Last year, Zach Helm received a fair share of accolades for his screenplay for Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction, an inventive and intelligent comedy that bore positive comparisons to the writing of Charlie Kaufman and David C. Russell. Almost a year after that movie’s release, Helm is back, this time with his directorial debut Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a G-rated family film starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, neither whom have done many if any family films. While it’s a very different movie from Stranger Than Fiction, some of the same sensibilities are still at play as it tells the story of a toy store filled with all sorts of strange and magical toys and it’s 243-year-old owner (Hoffman) who is about to retire with plans to pass the store onto its insecure manager Molly Mahoney (Portman).
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Helm to talk about making the transition to director with this inventive family film, and it was actually a fun interview that covered a lot of ground.
ComingSoon.net: I had a chance to talk to Marc Foster (director of “Stranger Than Fiction”) last week. He just finished up “Kite Runner” and was getting ready to shoot the “Bond” movie. I know he’s shooting that soon, but he didn’t seem to know what they were doing yet. Either that, or he’s just really good at keeping secrets. Zach Helm: He is good at keeping a secret. We used the same visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, a genius, and so Kevin has gone from “Stranger Than Fiction,” to this movie to “Kite Runner” and now he’s doing “Bond.” I’ve heard quite a few of the details, and it’s pretty exciting actually… but I’m good at keeping a secret, too. (chuckles)
CS: You actually wrote “Mr. Magorium” before you wrote “Stranger Than Fiction,” right? Helm: Yeah, this was actually the first screenplay I ever wrote. I wrote it about ten years ago when I was just starting out and it sat at Fox and no one wanted to make it, and WGA has a rule that says you can buy your script back after five years and so I actually wrote them a personal check, bought my script back and we made it, and now they’re distributing it, so it completes the circle.
CS: But this was going to be your directorial debut and you never wanted to direct “Stranger Than Fiction”? Helm: No, I never wanted to direct “Stranger Than Fiction” because I have no formal film school training. I wasn’t really a director. I was barely a screenwriter to be honest. I’m still barely a screenwriter.
CS: with a WGA awards nomination. Helm: Just wait until they figure it out. And so I had just written it and it had been there, and I wasn’t actually planning on directing it at all. When I bought the script back, Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake, who made “Stranger Than Fiction,” called me and said, “We would like to make ‘Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.’ Would you like to direct it?” And that was their way of trying to woo the project to their company and it worked and I took the opportunity and here we are.
CS: This production is a lot more involved than that movie, so was it just a matter of finding the right people to work with or did you already have a lot of visual ideas of what you wanted to do? Helm: I had a lot of ideas, but to be fair, there was really no cohesion to any of them until I brought on Thérèse DePrez, the production designer, and Roman Osin, the cinematographer. Thérèse had done “Summer of Sam” and “American Splendor,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and Roman had shot “The Warrior” and “Pride & Prejudice”. We collaborated together on the look of the film and the look of the store. I learned so much from them, but they’re primarily responsible for the sort of bold, circusy, crazy, you know, wide look that we have. So I give a lot of credit to them.
CS: Was your original influence Dr. Seuss or Dickens’ “Curisosity Shop” or were those just things that you brought together from them? Helm: That was my influence. That was part of what we brought in. We knew that in trying to tell the story of a character who’s as old as Mr. Magorium claims to be, that there would be a lot of history, but at the same time, we didn’t want it to feel antique. We had to mix all these different time periods and genres of toys, and we sort of took all of our favorite images from our favorite children’s movies and children’s books and we stole from them and adapted them and mixed them together to sort of come up with the look.
CS: This is G-rated movie which is pretty rare these days. You have Natalie Portman who hasn’t done a family film before, and Dustin Hoffman who did “Hook” and not many others. How did you think of them for these roles? Helm: You know we put ourselves in an interesting position because we knew that we wanted to make a G movie and we knew we wanted to make a movie that would fit into the oeuvre of live-action kids movies like “Mary Poppins,” or even “A Christmas Story” and so that was really important to us. At the same time, I always want to work with the best actors possible and I was really fortunate in that I knew Dustin from “Stranger Than Fiction” and that Natalie said yes right away and that we were also able to add Jason (Bateman) and Zach (Mills). It was very special to do that and I think that for all the craziness that’s going on in the movie and all the stuff that I may have done or the visual effects department may have done or Therese has done, the real sort of magic in enjoying the movie is between those four people and those relationships that they have. Even if you were to take everything else away and it was just the story about those four, the movie would still work because they are such great actors.
