Director Michael J. Weithorn Discusses His New Film ‘A Little Help’

Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn’s is no stranger to the entertainment industry. A seasoned veteran at this point, Weithorn has writing and producing credits under his belt for several television series, including “Family Ties,” “Ned and Stacey” and “The King of Queens”. Now this multi-faceted artist is taking aim at the world of independent film. Serving as both writer and director on the project, the film is set suburban Long Island in the summer following the September 11 attacks. “The Office’s” Jenna Fischer stars as Laura Pehlke, a Long Island dental hygienist whom we meet in the aftermath of 9/11, whose marriage to Bob (Chris O’Donnell) is on the rocks. A fatal heart attack solves her marital woes but opens a whole new set of problems, including severe cuts in income, a distraught 12-year-old son entering a new school and a newfound connection with her brother-in-law. Laura soon finds herself trapped in an ever-growing web of lies that looks to complicate her life even further. Armed with a powerful script robust characters and standout performances from the entire cast, Weithorn has definitely established himself as a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on in the years to come! Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with him to discuss the origin of the project, the challenges involved with bringing it from script to screen, the collaboration with singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan for the film’s soundtrack and much more!

I wanted to give our readers a little background on you, in your own words. What got you started on your journey in the entertainment industry?

Michael J. Weithorn

Oh, you really want to go back, do you? [laughs] I always wanted to be a comedy writer. That was the phrase that they used on the Dick Van Dyke Show to describe his profession. I remember watching that show as a kid and thinking, “Wow! I want to do that!” [laughs] It was always kinda my career goal and I always did a lot of comedic writing and cartooning on my own. Then, when I was old enough, I took part in the school paper, talent shows and that carried on into college. It was always my love. After college, I moved out to LA with the hopes of being able to break into television writing. I taught high school for three years and I was working on scripts at night and I continued to pursue it. Finally, I was able to break in! I got a few freelance jobs and I was hired by Gary Goldberg, the creator of “Family Ties,” for a show that he did just prior to “Family Ties” called “Making The Grade.” It came and went in a minute but he liked me and asked me to work with him on the “Family Ties” pilot and then subsequently on that series for four years. I worked on that and then eventually left to pursue my own things, so that is the sorta nutshell version of it.

Your latest project is “A Little Help.” For those not yet familiar with it, what can you tell us about it?

It’s an indie film that I wrote and directed. I have always loved films that attempt to show what is compelling and dramatic in real, ordinary lives as opposed to films where there is a very heightened situation or big premise or action or broad farce or slapstick. I mean, those movies can be very good but I particularly love the films of Mike Leigh, he is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, along with Noah Baumbach and Kenneth Lonergan, especially “You Can Count On Me.” I was really fascinated with the idea of making a film like that myself. At that point, I had been working in television for 20 plus years and I enjoyed it and found it very fulfilling but I was also wondering what it would be like to work in a very, very different way — that is without a big studio or network or with big stars. I was interested in a small film, low budget, a very intimate kind of production. What I found is that it is incredibly difficult! [laughs] In its own way, it is as hard as doing a show for a network, just in a different way. Ultimately, I feel like I accomplished what I had set out to do. I made a film that I like very much and that I am very proud of in the vein of the films of the filmmakers that I mentioned. It may not be at the level of those films but I feel that for the right audience that it has merit and hopefully will be enjoyed.

You have some great talent in the cast of this film. How difficult was it to find the right mix of actors to bring your characters from script to screen?

It ultimately wasn’t very difficult because the right actors really responded to the script. There was a first incarnation of trying to get this film made where I was hooked up with some producers who were much bigger, indie producers that had done “Little Miss Sunshine” and other films in the indie arms of major studios. You know, when a studio is involved, even for an indie, you are talking about more significant amounts of money, 10 million, 12 million, 15 million dollar budgets. Originally, the role of Laura, the lead who was ultimately played by Jenna Fischer, would have had to have been an A-list movie star. I went through a year with these guys where we were submitting it to all of the different A-list women who would get the movie financed. I was really torn because I really wanted to get the movie made but on the other hand, none of these women really felt right to me exactly. I had a very specific idea of this character and none of these women felt right, so it was ironic because we were submitting it to these great women but I was secretly hoping that they would pass and all say no! They all obliged! [laughs]

I think the reason was that often when women who are capable of doing big studio movies will do a little indie movie if the director is someone that they really want to work with or has a really big reputation. I had no reputation at all in film, so I took the film back from those guys and put it in a drawer and eventually pulled it back out as a much smaller venture. Even in small indies you need somewhat of a name, not a huge A-list movie star, but someone where the audience knows their name and face.
Jenna Fischer, at that point, was coming into prominence on “The Office.” I just said, “Oh! She is right for this part,” unlike these other women that we had submitted it to earlier. She was really right for this project. She had the right look and the right vibe. I met with her and she really wanted the part very much and had her own take on it that was really great and could really bring something to it. That being said, I was still blow away by how great she was when we started shooting and, by the way, she was able to create so much nuance and inner life for this character that is so very different from her in real life. As far as the other parts, Lesley Ann Warren, I have always loved and she was my first thought for the role that she played and she was eager to do it. Chris O’Donnell was great. All of these people really responded to the rolls that they played and were very interested in doing the film. When I met with them to talk with them, I could tell that they had a feel for it or at least I like to think my instincts were good! You have to go with your instincts at that point! So the cast really came together once we were kinda doing the low-budget version of this very well and very easily.

