Exclusive: Writer/Director John Wells on The Company Men

When you’ve worked for over 20 years on television as a writer and executive producer for such illustrious shows as “ER,” “The West Wing” and others, you’d think it would be easier to get your first film made. While that may not be the case for John Wells, when he decided to tackle The Company Men, his first film as a writer and director, he was able to pull together an impressive cast that includes Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt and Craig T. Nelson.

The film looks at the lives of three men who are left unemployed after downsizing at the company where they all work. Ben Affleck plays salesman Bobby Walker, a family man trying to keep that side of his life together as he desperately searches for a new job. Chris Cooper is Phil Woodward, the seasoned veteran who has been doing Bobby’s job for most of his life and finding it incredibly difficult to adjust to job hunting at his advanced age. Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones as Gene McClary, a partner in the business who helped build the company up from the ground and who gets his walking papers from the ambitious businesswoman, played by Maria Bello, with whom he has been having an affair.

Some may think a film about losing one’s job might be a complete downer, but there’s something about The Company Men that’s surprisingly inspirational, because anyone who’s ever been a part of the corporate lifestyle or had a rough time looking for a job can appreciate it. Besides sporting great performances all around, particularly the three leads, the film makes for an interesting counterpoint to Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air if it had followed some of the people George Clooney’s character lays off.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Wells, who also happens to be the current head of the Writers Guild West, back in December before the film had its one-week Oscar release, which sadly feels like a lost cause at this point despite the film being as strong as many of the other films being talked about this awards season. Regardless, we had a great conversation not only about his movie but the very climate for independent film and what he likes to see when he goes to the moves.

ComingSoon.net: I didn’t go to Sundance this year, and I heard about your movie, but it didn’t seem to have as much buzz as other movies like “The Kids Are All Right,” and then I saw it and it was amazing, so I was surprised more people weren’t talking about it.
John Wells:
Well, it’s about 15 minutes shorter than it was in Sundance. We put a lot more music in it, so went back in. We had just kinda finished it right before Sundance, and then Weinsteins picked it up, and Harvey said, “I think it’s a little long,” and I went back and agreed with him, so we took about 13 minutes ended up coming out of the film and he gave us money to put a bunch of new music in, which was great. I would say it’s not substantially different, but people who saw it in Sundance and have seen it since say, “Oh yeah, I really thought it was much improved.” So maybe that’s part of it.

CS: It’s definitely a solid drama. You’ve been working on TV for so long, and this movie was very timely, so I wondered if this was an idea you had for a long time and just finally got to do it?
Wells:
Well, yeah. Actually, the impetus for it–it’s not really his story–but my brother-in-law got caught up in a huge downsizing during the dot com bust, my sister’s husband. He has an MBA in electrical engineering degree and was doing very well in his career and his company was merged with another electronic company, and they let 5,000 people go on a Tuesday. He had had lots of other job offers, but went back out into the job market when 5,000 other people who had his same skill set were on the job market, and he had a really tough time for a couple of years. He started telling me about what he was going through with out-placement and what his interviews were like and how it was tougher for some of the other people. I got interested and there are a lot of kind of unemployment websites, corporate downsizing websites. I went on and posted a bunch of little posts which just said, “I’m a writer and thinking about maybe writing about this, if you have any anecdotes or anything that you want to share.” In one weekend, I had about 2,000 responses I think, which shut down my (site). (laughs) Then I ended up interviewing about 300 people out of that 2,000 and wrote a script for Warner Brothers like in 2001, 2002, and by that time the recession was over. They said, “Oh we’re not interested in doing it.” I kind of put it aside, then the researcher who I had worked with on that first big batch of stuff called me in 2007 and said she really thought this was heating back up and I should really take a look at all that material again. When I went back, I did a bunch of new research and expanded, particularly the Tommy Lee Jones and the Chris Cooper parts, out in that next draft. A lot of the financial underpinnings were completely different, so I had to kind of work with that, but we ended up making it sorta right in the middle of the TARP bailouts and everything in 2009, and trying to put it all together in late 2008. It was a really interesting experience because I was rewriting the financial stuff every day because of what was actually happening around us then at some point, we just had to be done shooting it. I would say that the script we shot was probably around 65 percent different than the original one, but I kinda had a head start on it, when this all started to heat up.

CS: I assumed that with “E.R.” coming to end, did you just see that as a time to jump into this?
Wells:
Yeah. You know what happened, it was more the winding down of “West Wing” that gave me a chance to write it. We had wound down “The West Wing,” and the year before that “Third Watch,” so we were doing “ER,” and that was sort of beginning to come to an end, and literally while I was prepping this, I wrote the final episodes of “ER” and directed one of the final episodes during the prep period for this, which wasn’t a really good idea, to tell you the truth. (laughs) But it definitely came at a right time for me to be doing something else.

