Peter Hedges had been here before. Not in a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic where the idea of bringing together a production carried safety concerns, mind you, but attempting to close the gaps between experiences when it seemed all but impossible with the filmmaking apparatus that was available. When the director who prizes empathy above all else in his storytelling wanted to bring audiences closer to the characters he and his actors would invest so much into in his feature debut “Pieces of April,” it wasn’t only the budgetary constraints that led him to begin experimenting with a digital camera, one of the first American productions to do so, but the immediacy that the format where it seemed like he found a truth among the 24 lies per second that celluloid inevitably delivers with its sheen in reality.
“I left that experience wondering, ‘Is that repeatable? Is it possible to strip away all the excess that filmmaking often brings with it?” Hedges recently recalled. “All the trailers, the hierarchies, is there a way to get down to something very elemental and raw and real?”
“Pieces of April” was so well-received, Hedges was thrust into studio filmmaking with such films as “Dan in Real Life” and “Ben is Back” where formal adventurousness was less likely, but a common thread has only grown stronger as he’s put together a body of work that pivots on a moment when people once close to one another think a connection is no longer necessary, it’s often revealed that’s when they need each other the most, particularly amongst families where children begin to grow out of the reach of their parents. In this sense, Hedges was bound to have rich insights into the social fabric that was unraveled by COVID and with an extraordinary ensemble is able to weave together an expansive and compelling drama in “The Same Storm,” covering the virus’ intimate effect on those who suffered from it as well as those burdened with caring for them without a cure in sight in addition to the more abstract stress it placed on relationships as other injustices came to the fore, from racial inequality to unfair power dynamics exposed when everyone was made to work from home, and it was easy to give into despair.
The mere fact a community could come together to make “The Same Storm” is reason for hope, given the incredible odds against it, but a luminous cast including Sandra Oh, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Mary-Louise Parker, Moses Ingram, Raul Castillo, Nora Dumezweni, real-life married couples Rosemarie DeWitt & Ron Livingston and Joshua Leonard & Alison Pill, and Elaine May(!) bring their own radiance, convening over Zoom sessions, which Hedges shrewdly employs to reflect the code-switching required for our increasingly multifaceted lives, jumping from one call to the next. There may be a few choice tech glitches for dramatic effect, but the observations are precise about the weight of isolation, the need to share what we’re going through with one another and the desire to have control in uncertain times. Following a celebrated festival run that began last year at the Telluride Film Festival, “The Same Storm” is beginning a national theatrical run this week and Hedges generously reflected on how he once again embraced the latest technology to get at something more human in one of his works and collaborating with such a strong ensemble of actors to properly depict a situation that we all experienced in different ways.
How did this come about?
Like everyone, I started quarantining around March 10th of 2020 and about six weeks in, [when there might’ve been the feeling of] “wow, this is nice to get to stay home,” the bloom was off that rose. It was starting to become a time of increasing despair that live theater and music and sporting events were shutting down and [it was a question] how are we going to be able to see movies communally? I received an invitation to an online reading of a play that I’d seen 30 years earlier with Marisa Tomei in it then and now she was reprising her role, reading with Oscar Isaac. They were going to do it over Zoom in a benefit for the theater company I’ve been a part of the MCC Theater in New York City, so I tuned in with a couple thousand other people. Both Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac just went at it and they were so vulnerable and open. Of course, the lighting wasn’t great and the sound was spotty in places, but it was so moving, and I remember just weeping watching because I felt like there was a moment of hope.
The work was so beautiful and I went to bed and in the middle of the night, I woke up and I just started writing. I didn’t know what I was writing, but it was something that I thought we could do as a reading and maybe down the road, another reading, and I kept writing, I had a series of interconnected scenes and I was writing from all different sorts of points of view, not necessarily about the pandemic, but about people who were trying to connect at a time where they weren’t allowed to be in physical contact with other people. Pretty soon, I had so many pages and I would call up some actors and say, “Hey, could we get together and would you read?” It started to feel like there was something here.
Then a friend told me about [“All Rise”] a television show that had found a way to shoot their final episode of the season with all the actors working from home, so I watched that and it had a lot of bells and whistles that I didn’t quite imagine for what I felt we could end up making, but here were actors that were able to work off each other in a way that was very alive and very fresh. So I contacted the company that developed the technology that made that possible, and they said, “We want to be a part of it.” And tragically about a year earlier, my best friend and attorney Marc H. Glick passed away. He was an attorney for some really remarkable artists [such as] Night Shyamalan and J.T. Rogers and A.M. Holmes and Ayad Akhtar and I count myself among the minor artists that he worked with, but I was with him the longest and for some inexplicable reason when he passed, he left me some money and I took that and made this film. I reached out to some friends – Dianne Dreyer, Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia to see if they’d produce and then we just put together a team and I started writing April 30th and we finished shooting the 5th of September, so that’s very fast.
Did it feel like you were working with actors in a way you hadn’t before?
The process was basically just saying to people, “Look, you’re going to have to do your own camera and we’re going to send you sanitized props and we’ll help you figure out where in your house we can shoot.” Because of Straight Up Technologies, the company that developed this technology that made “All Rise” possible because they were so willing to be a part of this, the script was written to embrace the fact that the characters were all communicating through the devices we were all using, so it all evolved organically from there. Then Bernie Telsey and Tiffany Little Canfield, along with Adam Caldwell from Telsey Casting came aboard to help me cast, and because the actors were so game and everyone was so hungry to work and to try and make something meaningful at a time where meaningful making seemed impossible, we were able to figure this out in the way we did.
