Thirty-one-year-old Zach Helm, screenwriter of “Stranger Than Fiction,” graduated DePaul’s Goodman Theatre School as an actor in 1996. But it was his playwriting that led him to Hollywood, where a Fox 2000 initiative brought promising young writers into the system to become, in Helm’s words, someone who “euthanized” a lot of bad movie and TV scripts.
“Stranger Than Fiction,” directed by German-born, Swiss-reared Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”) relates the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a lonely Chicago IRS auditor who sees the world in numbers and patterns and who one morning—little did he realize—hears a voice in his head relating his life. (The germ of the movie was first called “The Narrator Project.”) As the oft-blocked novelist Karen Eiffel, Emma Thompson’s performance is a new standard of jitter and jangle (and fearsome to anyone who writes). Dustin Hoffman is grandly eccentric as a literary academic who helps Harold suss what sort of novel he might be in, and an audit of Uprise Bakery owner Maggie Gyllenhaal leads to sweet complications. Helm’s verbal and structural wit is matched at each turn by Forster’s magical, lightly surreal details—keep your eye on the green apples—but he also knows how to film a kiss.
Ironically, Helm had created an uber-city on the page, but it was Forster who chose to shoot entirely in Chicago. “This city, it had requirements that no city has,” Helm ticks off to me. “Publishing industry, a major university, plus a very specific transit system, plus the IRS, so I knew this city was a composite, if you will, but my influence as far as a metropolis is Chicago. There are elements that were already hinted at in the script. There was also in the script, more so than in any of my others, a sleekness, an economy to it and a certain dance that Marc and I talked about, and then we referenced [Jacques Tati’s masterpiece] ‘Playtime.’ He’d already been thinking about it and talking about it with Roberto Schaefer, the cinematographer.” As in Tati, “there’s always a window, there’s always another layer of activity going on, there’s always a canvas being created for the actors. I think it’s phenomenal: it’s monochromatic, it’s modern, [but] our focus is always on the actors and their movements and their relationship to one another. Then there’s the city at large, which many people can recognize as Chicago, but it’s a Chicago of our mind, it’s a fictional Chicago which I think underscores the fact that it’s a piece of fiction, [that the movie is] about perception.”
Other iconic influences emerge. “When I was writing, I couldn’t help but think about early Woody Allen films, the Hal Ashby films of the early seventies, ‘Being There,’ even ‘Harold & Maude,’ one of my favorite films. The old Marx Brothers movies to a certain extent, Krzysztof Kieslowski films, which I’m a big fan of, which have enormously complicated plots if we’re going to talk about them [seriously], I mean, they’re really constructed poetically. ‘Veronique’ and ‘Blue-White-Red,’ but every decision, every sort of choice that happens in those is rooted in what these characters want. Which is what makes them so cunning, that you never feel as though it’s Kieslowski’s work that is making the plot move forward, you think it’s these people. And if you can achieve that as a writer, then it’s a whole new level of storytelling as far as I’m concerned.
Cannily, like “Groundhog Day,” “Stranger than Fiction” doesn’t trouble itself with a concrete explanation of how these bizarre congruences could come to pass. It satisfies itself with being an excellent, emotional, darkly playful picture. “We played with it a little bit as to whether or not we needed to explain it. But because the film takes place, actually without an omniscient voice, it only appears to have an omniscient voice. My decision was that these characters, these two people, Karen Eiffel and Harold Crick, would have no idea how this happened; therefore, I’m not interested in explaining it.”
One “debate” of the story, to use a term Helm favors, is “whether or not one has a fate that they have to fulfill or whether or not they can control it in some capacity, or whether or not it’s a marriage of the two. For the sake of being anecdotal, we had this great moment where an agent called [producer] Lindsay [Doran] and said, ‘I have this actor who I think would be great to play Harold Crick.’ She said, I don’t think he’s right for the part. The agent, being a very good agent, said, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter what you think. Karen Eiffel wrote the character for Harold Crick and this is the guy I think she would have in mind when she wrote Harold Crick’! So Lindsay called me and said, you have to handle this, so I called the agent and I said, ‘I’m Zach Helm and I wrote “Stranger than Fiction.’” As the person who wrote the character of Karen Eiffel, I wouldn’t write a character who would write a character that your actor would portray!’”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.