CS: When did you actually do the filming?
Wells:
We shot it in spring into early summer, whenever that is, 16 to 18 months ago. 2009, because we finished it in the fall, took it to Sundance.

CS: That’s a pretty quick turnaround to edit and get it done for Sundance.
Wells:
Yeah, and then there was a lag after Sundance with the Weinsteins because they gave us a couple of months to make the deal with the Weinsteins, and then they were talking about putting it out in late summer before “The Town” came out, and then people started to see “The Town” and say like, “Oh, it’s really good, and Ben’s may get a lotta heat outta this.” So Harvey said, “Well, let’s wait and go on the other side of ‘The Town’ because it looks like it’s gonna really work.”

CS: Did he shoot that after you had done shooting this?
Wells:
Yeah, right after it. Literally when we were shooting the film, he was also scouting for “The Town,” so we literally finished, and I think he started shooting 11 or 12 weeks later on “The Town.” In fact, he was working on the script while we were on the set. And I loved it. It was great. He’d kind of show us some drafts, and I’d give him notes, not that I had anything to do with it, but it was like something that he was getting really excited about doing.

CS: It’s also great for Ben because obviously he’s turned everything around as he’s become a serious filmmaker.
Wells:
He’s a really talented guy, and he had that rough spot where he was a little too much in the public eye. I think he’s a really good actor, and he’s a great director and writer.

CS: So you had some reference from your brother-in-law. Obviously you haven’t been unemployed in the past 20 years.
Wells:
Well, here’s the funny thing. I haven’t been unemployed a lot, although I’ve been fired quite a bit because I’m also a screenwriter and you get fired a lot–it kind of goes with the territory–sometimes by your friends. But I’m freelance. Even though I’ve had like this great, ongoing thing in television, when what you do is for freelance work, and you don’t actually – I’ve had an office around Warner Brothers attached to the show for years, but I actually don’t work for Warner Brothers exactly. All my friends, we’re all kinda job to job. Now, they’re good jobs. I’m not complaining for a minute, and I’ve been very fortunate financially with the success of the TV shows, so I don’t have the Sword of Damocles hanging over me like a lot of people do.

CS: I’m getting older, though I’m not quite at the point where Chris Cooper or Tommy Jones are at, but I’ve also never worked for the same company for 15 years. These are really amazing, personal stories.
Wells:
A lot of the stuff that’s in the movie came from the people that I interviewed. I mean, I very extensively researched the piece. So, there are a lot of things that are anecdotes that people told me. Ben’s character Bobby, I had him tell his son on the curb that he’s fired and the son thinks it was his parent’s marriage that was in trouble, was the story that somebody told me. The whole final scene with Tommy Lee and Craig T. Nelson in the lobby of the building when Tommy Lee confronts him after (Spoiler!), everything that Craig says in that scene are notes from a conversation I had with a CEO. I picked up the phone and started calling CEOs and sorta remarkably a lotta people called me back. I think a sense of really wanting to explain, because they’re feeling demonized, and they want to explain it. A lot of the things they said to me, I thought made me think less of them rather than more, but that’s a whole nother thing. (Laughs) I just started taking notes. One of the guys I caught, he called me back on a Monday or a Tuesday, and he had just done a huge round of downsizing on a Friday. He was very defensive and said a lot of the things that Craig says in that last scene, so the film really is a whole bunch of individual personal incidents for different characters that became kind of amalgams.

CS: Have you done that much research for any of the television shows?
Wells:
Always, because I’m not a doctor and I never worked in the White House and I’ve never been a police officer. So these films are very heavily researched and it’s important for me just because I want to make certain that I really understand what people are going through and it’s not just my impressions of it. Yeah, I try to do a lot. I hope it comes through. I mean, I hope that people kinda sense, “Oh, this feels really real.”

CS: I think it does, even when Ben’s character is just trying to keep his golf membership which you wouldn’t think is the most important thing but he’s trying to keep the impression that he’s successful.
Wells:
Yeah, and I think for guys that are in those sales positions, that’s a lot of where their networking is. When they back out of the club, a lotta their business contacts and things begin to perceive that they’re in trouble and they do feel that that’s a really big thing. So it seems remarkably selfish, yet at the same time, the guy who told me that story gave me a very cogent reason why he needed to keep his country club up while they were barely putting any food on the table. (Laughs) I was like, “Okay, not the choice I would necessarily make.”

CS: Was it hard getting the financing for this movie? I know dramas in general can be tough to get financed.
Wells:
Yeah, two months later we wouldn’t have been able to put the film together. There’s no way. I mean, literally, it’s really tough. I’ve produced a lot of smaller films and we’ve been trying to put other things together and it’s really rough right now. We did it sort of what’s now the old-fashioned way, and has already kind of disappeared which is some foreign presales based on the cast, and the tax rebates in Massachusetts, and then some Equity bridge financing to get us through, but you can’t put that together now.

