WHEN LOVE AND FAMILY COLLIDE: ABOUT THE STORY
The family weekend. Few events in American life conjure up such a wild mix of situations and emotions, from angst to affection, from heartache to hilarity. With all the funny foibles and complications of relationships between grandparents, parents, children and in-laws, it's certainly no place for a vulnerable man to fall haplessly in love with an entirely off-limits woman. But that's exactly what happens to Dan Burns in DAN IN REAL LIFE, setting in motion a comical tale of a man whose carefully ordered world suddenly spirals out of control in front of his entire family.
The story of DAN IN REAL LIFE was, indeed, inspired by real life, emerging out of screenwriter Pierce Gardner's own personal experience with the often hilarious, sometimes surprise-filled, phenomenon of big family get-togethers. "I've spent the last 18 years going to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with my wife, all four of her siblings, her parents and more --altogether between 23 and 27 people," Gardner explains. "There is something fascinating about the dynamic of all these people together in one house, and I always wanted to write about that."
To add a twist to the family tension, Gardner developed the idea of inserting a newcomer into the family - a bewitchingly beautiful woman who accidentally sparks a competition between the family's two brothers in a most unexpected way. Though she arrives at the family weekend as the new girlfriend of one brother she finds herself unavoidably and impossibly attracted to the other: Dan, the lonely widower who hasn't been ready to really restart his life . . . until this very moment.
As the characters came to life on the page, Gardner found himself increasingly compelled by Dan's completely accidental way of jumpstarting his life with the most complicated of dating games. "What's make Dan so interesting is that when he finally starts to feel something again, this person who supposedly has this strong moral compass and this serious sense of responsibility does everything wrong as quickly as possible," Gardner laughs. "And that's simply because love humbles everybody. From the greatest men in the world to the butcher, the baker, even Britney Spears--nobody is spared when it comes to love."
When producer Jon Shestack discovered Gardner's spec script, he was immediately seduced not only by the story's comic originality and sophisticated sense of fun but equally so by its deeply relatable themes about family and cutting through detours and mishaps to the truly meaningful stuff in life. "I found it to be the most life-affirming, charming, wonderful story, reflecting everything we think is important," Shestack recalls. "The night I read it, I called Pierce's manager, Noah Rosen, and soon after submitted it to Touchstone."
Producer Brad Epstein, who was an executive at Disney at the time, was equally impressed. "I fell in love with the characters and with how human, ironic, funny and yet moving it managed to be--and especially with the portrait of Dan raising these three daughters on his own. I have always wanted to make movies like this," he says.
Epstein knew the material's tone - its fast-moving blend of quick wit and true emotion - would be tough to nail. But he had in mind a director he was convinced could carry off the challenging task: author, playwright, screenwriter and lauded film director Peter Hedges, whom he'd hired years before to adapt Nick Hornby's unconventional, serio-comic novel of love and family, "About A Boy," for which Hedges won acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award®.
Hedges also garnered acclaim for adapting his own novel into the indie classic "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," and made an auspicious directorial debut with his script for "Pieces of April," in which a wayward daughter invites her estranged family to her Lower East Side apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. The film garnered numerous awards, including Oscar® and Golden Globe nominations for actress Patricia Clarkson in the role of the terminally ill mother.
Knowing that Hedges prefers to direct his own screenplays, Epstein at first asked him to work up a new draft of the script, but before he knew it, Hedges had come to him saying he wanted to direct it as well. "In working on the screenplay, he'd found his voice within this material; he had really made it his own," says Epstein.
One of the elements that instantly attracted Hedges was the Burns family itself, which felt to him palpably real, as full of chaos and warmth as any typical American family. "I liked that this was a chance to explore a family that wasn't really dysfunctional or broken," explains Hedges. "Too many romantic comedies are disconnected from how most people live in the world - and I think what makes DAN IN REAL LIFE different is that you can really identify with these characters."
He continues: "I was also drawn to the theme of a married man who is faced with his notion of how do you find love again, how do you proceed in the world after withdrawing from taking chances? I saw it as a human comedy about that question - and the unusual situation of two people who are trying desperately not to fall in love, even though they can't fight the truth."
