STAGE TO SCREENS: Peter Hedges and Alison Pill of "Dan in Real Life"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Peter Hedges and Alison Pill of "Dan in Real Life" This month we talk to writer-director Peter Hedges about the new Steve Carell film comedy "Dan in Real Life," opening Oct. 26, and Alison Pill — of Broadway's Mauritius — who plays Carell's daughter.
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"Dan in Real Life" is a real find — hilarious, intelligent, and touching. Explains the film's director/co-writer Peter Hedges, "I wanted to make an adult film you could take your wife and kids to — a movie that was as funny as possible, but not at the expense of believability.

"I was told I could cast whoever I wanted. I'm a theatre person. There are so many good [stage] actors; I'm glad to have been able to hire just a few. I've had a long association with [theatre casting director] Bernie Telsey. I think everyone's perfect for their parts.

"It's a Tony-drenched cast. We have Tony winners John Mahoney [The House of Blue Leaves; "I'll never forget his performance," states Hedges], Norbert Leo Butz [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels], and Frank Wood [Side Man]. There are Tony nominees Amy Ryan [Uncle Vanya, A Streetcar Named Desire], Matthew Morrison [A Light in the Piazza], and Alison Pill [The Lieutenant of Inishmore]. Alison's been in both my films [his first directorial credit was 2003's "Pieces of April," for which he also wrote the screenplay]. She's one of the finest actors I will ever get to work with."

Plus, two Oscar winners are in the film: Dianne Wiest ("Hannah and Her Sisters"; "Bullets Over Broadway," both Woody Allen films) and Juliette Binoche ("The English Patient"). Hedges tells me, "I owed Disney [Studios] four weeks of work. They sent me a box of scripts: 'Here, write one of these.' The second script I read was Pierce Gardner's 'Dan in Real Life' [written on spec]. I didn't read any others. The story aligned with my sensibilities. I didn't rush. Five months later, I turned in a draft. The studio green-lit the film on the basis that I direct." The story revolves around Dan Burns (Carell), who writes a family-advice newspaper column called "Dan in Real Life." He's a widower and father of three: teens Jane (Alison Pill), who just got a driver's license, and Cara (Brittany Robertson), who's just found the love of her life, and fourth-grader Lilly (Marlene Lawston), who's just adorable. "Again, Alison is ridiculously talented," says Hedges, "and Brittany and Marlene are incapable of a false moment."

Steve Carell and Alison Pill in "Dan in Real Life."
photo by Touchstone Pictures

Dad Dan drives his daughters to the Rhode Island summer home of his parents (Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney) for the annual Burns family gathering. While in the "Ocean State," Dan (who's not dated in the four years since his wife died) meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a bookstore and is instantly attracted. Though the attraction seems mutual, Marie admits that she's just beginning a new relationship with another man. Also in the Burns clan are Dan's brothers, Mitch (Dane Cook) and Clay (Norbert Leo Butz), sister Amy (Jessica Hecht), her husband Howard (Frank Wood), Clay's wife Eileen (Amy Ryan), and various offspring, some of whom were "Little Rhody" residents. "We auditioned over a thousand kids." As if it weren't crowded enough, Cara's boyfriend, Marty (Felipe Dieppa), arrives on the scene, and Dan is set up for a blind date with Ruthie "Pig Face" Draper (Emily Blunt).

"In the original script, the gathering occurs between Christmas and New Year's, but I wanted to shoot in the fall; I wanted to be outdoors, instead of in. We shot the film in Rhode Island, a nine-week shoot, 45 days. I didn't want to build a house and shoot it on a sound stage. We found an exquisite location. The house becomes a character. It's not necessarily something the audience is aware of, but I think an audience feels when you're in someplace real." The DVD will contain 15 minutes of deleted scenes. "I cut a number of scenes at the beginning, because I overwrote the opening. It took a little too long to get to the house."