CS: Really, why not?
Wells:
Well, with the foreign presales numbers you used to be able to get discounted about 90 percent. You’d go to a bank, give out 90 percent of it. Now it’s like, 50 percent. Nobody believes the foreign presale numbers because there’s no credit in the markets.

CS: But this is still a dream cast, so was everyone pretty much on board before you started going out for money?
Wells:
Yeah, it was one of those really remarkable situations where I kind of picked up the phone and started calling my first choices and people were saying “yes,” I think in large part because we were right in the middle of the economic crisis and people were responding to the fact that this was happening to their own family members. Like, everybody came to the set from the grip, to the gaffer, to the drivers, to Tommy Lee and Kevin and Ben with stories about what was happening in their own family, or a close friend, so I think people responded based on feelings that they sort of wanted to say what was really going on.

CS: Having directed TV episodes over the years, it’s very different working on this. Did you try to approach this similarly with table reads with the whole cast?
Wells:
I would’ve loved to have had a table reading. The way you get this kind of a cast, at least that we were able to is that we had Tommy Lee for 17 days and we had Chris for 14 days, we had Kevin for 10, two separate five-day periods.

CS: That sounds like very little considering how many scenes they had. Wow.
Wells:
Yeah, it was really tight, and so we shot it in 40 days, so the schedule was crazy and I was just lucky to get people kind of in Boston shooting. (Laughs) So, we didn’t have any of those luxuries. People asked me, “Do you want to do another film? If so, what would you like it to be?” I said, “I’d like it to be in continuity.” (Laughs) I was shooting scenes like, “Okay, what’s today, all Tommy Lee? It’s the scene at the beginning, and a scene at the end, and there’s the scene in the middle.” We were doing a ton of that. The cast was great about it. They were very appreciative.

CS: So at any minute in the shooting day, they could have a job or not have a job?
Wells:
Yeah, and trying to keep the throughline for it.

CS: Were you at least able to shoot in order by the locations?
Wells:
Sometimes. I mean, it was really… Barbara Hall, who is a wonderful producer, line produced it, and it’s not the way you would normally try to do it. (Laughs)

CS: You also got Roger Deakins, who is an amazing catch, arguably the best DP in the world.
Wells:
The list of people that would be his equal would not reach one hand – Chris Menges maybe, and pick a couple, but I mean it’s really extraordinary.

CS: Did you just send him the script and he came on board?
Wells:
Well, yeah, exactly. It was the oddest experience, the same with the actors. Barbara asked me who I wanted to DP the film and I said, “Well, obviously I’d love to have Roger Deakins, but he’s not gonna do it.” She said, “Well, you should just send it to him. What could he do, say no? It’s not that big a deal.” I sent it to him and got a call back from his agent who I’ve known for a while and he said, “What are you doing? Can you have coffee on Friday?” I got together with Roger and he said, “When do you want to shoot it?” I told him, and he goes, “Okay.” And it was great. He’s terrific to work with, he’s a fabulous cinematographer, he’s turned into a good friend, and I was blessed,

CS: Did you have a lot of ideas for specific shots or did you just let him do what he does?
Wells:
Well, what happened, which was great–because he’s obviously, you want to be in full collaboration with Roger Deakins–he came in for five weeks into prep. He and I had been through all the locations at least twice and really had a plan of what we were gonna do. The plans didn’t always pan out–the weather changes, certain other problems–but that made a huge difference and so, I would kind of talk about what I wanted and where I’d like it to be, and then he would say, “Well, I think we could do this.” And the times that I was saying something that was obviously stupid, he was kind enough not to say it was obviously stupid. (Laughs) I can’t do his accent, but he’s got this lovely kind of British, gentile accent. He said, “I think things might be a little better if it were over here,” you know, very gently. (laughs) He’s a complete pleasure and just extraordinarily talented. I hope the film feels very real and there’s not a lot of artifice to it. That’s all Roger. He’s really extraordinary.

CS: One of the things I love about the film is that it feels so real, and I remember reading somewhere after Sundance that they felt it wasn’t a very commercial film, which I don’t see at all. How can you not relate to these kind of experiences where everyone in your life has been fired?
Wells:
Yeah, one of the changes in film criticism, which I lament, not to criticize anybody directly, is the sense that all films have to be judged on the basis of their commercial viability, or that anybody can guess what the commercial viability of something should be in advance. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, nobody expects this film to do “Avatar” numbers. It’s a small film. We made it for under $15 million in 40 days, and it doesn’t have aspirations to be that. At the same time, when we went out and screened the film for audiences, the people stayed. It was a really interesting thing. We did these tests where we’d have 300 people come and at the end they’d finish their cards and all that. Then, people wouldn’t leave the theater. They wanted to stay and talk about the film, talk about their experiences, tell you what had happened to them, or to their uncle or cousin. We’d find people in the lobby. We’d find people out front having coffee. There’s a part of film which should fulfill some of that sort of communal experience about what’s going on in the country.

