We haven’t seen much of Helen Hunt in recent years. That’s by choice, she says - her choice, not Hollywood’s.
“I’ve been home with my daughter, which is where I want to be,” she says while at the Miami International Film Festival.
And it turns out, that raising her little girl, Makena’lei, was great preparation for the next big thing in this Oscar-winner’s life - directing. Hunt used her stay-at-home-mom time to co-adapt, prep, cast and direct her first movie, “Then She Found Me,” in which she also stars. It’s about a woman who longs to have a baby, whose new marriage has just collapsed, and who, at that moment, suddenly meets her smothering, comical birth mom (Bette Midler) for the first time.
“Being a mother and a daughter, the subject of this novel (by Elinor Lipman) grabbed me, right off,” Hunt, 44, says. “Mothers and daughters, that’s pretty rich territory to cover.”
It dawned on her as she pulled the film together how much her newest job - motherhood - was great training for sitting behind the camera.
“`I’m listening to you. I need you to do this.’ These are things mothers say. Gently. That’s what directors do.”
She nurtured the project and called in a few favors (Matthew Broderick, a co-star, was an old friend). Hunt has been trying to get the film made and into theaters for nearly 10 years, she says. After others took a shot at the script, she made last draft alterations herself. At some point, it dawned on her that she didn’t want anybody else to direct it.
“It sounds like I’m being rhetorical, but it actually would have been harder to tell someone how I imagined this than to direct it myself,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I ended up acting in it myself. I had so little time and so little money to make this movie that I didn’t have time to work with two actors in each scene, to work around two actors’ schedules for rehearsals.”
She is the daughter of Gordon Hunt, a Canadian director, and started out as a child star, so she certainly was at home on a set, and knowledgeable about the job. Her years in the business have shaped her on- and off-camera persona into someone not unlike some of the characters she played in “Mad About You” or even “As Good as It Gets.” The lady likes control. That rep is turning up in the mixed reviews of Then She Found Me.
“Hunt gives herself more close-ups than Norma Desmond (and Barbra Streisand - no small feat),” Robert Wilonsky sniffed in The Village Voice.
Others have found a mothering empathy in Hunt’s debut behind the camera.
“Actors directing themselves,” New York Observer critic Rex Reed wrote. “Not always a good idea, but this time you go away impressed.”
Hunt is happy to see the film finally finished, happier to see it finally released. The years in the making didn’t scare her off directing, either. She had her chance to keep acting, to use her peak years as an actress to further making her mark by performing in other people’s movies. But with rare exceptions (a small part in “Bobby,” a role on TV’s ensemble miniseries “Empire Falls”), she chose to stay at home, be a mom and plan her own movie.
“If I had been playing a lot of different roles ... it would have been nice, on the one hand,” she says. “But on the other, I wouldn’t have been forced to sit down and pull this story from someplace inside me. So I think this worked out the way it was supposed to work out.
“I don’t think I had a desire to direct just to direct,” Hunts adds. “It’s much too big of a headache to take on unless you really care about the project. I enjoyed a more direct relationship to the story. As an actor, you have a certain ownership. But at the end of the day, the director puts what he or she wants on the screen. Not you.”