Writer/Director Michael J. Weithorn: From Sitcom 'King' to Indie Film Newbie
‘King of Queens’ co-creator Michael J. Weithorn didn’t set out to make a period film with his debut feature ‘A Little Help.’
Weithorn began writing the comic drama, starring Jenna Fischer of 'The Office' as a housewife dealing with the sudden loss of her husband shortly after 9/11. But it took years for him to assemble the money and cast required to tell a suburban story that touches on the fallout from those terrorist attacks.
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“That’s how long it takes to get movies made in the indie world,” says Weithorn, whose small-screen credits also include ‘Family Ties’ and ‘Ned and Stacey.'
Independent film allowed him to work without network executives inundating him with supposedly helpful notes. He also wasn't beholden to actors he says are “empowered” by their massive salaries. His cast arrived on set eager to work and willing to accept less than their traditional fees.
‘A Little Help,’ out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, isn’t Weithorn's own story writ large. Echoes of his childhood can be found in the main character’s son, but he found inspiration from a beautiful woman he barely knew.
“She was really struggling with something, and there was something very poignant about the look on her face,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the details, but it was a blank canvas to project things into her character.”
Fischer plays Laura, a Long Island dental assistant left to fend for herself when her husband (Chris O’Donnell) dies unexpectedly. She's suddenly single and stuck with a mounting pile of bills. To make matters worse, her husky son (Daniel Yelsky) can't seem to fit in at his new school.
‘A Little Help’ began as a $15 million vehicle for an A-list actress, but the production couldn’t get someone like Kate Winslet or Jennifer Aniston to bite.
“I had no cache at all in the film business,” he says, and the production sat in limbo as several marquee actresses considered the project – and then rejected it.
Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise.
Weithorn ended up with Fischer in the main role, giving a performance even critics who panned the movie admired. More importantly, he retained the precious creative control he sought all along, thanks to the film's more modest $3 million cost. But he wasn’t initially sold on O’Donnell in the small but crucial role of Laura’s callous husband. He wasn't sure how much bite O'Donnell, perhaps best know for playing Robin in two 'Batman' films, could bring to the film.
“He does have much more edge in his personality than the roles he plays," he says of O’Donnell, who jumped at the chance to play a more complicated character.
‘A Little Help’ has an edge all its own, thanks to a critical subplot involving 9/11. Laura's son tells classmates that his father, who suffered from an untreated heart condition, died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 as a ploy for sympathy. It's a quiet cry for help, one that pushes the film into uncomfortable terrain.
"In every sense this is not a film for everybody," Weithorn says. "I certainly hope people will respond to it and be drawn in, but other people may be offended at the way 9/11 is dealt with."
"My criteria with 9/11 is this... he's an outsider in a new school. He’s being taunted. Do you believe in a moment he might do this to be popular? Is it truthful?" he says of the questions he hopes his film answers.
Weithorn may have scored big with 'The King of Queens,' but he's not eager to return to life with a network sitcom. He's pretty cynical about the current state of half-hour comedies.
"Sitcoms are so slavishly the same in their rhythms and the jokes they do," says Weithorn, who is currently shopping a half-hour pilot to cable channels. And he partially blames the networks for that conformity. "Networks turn everything into the same hamburger, and 90 percent or more [shows] fail. Why not innovate?"
When he looks at the latest round of network show pilots coming our way he see too many "monochromatic" tales of 20-somethings moving back in with their parents.
"I feel alienated from that whole world now," he says.