DAN'S REAL LIFE TRIANGLE: STEVE CARELL, JULIETTE BINOCHE AND DANE COOK MIX AND MATCH
At the heart of DAN IN REAL LIFE is Dan himself - respected advice columnist, philosophical single father and supposedly reasonable family man who suddenly finds himself made foolish, tongue-twisted, awkward, sneaky, guilty and, to his dismay, utterly renewed by an accidental crash into love. Dan is truly running in place when the film begins. His efforts to look "cool" to his kids constantly backfire and his focus on plans and rules has taken all the joyous surprises out of his life. But then he meets Marie - and suddenly, he's on the shakiest, least predictable ground of his life, leading to one hilarious situation and run-in after another.
To take Dan through this gamut of emotions while keeping a hold on the comically frazzled and hapless soul of the character, the filmmakers searched for the rare actor capable of juggling extremes while with wit and aplomb while also having the appeal of a deeply likable Everyman.
Peter Hedges was struck by how believable Carell, a father to two young children himself, was as a father filled with love and worry for the three spirited daughters he's trying to raise. "I wanted somebody who would feel real as Dan, who would be both funny and heartbreaking," he comments. "And Steve is obviously quite funny, but he also is a very soulful man. Fortunately, he was brave enough to try something quite different from what people are accustomed to him doing and to show a side we haven't seen before."
As the besieged and lonely father of three rapidly maturing daughters, Dan is already being pushed to his edges, despite trying to be the moral authority, when he finds himself inadvertently falling in love with his brother's new girlfriend. Suddenly, he's juggling being an upstanding role-model with tumbling head-over-heels for a forbidden woman - forced to hide his true feelings. As an advice columnist, Dan has always had the answers for everyone else - but now, when it comes to his own real life, he's completely flummoxed - and has to finally let go.
Carell notes: "What I liked about the script is that it resonated strongly that this was a real guy. In fact all of the characters in the movie seemed like they could actually be living, breathing people. It's true to life and I hope it moves people while constantly making them laugh."
Ultimately, what really made the experience of DAN IN REAL LIFE special for Carell was the ensemble cast surrounding his character - and keeping Dan constantly on his toes. "The group of people that came together for this story is simply exceptional - you have Oscar® winners and Tony winners and together they make a really unique ensemble," he says. "That made it a lot of fun."
When it came to the character of Marie, the object of Dan and his brother's dueling affections, Peter Hedges dared to envision one of today's most luminous and talented actresses - Juliette Binoche - making a comic turn. At first the idea of recruiting the Academy Award®-winning French actress, who dazzled audiences in "The English Patient" and "Chocolat," to play the love interest in an American romantic comedy seemed like a far-away dream . . . but then it came true.
Adds Jon Shestack: "Juliette has one of the most expressive faces in the movies and she threw herself totally into this role. Marie reflects many of Juliette's qualities --delightful, charming, open and interested in everything around her."
The idea of Binoche was initially inspired by Steve Carell, who suggested to Peter Hedges: "find an actress with a really good heart." Hedges kept that in mind as he was casting. "I saw a lot of wonderful actresses for the role but I was looking for that pairing that would align with Steve in an original way and Juliette was it," he says. "We had the two of them sing karaoke together and it was evident within 15 seconds that they were a perfect team, both funny and real together."
Binoche was attracted first to the screenplay's deft blend of comic and real situations. "Like in the great Lubitsch or Capra films, there's a layer truth, of everyday existence, creating feelings you recognize in this story," she says. "I also felt that Peter Hedges had the ability to find that wonderful line where the tragedy of life meets the comedy of life. When I saw his first film, 'Pieces of April,' that's what I loved about it and that's why I wanted to make this movie." Binoche was also intrigued that the character of Marie had been created as a far more complex and sophisticated woman - one caught up in an unusual game of running from attraction -- than your typical romantic interest. "I think Marie is a little like Dan in that she has been escaping from intimacy and, in a way, being with Mitch allows her to not be intimate," the actress observes. "In her relationship with Mitch, she feels safe because there's no real connection and no real involvement. But with Dan there's something that she's been looking for, that she can't really describe, where she feels recognized as a woman and is having fun."
Therein lies the crux of Marie's dilemma. "It's not a story about a woman loving two people at the same and not knowing how to choose, because Marie's not truly happy with Mitch," Binoche explains. "She already knows that this is a relationship to help her to get through a difficult time and that it's not going to last forever. So when she meets Dan, her real question is: 'will I be able to be fair to what's in my heart?' Dan and Marie yearn to experience the freedom of being in love, but instead it has to be completely suppressed, and that's what gives them so much comedy."