CS: There are a lot of kids running around, but it really is just those four characters, and yet, it seems like a much bigger movie. Helm: It has that illusion. You’d be surprised. We started out making it as sort of independent. We didn’t have the same budget as most of the movies that we compete with have, so we had to figure out ways of making the film that were a little more . I don’t mean to say creative, but we had to sort of think outside the box. One of the things was knowing that it really just came down to four people and that there were just these other secondary and tertiary characters and satellites floating around.
CS: In a movie like this where you have such a specific location, you’d want to build it so that the actors can see it. Were you able to do a lot of that or did you end up doing a lot of green screen? Helm: We only did green screen on one shot and it was an insert, because we weren’t able to go back to the set. We built that store, all four walls and the process that we used is, we tried to–again because we knew that the store had an age, he had an age, and we wanted the film to be different, to sort of stand out. We decided to use old vaudeville techniques, old theater clown, puppeteering, animatronics. We used all of the traditional and non-traditional methods first and then we augmented everything with visual effects, so at times you’re not quite sure if what you’re seeing is created in post, or we created it on the screen.
CS: In theory, it could have been all green screen, but it would have been hard to convince all these kid actors that this was a real place. Helm: That’s a very good point. Even with the adult actors. You can give someone a tennis ball and say, “This tennis ball is doing the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.” It’s a little frustrating, so we tried to create it as best as we could.
CS: How did you approach Mr. Magorium with Dustin Hoffman? Did you have a very specific idea of how the character should act or did the two of you sit down and work it out? Helm: It was a process. Dustin came with a lot already to the table. He had on his own, and through conversations with me, sort of found a bit the character, and I had already begun designing the character visually and whatever sculpting I had done in the script. We had to sort of come together and collaborate. It was actually a lot of fun. He uses a lot of references you wouldn’t think that he would, but he uses a lot of references in his characters. We talked a lot about Tom Wolfe, Groucho Marx, and Charlie Chaplin.
CS: A G-rated Tom Wolfe, that’s new. Helm: Yeah, there’s a certain look, there’s a certain link. That pin striped suit, the well-dressed man. We talked about Andy Warhol and all of these sorts of people, and I think he just sort of mixed them together. He’ll tell you this story better than I will, but part of it is from a joke that he tells about these two ostriches and he’s doing this voice and his wife says, “That’s Mr. Magorium.”
CS: You also knew him from “Stranger Than Fiction,” did you always think of him to be the perfect guy to play this character? Helm: I did. We had an interesting experience in that when we were working “Stranger Than Fiction” I sat with him and we spent a little time together. We were talking a little about a play called “Sure Thing” that David Ives wrote, and he was talking about how much he loves that play and how he’s always wanted to do it, and I said, “You should do it. You’d be great.” And he goes, “You’re right.” And he stood up and he went to the door, opened it and said, “Jackie, come in here.” (Jackie’s his assistant.) “Bring ‘Sure Thing’.” They sit down and he goes, “That’s your part, that’s my part.” And then he did it. He just did the play, this tiny little one act play for ME with his assistant, and I realized that anybody that is that bold and silly is perfect for the part of Mr. Magorium.
CS: Oh, so you meant that you should do it on stage? Helm: I meant that you should do it. I mean, he’s Dustin Hoffman! And I meant he should do it in a significant theatre.
CS: Are you guys trying to avoid the Willy Wonka comparisons which are almost going to be inevitable? Helm: Yeah. We’re not necessarily trying to avoid them or entice them. I love that movie. I’m a huge Roald Dahl fan and there are absolutely certain aspects of it that are similar and I really don’t mind it at all. Ultimately, ours is a very different film, but there are much worse films to be compared to. I find that comparisons are inevitable.
CS: This is much lighter I think, because the original “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was kind of scary. Helm: It is a bit lighter, yeah.
CS: I remember when I saw the original movie, there was some five-year-old girl who started screaming at one point she was so scared. Helm: Oh, yeah. Screaming and crying. That limp that he has when he walks out in the very beginning just seems so menacing.
CS: And yet, we all remember it as he best movie from our childhood. Helm: Yeah. I know.
CS: You also cast Jason Bateman almost as a straight man in this movie. Recently, he’s been the funny guy you bring in to lighten up the serious movies, but here’s he’s doing the opposite. Helm: He is, but what’s funny is he’s actually hilarious as the straight guy. He has this almost Jack Lemmon quality in our movie and he and Zach Mills, their scenes together, have turned out to be the crowd favorites. I’m not surprised because Jason is a phenomenal actor. He’s a really, really phenomenal actor, so we were really lucky to have him come on as well. He elevated that part so much, so I’m very grateful.
CS: I think I missed why everyone kept calling him “mutant.” Helm: Mr. Magorium, towards the beginning of the movie was hiring an accountant and goes, “That must be a cross between a counter and a mutant.” You must have missed that. It’s remarkable how such a little thing when you’re writing a script–you don’t realize how it’s going to work–and since the movie turned into a bigger movie, we had to do these previews and show it to different people and everything and you’d ask people who their favorite character was and no one knew his name. Every single little kid goes, “I like the mutant! I like the mutant!”
