“There are Medium and Little-Sized Movies about People, and There are Big Movies About Robots”: Helen Hunt on Ride
As an actress, Helen Hunt has thrived in the entertainment industry for over four decades. She’s won an Oscar, Golden Globe Awards and Primetime Emmys. She has succeeded on a large scale as both a film and a television actress, which is no small feat considering that, until recently, film and television actors have been largely kept in distinct and relatively immutable categories.
Hunt has been directing for years, too, from episodes of Mad About You to her first feature film in 2007, Then She Found Me. But not until her latest effort, Ride, has she taken it upon herself to both write and direct an independent feature film based on her own idea and without a co-writer.
Ride centers around a magazine editor, played by Hunt, who follows her son (The Giver‘s Brenton Thwaites) from New York to California when he drops out of college to become a surfer. She attempts to relate to him by learning to surf, but this effort ultimately becomes more of a refusal to give up on herself. What Hunt says started out as an idea between her and partner Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies) of a comedy about “surf moms” rather than “soccer moms” evolved into a solo writing effort and an exploration of an at first rather unlikeable character who struggles to let go of her expectations, both of herself and of those around her.
Filmmaker: This is the first film where you wrote the script on your own, right?
Hunt: Yes, the other film I wrote was more of a process. It was a very well-written draft based on a novel. With a writing partner from Mad About You, I tried to re-write it and keep it very much intact, because I loved the book. But finally I realized I had to stop being so loyal to everybody and figure out what movie I’m dying to make and what it’s really going to be about. Once I did that, I was able to be a bit more cold-blooded and get rid of beautiful characters in the novel that didn’t have a place in the script’s story. So, that script was more of an evolution. For this one, I first set out with Matthew, but he got busy, and I started to be interested in a slightly deeper well that I might dig beneath this seemingly light story because those are my favorite movies – the ones that disguise themselves as comedies and then really push and you and make you wonder what they are.
Filmmaker: I noticed, in the film, there are some scenes where you really take a beating in the water, and it seems like those would have been so painful if you weren’t actually a surfer.
Hunt: It’s kind of painful anyways, but all the surfing in the movie is me, and almost all the wiping out in the movie is me. The most horrible “she’s gotta be dead after doing that” shots were done by a wonderful stunt artist, but you can tell that most of it is me because you can see my face as I swallow gallons of water. I had such great people around me whose sole responsibility was keeping me alive that I got to play and really have fun out there and worry a little less.
Filmmaker: Were the shots in the water difficult to do? I was thinking, it looks like a complicated thing for an independent movie.
Hunt: Well, my feeling about making independent movies is that you have to do a lot of begging, and you have to be a bit of a criminal. You have to get out there and find a way to shoot and beg people to do it with you, and that’s what I did. There wasn’t really a template because I had an “indie in the water,” as you point out. I had never seen that done before, so I couldn’t really call another person who was making a little independent movie in the ocean and say, “How did you do that?”
But, I did look at every bit of surf footage I could. I knew a few people, including my water DP, that have shot a lot of those films. So, I could watch a surf film and say, “I don’t like that,” and they could say, “Okay, you don’t like when the GoPro is strapped onto the board.” And, then I could say, “I do like that. What is that?” and they’d say, “That’s the camera on an old jet-ski, so it’s wobbly and there’s a lot of motion.” Directing is so daunting, but, like anything else, you break it down bit by bit and take it apart and ask for help. After awhile, you begin to have faith that that process will keep you afloat (no pun intended).
Filmmaker: How did you assemble your team? I know it involves calling everyone you know, to a certain extent, and some begging. Do you also have a producing team? Or were you just calling people and saying, “Please help me?”
Hunt: Everything you just said! I have two partners: Matthew Carnahan and Moon Blauner. From there, I was put in touch with a terrific producer who helped me get financing. Long before you have all the financing, you have to act as if you do. Because you just might get it, and when you do, you’d better be ready. Also, there’s something about prepping as though you have a green-lit movie that helps the green light come. I’ve now learned that twice. You just have to be making the movie. And somehow they go, “Oh, she’s making the movie, so we’d better pay for it.” It doesn’t work the other way, in my experience. You can’t say, “Once I get all the money, then I’ll start.”
The first creative call I made was to Sonny Miller. He was a world-class waterman, one of the top three guys in the world. It falls off after those three guys. Every surf movie you’ve ever seen, he shot all or part of the water stuff. I called him and asked him to read the script, and he really liked it. He thought I captured a corner of the sport that hadn’t really been grabbed, you know? That kind of real beginner, to be a woman – or maybe a man, but particularly a woman – and to be at this age and trying this sport and seeing the good and the bad that the ocean does to her. He really felt I got that right, so I felt like I had a huge ally in him. I’m speaking about him in the past tense because he died right after we made the movie. The movie is dedicated to him. It’s terrible that it’s coming out and he won’t see it finished.
