Screenwriter Ian Helfer started his showbiz career as an actor. If you ever watched As the World Turns, you may remember him as Rick, the town paramedic, or the Bear Claw Coach in Wet Hot American Summer. But the pavement-pounding lifestyle of an actor can be rough, so Helfer decided to try his luck as a writer. His screenplay, The Oranges, landed him on the Black List and was produced in 2011, starring Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener. We chatted with him about his newest film, Why Him? which is an absolute laugh riot.
In Why Him?, Ned and Barb (Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally) miss their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who’s away at Stanford. During a Skype session, Ned and Barb are surprised to learn Stephanie has a serious boyfriend named Laird (James Franco). When Stephanie invites her parents to come meet Laird, all the fun begins.
Laird is a super-intelligent, socially gauche “Silicon Valley guy,” who made millions coding and developing apps. The eccentric Laird is absolutely not the guy Ned wants in his precious daughter’s life.
This set up is a situation Helfer has experienced first hand.
Back when he was a struggling actor, he went to meet a girlfriend’s father, who was a famous news anchor, and it didn’t go so well. “He was not happy to see me.”
So, like Helfer, wanting to make an impression on his sweetheart’s dad, Laird goes about trying to impress Ned. But to really mine the comedy, Helfer had to research the culture of Silicon Valley. The thing that surprised him most about the techie lifestyle, was the security element.
“These Silicon Valley guys are so rich they travel with lots of bodyguards – I guess so they won’t get kidnapped or something.”
Elon Musk makes a cameo in the movie and according to Helfer, he arrived on set with multiple security guards.
Though Helfer thought he had written Laird with enough strange habits, like raising farm animals on his property to fulfill his “lawn to table” mission, and having a “smart house” with a Siri-like computer that sees everything, he says James Franco brought his own eccentricities, too.
“When we met James Franco, we went over to his house and he wanted to show us his art. We thought it would be really bad but was actually great. We used all his art in the movie.”
That portrait of “Humping Capybaras” in the guest bedroom came from Franco’s own repertoire.
When shooting the film, Helfer says director John Hamburg always shot the scenes as they were written, but then allowed the actors to improvise. Many writers hate it when actors stray from the script, but not Helfer. “You just never know what someone like James Franco is going to come up with. It was great.”
Probably the best example of this strategy comes from the “toilet scene.” Because Laird’s home is also “paperless” — even in the bathrooms — Ned finds himself in a bit of a pickle as he sits on the toilet. Discovering there is no toilet paper anywhere, Laird’s personal assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), enters the bathroom to help.
“The toilet scene took forever to shoot because everybody just kept laughing.”
The comedic chemistry between Cranston and Key is so electric, the scene garnered a round of applause at the film’s premiere.
Beyond the toilet humor and wacky character quirks, Helfer says his goal was to write characters with whom normal people can connect.
“I just wanted to make a movie that people could relate to. No superheroes, no special powers – just a regular family. A father who loves his daughter and wants to protect her.”
Why Him? opened on Christmas day.