As a director, what was the biggest challenge in bringing this film from script to screen?

The film was shot in 24 days, so the logistics were really tough. We shot in New York on locations and had a sampler pack of every problem that you can have while shooting an indie film! [laughs] We had a little bit of everything! We had horrible weather, we had union problems where they were sticking us with people who knew that they couldn’t get fired and didn’t want to work, you know all the typical things that you hear about on “The Sopranos!” [laughs] We had scheduling problems and when we found a location, which was somebodys house, the neighbors hated us and called the police because they didn’t want all of these people around their house in trucks. We just had everything go wrong but somehow amazingly we managed to get the whole thing on film! It was stressful and harrowing every step of the way but fortunately I had one of the best assistant directors in the business. The A.D. is the guy who runs the ship logistically once you are in production. Luckily, I had someone great doing that and it kinda saved my butt! [laughs]

Music plays a large role in the film. How did the collaboration with Jakob Dylan come about?

Just a bit of serendipity. I was driving in my car a few months before we were going into production and my iPod was on shuffle. I have thousands of songs on there and anything could have come up but this song by The Wallflowers came on called “Health & Happiness.” The movie was so much in my head at that point I thought, “Oh my god! This would be fabulous to voice the movie.” It was almost like this narrator in a way was talking about or singing about this character and what she is putting herself through. I love the way Dylan sings and writes lyrics, there is an edge to it and a darkness.

So initially, I explored getting that song but it wasn’t possible because the publishing rights are so complicated and expensive. The producer suggested that we see if he would be interested in writing original songs for the movie, better yet! [laughs] As it turns out, he was very interested in getting into writing music for films and he liked the script, so we went forward. That was it! I met with him after we shot the film and tried to describe the vibe that I was trying to get in certain moments. The idea was that he would almost be like another character in the movie when his voice came in, it would be like this spirit, this person, in some vague spiritual sense would be singing about a “What have you gotten into now?” kinda thing. Jakob wrote three songs that I feel work great in the movie. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I can’t stop listening to them quite frankly! [laughs] That was just another one of those things where it just worked out that the person who seemed right for the role, so to speak, was interested in doing it.

The film has been showing at a lot of different festivals. What has the whole experience been like for you?

The festival experience was very good. There are three or four festivals that are useful for hoping to get a distribution deal. Distributors tend to Sundance and SXSW and a couple of other places but we didn’t get into those. I was actually kinda stunned that we didn’t, I was sort of naively thinking that we had a film that we could get in. What I learned, subsequently, was that these festivals have very specific criteria and the movie has to have either a cast member or director who really has strong indie cred already, which we didn’t have, or it has to be about some subject matter like returning Iraqi war veterans or a very specific genre film or have some studio backing that muscled it into the festival, a list of elements that get your movie into a festival. We had none of those things!

But we did get into some very good festivals on the next tier, which are your major city festivals. We did quite well. We won at five different festivals and were generally very well received. It was a very positive experience. You know, the festival crowds are not the same as your overall movie going crowd. They generally tend to be more film lovers looking for more off-beat kinda stuff unlike your mainstream film viewers. But in a way, that is who this movie is aimed at. It is not a mainstream film by any means, it is not intended to be. My hope was always that we would be able to find the audience for the film and put it in front of them and market it in a way to get that group to see it.

Being a seasoned vet of the film industry, what is the best piece of advice you would give to young filmmakers looking to get into the industry as a career?

It is very, very tough for anybody. The people that you look at and admire their success, you want to emulate, have undoubtedly had very difficult periods in their career trying to get in, during their career and will certainly have more.  It is very much a kind of, “What have you done for me lately?” kind of business. So, you really have to want it with all of your heart and soul and believe in what you have to offer as opposed to, “Oh gee! That looks like fun! I know someone who is doing that and they have a nice life and a nice car. I’d like to have that.” Those are the people who aren’t going to make it because they aren’t getting into it for the right reasons. You have to have a great passion for it.

A really quick story, there is a guy who I knew years ago when I was in LA doing shows. He lived in New York and was the friend of a friend who had sent me his sample scripts because he was interested in TV writing. They were OK, not great, not terrible. He kept asking me, “Do you think I should move out to LA?” wanting me to tell him whether he was going to be successful or not as a TV writer. I kept trying to avoid the question but it kept coming up, “Should I move out?” I finally said to him, “If you have to ask me that question, then the answer is no.” I guess that is, in a way, how I would answer your question? If you don’t know it in your gut that you have to pursue this to the ends of the Earth, then you probably don’t have the fortitude. It will probably beat you down before you conqueror it because it is a very, very tough business.

Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us, we really appreciate it and all the hard work that you put in on the film.

Thank you for your interest!

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Be sure to check out the official site for ‘A Little Help’ at www.alittlehelpthemovie.com!

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