Completing the third side of this unexpected familial triangle is Dane Cook in the role of Dan's brother, the charismatic fitness trainer, Mitch, who claims Marie is the woman who is going to change his playboy ways. Cook brings to the role a charm and restraint that may very well disarm audiences that know the young comedian only from his wildly successful in-your-face stand-up performances.
Peter Hedges cast Cook almost immediately after seeing his show at Madison Square Garden and meeting him at his hotel afterwards. "The minute I saw Dane performing I knew he was Mitch," Hedges states. "He was really an untested film actor at that time, but I had a very strong instinct and I knew he would be a wonderful combination with Steve. I really wanted to see what might happen with these two natural comedians bouncing off one another."
The story had immediate appeal to Cook. "You don't see a lot of films like this about real families, about how inside families, you can bash each other, you can be raw and honest, but you'll also will come to another family's member aid," he says. "I thought this was a really special and unique peek into a family's life."
Cook also loved the idea of taking on a new kind of comedy challenge - one that is different yet again from his recent unexpected role as a wannabe killer in the dark thriller "Mr. Brooks" -- and soon developed a sympathy for what his character goes through on what was supposed to be a fun family weekend with his new girlfriend.. "I think Mitch is a little more trusting than I am," he confides. "In my real family, there always seems to be something happening, some inner turmoil, but Mitch believes that something like this could never happen and he's rocked when it happens to him. His very poignant and simple scenes have been a wonderful challenge for me as an actor."
Working with Cook for the first time, Steve Carell was impressed. He says: "I remember seeing Steve Martin back in his heyday as a standup and having these stadiums full of people just chanting every word that they remember from the albums -- and that's what Dane is today. He is this huge, comic persona, and yet, with all of that, he came into this project as a really kind, generous and committed actor. I think it'll be a revelation for a lot of people when they see him."
Peter Hedges wasn't sure what to expect from having a boisterous stand-up comic on the set, but Cook took him by surprise. "He was totally self-effacing and a very hard worker," says the director, " a complete and utter joy."
WE ARE FAMILY: AN ACCOMPLISHED CAST COMPLETES THE BURNS CLAN
Dan, Mitch and their mutual love Marie are surrounded on this family weekend by the entire Burns clan, who, between touch football games on the lawn, family talent shows and massive feasts, give them little chance to work out their mix-up in peace and privacy. Yet for all their meddling and critiquing and fretting, the family proves, in the end, to truly stand by the one thing they all agree is most important: true love.
In casting the supporting roles, Peter Hedges worked closely with his long-time friend and acclaimed Broadway casting director Bernard Telsey ("Rent," "Hairspray," "Wicked") to find a team of actors who could create an authentically close-knit family atmosphere, replete with both love and conflict. "The challenge was to try to find actors who were able to really create with Peter. We wanted great actors who would make the parts jump off the page," says Telsey. Peter had the vision and it was such a great and different way to cast for us. We had a blast."
As Poppy and Nana Burns, the patriarch and matriarch of the Burns clan, Hedges cast two extraordinary actors: two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest and stage and screen star John Mahoney, best recognized as the retired policeman father of Frasier Crane on the hit series "Frasier." They, in turn, were drawn by the depth of their characters, who aren't cardboard cutouts of grandparents, by any means. Says Mahoney: "Each of the characters in this story are such individuals. Poppy isn't your typical grandfather, all cuddly and warm; he has a lot of very strong opinions and strong ideas. That he wasn't what you would expect really appealed to me. Poppy knows that Dan feels that with his first wife he'd won the lottery, and that he might feel a little greedy trying to find the same thing again.
Next came the task of finding three talented young actresses to play Dan's alternately yearning and defiant daughters: teen-aged Jane who, with her new driver's license wants to be treated as an adult right now, middle-daughter Cara, whose clothes and passion for her young boyfriend keep her father in a state of shock; and savvy fourth-grader Lilly, whose handmade gift to her father open his eyes to what is most important. To form a true sibling trio the filmmakers set out on a nationwide search, holding extensive open calls. Ultimately Hedges cast Tony nominee Alison Pill, with whom he had worked on "Pieces of April," as Jane - and then sought two girls with a similar essence as her sisters, choosing the remarkable 8 year-old Marlene Lawston, who came to notice playing Jodie Foster's imperiled daughter in "Flight Plan," as young Lilly and newcomer Brittany Robertson as the provocative Cara. Hedges and the entire cast were amazed by how easily the girls slipped into the role of sisters who have been brought closer by their united front against their father's stuck-in-the-mud routine.
