‘Why Him?’ Writer Ian Helfer Discusses Comedy, James Franco’s Art, & Bryan Cranston As Our “National Treasure”

Why Him?, Why Him, Bryan Cranston, James Franco
20th Century Fox

Why Him?co-written and directed by Meet the Parents screenwriter John Hamburg, follows a respectable family as they try to acclimate to their daughter’s new nightmare of a boyfriend, Laird, who is determined to win them over despite their reservations. As Laird begins to succeed in courting favor with his girlfriend’s mother and younger brother, her father struggles with reconciling his contempt for Laird with how happy Laird seems to make his daughter. We sat down with screenwriter Ian Helfer to discuss how the film’s script developed, James Franco‘s process of becoming the character, and what it was like to work with Bryan Cranston on his first comedic role in over a decade. 

Read the interview below:

Cory Mahoney: Hi, Ian! How are you doing today?

Ian Helfer: I’m good, how are you?

CM: I’m good, thank you. So, I haven’t actually had the chance to see the film yet, but I’ve watched all of the trailers and clips for it online, and it looks hilarious, so I can’t wait to see it.

IH: Oh, good. Thanks!

CM: So, where did the idea for this movie come from? I feel like we’ve all known someone who’s, like, dating a person that we kind of secretly hate, is that something you’ve experienced yourself?

IH: Well, you know, I have. This is not the only origin of this idea because, to be honest, you may not have known Jonah Hill has a story credit on it? And it was actually a little bit of an idea that he came up with for the script, but one of the reasons we connected to it is, many, many years ago I was an unsuccessful actor for a little while and I felt that every time some girl brought me home to her parents, that I was, like, the last thing that they wanted to see. So, uh, I felt very connected to James Franco’s character, Laird’s journey of trying to win over the parents.

CM: Hopefully not exactly like James Franco’s character?

IH: Not exactly like James Franco. I have a lot less tattoos and a lot less muscle.

CM: Oh, okay, that’s the only difference?

IH: Haha, that’s the only difference. And a lot less hair, too.

CM: Haha! Well, you also created the story with John Hamburg, right?

IH: Yes.

CM: And he’s been behind some of my favorite comedies, so what was it like working with him? Had you seen his work before and that’s what made you guys decide to work together, or how did that come about?

IH: Uh, no, John and I have known each other for… forever. We were college roommates, and we’ve actually been writing together for almost 10 years, on and off, and have been writing together really steadily for the last 5 or 6 years. This is just the first original thing that, you know, we’ve done a bunch of uncredited on scripts, but this is the first original thing that we’ve done together. But John’s the best, John’s a really funny guy and a great filmmaker and, you know, he’s a great writer, but it was really fun to write it together and then have a front row seat for his directorial process also. You’ll see when you see the movie that, you know, it’s totally in the script, but we also had an amazing cast, so there’s a bunch of improv in there, too, and he did a great job of really encouraging everybody to be a part of the process.

CM: Right, so, I actually have a few questions about the improv aspects. For instance, I just read this morning that James Franco designed his own tattoos and added his own artwork to the film?

IH: Yes.

CM: So, I guess with Laird, specifically, but also with all of the characters, how much of the character existed before casting, and how much came to fruition once you had the actors in the roles?

IH: Well, it all existed in the script. You don’t get those guys without having a really great script, and John and I worked really hard to make the script great. And then, on set, they’re really, I mean, Bryan Cranston is an amazing actor and so funny, Megan Mullally, and Franco is like a comedy legend, so there’s a bunch of improv sprinkled throughout, but it is definitely in the script. But things like the art, that was really just a happy accident. You know, Franco is a really talented artist, and I think maybe part of his process of getting connected to the guy is he pitched us that he thought we could put some of his art could be on the walls, and I’m not sure if any of that is in the trailer, but you’ll see, when you see the movie, some of — at least this art, I haven’t seen all of his art — is really funny, and so we were like, great! That’s perfect! So, as you know, making movies is a collaborative art, and everybody is bringing something to the table. But the movie is definitely the script, and then everybody just took it to another level.

CM: That’s really awesome. There’s actually a clip online of Laird’s Lair.

IH: Oh, yeah!

CM: So I did get to see some of the art.

IH: He has these crazy — he was like “okay, I want to show you guys my paintings,” and, you know, some of his paintings were, like, three reindeer having a daisy chain. And we were like, great! Perfect!

CM: Haha, yeah. With Bryan Cranston, too, this like his first comedic role in — what? — 10 years, since Malcolm in the Middle ended?

