|Born||Zachary E. Helm
January 21, 1975
Santa Clara, California, United States
|Occupation||Film director, screenwriter|
Zach Helm (born January 21, 1975 in Santa Clara, California) is an American writer, director, dramaturge, teacher, interviewer and performance artist. The son of school teachers, Helm was raised in a town of less than 50 citizens in the Sierra Nevadas of California. He first became known for his screenplay for Stranger Than Fiction, which garnered attention and notoriety for Helm, including the National Board of Review and PEN award for Best Screenplay. He is best know internationally for his acclaimed stage play Good Canary, which has been translated and produced around the world, garnering multiple awards and accolades.
He is also known for the film Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (which Helm also directed) and his one man performance pieces, most notably his revival of Spalding Gray's Interviewing The Audience.
Helm has also spent much time developing and teaching his own "open input" approach to drama, a collaborative process focused on helping artists mine narrative material from the real world. Using interviews, physical research, devised theater techniques and dramaturgy, the egalitarian approach has been used by Helm to help artists around the world, from primary school children to auteur filmmakers.
Early Life and Career
Helm is an only child, born and raised in California. His mother taught high school English and Journalism and his father taught multiple subjects and served as a school administrator. Helm lived in rural California, often attending the small schools where his parents worked. At 13, Helm began attending Nevada Union High School where he was made to take drama as an elective. After one year of the elective, Helm decided he wanted to pursue drama as a career. He attend The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, a theater conservatory, where Helm was a merit scholar. While attending school, Helm began to work outside of the classroom, going at night to perform spoken word and monologues at bars and music events. He also began to write plays, performance pieces and monologues for others. During this time, Helm's work for himself and others began to garner attention from fellow writers, directors, producers, theater companies and film studios alike. It was also at this time that Helm experienced the heart-breaking events that would later inspire his play Good Canary.
Writing and Interviewing
In 1998, in an attempt to bring new writers to Hollywood, Helm was discovered and contracted by then head of Fox2000 Laura Ziskin to participate in a one year studio screenwriting program, similar to the early writing deals of Hollywood. During that time, Helm wrote his first screenplay, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, though it would stay at Fox despite Helm's contract expiring.
From 2000 to 2004 Helm continued writing and collaborating in the theater, writing the plays Chapters and Last Chance For A Slow Dance. In 2004 Helm completed the first drafts of two projects, the film Stranger Than Fiction, and the play Good Canary, both of which would help push Helm's career.
Stranger Than Fiction, the meta-style comedy about an IRS agent seemingly trapped in a literary narrative that he can somehow hear, starred Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. It was nominated for a Writer's Guild Award and won the National Board of Review and PEN Award.
Good Canary, a contemporary piece about drug addiction, mental health, and love, was given to John Malkovich who subsequently asked to direct the World Premiere of the play in French, despite the play being written in English. Eschewing the typical path for American theater, Helm agreed and the play was translated. The play received six Moliere nominations, the most of that year, and also one the country's Crystal Globe for Best Play, beginning a decade of productions in multiple languages around the world, before ever being performed in its original language. In great part due to the writing of Good Canary, Helm was named an Ovid Fellow in 2006.
In 2006 Helm was also approached to direct his first screenplay, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and it was purchased in turnaround from Fox. The film was troubled early on, and Helm has since admitted he himself views much of the film and its process negatively, citing he has never seen the final released version in 2007. Frustrated with himself creatively Helm began to re-build his technique by teaching and collaborating with other artists, and found new energy and passion via a Spalding Gray theater creation he had first seen in college.
In 2008 Helm began Interviewing The Audience, a revival of one of Spalding Gray's most beloved performance pieces. Helm had first seen Spalding Gray perform the piece while Helm was in college, and kindly asked to take on the show after Gray's death. As the title suggests, audience members are brought onto stage an interviewed, their personal stories and insights extracted in long-form conversations meant to create a sense of communal intimacy but also challenge the convention of theater and story. Helm's approach differs from Gray's in that Helm's conversations are entirely extemporaneous, without any prepared questions, the audience members drawn from random, and Helm tends to find and illuminate the themes and connections within the interviews, thereby creating a through-line for each performance as it happensita. Helm continues to perform the piece when he can, notably having a successful run Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater in 2011. Between Interviewing The Audience and research for his other projects, Helm has performed over 500 interviews and counting. The piece also changed Helm's career as a writer, his focus shifting towards telling true stories, and using drama as an extension of journalism.
Good Canary completed a very successful run under the title Le Bon Canari in France in 2007, ending with the production, direction and translation being honored. Garnering the attention of theaters around the world, it was then translated again into Spanish, (El Buen Canario) and John Malkovich again directed it, with Diego Luna in one of the lead roles. The production was a tremendous success in Mexico, selling out its entire Mexico City run and then touring the country for over a year to follow. Having succeeded in two languages on two continents, the play began to receive productions across the globe, in myriad languages, Helm declining any productions of it in English for years.
The play, drawn from Helm's personal experiences, is noted for it's searing language, dark humor and deeply complex characters, is a direct challenge to American misogyny and elitism, productions often using Brechtian theatrical devices to confront the audience's own sense of morality. Helm has used it to openly criticize America's culture towards women, which partially explains why Helm has yet to produce the play in the United States.
In 2016, the English-language premiere was announced by the Rose Theatre Kingston, to be directed again by John Malkovich in the fall of that year.
Other and Upcoming Projects
Starting in 2011, Helm has worked primarily in true stories, either drawing from or collaborating with journalists and often interacting with his piece's subjects and their stories directly, including convicted murderer Cameron Todd Willingham, vanguard cryonicist Bob Nelson, former US Treasury employee Neel Kashkari, amongst others.
In 2015, Helm was brought on by Fox Searchlight and FilmRites to adapt and direct the true story of Paul Frampton, the North Carolina physics professor who, after claiming to be following the woman of his dreams, was convicted of trafficking cocaine through South America. The film, Culo Quasars Cocaine Chaos, marks Helm's return to film directing.
In 2016, Helm adapted the Epic Magazine article The Mercenary for Fox, collaborating with journalists Josh Davis and Josh Bearman. Again based on a real source, The Mercenary tells the true story of Roy Livingston, a modern badass-for-hire who became embroiled in one of the most bizarre gold heists in all of South America.
Helm is married to musician and songwriter Michelle Featherstone, with whom he has a daughter.