It also hearkened back to my early days of doing off-off-Broadway theater when I got out of school. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s in the film and stunning in “The Same Storm” and K. Todd Freeman, these were two of the actors I went to school with that were really important in my early work, and we made a lot of theater together in unconventional ways – very scrappily, always with the best of intentions. Sometimes our efforts were misfires, but we always learned and there was so much joy in that process, so I felt like the early days of my theater work.
But in another respect, I’d never written from so many different characters points of view. There are 24 main characters in our film – 14 of those characters were played by Black actors and other bodies of culture, and at a time where there’s increased sensitivity, in a wonderful sense, about who gets to be telling whose stories and whose stories are being told and through what gaze, we found a way to really vet and go through the script, particularly in the scenes that involved non-white actors, which were most of the scenes, where I would say how does this feel? There was a lot of collaboration in getting the scenes to a [good] place and in some instances, it was made very clear we will not even shoot this scene until the actors feel this is ready. I think I’ve always tried to work very collaboratively and not from a place of authority, and I got very excited by how I could work going forward in a more inclusive and embracing way with my fellow collaborators.
One of the things that also happens in a traditional film is you’re often constrained by continuity. If I’m shooting a scene with you, and you’re picking up the coffee mug at a certain point and then because we’re shooting my side [of the scene] after lunch, we have to make sure that coffee mug is being picked up at the same time, so it cuts together. Because of this technology, every take was being filmed in its entirety from every angle, so when we had the scene with five actors, all five performances were being filmed through their devices at the same time, so I didn’t have to worry about some of the technical constraints that can sometimes prevent a kind of surprise on film because you’re trying to make sure it can cut together. In this instance, I knew it could cut together because I had every angle from every take, so it liberated the actor to play off each other. Scenes were tightly scripted, but I wasn’t sitting there going, “Oh, you have to say every word exactly.”
It was much more important that it be alive and one of the scenes was 18 pages long, another scene was 14 pages – those are super long scenes. You rarely shoot a scene that long in a film and you rarely shoot a scene that long that you could shoot in one take, but we could and so we did. There are 13 scenes in the movie – they were more like theater scenes and we have nine actors on our film who have been nominated for Tonys and five that won, so it’s a very theater-savvy cast, but they all work in film and television, so it was like this perfect marriage of what I learned early in my life doing theater, which is try to create a space where an actors can play and surprise each other and where the inexplicable can occur because they know their lines, they’ve done their emotional prep and then they collide and something will occur that is beyond what I could’ve imagined.
I’m not comparing this, but when I think of the films of John Cassavetes, which were very influential to me, or a film like “The Celebration,” the first Dogme film I ever saw or the Altman films of the early ‘70s where it felt like I was peeking in on real people and the artifice of film fell away, this felt not only possible, I actually experienced day after day as we filmed with this explosive and exciting cast.
Given the nature of the production, could you actually shoot sequentially? Did the order of scenes actually help you figure out the tone?
Because of the scheduling, we couldn’t shoot the first scene [with] Noma [Dumezweni] until late in the shooting, so we shot the second scene [sequentially] first, which was Raul [Castillo] and Mary-Louise [Parker] and then the we shot Mary-Louise and Raul and then we shot Mary-Louise and Elaine May and the scene that followed. After that, it was based on people’s schedules, so it was a hodgepodge and we got greater command of the technology for the later scenes and those scenes also became more complicated because one scene had five people and [there was] a big group Zoom, a 12-step meeting, so it was definitely a challenge. But part of what excited me [was] the possibility of telling a multi-protagonist story and that most of the characters you see at least twice in very different situations [because] I know in my own life I can be very different people on any given day – when I’m talking with my dogs, when I’m talking with my wife, when I’m talking with our mail person or the barista when I pick up coffee for my wife.
In fact, when I started writing soon after the pandemic started, I went to the coffee place, masked, and I asked the barista how he was doing, and under his mask, he said, “Do you really want to know?” And I said, “Yeah, well I do…” and he started to cry. He said, “I’m so sorry. My grandmother passed away from COVID three hours ago and I didn’t get to say goodbye to her.” And here’s the barista and this is what he’s dealing with and I pass someone and they’re dealing with their kid can’t go to school, probably and you start to imagine, this is one of those rare times in our history where everyone is impacted. Some people are ecstatic, like “I don’t have to see anybody. I don’t have to go into work.” But most people I know, there was some particular challenge, so the structure of this really allowed for an exploration of all that we don’t know about each other and how everybody is finding some way to cope.
The whole thing was happening so fast and to have a platform from which we could hold or react to or amplify all kinds of moments or stories that were unimaginable a few months earlier, but were only made viable to because of this untenable, protracted moment of “ow,” which is what it felt like to me when we were in the middle of it, that felt like it also had these stunning moments of grace, so [the question was] could we make something that could capture some of that.? It wasn’t this dramatic, but it was as if we were making a movie about the Titanic, on the Titanic while the Titanic was sinking. [laughs] Okay, maybe it wasn’t that exciting, but it was as close to that as we could get.