Oct 26, 2022
By Matt Conner
What are we to make of these last few years? Better yet, what is it possible to make from it all? Writer/director Peter Hedges is busy promoting his response to those questions, a new film entitled The Same Storm, and even the business (or busy-ness) of promotion is not something he was certain would boomerang back again. Did any of us?
In the maelstrom of a world sheltering-in-place and a virus gone rampant, of increasingly polarizing political takes and public distrust, of families and institutions torn apart based on scientific beliefs or medical decisions, Hedges wrote and directed The Same Storm, a profile of 24 characters with interwoven narratives living through the lockdown of 2020. Filmed on iPhones and laptops and featuring a strong cast (Sandra Oh, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Louise-Parker, Alison Pill, Judith Light, Moses Ingram and more), Hedges sought to build a tale of connection—or at least attempted connections—in the midst of so much confusion and uncertainty.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Peter to hear more about his latest project and how he was inspired in the midst of so much heaviness.
UTR (Matt Conner): I want to start with this idea of The Same Storm, which is a film literally centered on the shared experiences we’ve all had around the world over the last few years. I wondered how much wrestling you did to tell a story here and whether you were afraid that people might not want more of what they’ve already lived? Or was that more compelling knowing how universal it all was?
Peter Hedges: Great question. I was starting to feel incredibly hopeless in terms of what was happening and what it meant for being in the proximity of those you love. Sometimes it was nice because you didn’t have to be around people you don’t like very much, but most of it was this slow-growing sense of despair.
When I saw a reading on Zoom done to benefit the MCC theater with Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac reading Alan Bowne’s play Beirut—a play she’s done before 30 years ago and I saw her do on-stage—not only did I find myself weeping, the rawness and visceral aspects of these two actors just being human and speaking live to that small audience was euphoric. I felt like we’re still here, we’re alive, it’s possible to make something intimate and impactful, and there are ways to reach people.
In the high of that evening, I went to bed and couldn’t sleep so I got up and started writing. Pretty soon, what I was writing was writing me. At first I thought it would just be a play that we could read, much like the play that I’d just seen, but as I kept writing and the scenes led to another, I felt like there was a container that could hold so much.
There are so many actors I’ve worked with and so many actors I’ve dreamed of working with and we’re all in this unique position of being denied the capacity to do what we normally do. So it was less that I wanted to say something about the moment and more about showing there was a way we could continue to play and make. In that spirit, I just kept moving forward.
That led to an experiment. I reached out a company called Straight Up Technologies who’d developed some proprietary software for people to direct and work remotely. They’d done a lot with Michael Mann, who does a lot of his editing remotely. They were doing some things in network television, too.
So all of those things collided. There was this energy to what we were doing and suddenly the Straight Up people said they had a two-week window where they could really support the filming of something. That was after I said I thought I had a script and I shared it with them. With that open window and what was happening in the world and writing as quickly as I was writing and workshopping with actors, we embraced the moment and structured this like we did Pieces of April, which I directed, which was for people to donate their services for partial ownership in the film.
So that enabled us to make the film for a reasonable cost. People by that point were so hungry to work. The hope was that out of this frenetic energy being poured into this that we would make something that would reflect the moment but be more than that. These scenes are all about people trying to connect, and all of my stories are in some way are about broken people trying to find their way toward each other—to make some sort of connection, a holy bond, if you will.
How did the rawness of the medium affect your approach?
I remember they used to tell us as kids that if you lose your eyesight, all of our senses heighten. You have a better sense of sound and taste because of an increased reliance. That’s a terrible analogy. [Laughs] In my experience, how you make a movie often mirrors what the movie is about. With Pieces of April, we never had enough time and that movie is about running out of time. This movie was about figuring out ways to get together so we can respond to each other, and there was a lot in the way of that. Fortunately, the technology allowed us to overcome that.
There were all kinds of challenges that came with this approach, but necessity is the mother of invention and that’s never been more true. It was the only way we could figure out how to shoot it safely and also allow the actors the capacity to interact in the moment. Many films in the same space as the Same Storm will look better is because they sent a camera to an actor and that actor filmed themselves. Then they sent a different one to a different actor and they film themselves. They both send it in and they cut the film together. The actors weren’t really acting with each other; they were imagining the performances of others.
You miss out on that incredible camaraderie that is often pervasive on a film set. After an emotional day where you’ve had an exhausting scene, you can go to craft services and commiserate. [Laughs] So we missed out on one of my favorite parts to be in the trenches together, and yet in our own way, we could be in the trenches together and that made it very special.
When you say you made that trade, did you get what you hoped you would get?
Yes, I did. We’re in a really interesting point with our technology and storytelling. I talk about this because on Pieces of April, we didn’t even use a hi-def camera. We shot it on a Sony PD-150. It made it feel more filmic but it was still digital video. But what an iPhone can capture now, and I’m seeing on a lot of the show I stream, the image is so pristine and so clear. Now because we don’t project film anymore, there’s none of the jiggle that used to come with film, which was a reminder that all of this was made by humans, by real people.
So there’s a part of me that knows for some filmgoers, anything that is not completely crystal clear right now can be painful. For me, it does what old home movies do or films shot on 16mm where the director spread out the negatives on the floor and walked on them with his boots. I didn’t know it until I watched it back, but all of this really helped to time capsule this moment. I think those imperfect moments give it a feeling of reality.
So much of this movie is grounded in these issues that are so polarizing: politics, health information or misinformation. How did you deal with the hurdles of writing these characters on both sides in a way that doesn’t feel two-dimensional?
I think there are a couple of parts that are underwritten, and when I underwrite characters, I always try to overcast for one of those roles. You can’t tell everyone’s story. What I try to do, then, is overcast an underwritten role. I think there are instances where actors had not a lot to do but did so much with what they had that it gave a gravitas and humanity to the characters that might not have been on the page.
After all of this, what other creative plates are you spinning?
Sure, I’ve been working for a number of years on a script that I’m very excited about. I hope it’s my next film. I’ll know soon if it’s my next film. You can want a film to be a film, but the world needs to want it too. I don’t want to say a lot about it, but it’s very much written in response to what’s going on in the world right now. It’s a very personal film—not autobiographical—but it’s an important film to me. I’m so close to sending it out into the world that it’s almost painful to say. But hopefully it will be the next film we talk about.