The beginning of a new year and a new decade brings hope and optimism for change, and while there’s a lot of good things in the world, there’s still plenty of reasons to be down and negative and cynical.
Along comes first-time director Josh Goldin’s indie dramedy Wonderful World, starring Matthew Broderick as Ben Singer, a man who only sees the bad in the world. Divorced and working in a job he hates (which he’s then fired from), Ben only gets enjoyment in life from playing chess with his Senegalese roommate Ibou (Michael Kenneth Williams from “The Wire”), but when he falls ill, Ben has to find solace in his lovely sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) who accepts Ben’s offer to stay in her brother’s room until he gets better.
Goldin’s debut premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last summer and quickly became an audience favorite, so ComingSoon.net sat down with Goldin and Broderick just before the holidays to find out from them why they thought the film has had such resonance with audiences.
“I was thinking just to do a movie about a guy who is the most negative man in the world,” Goldin explained to us when asked about the genesis of the project. “There’s a legacy of negativity in my family, so it wasn’t that far from home. I think everybody who is of a certain type who lives in America, especially during the Bush years, there’s a running commentary that goes in the back of our heads that’s cynical, and I wanted to distill that into one person and make that his whole thing, and just see where it went. I made it my mantra while writing it that everything he said be true, that you can actually identify with what he’s saying for the most part.”
“Think of it like the story of Job in reverse,” he continued, “It’s a guy who poisons everything that comes to him in a way and the world is coming back to him with all these possibilities and opportunities and he’s fighting them off until he finally sees that he’s being chipped away at.”
“I think it was all done when he just sent it to me,” Broderick told us in a separate interview about how his long-time friend approached him to play Ben. “I read it and thought it was really good. I never really thought he would get it made, but he did. I was very happy to be attached to it. I read it and then it probably took two years before we shot.”
Goldin filled in the rest of the story: “It was a little audition. I said, ‘Well, I’m writing this movie about the most negative man in the world and I think you’d be great.’ and he said, ‘I hate it.’ He was just making a joke, but we wanted to do something together for a long time and I knew he would be great in this role.”
“It seemed a little different to me because it had romance in it, which was nice,” Broderick claimed when asked whether he felt Ben was similar to other characters he’s played. “I just think Josh is really funny and really bright. It was a well-told tale, almost like a bedtime story, like a fable, and I thought it had a slightly hopeful ending, not too hopeful, but gave you a little bit of hope which is nice.”
“I think Matthew brought to the character an extra level of kindness,” Goldin admitted when asked why Matthew helped make Ben so likeable. “He wasn’t as angry as he was disappointed and sad in Matthew’s portrayal, and I still think that just the fact that Matthew’s played in all these movies as the nice guy, and you can see that he is a nice guy and that adds this layer to the character where you know that somewhere in there is the Matthew Broderick that you know who can come out, that there’s another being in there that’s very sweet.”
We asked Goldin about some of the characteristics of Ben Singer that make him so unique, one thing being that he was a former children’s entertainer. “I have kids and we got exposed to Rafi because of the kids. I had heard that Rafi had a breakdown and had stopped doing children’s music and was doing his own music. There’s some dark period in Rafi’s recent past and now he’s back doing children’s music, and it just stayed with me that this guy had some moment where he rebelled against it. If you think about it, there’s something slightly unreal about Rafi for thirty years doing music for children. You wonder about that.”
The decision to have Ben’s roommate and his sister be from Senegal also came from Goldin’s own experiences. “I knew that I wanted him to get involved with an immigrant, because I wanted someone to look at America from the point of view of having come from a very poor country and you look at America as just the bounty of it all, but a long time ago, one of my first jobs was at an insurance company filing, and the guy I was working with was this guy from Senegal and he was very much like the character in the movie, this brilliant self-educated guy who is a lot of things and we had great conversations. He had come from Senegal at the age of 8 so whenever he talked about Senegal, it was always refracted through his childhood. I just chose his character because I liked that he was so smart in his own right and it had nothing to do with being from Senegal.”
We were curious how hard it was maintaining the film’s tone, which involves a lot of bad things happening to Ben, making him more and more bitter, and yet, there are still funny moments due to Broderick’s dry wit. “A lot of it had to do with how it was written because it was written so all the humor comes out of his sardonic character,” Goldin told us. “He never goes out of character, so the humor is never something that’s inflicted on the movie. It’s not like there’s a gag or anything like that. It’s character-based humor, and in my mind, it’s a drama with things that are amusing in it, but they’re amusing from life. Sort of like ‘Broadcast News,’ which is a very different movie but I feel the same way about that.”
“You just go by your gut,” Broderick replied when asked about his own way of maintaining that tone. “You think how nasty can I be before this is unpleasant? Because the line between unpleasant and funny can be right next to each other, and then I think you have to trust the director. That’s his job to set the tone of things and to know if something has crossed over and isn’t funny anymore.”
“It really differs from audience to audience,” Goldin told us, when asked whether he’s surprised when certain scenes get laughs. “When you’re gauging an audience reaction, every time you hear a laugh, you know it’s worked, but there are some audiences who aren’t laughing, hardly at all, and then they love it afterwards. I no longer wait for the laughs, but at Tribeca they laughed a lot and it was a great screening, but it just varies, it’s strange.”
“You get caught up in good dialogue and wonder how an audience is going to react to it, but mostly, I write in terms of the whole story,” he said about trying to get the reaction he wants from the writing. “That’s really what I’m concerned with, not the moment by moment, but how the whole story is going to impact me while writing it. If I move myself, I figure it will have some effect on an audience.
The movie was shot in just 21 days in Shreveport, Louisiana, which made it tough for Broderick who has been very busy on Broadway in recent years. Not having adequate time for rehearsal didn’t bother the veteran actor; despite doing a lot of theater work, he doesn’t feel that rehearsal is that important to the filmmaking process. “Rehearsing a film is nice,” he said. “The only thing is that if a movie takes three months to shoot, you’re rehearsing scenes you’re not going to get to until two months, but sometimes it’s not as useful as you would think. You have to rehearse as you go. What I usually like is when we rehearse in the morning and then you get your make-up while they light it, but most films, you have to be a little more improvisational than a play. You have to just move quickly. If it’s a good part for you and you know what you’re doing and you feel comfortable and relaxed, it can be very nice, and then you can do as many takes as you want, so you get that advantage.”
The collaboration clearly worked and Broderick had some thoughts on why he seems to work with so many directors making their first features like he did with Finding Amanda
Although Wonderful World might have its moments of cynicism, it ultimately offers hope for all of us in the form of Ben’s relationship with Sanaa Lathan’s Khadi. To wrap things up, we decided to ask Josh what he thought she saw in Ben. “I’ve described him as the most negative man in the world but I think he’s a character who has more layers than that. Even from the very beginning, you as the audience know he’s kind and that he truly loves his daughter, and I think she’s coming to him like this knowledge that he was this guy who was incredibly nice to her brother when he came to America. Her brother had talked to him and she comes in and he’s obviously upset and she’s bonded in grief with him, so if you really look at it from her point of view. She’s seen mostly good things from him. Every now and again, he says a hard quip, but she’s responding to his kindness.”
Wonderful World opens in select cities on Friday, January 8.