Director Peter Hedges on Taking the Page to the Screen
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I’ve always looked to books to comfort and distract me when life is proving hard to handle. I know I’m not alone in this. But sometimes, when things are extremely distressing, it can be hard to concentrate on a book. Maybe someone you love is in trouble and you can’t help but glance at the phone every few seconds to see if there’s some kind of update: a text, a new post on Facebook, a phone call you missed. Or maybe your mind just won’t allow you to read more than a few pages before skipping back to the thing that’s troubling it.
Sometimes there’s nothing to be done but distract yourself another way—a walk or mindless television can help on occasion. But in the most difficult of times, I find that I can get great comfort by reading something short. Poems, stories, and essays have been my best friends when I’ve been feeling the lowest. I keep several collections at hand for those times. A favorite is Why I Wake Early, by the extraordinary poet Mary Oliver, who we just lost last week. It just goes to show—sometimes, the number of words or pages is not proportional to the comfort that reading can bring. And recently, I got to talking about how stories can help illuminate when the world gets too dark with today’s guest.
Peter Hedges: I’m Peter Hedges. I write and direct films.
WS: Peter Hedges is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter—and a good friend of mine. I first met him when I published his novel An Ocean in Iowa. You’ve probably come across his work in your own life, whether you’ve read What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, his Oscar nominated screenplay for About a Boy, or seen his latest film, Ben Is Back. But long before his Hollywood days, Peter has had a knack for stories—listening to them, absorbing them, and making them up as he goes along.
PH: I grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa. My dad was an Episcopal priest, and known by everyone in Des Moines. And every Sunday, the family was kind of paraded into the front row, and I grew up kind of feeling a little bit like a celebrity.
Every picture of me, preschool, a picture—the kids all look stone faced, and I’m the kid smiling in the background, covering my face. I think I probably ate a lot of sugar so I was probably very hyper, and I think I wanted to, I wanted to—I didn’t feel probably special as a kid, so I wanted to feel special, and I did everything I could to make sure that people noticed me.
WS: Were you a reader as a little kid?
PH: No. Not much. I mean, I remember, my mom, some of my happiest memories actually with my mom were we had that book club where we would get a Dr. Seuss book or a P.D. Eastman book maybe every month, felt like—it always felt like Christmas when these books would come. And I remember cracking them open, and the smell of the pages and reading those books for her. You know, Go Dog Go and The Cat in the Hat. But my favorite book of all time was Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel.
Mike was the steam shovel operator, and there were now electric steam shovels—just, progress was coming. And this poor old steam shovel didn’t have much purpose left and nobody really wanted this steam shovel, so they turned the steam shovel into a furnace. It was kind of the pre-Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but the steam shovel kind of repurposes himself as a furnace, and has a very nice retirement as a furnace. I think there’s something about that, that people had given up on the steam shovel and he was an outcast. And I have a great affection for the underdog. I think I felt like one. I think most of us do. You know, on some level, secretly, quietly, maybe we go, maybe I’m not, maybe I’m not as much as I’d hoped or certainly not enough for others. And it had a happy ending. And happy endings were something I craved.
I loved that you could be such a fuck-up and still be loved.
WS: Peter found himself looking for those after a particularly harsh one in his own life—when he was seven years old, his mother left the family.
PH: It was a public break up, and it was on the front page of the Des Moines Register that my mother filed for divorce, and it was on the front page of the paper Christmas morning. And in fact, after that, they made a policy that they would never put personal information on the front page. It was a tiny item, but why? So we were reeling, and trying to put on a good front in the public way every Sunday in church, but privately, it was just a very volatile and . . . every day was an emotional rollercoaster.
I went through a period of great emotional fragility where I felt . . . I think I felt deeply that if I had just been better, she would have been happier. She never would have left. I think I . . . felt the way a lot of kids do, that I had the power and the capacity to fix what’s broken.
WS: In the wake of this turmoil, Peter turned to stories for comfort.
PH: Every Sunday, there would be a reading from the gospel, and frequently those readings would involve parables, and there seemed to be in those stories—The Prodigal Son, for instance, being my favorite parable, I loved that parable. I loved that you could be such a fuck-up and still be loved. And I think also, stories just brought me comfort, they gave me a sense, they gave me a sense of what could be possible.
WS: And soon, he found himself not just listening to stories, but creating his own.
PH: I had a neighbor, Lee Silverstein, he was two years older than me. And I told him a story one day while we were playing baseball, and about an hour later, he knocked on the door and came with a notebook and a pencil. And he told me to dictate the story. And that’s the first story I ever wrote. And he was a hero to me. He was the best athlete, he was as close to a rockstar as I could know. But imagine Paul McCartney coming into your house and saying, hey, I’m going to put my attention on you.
WS: From there, Peter sought out stories to help navigate the world around him.
PH: I think I began to, it sounds so cliche, but I created a very rich inner life. But then what happened was, in seventh grade I started acting in plays.
WS: The theater bug bit, and it bit hard. After high school, Peter headed off to the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied drama.
PH: I wanted to be an actor. I trained to be an actor. Just kind of in drama school, the harder I worked, the better everyone else seemed to get. My junior year, I hit a big wall. I want to quit school. I called my dad and say, come get me. He says, I will. It sounds like it’s really hard, but before you quit school, I want you to try to do something positive to change your situation. Give it a few weeks and if it doesn’t work, I’ll come get you. And that’s when I wrote a play for a classmate of mine who was also struggling, who I believed was a wonderful actress and I wrote a play that was almost a Samuel Beckett rip off.
Students went crazy for it. I didn’t even know the play was funny. I didn’t know the play was moving. I just knew that we put it up and one hundred, two hundreds students were out in the parking lot because the word had spread and they came to see the play.
When I started writing plays, something happened in my writing that didn’t happen in my acting that I wasn’t trying to be a good writer. I was just trying to write parts that would allow my actor friends to be viewed as the good actors they are and something happened. I just was more honest in my writing then I could be as an actor.
Maybe there’s a way to move through the world where you are experiencing the world as opposed to a being a passive observer.
WS: Peter Hedges had learned the comforting power of stories at a young age, and made a career of telling them, writing plays like Oregon, Champions of the Average Joe, and Imagining Brad. But one summer, when he was teaching writing at Northwestern, an assignment he gave his students inadvertently led him to write something he never intended to: a novel.
PH: I wrote on a dare to myself and to impress my students a little monologue that I would write one night, rehearse the next and perform a couple of days later at the faculty recital—it was called going places with Gilbert Grape. That little monologue, I thought, I would turn into a play for my theater company. I wrote 100 pages by hand. I never even typed up the pages because what I realized was what I loved was Gilbert’s voice. So for four years, every morning I would start my writing day with Gilbert pages. I would just put it in a blank page and I would let Gilbert talk and I had over a thousand pages of Gilbert after a few years.
On the set of Gilbert Grape, the movie, my dad played the minister, the Lutheran Minister and Gilbert Grape, and he was in the trailer getting made up in the same room with Leonardo Dicaprio at the time. And he said, Peter, can I tell you something? I said, yeah. He said, remember years ago when you told me you were writing a novel? And I said, Yep. And he said, I thought at the time that was the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard from you. And I so love that he told me when he did on the set of my movie, because if he had told me then, I was way in over my head. If he told me then, I might have stopped because I really had no business writing a novel on some level, except I wrote it like a theater piece.
WS: The film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? went on to receive critical acclaim, and Peter’s work began to move from theater projects to Hollywood films. It was on the cusp of all this change that he found himself in a bookstore, flipping through the beginnings of books. One in particular left him unable to put it down—the introduction to Daniel Boorstin’s The Image.
PH: The introduction is, a staggering piece of writing and basically, he was saying things that I’d felt that I couldn’t put words to.
WS: Originally published in 1962, the book felt timely and contemporary to Peter when he read it in the early 90s—and, upon rereading it recently, he says it still holds true today. In The Image, Boorstin examines the way Americans consume news, and argues that we expect too much. He writes that this insatiability for information results in minor stories being blown out of proportion, and lessens the impact of real news and facts to the detriment of society.
PH: I read it immediately and I finished it. And for me to finish a book, particularly at that time, was unusual. I’m not proud to say that. I think I’d be much better person if I had read more and finished more. But, it spoke to me in so many ways.
I was close to 30, and I was just starting to make a living for the first time. I was just starting to work in film. And he spends a lot of time talking about film. He spends a lot of time talking about how images have replaced ideals and basically perception is, you know, what you believe, something to be has replaced what something actually is. And I think I’ve felt for a long time that even though I traffic in the story and in entertainment and in creating work, it made me think about my ravenous need to be entertained and distracted and he seemed to be saying, don’t expect so much, and maybe there’s a way to move through the world where you are experiencing the world as opposed to a being a passive observer of the world or an audience for the world, but you’re actually in it, and so I felt like he was taking me by the shirt and personally shaking me.
I felt that I needed to go to a kind of storytelling that was urgent and authentic and was as truthful and as uncompromised as I could be.
WS: That shake from Boorstin has stayed with Peter throughout the years, as he’s continued his work as a writer and moved into directing films as well. And The Image has had an influence on the way that he has approached his work, and especially his most recent film, Ben Is Back.
PH: I felt it was possible to get to a simpler, quieter, more meaningful relationship with not only myself but with the world. And when I looked at the work I was doing, writing films for movie studios or projects that I thought would be very diverting for audiences and bring laughter to the world, I felt that I needed to go to a kind of storytelling that was urgent and authentic and was as truthful and as uncompromised as I could be.
I know as a kid I felt a bit insane. We were a miserable family, but we were acting as if we weren’t and that everything was okay. And one of the things he talks about in the book is how do we cut out the noise or cut through and get to what really matters. I wasn’t conscious of this book leading me to that, but that when you asked me for a book that I grabbed this book, I think for this book planted seeds in me that what I felt I could do in my own small way was become the most and boldest and bravest truth teller that I could be.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Peter Hedges and Camila Salazar. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.