Steve Daly
May 02, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s the ultimate nightmare for a first-time movie director at the Toronto International Film Festival: The lights go down, your picture Starts — and it’s out of focus. ”Not out of focus like, I’m picky,” says Helen Hunt, cocking her head and making that familiar you’ve-got-to-be-kidding, I-just-bit-a-lemon face. ”Out of focus like, the whole audience clapped when it went into focus.”

For a sickening few minutes that night last September, the 44-year-old actress thought she was watching 10 years of wheedling, sacrificing, and retrenching go up in blurry flames. That’s how long she’s been gestating Then She Found Me, a well-received dramedy adapted from the Elinor Lipman novel. While Hunt intended only to act in the movie (now in theaters), she wound up also co-producing it, co-writing the screenplay, and directing. She never saw it as a comeback project, but that’s how it’s playing out.

Why? Because it’s the first big-deal thing she’s done since a crazy-busy stretch in the ’90s. Between seasons on NBC’s long-running sitcom Mad About You, she hit the leading-lady jackpot in movies, winning an Oscar for 1997’s As Good as It Gets. But by 2001, the post-statuette gold rush was over. ”I just didn’t see that many parts that I was aching to play,” she says. ”And the few that I did, I wasn’t offered.” So, she latched onto Lipman’s novel (picking it up from Sigourney Weaver’s production company).

In the movie version of Then She Found Me, April Epner (Hunt), a 39-year-old kindergarten teacher with Jewish adoptive parents, is dumped by her husband (Matthew Broderick), courted by a short-tempered single father with two young kids (Colin Firth), and confronted by her long-absent, now-solicitous birth mother (Bette Midler). All the while, she’s trying desperately to conceive a child. The pregnancy plotline, central to the movie, wasn’t in the book. But Hunt, who had a daughter in 2004 at age 40 with her producer-writer boyfriend, Matthew Carnahan — they named her Mákena lei, Hawaiian for ”many flowers of heaven” — thought it was a crucial addition. ”Even the title puts my character in sort of a passive position,” she explains. ”I thought, April has to want something really badly. It has to be something we can watch her go after. And I always wanted a baby very badly, so it just seemed right — she should want a baby.”

Problem was, nobody in the movie business was interested in playing midwife. Studio after studio said no to financing; an iteration featuring Diane Keaton and Woody Harrelson fell apart in 2005. It wasn’t until September 2006 that Hunt was good to go with Firth, Broderick, and Midler. The shoot was completed over a taxing 27 days, at a bare-bones cost of just under $4 million. ”Friends who’ve directed huge movies said, ‘What are you making?”’ Hunt recalls. ”’A commercial?”’

Hunt was determined to have her character look haggard at times — stringy hair, no evident makeup, dark circles under the eyes. (Nights of four to five hours’ sleep during production probably helped.) Says Midler, ”She’s fearless. I would’ve been running for the [editing] scissors.” Hunt also prevailed upon Midler to underplay. ”She didn’t want me to be over-the-top, even though I was dying to chew some scenery,” Midler says. ”It is my favorite dish. But she was very clear about what she wanted. She’s an actress herself…. And it’s very helpful to have someone in the driver’s seat who understands the car.”

So where exactly will Then She Found Me take Hunt’s career? Certainly not into blockbuster territory, but it might help her diversify. She’s already working on another script, promising ”it’s adults talking — not aliens shooting each other.” She says she’d ”be doing cartwheels” if this movie led to more acting-only gigs, but that’s out of her hands. ”I can’t control whether my favorite filmmakers ask me to be in their movie,” she says. ”What I can control is I can drop my daughter at school, open my computer, and try to put something in there I like.”

Then She Found Them
First-time helmer Hunt on directing her costars

1. Bette Midler
”I was so busy getting ready to restrain her, because she has given bigger performances and this was a small movie. But when I looked at some [early] dailies, I thought, I have to be careful not to take away her Bette Midler-ness.”

2. Colin Firth
”This is a very damaged guy that Colin plays. And he was a smart enough actor to see that was on the page and to be excited about that part of it.”

3. Matthew Broderick
Hunt once dated the actor, but says hiring him to play an immature ex-husband entailed ”zero drama, zero awkward anything. He has been such a mensch. I hope he’s happy he did it.”

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