishes that I continued writing into account and I found these notes on a girl trying to cook a turkey, the oven didn’t work. What surprised me was that I wrote it to be a comedy, but then I added the reason that this girl was cooking this turkey was because her mother had cancer. I called my mom and told her I found these notes and that it was weird I had started to write this and forgot about it. She said, “Peter, it sounds like something you’re supposed to write.” After she passed away, I wrote the script. It’s not a movie about her, but it’s certainly because of her – she’s very present in it.

GL: What was it like directing something for the first time?

PH: I always have to be careful answering that question, because it’s a really smart question. I was so pleased with how the movie turned out; everybody worked on the production. It was one of those rare, wonderful experiences. I felt like I was doing the job I’d been preparing 20 years for. Everybody working on the movie made sacrifices of some kind. That, in itself, was constantly moving to me. People believed in the movie. It was a great experience. I feel spoiled in a way, because I’m going to expect that much love and goodness to be there for every movie.

GL: You really struck a delicate balance between the whole comedy and drama aspect of the movie. Was there a precedent or inspiration that helped you really hit the right notes at the right time?

PH: What guided me most was just a belief that life is wickedly funny and heartbreaking. It’s like a really good meal; you’re going to get every conceivable taste. It’s not going to be one food; it’s going to be a variety. I very much wanted it to feel like life. In this case, because I knew there were certain plot aspects that could be very maudlin and over-wrought, I knew that it was really important that comedy play up whenever the movie gets too serious, or rather whenever it gets too silly, that something undercuts it. It’s a small story where if one word is out of place, the whole thing comes undone. It must be done beautifully otherwise there isn’t much use for it. It’s a girl trying to cook a turkey, bid deal, right? To me it’s a big deal because they’re running out of time. I like that ride, so I want people to laugh as much as humanly possible, but I also want to break your heart, tool; or at least touch it.

GL: Oliver, is it risky as an actor for you to make a movie like this? What was the spark that drew you into this?

OP: Actually, I think it’s much more risky to not make a movie like this! I really don’t think about it as risky. It’s only risky in the way this business works, because there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to see these movies. They often don’t have the kind of money and marketing behind it. This movie has already, relatively, defied the odds and hit the jackpot. It connects with an audience, and when a movie is its own best marketing tool, that’s when you know you have it. Of course, a lot of other stuff has to happen. This is an oversimplification, but not really, the movies I make my living on, I don’t really want to be in, and the movies that I want to be in, I don’t make my living on. It’s getting harder and harder to get in movies that you’re, frankly, not embarrassed by.

GL: Do you think there’s something to be said about a low-budget independent film that keeps high-profile actors loyal to its production in today’s entertainment industry?

PH and OP: Yes!

PH: Definitely, in a big way. It says a lot about them and it also says a lot about the project. But again, it comes back to people being hungry to be a part of something good. You can be a great actor, but if you’re in a dog of a movie, it’s still a dog of a movie. You’re only as good as the material.

OP: I’m absolutely convinced that you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.

GL: So there’s a harmony between the actors and the script.

PH: Yes, in this case, yes. We all had a good time when we were together. I was crying all the time because I was around them.

GL: I’m really curious about the ending of the movie. Why did you save the punch and emotional drama for the very end, and not earlier? Why was that so important in the script?

PH: For me, there should be no rest in this movie until April (Katie Holmes) and her mother are together. Every time we went back to cut the movie, I kept taking out anything that let the energy drop. The point is, they’re not there yet and it isn’t until that door opens that it’s ready. It’s just important to me that the movie doesn’t fall into a routine of predictable ups and downs, like being able to time a tragedy happening every three minutes. You know, tears are a luxury – they’ve got to be earned! I didn’t want these people to pity themselves. It was trust, then, that it was all building to that moment of grace. You can only go to that well so many times, and to really let that moment land then is a taste thing. I don’t want to get to the end and think, “Ugh, enough!”

GL: Where do you go from here? What’s next?

PH: I hope to direct and keep telling stories I want to tell. I want to write, direct and above all, be a good dad.