Perfect Stranger

Screenwriter Zach Helm can’t remember where he got the idea for Stranger than Fiction, but he knows it came to him while he was driving
Hey, everyone, come see how good he looks: Will Ferrell shows remarkable dramatic range in his newest film, Stranger than Fiction.
Screenwriter Zach Helm can’t remember where he got the idea for Stranger than Fiction, but he knows it came to him while he was driving. “What if there was a story about a guy who had a narrator only he could hear?” he thought.

And so, Helm phoned his producer and collaborator Lindsay Doran — best known for shepherding the scripts for Ghost and Sense and Sensibility — and said, according to Doran, “Imagine The Age of Innocence, and Daniel Day-Lewis is going about his day and Joanne Woodward is narrating his day. What would happen if Daniel Day-Lewis suddenly heard Joanne Woodward? What would he do? Would he think he was going crazy?”

Doran had a great passion for Helm’s work, even though all of his rewrites had never led to a script being transformed into a film. In fact, Helm jokes, “It was probably a good thing, because the projects I was working on were so bad that I think I may have saved the world from eight or nine really terrible movies.” Still, Doran had confidence, even if, as he himself admits, Helm tends to see a movie in an idea long before anyone else does.

“It was a funny idea, but it wasn’t a movie yet,” Doran explains. “So I said, ‘Keep working on that.’”

“The next time I saw him,” she continues, “he said, ‘OK, the guy has a narrator who tells him things about his life he doesn’t already know.’ `This time`, I said, ‘That’s really interesting. Still not a movie, but keep going.’”

The third time Helm brought the idea to Doran, she says, “He said, ‘OK, the guy has a narrator who tells him things about his life he doesn’t know and one of the things he tells him is he’s going to die.’ I said, ‘That sounds like a movie to me.’”

And so Helm went to work and, over the next two-and-a-half years, under Doran’s guidance, crafted a screenplay so detailed, so quirky, and so emotionally honest, that, when it “got out” amongst Hollywood’s major players, the result was something akin to tossing chum into a shark-filled pool. Before it was even produced, magazines were declaring Helm the next Charlie Kaufman and Esquire called him one of 2004’s “Best & Brightest.”

Doran and Helm refused to sell to the studios, though, and opted to go independent via a deal with production company Mandate Pictures, which kept control of Stranger than Fiction in their hands. Forty directors lined up to court them; Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland director Marc Forster won out. Casting main character Harold Krick came next, and, it turns out, just about every actor in Hollywood wanted to take a whack — including, if you buy into rumor, Tom Hanks. In the end, the role went to Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Ferrell.

“It’s all about the script, and this one was so well laid out and the character was so clear to me, it was actually a welcome change for me to not be so ‘over’ with everything,” Ferrell says of the emotionally isolated, numbers-obsessed IRS agent he plays. “It was a nice challenge to play things subtly for the whole run of a movie and be as close to — for lack of a better term — a real person than I’ve ever got to be as an actor.”

Ferrell has little to worry about, though, because, while his career has been almost wholly erected on comedic bedrock (as one of SNL’s greatest skit artists and, later, the star of such films as Old School and the recent Talladega Nights), he shows a remarkable and unexpected range as Harold Krick. Quite often, when he utters lines — lines as simple as, “I want you” — there is a soulfulness to them that is heart-wrenching.

When Krick discovers that his narrator is actually a living person, famous author Karen Eifell (Emma Thomspon), it’s how he deals with her need to complete her book, a book that could be her masterpiece, a book to survive the ages, that reveals his true character. It’s how he confronts death, at the very moment that he learns how to finally live his life, that says everything.

“The movie could’ve been written as a thriller, a romantic comedy, all these different things,” Helm says. “But at the core of it, there was this question as to whether or not it was a comedy or a tragedy. From that came the larger theme: What’s more important, life or art? And do we perceive the success of a life to be greater than the success of art?”

Dustin Hoffman, who plays Jules Hilbert, literary professor and therapist-of-sorts to Krick, can still remember when he was a young actor in New York and a trendy philosophical question was being bandied about between the artists there: You’re in the Louvre and it’s on fire, but you only have time to save either the Mona Lisa or this scraggly cat. Which do you choose? Hoffman sighs, a laugh in there somewhere, and says, “I would like to think I’d choose the cat, but you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there.”

And that, somehow, explains everything you need to know about Stranger than Fiction.

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