Steve Carell, Norbert Leo Butz and Jessica Hecht in "Dan in Real Life."
photo by Touchstone Pictures

Besides directing, Hedges is a former actor (he studied with Sanford Meisner and co-founded the original Edge Theatre with Mary-Louise Parker and Joe Mantello), playwright (productions include Imagining Brad, Good as New and Baby Anger), author (his first book, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," he notes "began as a play, but I kept writing"), teacher (at Yale, Bennington and his alma mater, the North Carolina School of the Arts), and scenarist (he adapted "Gilbert Grape," penned "A Map of the World" and "Pieces of April", and received an Oscar nomination for "About a Boy"). He hopes never to have to choose just one talent: "They all bring a high level of happiness and a moderate amount of despair." Born in Des Moines, Hedges grew up in West Des Moines ("a key distinction for an Iowan") and now lives in Brooklyn with wife Susan Bruce and their two children.

Hedges's favorite play experience "was a workshop of Imagining Brad that we did at the old Circle Rep Lab. We had no money, just good intentions. It was a special moment at the theatre of our hero, Lanford Wilson, and was Joe Mantello's first New York production. He directed in college, and had acted in all my plays until I finally wrote one with a female cast — which he directed.

"My favorite theatre experience will always be the work I did with Joe and Mary-Louise Parker and a handful of other college friends [with the Edge Company]. For two or three years, I wrote a series of plays that we performed any place that would have us. They were my favorite and purest days; we had nothing but each other. I've tried to model my filmmaking experiences after that time. Even though we're older — and get paid — I want to do work that's joy-based in the process."

Director Lasse Hallstrom promised that if Hedges adapted "Gilbert Grape" for the screen, he'd teach him to be a filmmaker. Recalls Hedges, "He gave me a unique education. I was involved in the auditions, scouting locations, and watching dailies. I was on the set and occasionally in the editing room. He was a great teacher."

Upcoming for the multitasking Hedges is "finishing my new novel [his third], which I've been finishing for nearly a decade. Then I have plans for a new film, and I'm hoping to sneak in a new play, which has been a longtime coming." If there's a secret to his success, claims Hedges, "it's that I look for stories that not only I can't wait to tell, but also that I have to tell. Then everything kind of follows from there."

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Speaking of Peter Hedges, Alison Pill declares, "We're huge fans of each other. He's a delightful human being to be around, a talented writer and great about allowing actors freedom on the set. He has such a heart to all of his characters; they're so honest and moving." Pill pledges Hedges allegiance: "I want to be in every movie he ever makes!"

Alison Pill

Adds Pill, "The only difficulty [with "Dan"] was trying to put 18 people in scenes, which is very tricky. But it was all part of the fun of the shoot." Previously, Pill had worked with Amy Ryan "in a Christopher Shinn play, On the Mountain. I'd known Jessica Hecht a little bit, and I knew Frank Wood's work and Norbert's work. It was a joy being around [the cast members], and exciting to hear all their theatrical stories."

A native of Toronto, she's been acting since the age of "10 or 11." For the young Alison, wonderland was finding herself on the other side of the looking glass — in TV and movies, where her wide variety of performances include an autistic girl ("The Last Don II"), a nubile ballerina ("Degas and the Dancer"), a rebellious teen ("What Katy Did"), a grief-stricken child ("Baby"), the young Lorna Luft ("Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows"), and an unpopular student ("Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen"). Pill also played Aidan Quinn's drug-dealing daughter in the short-lived 2006 NBC-TV drama "The Book of Daniel."

Her Off-Broadway debut occurred in 2003, as Jamie in Jenny Lyn Bader's two-character play, None of the Above. Next, she played Jenn in Neil LaBute's The Distance from Here and shared a 2004 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. She received a 2005 Lucille Lortel Award nomination as Jaime in On the Mountain.

As Mairead, in the 2006 Atlantic Theater Company production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, she was the reckless, scrappy Irish teen lover of the leading character, Padraic (David Wilmot), described as being "too violent for the IRA."

When the blood-drenched drama transferred to Broadway (marking her Main Stem debut), Pill received a Tony nomination. "I loved every minute of that play. It was so well-constructed. It was just a matter of getting on board with the ride that the audience takes."

Eight times a week, she got soaked in blood, which was actually "corn syrup, chocolate syrup, peanut butter, and red food dye. Our showers were covered in blood. Spring Awakening followed us into the Atlantic and Jonathan Groff [Melchior] told me that they were constantly dealing with the spilled blood onstage. We were there long after we were gone."