So, they may well be right. The film may not be commercial. I’m just not sure that when you’re gauging whether or not you want to see a film, and I always use the analogy that I love going to restaurants. I love going to all different kinds of restaurants. I love going to fine foods, and that’s great, but I also want to go and just kinda hang out at some great little Indian place, or little Thailand, whatever it is. I don’t want to go to the same restaurant every night. I feel the same way about film. I love going to the Pixar films with my kids. I’d probably go if I didn’t have kids. I liked “Unstoppable.” A couple of weeks ago I had a great time. I had a big bucket of popcorn. I go to a comedy, I want to cry sometimes, and I also want to go to movies that are kind of about something that’s going on, and I hear, and I can sit there and talk about it with people afterwards. I want all those things. I think a healthy cinema needs to have it. In one of my conversations back always with some of the various studio heads in my capacity as the head of the Writers Guild is, “Guys, we gotta be doing all of it. We can’t just desert segments of what the art is because from those segments come other things.”

CS: It’s funny you talk about critics like that, because there’s the other side which are the film snobs, who basically wouldn’t give the time of day to any movie that has Ben Affleck or any film stars in it.
Wells:
(Laughs) There are lots of movies for them too and I hope that those movies keep getting made because it should be a vibrant, big marketplace with lots of different stuff.

CS: Now, you’ve also been involved with producing a lot of amazingly daring movies over the years and I was curious, are you doing anything now?
Wells:
Well, it’s been really tough. I do a lot of work with Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler on Killer Films, and that marketplace in the last 18 months is really tough. I think you’re seeing it in the films that are available to see. Things have changed, so it’s getting tougher and tougher. Todd Haynes wanted to re-do “Mildred Pierce,” and Kate Winslet’s doing it, and we ended up doing it at HBO as a five-hour miniseries. I think it’s actually good because they got to go back into the book and make a bigger piece, but I don’t know that we could’ve gotten that financed as a movie.

CS: HBO is right at the forefront.
Wells:
Yeah, because they’re willing to take chances for them and their audience which is a great thing. They’re trying to provide things that you can’t see elsewhere or don’t see elsewhere, and unfortunately that’s including things you don’t see in the theater very much. It’ll be really interesting just to see this next year how many films can kinda squeeze through.

CS: Sundance is just a month from now, and it’s going to be really interesting to see if they can get as many films as they have in the past year.
Wells:
Well, I think what you’re gonna see a lot at Sundance–and this may be a great thing–is a return to really indie films, very inexpensive films because nobody can raise the financing for the larger ones. I’m really interested in hearing what you think about what you see at Sundance. I mean, is there a significant difference in the kind of films? I think it won’t just be what they have chosen to put in. I mean, I think it’s also kind of what’s available. These kind of films that’s got these kinds of actors aren’t going to be there very much.

CS: I know you’ve been writing and directing an episode for an upcoming Showtime show as well.
Wells:
Yeah, we’re producing a new show for Showtime called “Shameless” with Bill Macy and Emmy Rossum and Joan Cusack. It starts in January and I’m gonna direct one of those and supervise the writing. My company’s doing it.

CS: I was curious about that because you’re able to direct an episode early now rather than “ER,” where you had to wait a while before you got into that.
Wells:
Well, cable helps because you can have all the scripts written in advance so you’re not like, slowing down the writing process while you do it because you don’t do as many.

CS: Do you have any other projects that you’re producing or directing that you’re excited about?
Wells:
Well, yeah, this one. I mean, we’re getting there. We’re gonna do the Tracy Letts play “August Osage County.” It’s a film for Weinstein. It’s been in the press already, so it’s not a secret. Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep look like they’re gonna do it, so and I’ll direct that next fall I think, so I’m working with Tracy on the screenplay now.

CS: I never got a chance to see the play unfortunately.
Wells:
It’s a great play, and we’re trying to turn it into something less than a four-hour movie. It was a long play.

CS: Before we wrap things up, since you’re a voting member of the WGA, what do you see as a great script? How do you separate a great script from great direction?
Wells:
Well, how do I actually try and do it? Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t. I mean, there’s things that are visually really interesting that also I think have to have a great script underneath it, so I tend to end up voting for both, for the same films.

CS: So do you generally lean towards people who are writers and directors?
Wells:
Oh, do I? No, not necessarily. Like, this year, I thought “The Social Network” was a terrific script, and Aaron’s of course, a friend, and David Fincher did a great job. I really liked “127 Hours” as a unified script and directing. Something came together in that that’s really interesting with Simon. They’ve obviously done some good work together in the past.

The Company Men opens in select cities on Friday, January 21.

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