IH: Yeah.

CM: So, did you write the role with him in mind, or how did you convince him to do it? He looks brilliant in this role.

IH: He is really brilliant in it. You know, we were just really fortunate. He’s obviously somebody we had spoken about from the beginning, he’d be perfect for it, and, like I said, we worked really hard to make the script great, and he read it and he was interested, and he’s becoming a big movie star now, and he was interested in doing a comedy, which he had never done, you know, a big studio comedy, and I think one of the things that appealed was that Bryan has a daughter who is about the same age as Zoey Deutch’s character in the movie, so I think he connected with it. And he’s just a really smart, great guy, so we had a bunch of meetings, and he talked to us about ways he thought the script could improve, and ideas he had and jokes he had, and we went and did some more work, and he liked what we did, and James was on board too, and it all came together. We were just so fortunate that he wanted to do his first comedy with us.

CM: That’s really lucky.

IH: So lucky. You’ll see when you see the movie, he’s great. I mean, he just brings a whole other level to it.

CM: In fairness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bryan Cranston do anything that didn’t blow me away, so I have complete faith.

IH: Yeah, we had, on set, just for shorthand, we had code names for people, and our code name for Bryan was “National Treasure.”

CM: Accurate.

IH: Haha, yeah.

CM: So, it sounds like everything sort of came together for this film, but what was one of the biggest challenges, if any, that you faced in the entire process?

IH: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I think, one of the challenges, as a writer, is doing a character like James Franco’s Laird, who’s kind of a strange guy, is trying to do something that feels original, but also making it feel relatable. You know, we had seen a lot of like Mark Zuckerberg-Silicon Valley guys, these sort of Harvard guys who maybe in a different time just would have gone to Wall Street and been number crunchers, but we were interested in looking at it from a different perspective, which is, you know, there’s all these like really weird, creative people who are becoming these Silicon Valley billionaires, creating video games and all this online content, so we were interested in looking at a different side of that that we’d seen before, but we also, you know it’s a big, open movie, so we also needed to figure out how to make that relatable and how somebody like that could be strange but also someone that we were rooting for. So, I would say that was a big challenge for us.

CM: Did you feel the need to make him somewhat realistic, not completely out of touch with reality, or was that not a concern?

IH: No, I mean, we always try to… hopefully it plays as quite real. It all comes from trying to create real characters, and, you know, it’s a comedy, so obviously things sometimes can be a little bit pushed for fun, but there’s a bunch of guys who are, you know, generally like that, and as we were filming, there’s actually a bunch of real video game guys in the movie, and, as we met more and more of these guys, we were like, oh… he’s not that far off from the real thing.

CM: That’s so great. So, just in general, this looks like the sort of comedy I haven’t seen in a while where it looks like I can enjoy it so thoroughly the first time, but it also looks like the sort of movie that I’ll watch over and over again on TV.

IH: I hope so.

CM: So, what movies or TV shows informed your comedic sensibility or really inspired this particular film.

IH: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, I think that there’s obviously these classic father-daughter comedies out there. You know? Father of the Bride, obviously Meet the Parents, which John had worked on, but I think what we were interested in doing is, you know, we talked a lot about Meet the Parents and then what seemed interesting about this was how much the world has changed since a movie like Meet the Parents came out, and now we seem to live in a universe where the children are in charge, you know? Where, like, Robert De Niro, the CIA guy, was in charge, whenever that was, 10 or 15 years ago when that started. And now, somehow, all this tech stuff has turned the world on its head, and the children are in charge, so it felt like that was a fresh way. We still wanted to do a classic father-daughter comedy in vain of those movies, also, kind of the sort of weird guy comedy, in the vain of What About Bob?, a great Bill Murray movie, but it felt like we could do a fresh spin on it because the world has changed so much with this tech stuff and the kids are in charge now.

CM: I love that. I actually had not thought of it as a subversion of Meet the Parents, but it makes total sense. So, what other projects are you working on right now and what can we expect to see from you in the future?

IH: Well, I’m currently writing a pilot for CBS, and, yeah, John and I are gonna figure out some more stuff, and just hopefully more comedies like this, with real people doing real things. You know, I think we’re a little bit of counter-programming to Star Wars and some of these big superhero movies, so hopefully there’s an audience for the kind of stuff that we do. So, more of that!

CM: I definitely think there needs to be an audience, because these are the movies I’d for sure like to see, so good luck with that, and I can’t wait to see the film!

IH: Thank you very much! I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoy it.