About six years ago, Zach Helm found himself at his own version of the crossroads. As a screenwriter for hire, he was making a mint doctoring scripts that never went into production. The trade and entertainment magazines were heralding him as the next big thing, the great unknown, a filmmaker on the verge -- but on the verge of what?
So he pulled a Jerry Maguire, penning a personal manifesto to devote his time and energy only to projects that mattered, which meant stories that he'd make sure saw the light of day on big screens despite possibly long odds.
Last year, during roundtable interviews for Stranger Than Fiction, Helm teased the collected journalists with hints about a new project he was not only writing but also directing, with Fiction co-star Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Now, a little over a year later, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium arrives as if by magic, much like its charmed premise.
Following up with Helm in a recent phone chat, he explains how the experience of the long process has enriched him.
"We had already shot the movie (Emporium) by the time we were doing press for Stranger Than Fiction, that's actually how long it's been as a process," he says, which only begins to hint at the work involved, especially when wearing multiple hats on set.
As a writer first, Helm now believes that directing "will inform my writing quite a bit" because in the big chair "I had to remove myself as a writer and there were times when I was wondering what I was writing." He offers a thoroughly measured response when asked about whether or not his writing manifesto will apply to directing.
"I don't quite yet have enough experience directing to say for certain," he says. "I do know that a lot of the creative talents that I have as a writer I've tried to carry over to directing, but since we've stopped shooting I've really only been able to focus on this movie. There have been opportunities to maybe direct other people's work or to pick up a project that's been languishing at a studio and I've been focused on this, which I have to imagine comes out of the contract I made with myself as a writer.
"But it's not about doing my own work. It's about making sure that when I do someone else's work I can represent it fully, and that's going to be an interesting challenge as a director."
Next up for Helm is a project of his own with a tentative release date of 2010. The premise of The DisAssociate centers on a character that begins a unique correspondence with God through postcards. Think back to Fiction's accountant Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a man stuck in a never-changing routine until one day he hears his life's narrator (Emma Thompson) announcing the day and date of his death. That pronouncement leads Crick to the realization that there's much life left to live, which he sets out to do.
Similarly with Emporium, Mr. Magorium (Hoffman) is the proprietor of a magical toy store whose decision to move on to the great beyond after 243 years frightens but ultimately inspires his young manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), to take stock of her own life and the challenge of succeeding him.
Embracing life and discovering grace and peace would appear to be the order of the day for Helm and his characters. Yet he explains that this emerging theme is purely unintentional.
"I knew there were issues of fate in what I was writing, but I never consider it being spiritual," he says.
This realization came as a result of the religious community's response to Fiction as well as previews of Emporium and direct questions about his own take on religion.
"I can't argue with the fact that there is always this undercurrent of 'Why are we here, what are we doing, do we have a destiny, is there something that we're missing, is there something larger connecting us?,' which tends to resonate spiritually," Helm says.
The real empowerment for audiences during these times when religious dogma seeps into the social and cultural debate as well as into the political arena is in having films that speak to the spiritual quest across denominational lines and, better still, across the generational divide. Helm finds ways to engage in discussions about fate and faith that reach the hearts and minds of both children and adults without splitting the two into opposing camps.
That's a strange and wonderful strategy. Helm might be on the verge of inspiring creative contracts and movie-making manifestos to challenge Hollywood and moviegoers to seek true representations and reflections of our collective spirit. ©