EXCLUSIVE: Peter Hedges, like so many filmmakers looking not to lose their creative mojo during the pandemic, managed at the height of the Covid lockdown to take advantage of many talented actors trying to survive in the same circumstance, and in the best show business tradition managed to create a new film, The Same Storm, that turned out to be so much more than he could have imagined.
Enlisting the talents of the likes of Elaine May, Mary-Louise Parker, Noma Dumezweni, Judith Light, Sandra Oh, Moses Ingram, Danny Burstein, Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Raza Jeffrey, Daphne Rubin-Vega and many more, he and his team developed a sophisticated shooting system (not Zoom, but the same basic idea), sent the equipment to each star with some production design and camera setup advice, and created a feature-length movie comprised of a series of vignettes that hand off to one another with seamless editing magic.
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Hedges was Oscar-nominated for his About a Boy adapted screenplay, wrote the script for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and wrote and directed such films as Pieces of April, Dan In Real Life, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and most recently Ben Is Back which starred Julia Roberts and his own Oscar-nominated son Lucas. In fact, he managed to land a co-star from Lucas’ Broadway play who goes by the name of Elaine May and actually won a Tony for it. He never imagined she would have a key supporting role in his next film, but stranger things have happened.
The film, which is world premiering at the Telluride Film Festival today and will be playing at various times over the course of the Labor Day weekend, is not only a technical triumph but also a look into disparate lives “not in the same boat, but all caught up in the same storm” — or so goes a favorite saying of Hedges, who with his producing partners will also be looking for the right distributor and using attention from Telluride to aid in that.
Hedges’ script covers issues people have encountered over the course of the pandemic including physical problems, emotional turmoil, political divisiveness in the Trump era, mental-health challenges, racial tensions and grief along with other situations. Mostly it is about humans trying to connect in various ways — some of it harrowing, some of it amusing, some of it heartbreaking — all played out on “Zoom calls” that ultimately capture our basic humanity in very effective and moving fashion. There is no other film quite like this one at the festival this year, that’s for sure, and it is bound to have real impact for audiences who see it.
Hedges has always wanted to come to Telluride. The Same Storm got him the ticket.
DEADLINE: So tell me how The Same Storm all came together during such a trying time.
PETER HEDGES: Well, to be honest, we were about six weeks into the shutdown. My home theater, Manhattan Class Company in New York, did a staged work of a Zoom reading of a play they produced many years ago and the reading had Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac in it, the cameras were right up to their faces and they just read this play, and it was so raw and intimate. It was as intimate as I felt like when I first saw a John Cassavetes film.
I mean I felt very emotional watching it and thought maybe there’s a way for art to continue when we’re all locked inside and that night I started writing, and what I thought I was writing was a play that we could do as a reading, as a benefit for MCC Theater, and I just kept writing and kept writing and pretty soon scenes were writing me.
DEADLINE: And It all came together just like that?
HEDGES: Two other things happened. I read this quote on Twitter by the English writer Damian Barr. “We’re not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm,” and I loved that notion, and I also went to pick up a coffee for my wife, and I asked the barista how he was doing, and he said, “Do you really want to know?” And I said, “Yeah, I do,” and then he started to cry because his grandmother had just passed from Covid, and I started to realize that everybody has a story. Everybody’s being tested, some in very hard ways, some in beautiful ways and that this, what I was writing because I wanted to tell the story using the devices through which we were communicating and certainly at the height of the pandemic it’s a little less so now, so I just started writing and within weeks I realized that there was something more here and I did some research.
I found out that there was this company in Los Angeles that had filmed an episode, a CBS procedural called All Rise, where the actors all worked remotely because I was thinking how can we make something and ensure it’s safe? Safety needs to be the highest priority when you make anything. So, I started exploring the technological aspects of it and basically realized that there’s a way that we could all be at home, but we could build in such a way that we could get the best actors in the world and create a way in which they can play off each other in a very organic and real way and we just capture it, and hopefully it would add up to something. So, that was it.