Alison Pill and Marlene Lawston in "Dan in Real Life."
photo by Touchstone Pictures

The Manhattan Theatre Club's April 2007 staging of David Harrower's Blackbird, directed by Joe Mantello, cast Pill as Una, still struggling with a forbidden sexual relationship from her childhood, who confronts her victimizer (Jeff Daniels), years after the crime. "It was an amazing opportunity, and I loved working with Jeff. But doing [the play] eight times a week, we were both exhausted." Her performance earned Pill a Best Actress Outer Critics Circle nomination. Currently on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius, directed by Doug Hughes, Pill "loves playing Jackie. I love having a happy ending, which hasn't happened in a lot of the plays I've done. A friend saw it yesterday and she put it beautifully: 'Jackie is a person who is cornered, but she's determined to fight for the corner she's in.'" Co-starring with her are Bobby Cannavale, Katie Finneran, F. Murray Abraham and Dylan Baker.

Does she have a dream role? Responds Pill, "There are too many. In the next few years, I would love to play Nina in The Seagull. I have to be Juliet at some point, and some classical roles would be lovely. Whatever comes along. I've been pretty happy, thus far."

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Oct. 16 marked the DVD release of Dori Berinstein's documentary "Show Business: The Road to Broadway," a chronicle of four 2003-04 season Broadway musicals: Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, and Taboo. Extras include more than an hour of deleted scenes and comments from Berinstein, co-producer Alan Cumming, and Jeff Marx (Avenue Q).

Among those featured in the documentary itself are Boy George and Rosie O'Donnell, composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, critics Ben Brantley and John Lahr, songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Tonya Pinkins, and William Goldman. Also included (and ready for his close-up) is Michael Riedel. The New York Post columnist is one of five Broadway-scene commentators, along with Patrick Pacheco, and critics Linda Winer, Jacques LeSourd and Charles Isherwood, who gather on four occasions to discuss (and dissect) different shows.

At their first meeting, Riedel gleefully anticipates "more bombs, something to write about...that's what I'm looking forward to." Later, he comments on Wicked, prior to its Broadway opening: "I saw it in San Francisco. It has a lot of problems." (Other shows should have such problems. Still a hot ticket, Wicked starts its fifth year on Oct. 30).

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

Hugh Jackman, a Tony winner for The Boy from Oz, is executive producer and has a recurring role in CBS-TV's "Viva Laughlin!" It debuted Oct. 18, and will air regularly on Sundays at 8 PM ET. Described as "a mystery drama with music," using contemporary songs...Oct. 18 also marked the premiere of a new documentary "Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway" at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Albert Maysles, co-creator of the famed "Grey Gardens" documentary, on which the musical of the same name was based, took a behind-the-scenes look at the show, including comments from its Tony-winning stars, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson.

Besides "Dan in Real Life," Amy Ryan has roles in two other new movies: Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which reunites her with Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Oscar winner for "Capote" (in which Ryan was superb as Chris Cooper's celebrity-struck wife), and "Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck's directorial debut...Mark Ruffalo (a 2006 Tony nominee for his Broadway debut in Awake and Sing) gives an intense performance as a lawyer involved in a hit-and-run accident in the new release, "Reservation Road," which features fine work by Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connolly and Mira Sorvino. Young Eddie Alderson, who's played Matthew Buchanan on TV's "One Life to Live" since age 7, is extremely good as Ruffalo's conflicted son.

In my August column, I quoted "Pushing Daisies" creator Bryan Fuller as saying that Paul Reubens would have a recurring role as Alfredo, a traveling salesman of anti-depressants. Last Wednesday, Alfredo appeared, but the role was played by Raul Esparza, who will be appearing in future episodes. However, Pee Wee Herman fans shouldn't reach for anti-depressants; Reubens will soon be seen as a different recurring character, one who detects odors.

(Michael Buckley, a longtime theatre journalist, can be reached at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)

Steve Carell, Juliet Binoche and Peter Hedges on the set of "Dan in Real Life."
Steve Carell, Juliet Binoche and Peter Hedges on the set of "Dan in Real Life." Photo by Touchstone Pictures