A television writer nominated for five Emmy Awards, Michael J. Weithorn has had a successful career dating back to the early 1980s — mostly in sitcoms, from “Family Ties”, “The Wonder Years” and “True Colors” up through “Ned and Stacey” and “The King of Queens”. For his feature film debut as both a writer and director, however, Weithorn toned down the overt laughs, and instead took aim at something a bit more melancholic, and laced with a quieter humor. Set in suburban Long Island in the summer following the September 11 attacks, “A Little Help” centers on a dental hygienist and mother, Laura (Jenna Fischer), whose marriage has become tense and loveless, and whose 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) has become sullen and resentful. Her confidence and focus upturned, Laura tries to mend fences with her difficult mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith), and pick up and put back together the pieces of her life — all of which becomes even more complicated by a brother-in-law, Paul (Rob Benedict), who announces his attraction to her, and a lie Dennis tells at school. We recently had the chance to speak to Weithorn one-on-one, talking about the challenges of putting together an independent production, what it’s like to shoot in your high school hometown, and his own history of lying. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: When you’re a writer known for sitcoms, I’m sure there is some sort of difficulty in trying to cross over to films, especially if you’re looking to direct. What was that transition like, and how much pushback was there in that journey?
Michael Weithorn: When I first wrote the script I was put together with a team of producers who were very successful indie producers, and with the indie arm of one of the major studios, and for about a year we couldn’t get it going. But I’d written the script as a sort of antidote, for me, of all the years of writing for big networks and studios, as something that would be a small piece and personal story. It would be something that I could do the way I want, and work with actors who were all doing it for the creative thing and not the paycheck. And when I was I trying to get it going the first [go-round] it was sort of turning into the very thing that I didn’t want it to be. I was told we needed an A-list movie star in order to get the studio to finance it, and there were hints of script changes to make it a little more traditionally commercial and all those things. Rather fortunately that version didn’t work out, and we wound up making the movie at a much lower budget, at about $2.5 million, and that allowed for a great deal of freedom because at that level you can do more creative and noncommercial types of things. So I was pleased, and however this film is received by the world, I’ll always feel like I made the movie I wanted to make. So I can’t really regret anything that happens after that, because this is the movie that I had in mind. It worked out well in that way.
ShockYa: Parents have a protective instinct, where you want to protect children from any and all pain in the world, but Laura enables a rather incredible lie. Have you ever found yourself wrapped up in any mistruths of that sort, that kept expanding like a pebble in a pond?
MW: Yeah, I was a bit of a liar as a kid. There’s a lot of me in Dennis; I was kind of an overweight kid, and a bit of an outsider — weird and funny but not the traditional mainstream kid. …I never told a lie of that stature, but I would sometimes lie to invent just a different identity for myself, when the opportunity presented itself. And in general I’m sort of fascinated with the lies that we tell in life, and how they spread, and the consequences that they have. Even something that starts out as a small thing — the lies that we tell ourselves. A bad marriage that you somehow justify, or find reasons not to [end]. And yet what is untrue about it comes to gnaw at you and come to the surface in some way. But yeah, I was a big liar as a kid. I was a bit of a thief, too. Nothing major — just all petty stuff — but I had a sort of dishonest streak that I thankfully outgrew, but still enjoy writing about it.
ShockYa: You mentioned the A-list iteration that didn’t come to fruition. When it came around to the casting of Jenna Fischer, when did she come on board and was she not a name big enough to hang the film’s hat on at the time that you were putting it together?
