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Bonnie Hunt takes the reigns

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She may be David Letterman’s quickest and funniest regular guest. She’s been the wry second banana with the banana-colored hair in kiddie fare like 1992’s Beethoven and giddy fare like 1996’s Jerry Maguire. She gave an effectively quick performance in last year’s looooong The Green Mile. But for Return to Me, her first foray as a feature-film writer-director, Bonnie Hunt knew she’d need two things essential to Tinseltown survival: power and a personal assistant.

”I made up the assistant,” Hunt, 35, says blithely. ”I called her Gloria. We’d be on location somewhere and an executive from the studio would visit, so to any woman who walked past me I’d say, ‘Gloria, can you pick up my dry cleaning this afternoon?’ and of course the woman would ignore me and keep walking. I’d turn to the executive and say, ‘Can you believe the way Gloria ignores me? I’m gonna fire her.’ Worked every time: They were impressed.”

As for power, the polite Hunt asserted herself. ”I hired a guy to do the opening-credits shot”: a descent from the clouds of Hunt’s native Chicago to focus on star David Duchovny, playing an architect atop a building under construction. ”The cameraman is up in a helicopter; I’m on the ground with a walkie-talkie, telling him to zoom down, looking at the monitor. But he doesn’t zoom in. I had him land and said, ‘Our walkies aren’t working, ’cause we did three takes and you didn’t do it the way I wanted it. The guy said, ‘Oh, I hear ya — I just don’t think it’s a good creative choice.’ I said, ‘Look, you have to pretend I’m, like, Oliver Stone or whoever it is you would fear, please.”’ Hunt got her shot.

In fact, Return to Me may make Hunt a big shot. A writer-producer-star of her own television sitcoms, The Building and The Bonnie Hunt Show, short-lived gems from 1993 and 1995, she cowrote Return with her pal and writing partner, Don Lake (the witty string bean who has a Return cameo as a baldy with the world’s worst hair-plug operation). The movie is, she says, ”the highest-testing picture in MGM’s history.” Based on that, the studio has signed her to a two-picture deal.

Such recognition is as sweet — and tart — as her movie. Hunt did preproduction for Return between breaks in shooting Random Hearts and The Green Mile. She secured stars Duchovny and Minnie Driver, and coaxed Carroll O’Connor into playing Driver’s Irish grandfather. Add Robert Loggia as O’Connor’s Italian buddy, with whom he runs O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant, and Hunt and James Belushi as harried parents with more squirmy kids than Malcolm in the Middle, and you’ve got one crazy mix of acting styles. Friction?

”Sure, some,” she says, preferring not to name names as she pulls a lone weed from an immaculate garden in front of the modest little Hollywood home she shares with her investment-banker husband, John Murphy, and two dogs, Buddy and Lacey. (When Buddy coughs, she says brusquely, ”Oh, he’s a smoker.”) ”An actor would come to me and say, ‘They’re not doing it right.’ I just thought of my mother with seven kids — you have to be a different mother to each of the actors. Some had their lines written on little pieces of paper. Some improvised. I gave each actor his or her moment. I said, ‘Okay, now we’ll shoot it his way, even though it’s killin’ ya.’ Then I took the best from everything in editing it.”

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