After that first key creative call, agents are there. The good news about making movies now is that movies that cost $500,000 and movies that cost $50 million are all taken seriously. People want to work. So, I had my producer call agents and say, “She’s looking for a cinematographer, and a production designer, and an editor.” And then you start the long process of looking at people’s reels and people’s books, and you start to see who’s available and who likes the movie. And, then you meet with people. As a filmmaker, you’re getting away with murder, because a production designer will come in and show you their ideas — and now you’ve seen them, you know what I mean? If they’re the DP, they’ll say, “Here’s how I would shoot it.” And, even if you don’t end up going with that person, or if that person ends up not being free, you’ve learned about what people see in their mind’s eye when they read your movie. So, that’s really a terrific part of the process.
Filmmaker: Can you share a ballpark budget?
Hunt: I think, for reasons I don’t totally understand, I’m not supposed to. But here’s what I want to say: it’s much smaller than you think.
Filmmaker: With independent films, people are usually trying to do things as cheaply as possible. How did you keep costs low?
Hunt: There are a lot of ways. Borrowing clothes and giving a designer credit. If I beg a bunch of guys to go out after we’ve wrapped and buy them lunch and pay them a little something, will they then get in the water and shoot me wiping out a dozen times? Engendering goodwill and making it a fun place to work. It was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in making a movie. A lot of the crew told me they felt that way – not all of them, but most of them. And then, when I called up to beg them to shoot some extra stuff, they were all willing and psyched to be there. Goodwill goes a long way.
Filmmaker: It sounds like you had a great dynamic with your crew.
Hunt: I don’t think it’s 50% you and 50% the people you surround yourself with. It’s 100% you and 100% everybody else. The trick I learned, or maybe I knew this from the beginning, is that you get totally ready to shoot as if you’re in it alone, as if no one’s going to help you, and as if you have to shoot it tomorrow. And then, you show up, and you’re willing to throw all those ideas out and hear what people think. You’ll hear some things that will make you all the more confident in the ideas you had. There’s this phrase, “’No’ gives ‘Yes’ its meaning.” In other words, you hear somebody suggest something, and you say, “Oh boy, well now I know what I don’t want to do.” More often, though, you get good ideas that you want to try. But, you’ve got to be ready as if you’re on your own.
Filmmaker: Was this a project where you considered pitching it to a studio? Or were you thinking, I can or I want to do this on my own?
Hunt: It seemed like a movie that I would make on my own. I don’t think there’s a place for it in the way studios work now. Or if there is, I don’t know that place.
Filmmaker: The studio world is a world you’re familiar with though. Your career has run the gamut from television to both studio and independent films. What is the difference to you between those worlds?
Hunt: As a director, I’ve directed big expensive television and small independent movies. I don’t know what it’s like to direct a giant movie, but I swear to God, from what I understand, it has more to do with how big the craft services table is. People who make $50 million movies will say they don’t have enough budget, you know? The budget swells to eat up all the money, and you need more, always. So, what I can say is that we just got to it every day. We just got there and got to work. I feel like maybe with more time and more money, some things would have been easier, but some other things would have been tougher.
Filmmaker: One of the things I found refreshing about the film is that you wrote a strong female lead character. I love that she takes a beating, because I feel like with almost every sports-related movie, it always turns out that the underdog is super talented and gets it right away, and the challenge comes from a rival person. But here, she’s really failing for most of the movie. The challenge comes from a struggle with herself.
Hunt: I have this instinct that there should be a lot of bones broken in the protagonist. Those can be repaired or replaced or updated during the course of the story. I made her pretty insufferable in the beginning. I had to have great faith that it’s not boring watching her try to just to stand up on a surfboard. I was in this movie called Cast Away, without a big part, but I loved the movie. Watching him on that island try to start a fire and feed himself was not boring to me. I could have watched it for hours because you’re watching this character that you care about desperately want something and try to get it. That’s the recipe. I had to have faith that watching this person get pummeled and try for something would be compelling. And the extra bonus is that you kind of get to watch her get the crap smashed out of her and wake up with a new, more humbled version of herself.
Filmmaker: I remember when Cast Away first came out, I heard the synopsis, and I thought, “That sounds so boring.”
Hunt: When I heard the synopsis, I said, “Can I be in it?” And everybody said, “But, you just won the Academy Award, and this is a small part,” and I said, “I don’t care.” Did you see this movie Force Majeure?
Filmmaker: Yes, of course!
Hunt: So, that’s the same thing. A tiny thing changes everything.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s funny because Scandinavian films are really my favorite things to watch now. But, Cast Away was a Hollywood movie, so my thinking it sounded boring was also me calibrating my expectations based on a Hollywood scale.
Hunt: It was radical for that reason. I feel like they should be celebrated for taking all those resources and making a radical little indie on a big scale.
Filmmaker: Right. Just because you have the resources for a “Hollywood” film doesn’t mean you have to make some crazy action movie. That they were able to take that story and make it successful on a Hollywood level.
