Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels in The Answer Man
(© Magnolia Pictures)
Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels in The Answer Man
(© Magnolia Pictures)
Writer/director John Hindman scored a casting double play his first time at bat when stage and screen veterans Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham quickly signed on to co-star in his debut film, The Answer Man, which opens on Friday in limited release. It's audacious, funny, touching, and charming all at once, in the manner of Hindman's director-heroes, Frank Capra and Woody Allen.

Hindman, a former stand-up comic, satirizes the myriad shelves of bookstore psychobabble as the film follows Arlen Faber (Daniels), who wrote Me and God, in which he transcribed his conversations with the deity and the answers he gleaned from them. The tome became an immediate success with constant reprints, scores of other books explaining the meaning behind Arlen's words, and hordes of fans-cum-acolytes. But Arlen hides from his public -- no book jacket photo, no personal appearances, no book signings -- until on the eve of the book's 20th anniversary when he meets Elizabeth (Graham) and Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), whose love and friendship invade his closed little universe.

"When you're nobody, you just hope your script gets read at all and that maybe by some miracle, the right actor reads it. You may only get one shot, so you always aim for the best," says Hindman. "Before my lunch meeting with Lauren, I asked Kevin [producer Kevin Messick] what I shouldn't say. And he told me, "Whatever you do, don't say, 'You've got the part, ok?' So after lunch I called him back and said, 'Don't worry, I didn't say you've got the part. I just said, 'I love you, you're perfect.' I mean she's the Roz Russell for this generation."

As for casting his male lead: "I also told Kevin that Arlen should be someone like Jeff Daniels; a believable romantic lead with perfect comic timing, great dramatic chops plus you can buy that he's an intellectual," adds Hindman. "And lo and behold...These are smart characters in moral crisis who use sarcasm and wit to get by and I got the perfect actors to play them."

"The whole script is such a powerful metaphor for fame and growing older and for how much people want to believe in easy answers," says Graham (who recently appeared on Broadway in Guys & Dolls), who was signed first. Adds Daniels, who is about to go on hiatus from God of Carnage (which reopens in September). "I was sent the script with Lauren already attached, so she had to approve me. But it was really good writing and knowing Lauren and her work, it was easy for me to say yes. I knew I wouldn't get bored; and at my age, I haven't time to be bored creatively."

Hindman shot the film in Philadelphia, which turned out to be another smart decision."I tried to use Philadelphia the way Woody Allen uses Manhattan, and thanks to practical locations and a great Pennsylvania rebate system, we came in on budget, with no overages, and I got to make the film I set out to shoot," he says. "For me, the whole process has been like winning the lottery over and over and over again."