For his first feature film, the television veteran (ER, The West Wing) chooses a subject that strikes us in the zeitgeist: the omnipresent recession.
Movies, when they are at their best, reflect the zeitgeist of the day back at us in new and interesting ways—allowing us to connect with the material and relate to the characters as they examine the current climate of our society. The debut feature film from John Wells—more readily associated with quality television drama (Southland, ER, The West Wing, Showtime’s new hit Shameless)—The Company Men is a movie for our time.
With an all-star cast that includes Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, and Rosemarie DeWitt, The Company Men is a micro look at a macro subject, examining how personal lives are deeply affected when a conglomerate makes the impersonal decision to lay off a good percentage of its workforce. Knowing what the movie is about, the opening scene is sure to start your heart racing: the shots of Affleck’s affluent life (McMansion with well-apportioned interiors, Porsche, manicured lawn) make you wonder how big an income he needs just to make his monthly nut. Sure enough, Affleck—a high-level engineer with a good track record at the company—gets the news with his morning coffee, and you can see the wheels start to turn. Aside from the heartbreak—and shame—of telling his wife and family (including his blue-collar brother-in-law, played by Costner) that he became “redundant,” he is also reluctant to give up the luxuries that make him both feel personally validated and look successful to outside eyes.
The film also focuses on two other characters with conflicted feelings about the company: as the right-hand man (and best frenemy) of the CEO (Craig T. Nelson), Jones has reaped the benefits that come with executive status; his marriage is also threatened by his affair with the head of HR (Bello). And Cooper plays a sadder sack: a middle-aged guy stuck in middle management who has given his life to the company—without a college degree, transferable skills, or relative youth on his side, he is clearly not cut out for outplacement services, and his kid’s college tuition bills are not going anywhere.
Not flashy or experimental, The Company Men (which premiered at Sundance, where it found a home with The Weinstein Company) is a grown-up movie about real-life issues—these people are not cops, lawyers, or CIA agents—it's a solid drama with an excellent cast. Not surprisingly, it’s not unlike television in its relatability—some will connect with it from firsthand experience and some with a “there but for the grace of God” empathy.
A friendly John Wells sat down with us recently to talk through his transition to the big screen, his very personal research process, and his wish that his “recession movie” would have become irrelevant by now.
Roger Deakins and John Wells on the set of The Company Men
Tribeca: The Company Men really taps into the zeitgeist now, but I understand you wrote it a while back?
John Wells: Yeah, about 10 years ago. The impetus for the script was actually my brother-in-law, who lost his job during the dot.com boom—or “bust and boom.” He had an MBA, was an electrical engineer—vice president of the company and doing well until they merged with a Swiss firm and 5,000 of them were let go on a Tuesday. It was no fault of my brother-in-law’s, and all the other people let go had the same skills he had in a business that suddenly contracted.
He and my sister had a rough time of it for a while, but they’re doing well now—they’ve come out the other side—but he started telling me all these stories about what was happening to him: outplacement and trying to get jobs. So I went on to some websites, just typing little things like, “I might write about this via an anecdote, so let me know what you think,” and in the first week, I got 2,000 responses! That led to a whole bunch of interviews—I think I interviewed close to 300 people by the end.
I worked with a researcher and originally wrote a piece for Warner Bros., but by the time I had finished it the recession was sort of over, and they said, “No one wants to see this anymore.” In 2007, the researcher said, “You might want to pull it out and look at it.” I substantially rewrote it, because the financial circumstances had changed so much… I interviewed a bunch of people again, some CEOs and people I hadn’t had access to before—who were surprisingly willing to talk to me—and a lot of what they said is actually in the film.
So [the story has] had an interesting trajectory. We shot the film assuming it was going to be a historical document, that it would be kind of like, “This is over now, and this is what we went through,” but we’re releasing it now and it still seems like not that much has changed.
Tribeca: You’ve had a long career, but this is your debut feature. What made this the story you wanted to tell?
John Wells: I had wanted to [make a feature] for a while, but I had some younger children and I wanted them to be a little bit older before I left for a long time. I sat my family down and said I would like to try to do this, but I’d likely be gone for about four to six months. Much to my chagrin, they were like “OK, yeah, fine. See ya!”
The main reason I wanted to do this film was that I had talked to so many people and they had told me these personal stories. A lot of the film was really their anecdotes—so heartfelt, and sometimes very funny—they were 1) a little embarrassed, and they kind of felt like they should be doing better; 2) a little ashamed that they had lost their jobs. I felt like people had really taken me into their lives and their confidence in telling me these stories, and I wanted to tell them with the same integrity and intelligence with which they had presented them. I was worried that it would not come across that way. It sounds a little pretentious, but…
Tribeca: … you didn’t want to hand the script off to someone else. You wanted to do it yourself.
John Wells: I really wanted to try to get across the emotional honesty that I felt from the people I spoke to.
Tribeca: You’ve produced a lot of films. As a director, how did you find the release, distribution process, and the whole Sundance market? Did you feel more personally involved as opposed to in your usual role as producer?
