While adding a fantastical and more kid friendly element to his repitoire, The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn’t that huge of a stretch thematically for director Peter Hedges. The man who directed the sometimes bittersweet familial comedies Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life and the writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has made a career off of showing the inner workings of the average American family.
Starring Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner as a pair of wannabe parents who can’t seem to conceive who one night find that their written down wishes for the perfect child have materialized into a young boy that emerged from the ground they buried them in, The Odd Life of Timothy Green does mark a departure for the director mainly in tone as Hedges tries going for an equally observational but far more genteel Frank Capra, small town kind of vibe.
Hedges, a self professed perpetual life long dork himself, talked to Dork Shelf about why he feels so drawn to the nature of family and why this film was a different sort of challenge for him.
Dork Shelf: I’ve noticed that a lot of your films gravitate toward discussion about the very nature of families. Is that something that you consciously think of going in or is it something that’s sort of a coincidence?
Peter Hedges: There is a bit of a pattern, and I don’t set out to only tell stories that only deal with family. I find families to be constantly interesting. They compel me. If we had enough time I would ask you a million questions about your family. I was very much shaped by my family and I had a complicated and at times difficult childhood, and maybe because I am now a father and trying to navigate the complexities of that… what’s the word? It’s not a job, but that aspect of my life.
DS: It’s a world unto itself, really.
PH: Yes, it is. Families are interesting and when I first heard the idea and what was basically the premise for this film I thought it was a great opportunity to explore a whole area of family and of life in a contemporary way. So it just seemed like a great jumping off point, and because there was a magical element that was conceived in this story, which is something I had never had in any of my previous films, I think that was exciting, but also I had been wrestling for a long time with a lot of ideas about family and what goes right and what goes wrong, and this seemed like a great chance to play in that arena. I somehow felt that if I did it right, it would be different for having told this story.
The one thing that I will say about stories families or any story is that there’s always a possibility that doesn’t always occur, but there’s the capacity for personal change. I think it’s one of the things that separates movies from television.
DS: That concept of change also separates people who are just starting a family from those who don’t because that’s a huge life changing moment.
PH: It is, but you don’t have to have a family to transform. I mean, I have some friends who don’t have kids and some that aren’t even married that I have watched transform. The thing is that there’s a kind of narcissism that perpetuates the parental act. “You are my creation.” And in the worst of all parental crimes – some of which I know I have been guilty of – you presume that if I can control my kids’ childhoods to the point where they don’t suffer in the same way I suffered or spare them the heartbreak that I experienced and feel more joy and love than I felt, then not only would they have a great life, but any damage that was done to me would be somehow miraculously undone through my actions with my kids. That’s not how that works and it’s one of the questions that comes up when you’re a parent that might not come up if you weren’t a parent. But that’s not their job. The role of the child is not to heal the parent. That’s something we need to do on our own time.
I don’t know. The fact is that we were all kids once, and we live in a culture that’s completely youth obsessed, and probably too much so, but what did we know as kids that we’ve forgotten. So I don’t think that Timothy really teaches them, but more he reminds them as kids can of that pure place from which we used to operate from.
DS: Getting back to the more fantastical element to the story, because this is a hard sort of story to tell because you have to balance that with the story of parents who really have to suddenly learn what to do as they go. They’ve been robbed of the toddler years with their child, in a way. Was that more of a challenge in your eyes than just doing a straight up fantasy?
PH: Well, maybe it was, but most parents have an 18 year span before their kids start to think about moving away, so the mistakes get spread out over time and, you know, you figure your kid out and you change. What was fun here for me was to have two characters who very clearly knew what kinds of parents they wanted to be. The practiced it in their heads for a very long time, and suddenly they get this kid and in a matter of weeks they get a crash course in parenting. I thought that was really fresh and that there were just enormous possibilities with that where in a way their mistakes could be bigger and messier than the way most people would make. But we understand why because it’s all happening so fast, and then of course if they got a kid who hasn’t even spent thousands of hours playing video games or eating sugared cereals or being shaped by Madison Avenue through all of the ads that kids are sold, this child comes with the purity of someone who hasn’t been parented by all of the other aspects of the world that parent a kid.
That’s the other hard thing about a parent, which is learning that you aren’t the only voice. There are a lot of voices. People are pulling and trying to win over your kid from the beginning.
DS: Which is something you show in the film when you have all the other competing parents at Timothy’s soccer games.
PH: That’s right, and I have spent a lot of time as the parent of athletes. I used to coach my kid’s basketball team and I’ve certainly seen, observed, or been every configuration of a parental helicopter-ish or non-helicopter-ish parent. I don’t know. For me, what I listen for whethere I’m conceiving a story on my own or it’s coming from a book, or in this case from an idea or someone else’s script that I’m rewriting, I’m looking for a story and a couple of things that I listen for where I can say that there aren’t too many people who could write this story better than me or if it’s a story that I can’t wait to tell, or even better one that I can’t wait to tell, and that I feel like it might change me in the telling of it. But the last one, and that’s always the tough one, is wondering if it’s useful. Is it sometimes useful because it’s just going to be entertaining? Sometimes it’s useful because it’s meaningful, and hopefully in this case we made something that’s equally entertaining and also meaningful. But I think any time you see a movie and it reflects back to your own life, it’s not about being a parent or a child, but it’s about being authentic and owning what’s odd about you and that we’re always running out of time and that every moment is precious, and while it’s difficult much of the time it can be embraced almost all the time.