It’s really simple and it wasn’t always easy, but it was a very simple idea, which was to try to tell stories about the great aches that we have to connect, to make contact and loosely based off the well-worn La Ronde structure from Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian playwright. It was a great play where the scenes pass from person to person, but this idea that also I could write scenes for great actors where they would have to show different sides of themselves in each of the scenes, and I just was constantly surprised where the writing was going and as the cast started to assemble, I just tried to earn the privilege of working with them to be quite honest, and I mean this sincerely, to be worthy of the talented people who were signing on to make this wild and wacky and love-drenched film.
DEADLINE: And what did you discover about working with all these major actors?
HEDGES: It almost felt like, it’s a terrible metaphor, but like race horses who haven’t gotten to run for a while and so you know in some sense you just open the gate and off they went, and I was so moved to a person from what they brought and one of the shocking things that of course you realize, and you may forget when you’re watching the movie, is they may be in a deep emotional moment or like a really kind of surprising human moment and then you realize they’re holding their own camera, you know what I mean?
DEADLINE: And you got Elaine May who was just voted an honorary Oscar, and won a Tony for a Broadway play she was in with your son, Lucas. Was that the connection?
HEDGES: I know. I still can’t believe it. I remember when Bernie, my casting director, said “Do you think she’d do this?” I said “No we will never be able to get her.” But so we sent it off to her, and I got this call that she called. The phone rang. I picked up and it said here’s Elaine and you know and I had never met her. I saw the play a number of times, of course, because Lucas was in it, but I never met her and I started sweating. And she said “Well, I just have some questions about my part,” and I’m thinking ,”About your part? Oh, are you doing it?” And she said “Of course, I’m doing it.” It was certainly one of the highlights of my career getting to work with her on this film — I feel that way about everybody in the movie. I love this cast as much as I’ve loved any cast ever. They were so generous and so they just came to play and it was an unusual way to make a movie, but we’re living in an unusual time, and so, yeah, I felt just really, really grateful to have everyone who signed on.
DEADLINE: Technically how did you shoot all of this?
HEDGES: It wasn’t Zoom actually. It was a more sophisticated streaming situation. It was through a company called Straight Up Technologies using Cisco and Webex. We would give the actors props that were sterilized. They would dress their own sets. In some instances we’d send a light if we thought they needed a light, so they would assemble their own light and place it, and my DP and production designer, costume designer and our team, we were all able to come into the room and then we would disappear from the room and then they could act with each other and we were filming every device that was being used. Sometimes it was a phone. Sometimes it was an iPad. Sometimes it was a computer, but it enabled the actors to play, in real time, off each other, and I think it’s why it crackles, why it feels so alive.
DEADLINE: So were you excited to find out it was accepted by Telluride?
HEDGES: I mean, truthfully in a lifetime where I’ve had a lot of experiences, more than I deserve to have had that have been very satisfying, nothing really compares to this one because of everything that seemed to conspire against anyone making anything at this moment but that these people came, and came with such humility and generosity. And then the thing that I never could imagine because all I wanted to do was get it made, you know, honestly make it, and then hope it’s worthy of the people who made it, and worthy of people who will want to see it, but then when I got the call that Telluride Film Festival wanted to do the world premiere of this film… I’ve wanted to have a movie at Telluride my whole life and this is the one I never thought would be at Telluride — not because I don’t think it deserves to be, it’s not that, it was a failure of my imagination but it’s not a failure of theirs. And so, the idea of getting to experience this film with an audience, I’m walking around like I feel like I won the lottery, you know, the cinematic lottery. Everyone I’ve shared it with, the response has been pretty enthusiastic to put it mildly, has been very enthusiastic. [Until Telluride] I have not been able to watch the movie with anyone. I’ve never experienced it with other people, which is I think one of the things we miss, right, so much in this new world is that collective experience. So, I’m very, very excited and very grateful for that opportunity.