“I wasn’t planning on writing screenplays,” says Zach Helm. “I was perfectly happy writing plays and working as a dramaturg.”
But while studying at DePaul U.’s theater school, Fox 2000 recruited Helm in an initiative aimed at “under-the-radar” writers.
After studying Syd Field and some of his favorite scripts (Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun,” 1970s Woody Allen), he came up with an intricate kidpic called “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”
Fox bought the script, Helm got an agent and then he spent over three years going to “film school,” as he calls it. “Anytime someone offered me a job, I took it. I doctored, I adapted, I did page-one rewrites, I developed TV shows, all of which were bad ideas,” he says. “I spent three or four years killing projects right and left. Maybe I saved the world from some bad movies.”
Not until he realized his fate wasn’t in script-doctoring did Helm discover his knack for spec screenwriting. “I’m much happier and they’re much better movies,” he says.
Rather than pitching ideas to the studios outright for quick cash, Helm prefers to flesh out a screenplay organically.
For “Stranger Than Fiction,” for example, his first produced script, about a man who wakes up with a narrator’s voice in his head, he says, “If I turned in the script that we’re making now, any studio would be furious, because it’s not what they’d expect. So I’d much rather take the risk financially and hopefully make up for it artistically.”
According to “Fiction” director Marc Forster, Helm’s methods have paid off. “Zach wrote a script that’s insightful, funny and very original. He has a great understanding of human nature.”
Helm will next take a shot at directing: He’s steering his first script, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” to the screen with Natalie Portman as the lead. With a name like Helm, it only seems natural, but he says his heart will always be with the words on the page.
“I’m still a writer. It’s what I’ll always do,” he says. “Even if it’s a disaster, it’ll inform me as a writer.”
Birthplace: Pike, Calif.
Inspirations: “I’m constantly taking things from Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Tom Stoppard, early Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, Jack Lemmon performances, the Marx Brothers, e.e. cummings and Magritte paintings.”
Favorite unproduced script: “I am really keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that everything works out with ‘The DisAssociate,’ ” he says, referring to his comedy that’s set up at Warner Bros. “The script is dear to me as it helped me establish my approach.”
Agent: Michael Peretzian, CAA