This is a story about a screenwriter named Zach Helm and his laptop. This screenwriter was a man of infinite strangeness, endless oddities and a remarkable number of words. His laptop had an even bigger vocabulary, thanks to its exceptional thesaurus.
Zach Helm grew up in a place called Pike, Calif., just north of the Highway 80 sign on a Yahoo map, but the small-town life and its small-town offerings weren't enough for the dramatic youth, so he packed up his belongings and moved to a city famous for its pizza and wind. There, he earned a degree from the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University and penned plays that sounded cute and probably tried to explain things like humanity. He gave them names such as Good Canary and Last Chance for a Slow Dance. But he had stars in his eyes, so he moved to a land filled with them and got engaged to one named Lucy Liu.
Little did he know that this angel, Lucy Liu, would break his dramatic heart, but by that time Zach had been working as a professional screenwriter for some time with nothing to show for it except a stack of unmade scripts comprising brads, yellowing paper with eccentric wrinkles and unrealized dreams. When his parents called, they would ask him what he was doing with his life and he would answer, 'Rewriting other people's work and getting paid to do studio assignments, Mom. But nothing is getting made because the scripts aren't very good, Dad.â?� Zach got into the habit of jokingly saying that 'Hey, it's probably a good thing, because the projects I'm writing are so bad that I think I've saved the world from eight or nine really terrible movies.â?� He believed he was carrying out a great service to mankind, though his parents probably thought he liked the theater a little too much and Lucy not enough.
Then inspiration struck while Zach was at the wheel of his modest car: 'What if there were a guy who had a narrator only he could hear?â?� Convinced he had stumbled onto the greatest idea a filmmaker had ever had, or at least had had that year, or maybe just that season, he called his producer and collaborator Lindsay Doran, a woman best known for shepherding the screenplays for Ghost and Sense and Sensibility. Zach suggested quite passionately, 'Imagine if, in The Age of Innocence, while Daniel Day-Lewis goes about his day and Joanne Woodward narrates his day ' what would happen if Daniel Day-Lewis suddenly heard Joanne Woodward's voice? What would he do?â?�
Lindsay, pragmatic and prone to storytelling rather than moneymaking ' a trait sometimes wholly out of place in Hollywood ' gently said, 'It's a funny idea, sure, but it's not a movie yet. Keep working on that.â?�
So Zach did, and the next time he saw Lindsay he said, 'OK, the guy has a narrator who tells him things about his life he doesn't already know.â?�
Lindsay just shook her head. 'That's really interesting,â?� she assured him. 'Still not a movie.â?�
Zach slunk back to the proverbial drawing board. Emerging for the third time, he brought the idea to Lindsay and 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.â?�
Lindsay smiled, satisfied. 'Now that sounds like a movie to me.â?�
For two and a half years Zach worked on that screenplay, locked in front of his laptop and quarreling with himself over tone and theme: Was it a comedy? Was it a tragedy? What was more important, life or art? And, most important, did we as a people perceive the success of a life to be greater than the success of art? All along, Lindsay was there, prodding him, massaging his ideas with wisdom gleaned from a lifetime in the movie business, until finally ' finally ' there was a script called Stranger Than Fiction.
And it was glorious, for all of Hollywood lined up to attach themselves to the project; from the major studios to the middle-sized and small ones; directors, actors and actresses of every shape, genre, and size. Rumor had it that even Tom Hanks wanted to play the beleaguered protagonist of this script, but, rumor or truth, whatever it was, Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Ferrell won the part of Harold Crick.
Life for Zach and his laptop was good. He was the toast of the town, called by those in the know 'the next Charlie Kaufman,â?� and he even found himself engaged again, this time to one Kiele Sanchez, star of Lost. There was also the small matter of an upcoming directorial debut, another oddly fantastic project called Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, but that, come to think of it, is another story altogether.
Stranger Than Fiction opens Friday, Nov. 3.