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Zack Helm

MR. MAGORIUM’S Zach Helm

Article by Steve Biodrowski

I approached MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM with almost equal parts anticipation and dread: anticipation because writer-director Zach Helm scripted STRANGER THAN FICTION, one of last year’s best films; dread because the trailer for MAGORIUM looked absolutely insipid. Walking onto the 20th Century Fox lot for a preview screening last night, I had no idea which would win out, anticipation or dread, but I was curious to find out.

Unfortunately, dread turned out to be the big winner. The film is every bit as bad as it could possibly be. There are two or three good bits scattered throughout, but they are buried in a huge mess of a movie that has no idea where it is going or how to get there, so instead it just throws literally everything at you and hopes you find it all wild and whimsical enough to forgive the overall awfulness.

The rest of the audience seemed to agree. Although the music score kept elbowing us in the ribs, insisting that the movie was absolutely hilarious, only sporadic chuckles escaped from viewers, who provided polite but not particularly enthusiastic applause at the end. Not that anyone was eager to say anything negative, with the writer-director in attendance; the film was followed by a Q&A session in which the film’s quality went unmentioned, like the proverbial elephant in the room.

Well, almost unmentioned. To his credit, Helm launched the session by volunteering a brief anecdote: As the credits were rolling, he saw an old man on crutches struggling to get out the door. When Helm asked the man if everything was okay, he responded, “Everything but the movie!” Ouch!

In the discussion that followed, we learned that MR MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM was Helm’s first screenplay, written while Helm was under contract at Fox. The script sat in development for years, while Helm did rewrite jobs on other scripts that never made it to the screen. Finally tiring of this process, Helm vowed to quit the rewriting gigs and work on his own spec script. The result was the wonderful STRANGER THAN FICTION. Helm then bought back his MAGORIUM script from Fox and found some independent investors to finance the movie, with him as director.

It’s an uplifting story, except for the fact that the film turned out badly. That someone so talented could deliver such a trainwreck certainly is a mystery worth exploring; unfortunately, the topic was never broached MR MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM was actually Helm’s first screenplay, written while under contract at Fox. The script sat in development for years, while Helm did rewrite jobs on other scripts that never made it to the screen. Finally tiring of this process, Helm vowed to quite the rewriting gigs and work on his own spec script. The result was the wonderful STRANGER THAN FICTION. Helm then bought back his MAGORIUM script from Fox and found some independent investors to finance the movie, with him as director. Still, a few comments do provide hints.

Regarding his approach to writing spec scripts (as opposed to work for hire), Helm related, “What came out of that was this newer approach. I threw out everything I had learned as a screenwriter – which is that there has to be a thread and it’s all stasis-intrusion-stasis – and I just started writing what I wanted to write every single day. The idea was to write what I was passionate about and then if it was great, I would find a way to put it in the movie. Sometimes to be honest, they suffer because of that, but I’m figuring it out.”

Helm also learned to like the idea of playing around with his scripts on set. “One of the biggest things I learned on STRANGER THAN FICTION was the willingness that Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson had to just play. That’s one of the things I wanted to bring to this movie: for better or worse, we were constantly playing and constantly trying things. I was constantly changing dialogue on the set of this movie.”

The result is, not surprisingly muddled, like an improv session gone wrong. The film was not helped by its ambivalence about whether to be a quirky independent film or a flashy Hollywood blockbuster. Helm explained, “I really wanted to do an indie kids film and see if we could get away with it. I shot an indie kids film, and my director’s cut was an indie kids film. I don’t know if it worked or not; it was probably pretty flawed. In the meantime, Mandate [the investors], who had to find a distributor, brought on Walden [another investor company]. Walden decided we had an opportunity to make a much bigger movie. We had to go back and add some things and change some things. We did three days of re-shoots, but they were tremendous. We augmented the production. We did most of the tricks in camera with puppeteers or special rigs; then we would add visual effects, rather than shooting on a green screen. What that enabled us to do was, when the studio decided we could do a bigger movie, was to create these bigger things around things we had already shot.”

The screening was arranged by Creative Screenwriter magazine. The complete question-and-answer session is available as a podcast at Apple’s iTunes.

Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski