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“Wonder” Boy: Director Zach Helm

Variety magazine once named Stranger than Fiction scripter Zach Helm one of 10 writers to watch. With the whimsical Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Helm proves he can direct, as well. A recent conversation unearthed several interesting asides about the filmmaking process, and so, without further adieu, we have Zach Helm.

Filmcritic.com: I hate to lead with what sounds like a total grown-up question, but what exactly is Mr. Magorium? Is he an alien, a creature, or what?

Zach Helm: You know, it’s funny, because we asked a lot of the same questions and we answered very few of them. As far as I can define him, he’s a man. A real human being who simply perceives the world differently than the rest of us. He’s a wizard, if you will.

If you ask Dustin [Hoffman] about this character, he has such an interesting take. Dustin never played him as if he knew whether or not he was 243 years old. [He] played him as if he just believed it. He could be crazy. We could have written a scene at the end in which somebody reveals that he is only 65, and this was all a ruse. But in Dustin’s mind, all he did was believe.

One false step, though, and the role falls apart. But I’ll tell you honestly, I believe it works.

Thank you very much. You know, I put myself in this situation all of the time. I did the same thing with Stranger than Fiction where, for some reason, I refuse to explain certain things that I’m sure most of our audience will want to know. (laughs)

But that’s part of the joy of it. At least with this movie, I hope that part of the fun is this wild suspension of disbelief that the kids have to have when they come to see it. We’re sort of saying, ‘Anything is possible if you just believe it.’

One of my big regrets is that I’m going to have to now leave this character who has such a unique way of expressing the most mundane things. He’s constantly speaking in symbolism. As a writer, it really allows me to indulge myself.

Did you ever consider writing a children’s book?

I never have. I’m actually a huge fan of children’s books. I have a bunch of them, and we referred to so many of them in this movie, obviously.

I don’t know that I have the discipline to write a children’s book only in that it’s so specific, and you have to be so economic with [your] language. I don’t know that I’d be able to be prudent enough. I’m too loquacious. I just prattle on, even as a writer, and so I’m not sure that it would ever work. [Magorium] was sort of my opportunity to do that in a way. This is my children’s book.

Your scenes are full of intricate detail. Do you, as a writer, put that amount of detail on the page, or do you go back with your set, costume, and production designers and add what you can?

I tend to be more specific than your typical screenwriter. But there is always that element when you are bringing it from the page to the screen or the stage in which there is an interpretation and then a development. You’re not dealing any longer with just describing what color the walls are. You have to now describe to your art department what kind of paint that they should be using. It becomes much more specific.

I was very fortunate to have Therese DePrez as my production designer. She took what was ostensibly a page or a paragraph description of the store, and she built this store. We built the whole thing in one shot on a soundstage in Toronto. All of that came from her diligence, her inspiration, and her ability to interpret my words. It was really an amazing process to go through. I wish I could do it all of the time!

So, could anyone but you have directed this picture?

You know, that’s a question for the mythologies…. I don’t know any longer. I think that everything worked out the way that it should have.

It certainly was sitting there waiting for someone else to direct it. But I think that because it is so tied to me and my childhood, and every scene has something from my childhood that I loved so much, that hopefully that love is on the screen. Because it is mine, I think that’s what preserves it. So maybe not. I don’t know.

I would be fascinated to see what someone else would do with it, and how they would interpret the story. But at this point, I have to believe that it was fated only because at the time I originally wrote it, Natalie (Portman) was 13 and Zack (Mills) wasn’t even born.

I want to give you a chance to talk about your effects, because I think I was about halfway through the film when I realized that I wasn’t realizing the effects. And I think it’s because by that point, the story was breathing on its own.

I’m so pleased to hear what you just said. That was one of our primary goals. Kevin Haug, our visual effects supervisor, and Therese (DePrez) worked with Roman Osin, the cinematographer, and I. We were all very focused on the idea that when young audiences came to see the movie, they would have no idea what we had done as a special effect, and it would create this bizarre cacophony.

We only used a green screen once. And we did it to get a shot that we were unable to get on a reshoot. It had no visual effects in it whatsoever other than us dropping in a background to help tell our story better. Everything else we did using the set as our sort of green screen. We would shoot certain objects, and we would have the real ones as props, and then a special effects one that could move or do different things. We might have a puppet version of it. And then later on, we would create the visual effects version of it.

We [also] tried to do as much of it in camera that we could, and on set as much as we could, and then augment it afterward. It gave us two things. One, it allowed the actors to really interact with these objects, and you get the sense they are really there. Second, it also gave us, hopefully, a visual world that had you reeling. You have no idea where this stuff is coming from, or how it’s being done. That’s my problem with a visual effects movie. I find myself sitting there going, ‘Oh wow, they did that visual effect really well.’ For us, we just hope that you’re just sitting there experiencing it, and not thinking about what is a visual effect and what isn’t.

Please don’t take this as an insult, but how does a first-time director get so much creative freedom?

Man, I don’t know. (laughs) To be honest, it was a bit of a sliding scale of freedom.

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