Don’t think I’ve ever had a favourite screenwriter before. But now I do. Zach Helm!
Like hundreds of Hollywood hacks, Zach Helm made a nice living as a screenwriter—and no one ever saw his work. One day he found himself banging out a manifesto: no more re-write jobs, no more selling scripts to the highest bidder, and other crazy ideas. His career will never be the same.
by Jim Windolf March 2006
… He sat down at his computer and came up with a set of rules meant to save him from being just another lowly, well-remunerated screenwriter. This proved to be the first draft of The Manifesto. Here is Rule No. 1, Section One: “I will no longer allow financial need or career ambition to determine the direction of my work. I will not put myself in any position in which my work is owed to another party.” Here is Rule No. 5, Section One: “Any deal struck in regards to my work will forgo any immediate financial gain if it may mean the surrender of creative control or participation in the work’s development.”
Emboldened by The Manifesto, Helm started a new screenplay, this time on spec, with no studio backing him, no executive looking over his shoulder. The plot seemed ludicrous, but he kept with it. [Helm] … decided to sell it to an unlikely suitor … In making the deal, Helm was obeying Rule No. 3, which goes like this: “I will not sell my work simply to the highest bidder, but instead to those parties that I feel will best represent and develop my work.”
… “I won’t take re-write jobs,” he continues. “I won’t script-doctor. There’s a lot of money to be had, lots of money for spending two weeks of work on a script, but I can’t do it. I have a slight ethical … ” His voice trails off. “It would be very hypocritical of me to try to reserve all this creative power and try to hold on to my scripts as much as I can and then go take some first-time writer’s script and bang it up.”
This, too, is in The Manifesto. See Rule No. 2, Section One.
… “If you’re a writer, you can curse, you can throw punches, you can drink till you’re obliterated, you can hang out in strip clubs and sleep with whomever you want to and chalk it up to the process of being a writer. On my end, I sort of use that freedom to drink a lot of tea and have a small dog. If it works one way, it works the other way.”
… By Rule No. 6 of The Manifesto’s first section (“I will not write for writing’s sake. I will write only when inspired to write”), Helm works only when the mood strikes him…. Helm agrees that his scripts, which are straightforward and emotional but slightly off kilter, have something in common with the Bright Eyes aesthetic. “There’s this sort of sincerity to it,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotion to it. It’s honest without being cynical, necessarily.”
This line of thinking leads him to one of his favorite movies of recent years, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman. “The whole struggle of trying to escape his memory being erased, as intellectual an idea as that is, there’s a real emotional resonance,” he says. “I really get involved in that chase, which is great.” Given the mixture of the bizarre and the mundane in his own scripts, Helm is a baby brother to Kaufman. He says his other favorite screenwriters are Wes Anderson, Buck Henry, the Coen brothers, William Goldman, and Clifford Odets. Everything Helm writes has a controlled, uncluttered feel to it, perhaps an echo of two of his favorite playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter—and possibly a result, too, of the apprenticeship Helm served in the Hollywood system, which demands that no scene be wasted and that the story move forward with each line.
… The interview is over. He sits down at the computer in his study. He puts on big silver headphones and gets to work on his latest script, music blasting into his head. The mood has struck.
OK, a little more than a month to go before the wrench to HK. (In between, India — the tetanus-shot arm is still aching! Why do the nurses at AMK travellers’ clinic and the Health Promotion Board website have differing views on the Hepatitis A vaccine? I didn’t take it in the end, omg.) I want to get this move right. The whole shebang. Don’t want to end up enjoying without reaping concretely, like I did in my honours year, like I did in MCIS. I think I was out in the wilderness without a compass. I liked it, I learnt from it, but I ended up nowhere nice! Nice work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try.