CS: I don’t want to spoil it, but there are a couple of cameos in there by well-known children’s characters. How did you manage those? Helm: We sort of didn’t leave any stone unturned as far as trying to get as much goofy stuff, fun stuff, things that we thought kids would like in there, and there were times where we sort of said, “You know, what this movie needs is well we need the Muppets.” That’s the kind of movie we wanted to make, “The Muppet Movie,” and then when that happened we would say, “Well do you think we could get one of the Muppets?” So the Muppet situation became like trying to get a major star to do a cameo, getting Vince Vaughn to do a cameo. It’s the same process. It’s virtually like calling their agent and see if they’re available.
CS: How did you hook up with Walden Media? When I first heard about this movie, I assumed it was based on a book since they do so many movies based on existing books. I didn’t realize this was an original concept until not that long ago. Helm: I have to say, you’re asking questions nobody’s asking. You’re asking some really good questions. It was actually very interesting. Normally, you’re right, they acquire children’s literature and then they make the movies themselves. When we were in the middle of production, they came on, and they decided to be the distributors domestically for the film, and it was an interesting situation because we suddenly moved from being our little independent kids’ film a la “Babe” into this November 16th juggernaut thing.
CS: Opening in 3200 theatres. Helm: Yeah, exactly, and it was sort of this shift. It’s sort of difficult for me to understand, but at the same time, they’ve been really supportive and great. It’s also unfamiliar territory for them because usually, they’re adapting things and we sort of dropped this thing in their lap, but they have such a great base and one of the best things about them is their relationship to Scholastic and everything is integrated in projects and charity work and all of this stuff. Rather than feeling as though we’re putting this huge piece of merchandising and trying to cram stuff down people’s throats, it actually feels as if we’re still trying to teach kids things and get a message out there, so that feels good.
CS: What are your thoughts on sequels and spin-offs? Obviously, if a movie like this does well, there’s always this possibility. Helm: We can’t even talk about it now. (Note: due to the writers’ strike.) I don’t know. I’ve never been in that position, I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know how we’re going to ever have a sequel to this. We’d have to have Dustin in a bumblebee outfit and he shows up, “I’m back.”
CS: How closely did you work with Marc when he made “Stranger Than Fiction.” After you wrote the script and it was bought, did you work with him at all on it? Helm: Not a whole lot. I mean, he was very warm and we’ve stayed in touch. I’ve always commended him on the work that he did for the movie, but when it came down to shooting the movie, not only was I sort of busy prepping this, but he got it. He didn’t really need me around. I was only visiting there for about two weeks and that was about it.
CS: So what are you working on next? You have “The DisAssociate”? Are you going to be directing that also? Helm: It looks like I’m going to be directing that. There’s still a little bit of work. We’re going to rewrite the script a little bit I think, and now that I’m on strike, it’s being sort of put on the shelf. It’s just been such a process making “Stranger Than Fiction” and this and I’ve learned so much that now is sort of an interesting time. I get to go back to the page, and I’m doing a little bit of theater, and I’m doing a lot of writing. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take everything I’ve learned and start to make really interesting and surprising and hopefully some really good films. So that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to switch it up. I’m going to try to surprise people next.
CS: Do you think you’ll try to do “The DisAssociate” more as an independent film? Helm: I think I might shrink, you know? Even though we didn’t have a very big budget on this, I don’t think I can make another movie at this size. I either have to go much bigger or much smaller, and my tastes usually tend to be a little bit smaller. I’m interested in trying to push the envelope as much as I can.
CS: “Stranger Than Fiction” really could’ve been an independent film, except for maybe some of the effects. Helm: That was always the intent. I’ve somehow made these two pseudo-commercial big studio pictures, while having, what I thought, started making these tiny little independent films, but that’s the way that it goes sometimes.
CS: And you have a theatre background, that’s where you started? Helm: I have a theater background and I have a play going on in Paris right now and I have another play that’s going to start as soon as I go back home that I’m doing in Los Angeles. I actually still do a lot of theater, it just doesn’t get as much press, as you can imagine.
CS: Have you been on the picket line yet? Helm: Not yet. I’ve just been doing this. I go on the picket line next week and the week after.
CS: Do you know where you’ll be going yet? You’re not going to have to picket Fox the week they release your movie will you? Helm: I don’t know. I’m going to go wherever they need me. That’s funny because Fox has this huge billboard outside for “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.” I’m sure they’d love me to go there and get photos taken. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter if I’m picketing, as long as the billboard’s in the background, then I’m happy.