"The three of them together were exceptional because they bonded immediately --they did things together and they took care of each other very much like real sisters," says Steve Carell. "They are just great, funny, sweet, talented kids, and I had a great time working with them."
Alison Pill loved getting the chance to work with Hedges again and adored her character. "Jane's the mother figure in the family--she's the practical, sensible sister in the midst of a rebellious middle sibling and a younger, sweet thing," she observes. "I enjoyed being the oldest one in the family, because I'm used to being the baby!" Brittany Robertson instantly related to Cara as the family rebel crossing swords with her disciplinarian dad: "Cara's really just high-spirited - and she's not as crazy as her father believes. She's just really in love and has all these intense feelings," comments Robertson. "She's the one trying to convince her dad that mad love really exists."
Also joining the cast are three award-winning stars of the stage: Norbert Leo Butz as Dan and Mitch's happily married brother Clay, Amy Ryan as his wife Eileen and Jessica Hecht as the Burns' sister Amy. Then, there is another interloper: Emily Blunt, who won over audiences with her scene-stealing role as Meryl Streep's officious assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada," in the role of Ruthie "Pigface" Draper, with whom Dan is forced into a blind date.
Blunt had a blast with her free-spirited character but notes that "she was exhausting. If I had to play this character for a 3-month shoot, she'd wipe me out." Blunt especially had fun with the droll dance sequence in which she, Carell, Cook and Binoche each try to outdo one another's moves. "I think we all start to run out of moves by the end, but Steve definitely wiped the floor with all of us," she laughs.
Once cast, Hedges brought the entire diverse roster of actors together for a weeklong rehearsal schedule in the actual house where much of the film's action takes place. The idea was to immerse them in an authentic family atmosphere that would imbue the entire film. "The whole family was at the Beach House for rehearsing and blocking but to also sing songs, play football, exercise and cook and eat meals together -- without cameras, without lights, without equipment," explains Jon Shestack.
Peter Hedges recalls the moment when he knew this group of disparate actors had become a family. Before the cameras even started rolling, he held a family fireside sing-along, a moment that would echo the on-screen talent contest to come, with the entire cast. "It was magical," he says. "It was more than just a moment. That was when I realized there was just so much talent and generosity and purity of intent all coming together. And I think you see that in every frame of the film."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Peter Hedges (Director/Co-writer) is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director. He made his feature film directorial debut with "Pieces of April" starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt and Derek Luke. The acclaimed film garnered numerous awards including an Academy Award® nomination for Clarkson. Following the film, Variety named Hedges as one of the 10 Directors to Watch in 2003.
Hedges' novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape was the basis for the 1993 film, which he also wrote. His second novel, An Ocean in Iowa, was published in 1998 by Hyperion Press. His novels have been published in 15 languages. Hedges' screenplay adaptations include Jane Hamilton's "A Map of the World" and Nick Hornby's "About a Boy".
A graduate of the NC School of the Arts, Hedges founded the Edge Theatre in 1985 along with Mary-Louise Parker and Joe Mantello. Over a three year period he wrote and directed 12 works for the company. Hedges' other plays include "Baby Anger" (Playwwrights Horizons), "Good as New" (Manhattan Class Company), and "Imagining Brad" (Circle Repertory Theater) all of which have been published by Dramatists Play Service.
Hedges has taught at Yale University, Bennington College and at the NC School of the Arts. He has served as a Creative Advisor to the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony.
Hedges grew up in West Des Moines, IA. He now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Susan Bruce, and their two children, Simon and Lucas.
Pierce Gardner (Co-writer) was inspired to write DAN IN REAL LIFE after years of going on summer vacations to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with his wife's extended family. Gardner is a native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford Ct.. He began working as a screenwriter in 1996. Currently, he is working on the romantic comedy THEORY OF EVERYTHING for Disney and adapting the book MY KOREAN DELI for New Line. After these projects, he is slated to write an original comedy for Sony. His first screenplay, the supernatural thriller "Lost Souls," was made by New Line; it starred Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin and was directed Janusz Kaminksi. Gardner began his film career in production and served as a producer on the MGM comedies "Getting Even With Dad" (Ted Danson & Macaulay Culkin) and "Fatal Instinct" (Armand Assante and Sean Young).
Next page: CHEZ BURNS: CREATING THE FAMILY BEACH HOUSE
SONGS IN THE KEY OF DAN: ABOUT SONDRE LERCHE'S SOUNDTRACK
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING