'Fiction' reveals truth: Write stuff plays big

'Fiction' reveals truth: Write stuff plays big

Five studios, 37 directors and scores of movie stars threw themselves at Zach Helm's script. Emma Thompson wanted in after page 22. After Will Ferrell landed the lead, he cleared his jammed schedule. Maggie Gyllenhaal had to audition with Ferrell to prove they had chemistry. Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah jumped at their supporting roles. Crammed with witty dialogue and unpredictable suspense, the $30 million romantic comedy/thriller "Stranger Than Fiction," directed by Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland"), proves an old Hollywood adage: If you build a great screenplay, they will come.

Like many of the better movies these days, "Fiction" was independently produced apart from the studio system. Producer Lindsay Doran developed the original story with Helm, a playwright-turned-screenwriter who is now 31, without any financial commitment and long before they accepted backing from studio supplier Mandate Pictures. Just before "Fiction" started its six-week shoot in Chicago in summer 2005, Columbia Pictures acquired the film and will release it domestically Nov. 10.

"Fiction," which nabbed raves last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, goes down so easily that it's hard to imagine five years of painstaking labor went into it. "I spend a long time on these movies," says Doran, who between stints running production at United Artists and Mirage Entertainment produced "Dead Again," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Nanny McPhee," all involving her frequent collaborator Thompson. "Developing a screenplay takes years and years."

Back in 2001, Doran first worked with Helm on "The DisAssociates," a screenplay they sold to Warner Bros. Pictures. Then, one day, the young writer gave her a one-line idea. "I want to do a movie about a guy who has a narrator," he told her.

"That's a good idea," she replied. "The way he described it, it was as if you were watching 'The Age of Innocence,' and Daniel Day-Lewis somewhere began to hear what the narrator Joanne Woodward was saying in his head. It was a comedy situation. But it wasn't a movie yet."

The next time Helm saw Doran, he said, "This guy has a narrator who tells him things about himself that he doesn't know."

"It's not a story yet," she told him.

The next time, he added, "The guy has a narrator and one thing she tells him is, he's going to die."

"That's it!" Doran cried. "I was so excited. We decided that the narrator should be a woman novelist. We talked and talked and talked. I didn't know what he was writing."

While "Fiction" has been compared to the work of the prodigiously original Charlie Kaufman, Helm's screenplay was influenced by Hal Ashby and Woody Allen and predates both Kaufman's 2002's "Adaptation" and his 2004 "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." "We thought of it as a comedy version of 'The Hours,' " Doran says.

The producer and the writer talked about the rules of comedy and tragedy and how to keep the movie real. "I wanted the movie to be like a thriller," Doran says. "It's 'A Chronicle of a Death Foretold,' a murder mystery. I wanted it to feel like somebody was trying to prevent a murder that happens to be his own."

After Doran finally read a draft in 2003, they set to work streamlining and moving one scene into the next with increasing urgency. "I wanted the stakes to be high," she says, "as the novelist finishes her book and as the guy prevents his own death."

One thing they never figured out: how to explain the logic of exactly how this particularly strange movie fiction works. "It was an ongoing conversation," says Doran, who sounds amazed that audiences are buying the film at all. "We never explain it. I kept saying to Zach, if nothing else we need a scene where somebody says, how could this be happening?"

Forster shot one such scene, but after preview screenings he cut it. "Is he a character out of a book or is he real?" Forster asks. "I see him as real, an everyday man who suddenly has a narrator pop into his life. Some parts of his life are part of the book and some aren't. Not everything has to be perfectly explained: that's the freedom and beauty of art and fiction. For me, the title says it all -- 'Stranger Than Fiction.' "

"It's contained in the performances," she says. "He believes, and she believes, and they behave as if it's really happening. She goes back and writes the movie we see."

The plan was always to show the movie to one director at a time and then line up a cast. As soon as the script got out, the phone started ringing. But Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane of Senator International (now Mandate) wouldn't stop calling. They signed a deal that gave Doran her freedom. "They never gave us one script note," Doran says.

"The day we optioned the script," Drake says, "every studio called us. If a studio had made it, it could have cost $60 million."

"We work with the studio as partners," says Kahane, who says that Columbia gave them helpful notes in postproduction. "That way, they don't control us."

By 2004, 37 directors had approached Doran, who was producing "McPhee" in London. Their pitches were all for different movies: emotional dramas, love stories, high-concept comedies and FX movies. Only one director understood that they wanted to do all of the above: Forster, who was just off "Monster's Ball."

After several dark films, Forster was looking for a comedy or love story and couldn't find a script. "It was the kind of comedy I like, slightly more low-key and introverted," he says. "It was rock solid. When it came time to shoot the movie, there were no holes in it."

Before the release of his "Finding Neverland," it was a leap to hire Forster, who at that point had only directed dramas. But Doran was convinced he was right as soon as she met him, she says. "His movies are about pain. And every comedy should have a lot of pain in it," she says. "He's deeply humanistic; his brilliance is not cold. He's a warm, loving and kind person. He has a remarkable visual sense, which is not at the expense of feeling. He creates a reality that you believe could happen."

With Forster aboard, the stars started lining up, enabling the director to cherry-pick his cast. Ferrell approached them to star. Doran had Forster, who had only seen "Old School" and "Saturday Night Live," look at all of Ferrell's talk-show appearances to see what he was really like. When Forster met with him, he saw "a human aspect to him," he says, "the quality I was looking for in Harold Crick. And the crucial chemistry between him and Maggie has to be there naturally to be believable. They don't have much screen time."

Ferrell set up his shooting schedule for the next few years so that all of his films could move to accommodate "Fiction" when it was ready to go before the cameras. Doran laughs at the irony of having the studios pester her to learn "Fiction's" start and finish dates.

Forster wanted to bring in his "Neverland" star Hoffman. Doran wanted to lure her frequent collaborator, Thompson, and for the first time approached her with a script that they hadn't developed together. Thompson was on page 22 when she called Doran to accept. In order to help contain the movie's budget, none of the actors took their top rates.

"If you have something great and palpably enjoyable," Doran says, "studios and directors can't wait to do it."

At its best, great writing cuts through all the rules in Hollywood.