Zach Helm’s life may not be stranger than fiction, but it is sweeter than a fairytale. Plucked out of the playwriting scene in Chicago in 1997 to participate in a writers’ program at Fox 2000, he dreamt up Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium as a writing sample. Even as it languished in development for nearly a decade, it landed him script-doctoring jobs that left him solvent but artistically unfulfilled. So he hammered out a manifesto detailing all of the things that he would no longer do, such as surrendering creative control for financial gain.

Helm’s next script, the surreal comedy Stranger Than Fiction, dazzled the industry as one of the most original and inventive specs to circulate in years. But instead of selling it to the highest bidder, the California native entrusted it to Mandate Pictures, a company he felt would safeguard his interests, and he finally saw a movie he wrote get made. Now, at the age of 32, Zach is living up to his name, taking the helm for the first time on Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which tells of a 243-year-old eccentric (Dustin Hoffman) who bequeaths his magical toy store to its insecure manager (Natalie Portman).

Cristy Lytal (MM): So Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was in development for a while.

Zach Helm (ZH): “Development” is a bit of a euphemism for it. All of the people who were working at Fox 2000 while we were developing this left, and the new person didn’t want to make the movie. So it just sat there. The WGA has this clause that says the writer can buy his or her work back after five years if it’s not in active development, so I actually wrote a personal check to 20th Century Fox to buy my own script back.

MM: Was that check for enough money to, say, buy a house?

ZH: Yeah, it was. I had to forgo home ownership, paying off a little bit of credit card debt and a new car for a while to get it back. But it was worth it. I mean, to be able to have control over my own work and my own destiny is so important that the cost doesn’t mean anything to me.

MM: Was directing inevitable for you?

ZH: To be honest, I was totally shocked when [Mandate] asked me if I wanted to direct this. The only reason that I chose to do it was simply that,
although the movie’s really complicated, the story’s very simple. So it became a big playpen with a very simple story.

MM: It must have been a playpen with all those toys lying around the set!

ZH: I found out very quickly as the director that you set the tone for the entire crew and therefore the entire movie; so I would play. When we were setting up the shots, while we were lighting, whatever it was, I’d pull pranks on the crew or start water pistol fights or try to fly a kite in the studio with a fan, because that’s what I wanted in the movie. Most of the film was shot on a really large soundstage, and it was like a scene out of Burning Man or something. You have Dustin in only half of his costume with his trailer door open learning how to play the trombone. You have Jason Bateman playing catch with his dog. And Jim [Garavente] and Richard [Gladstein], the producers, and I are all playing basketball.

MM: Did you take home any of the toys from the set?

ZH: I made off with a taxidermied hippo head, which is in my dining room now; I took that out of Magorium’s house. There’s an Abraham Lincoln that we made out of Lincoln Logs that I’ll eventually have my hands on, and an enormous color-by-number Magritte painting.

MM: How did you get Natalie Portman on board?

ZH: I sent her this very heartfelt letter saying that I needed her help as a collaborator, and she was really “the one.” I think I said something like, ‘I want this movie to be like raisins! I want this movie to be like drawing on your sneakers!’ It worked.

MM: So her character, Molly Ma-
honey, has musical talents much like Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction. Coincidence?

ZH: The music tends to express the things that I can’t with words on a page. On Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, [composer] Alexandre Desplat was the very first person that we hired actually—even before Natalie. He created a series of demos and we translated them into piano pieces; Natalie learned them and we structured our movie around them. It’s as if it was a musical… Then we wound up taking so long he had to go and work on The Golden Compass, and he had suggested Aaron Zigman [to take over]. So the score is powerful.

MM: You obviously already knew Dustin Hoffman.

ZH: I knew I wanted Dustin when we were working on Stranger Than Fiction and he had mentioned this play by David Ives called Sure Thing. He said, “I love that play. I’ve always wanted to do it.” So he called his assistant and they did a little impromptu performance of this play because he felt like it, on a whim. As soon as he did that, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be this guy.’

MM: Are you particularly interested in kids?

ZH: I am, actually. When I was in college I worked as an archivist for a children’s theater. I worked in a toy store. I was a birthday party clown. I have a feeling that I’ll probably keep coming back to making kid’s movies; it’s the one arena that allows for total imagination and you can build the mythology—you can build fables. When I try to look objectively at my work, it feels like I’m trying to create these more modern archetypes. It’s all either from Shakespeare or mythology or theological archetypes. Probably the biggest reference when I first wrote the script, oddly enough, was King Lear. There’s this monologue in which Mr. Magorium’s talking to Mahoney, and he’s talking about death. He does so by talking about King Lear. All of the dialogue in the script has changed since the first draft that I wrote 10 years ago—except for that monologue. That monologue is exactly the same.

MM: What were some other influences on Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium?

ZH: We really thought a lot about Rene Magritte and Groucho Marx and Hal Ashby and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We used a lot of techniques that allowed us to forgo major visual effects and big green screen work. Our budget was less than $50 million, and we were able to do that simply because we were employing techniques that we would find in old vaudeville theaters or in magic shows or theater techniques that are being used now. Then countless other things, you know. Dustin’s character comes from a joke that he tells his wife all the time with an ostrich in it. His character is partly this ostrich character that he does in this joke and partly Tom Wolfe.

MM: What’s the joke?

ZH: I can’t tell you the joke because, first of all, it’s a really dirty joke. And second of all, I don’t exactly know what the punch line is.

MM: Your credit on this film sounds like a punch line: “Supposedly a film by Zach Helm.”

ZH: I would sign everything “supposedly Zach Helm,” and I did it just because it was a really funny way to end a letter. I don’t take movie credits that seriously. I don’t take making movies that seriously. So it’s my way of winking at the whole thing and winking at the debate a little bit in that we spend so much time worried about who gets credit, and not enough time worried about what we’re taking credit for.

MM: That brings us to uncredited rewrites: Isn’t one of the rules in your manifesto that you won’t script-doctor?

ZH: Yeah, it is. On this movie, Fox 2000 fired me and brought on another writer to rewrite me. I was young, and I didn’t have a choice, so I didn’t fight. They were so happy that I didn’t fight it, that they sent me a ham (it was in between Thanksgiving and Christmas). I sold my baby and I got a ham. I’m like, ‘That’s what you get for selling your baby, asshole.’ Now I don’t do it. All the cured meat in the world isn’t going to affect how I feel about art.

MM: Is that why you created your production company, Gang of Two?

ZH: I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to have as much control as I do and to be able to call as many shots as I can call. The idea was to try to create a company that was based around writers that would allow them to have that same kind of control through us.

MM: Tell me about The Disassociate. Is that your next film?

ZH: It looks like it. Again, I wrote that many years ago. It was at MGM, DreamWorks and Warner Brothers and now it looks like I’ll direct that at Warner Independent. It’s about this guy who has this typical office job, and he starts having visions a la
Don Quixote. But the fun thing is that the movie is told from the point of view of the visions—from insanity. So it allows me to do what I really love, which is to play with structure, to be creative and to just try different things. It’s probably my favorite script that I’ve ever written. MM