MW: Yeah, we wouldn’t have been able to get the $10-12 million we needed from the studio if the lead was Jenna Fischer, but I’m so glad that that didn’t work out in retrospect because I can’t imagine anyone else in this part. She made it her own, in such a beautiful way. When we set out to make the film at the level that we did she was very viable and in fact kind of a coup because even at our level you still really need recognizable names in order to have any shot at distribution or anything. So she was well known from “The Office” by that point, but had never starred in a movie, had never been the main lead. I just met with her, and I could tell by the way she talked about the script that she had a connection to the character and would bring something very personal and real and human to it. She wouldn’t be just acting it. We’d had auditions, and actresses had come in and read, very good actresses, but they were playing it, and there’s a real difference between acting it and living it. I had a real good feeling about Jenna being able to hit the ball out of the park, and she did even beyond my wildest expectations. When we started shooting I was ecstatic. In the middle of production I was talking to a friend of mine on the phone and I kept saying, “Jenna’s unbelievable, so great.” It was all, “Jenna, Jenna, Jenna.” And my friend said, “It sounds like you have a crush on Jenna Fischer.” And I thought about it some and said, “No, I like Jenna very much, but I don’t have a crush on Jenna. I have an incredible crush on her version of Laura. I’m deeply in love with Laura, as she’s playing her. And that’s more important, and more useful. I guess some old director said that the director needs to be in love with his leading lady or something like that. But I was moved by the way she played the scenes, and her talent and ability, and I’m thrilled to be the guy who will be able to show the world what Jenna Fischer can do beyond what they’ve already seen.
ShockYa: Another revelation of the film is Rob Benedict, who gives a fantastic performance. The scenes between Laura and Paul are… all about what might have been. But adult pining and longing without the ecstatic throes of sex is not something we frequently see in films. Were you ever tempted to take that further, [given that the movie] doesn’t pivot on infidelity in quite the manner that one might expect?
MW: I never considered that they would actually get together. The idea was always that in life, at a certain moment, by accident really, you just connect with somebody. The analogy that I gave the actors was [of] two asteroids in space that are each on their own trajectory, and collide. They don’t merge and become one, but when they bounce off one another their trajectories are different. It’s just Newtonian physics. These two people collide at a certain moment and have a profound effect on one another, but it’s not meant to be a permanent merging into one. From Laura’s perspective, at a point where her self-esteem has hit rock bottom and she’s really lost her footing in the world, he helps her for a moment find herself again and gives her a little help, if you will, in a manner that allows her to grow and become more whole. The idea is that… to the extent that she’s been confused, narcissistic, a little bit spoiled and all of these things, that she’s now gotten to another level, and whatever happens when the film ends will be better than what’s been happening before.
ShockYa: You talked some about a little bit of you being in the character of Dennis, but how much if any of the rest of the film has an autobiographical bent, or is informed by family relationships?
MW: The family in the film wasn’t really my family in any way. The character of Dennis I really related to, although none of the particulars were the same. The town it’s set in, and that we shot in is Fort Washington, in Long Island, and that was where I went to high school. I liked setting it there because I knew the rhythms of that world, and I loved the idea of going back there to shoot a movie. When I was in junior high school, I cut school one day, as I was sometimes prone to do in my youth, and I rode my bike past the cemetery and saw all these vans and trucks and things, and asked people what was going on. And they said John Cassavetes was shooting a scene from a movie (1970’s “Husbands”). I watched through the fence, fascinated. It was a real pivotal moment for me. Not only did it spark my interest in going into that field, but I said I’d love to come back and shoot a scene here. And in fact in the movie we tried to shoot a scene there, but they’d stopped allowing film crews since then.
ShockYa: I imagine going back to film in your hometown allowed for an exorcism of sorts.
ShockYa: Wrapping up, in respect to the physical nuts and bolts of filmmaking: was it any fun, and something you felt like you would like to do again, or did it make you fall in love with writing all over again?
MW: It is so stressful. There are so many things that can and often do go wrong that you have no control over. It’s amazing that any movie gets made, ever — especially an indie. A studio can keep throwing money at a movie to solve some problems, but an indie film can’t. We really had a snakebit production. Almost everything that can go wrong did at one point or another. So it was very stressful. But I would like to do it again one day. I feel like I’ve learned so much. We had a 24-day shoot; I would try to get a little more time than that. And there are other things that I would do differently. But that doesn’t guarantee anything with [respect to the final product]. That being said, the experience of working with great actors who bring something of their own to what’s written on the page… of having a real collaboration between committed people was a great thrill. I had it on TV in a very different way, and to have had it in a new medium as well — I couldn’t feel more lucky.
Written by: Brent Simon