Hunt: They tapped into these basic things that human beings want: I want to be loved, I want to be home, I want to be fed. These basic things. I could watch somebody try for those things for a long time. I’m not comparing myself to that movie, but the aspiration was similar. Is it enough to see this woman want a family even though part of it’s been taken away and part of it she’s burned to the ground? Is it enough to watch this woman want to stand up on a surfboard so her kid will talk to her? Is it enough to watch her want to not drown? For me, it would be enough.
Filmmaker: There’s this huge issue now about how difficult it is for women working in film and television to find work. Are there projects or roles out there for you? Or for anybody?
Hunt: It’s hard for anybody. It’s hard to make something good. It takes a long time. Even for the most brilliant writers out there, it’s a big thing to do. And writing something good in screenplay form means creating characters worth playing. That happens so rarely.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like it’s getting better or worse? Or, do you notice a difference over time?
Hunt: I don’t know if it’s getting better. I’d like it to be getting better. The beauty of the opportunity for all this content is that there are new networks, new ways of getting content out there. Unions used to have, in terms of budgets, Tier Three, Tier Two, Tier One. Now, there’s Tier Zero, you know? You can shoot a movie on your phone. So, all that expansion is good news. However, there are almost never big movies about people. There are medium and little-sized movies about people, and there are big movies about robots. So, it’s few and far between, and when you read something good, you can’t believe you’ve read it, and you can’t believe you tried to talk yourself into all the bad things you’ve tried to talk yourself into.
Filmmaker: I’m sure you’ve read a myriad of scripts where you think, “I don’t want to do this, but I want to work.”
Hunt: Absolutely – and you’re lucky to get those! Roles don’t grow on trees for any of us. But yeah, you try to say, “Well, maybe if they change this, or maybe if they let me do that.” When I read The Sessions, for example, I thought, “Alright! I want to do that.” But it’s very, very rare. And one of the blessings of not finding those movies is that it left me with time on my hands and a lot of creativity that wanted to go somewhere, so I felt compelled to try to write things on my own. Those have been very rich experiences that wouldn’t have happened if I’d had great movie after great movie lined up on the tarmac.
Filmmaker: There are so many ways to make movies now. Like you said, people are shooting movies on iPhones, which is in many ways a testament to how people watch things. Many people aren’t going to theaters anymore unless it’s to see robots or to have an experience they can’t replicate in some way at home.
Hunt: This movie, even more than my other movie, is about a big thing – it’s about the entire ocean. So, I have a great hope that people who live in cities where it will be playing will go and actually see it. I’ve screened it a number of times for one or two people and also for 30 or 150 people. It’s a very different movie if you see it in a group. More than my other movie, which I think can be appreciated in your living room, there seems to be something about when people come together to watch this one. Something happens that doesn’t happen when they watch it on their own. So, I hope that people see it in the theater, but I’m happy that there are other chances for people who can’t or don’t.
Filmmaker: I think most movies benefit from a communal viewing. The energy of the people in the crowd affects the way you see a film – it can be almost like a rock concert. This happens at film festivals all the time, for example.
Hunt: Yes! And also, impossible as it seems, just like a play. A Wednesday night could go one way and a Thursday night is a completely different experience. The movie hasn’t changed, but it changes depending on the group that’s there, and the weather, and the news and whatever else.
Filmmaker: I don’t know how to fix the problem, but I do feel like people should still go to the theater to see things.
Hunt: Yeah, I still do. That’s all I know. I don’t care how many screeners I get. I go, and I buy my popcorn, and I love to sit there.
Filmmaker: How does having seen the industry from a variety of angles influence how you see or make things now?
Hunt: At the end of the day, it’s about the writing. It doesn’t matter how many fancy cameras you have or how big your wardrobe budget is. If the script’s not good, it doesn’t matter. If the script is good, it can forgive a lot of limitations that a lower budget brings. After that, it matters whether the actors are good. Then, there’s this invisible thing that nobody understands which is whether it all comes together or not. But, it starts with the writing.
Filmmaker: How long did the whole process of Ride take, from writing the script to selling the finished movie?
Hunt: To be honest, I’m not sure. Five or six years. We shot it the summer before last, so that alone eats up a lot of time. Writing eats up a lot of time, and getting it financed. I did other things during that time, acted in other movies. But it did take a good set of years. Not as long as my first film though, that’s the good news.
Filmmaker: How did you end up selling the film? Were you shopping it around?
Hunt: We had two screenings for distributors, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. A few companies stepped forward and said they loved it and wanted to do it. Screen Media had such great enthusiasm and such smart ideas that we felt lucky to get them.
Filmmaker: Do they do the theatrical release as well as the VOD and streaming side?
Hunt: Yes. This is a theatrical release with the VOD alongside.
Filmmaker: More and more films seem to favor a day-and-date release – where you can see it in theaters and download it online on the same day.
Hunt: Everybody’s trying to figure out the right model. This makes a lot of sense for us, because I’ll do The Tonight Show on May 1st [the film’s release date], and I can say to people, “Watch it right now” as opposed to, “Go to the movies tonight, and then in three months you’ll be able to buy it on iTunes.” A lot of people think every movie is headed in that direction. I don’t know if that’s true, but this was the best opportunity for us.