John Wells: Yeah, when you’re producing, you’re kind of battling all the time, but no matter how strongly you feel about the film, it’s a little at arm’s length. But when you’ve actually done it, and people are giving you notes about scenes saying, “You should change this,” or “It should be that,” you’re like, “No! No!” I found myself being much more emotionally involved and fervent about it, because I wasn’t defending someone else’s work—I was defending my own.
I loved the whole festival process. The hard part about it is when we took it into Sundance we felt it was finished. [Even though] it got picked up for distribution, a lot of people didn’t think it was finished. I hadn’t sat through the film fully [for a while], because it was “done.” And then the Weinstein Company wanted to do some test screenings, and I sat in the back and I immediately had this sinking feeling: “Well, there’s a lot of stuff I want to do now.”
But you have this feeling of, “Ahh I’m finished,” and suddenly you’re back working on the movie again. So we went back in the editing room over the summer, and the film’s actually about 12 minutes shorter than it was at Sundance, which I think has been all for the better.
Tribeca: Well it’s nice to have that luxury. As a writer/director, are you more wedded to your words? Or do you allow room for change when you’re on the set?
John Wells: I don’t love to have a lot of change on the set, just because I find that it’s disruptive to the other actors and it can kind of devolve into a full conversation with a lot of people standing around and waiting. But I love the conversations upfront, and I say to the actors I’m working with: “Look, I’d love to talk about anything. We can argue and we can change things, but I don’t want to do it on the set. So take out the material, and let’s have that conversation, so on set we can focus on interpreting what we already agreed we were going to do.”
But I actually see the process as a constant reinvention. Sort of three to five times that you have to rediscover the material and reinvent it: you write it, and then you give it to people, and they give you notes. You have to have kind of abandoned that first thing you wrote so that you can look at it with the notes and see if they are appropriate or not—and try not to just hold onto things because you liked them at the moment. Same during the directorial process.
And then you go into the editing room and abandon what you did directorially and in writing, because it is just what it is. It exists. It’s a finite thing that now has to be addressed on its own. The scene that you love is often the scene that has to get cut, and the scene that you thought wasn’t essential becomes essential. And then when you go into the preview process, you have to abandon all of that and really listen to what people say.
Tribeca: So there’s not really a lot of room for ego.
John Wells: No. The ego is always there, because it’s always being bruised, but you are trying to make something that people watch and are touched by and moved by in some sort of fashion. You’re trying to constantly say, “What was I trying to do in the first place? How did I want to move someone? Or make them laugh or cry or engage them in some fashion?” And if you’re not engaging them in the fashion that you thought you were, are you engaging them in a different way that the film needs to change to address?
Tribeca: Thinking about your cast, Ben, Tommy Lee, and Kevin have all directed before. How collaborative was your directing process? Did they back off and let you do your thing?
John Wells: Well they all really wanted to approach it as actors. I actually find working with actors who have been directors before to be very helpful, because they really know the pressures that you are under. And a couple of times, Kevin would be talking to me and he’d be like, “Oh wait a second, I’m sorry. I’ll figure this out myself,” which was great.
And when Tommy Lee looked at the schedule he said, “Okay, I’m going to leave you alone so let’s talk now, because when you get to shooting that’s what you’re going to be focused on.” I found that they had great sympathy and understanding.
Tribeca: How did you assemble such a strong cast?
John Wells: It was very straightforward in a way that I’m sure will never occur for me again in my entire career. Having made a lot of smaller independent films, usually you put together a list and on that list are 4 to 12 people that you hope will say yes, and then you can try to put the movie together around them.
In this case, Ben was at the top of my list to play that part. I had seen him in Changing Lanes and really admired that film and admired his talent as an actor. And actually before his having expressed his interest in doing Company Men, I had done some recent revisions with him in mind. So I sent it to him and we got together and he wanted to do it.
I sent it to Tommy Lee and he said, “Well, I want to talk to you about that speech on the pier, but yeah, I’m in if we can make the schedule work.” Same thing with Chris Cooper, Maria [Bello], and Rosemarie [DeWitt].
Then I had the situation with Kevin where he read the script after someone gave it to him as a sample of writing, and he called me up and said he wanted to play Jack. I hadn’t really written it with him in mind, and I would never have asked him to do it, but he said, “Yeah, if you can work around my schedule I’ll be there.”
So it will never, ever happen to me again—I’m positive.
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the transition from television to film and the similarities and differences between the two mediums?
John Wells: Directorially, for the kind of work that I do in television, it wasn’t that big a transition. The biggest thing was that Roger [Deakins, the cinematographer] kept having to remind me that I wasn’t shooting for the small screen. He would say, “Stop looking at it on your monitor and think about what it’s going to look like when it’s projected in a theater.” I would want to go in for a close-up, and he would say, “No you really don’t want to do that.”
Tribeca: So it’s a bigger palette.
John Wells: A bigger palette, yes. I wasn’t struggling so much with the larger images because, visually, Roger and I had talked about it, so I knew that we wanted to do those things and I knew that I needed them.
It was when I got into covering scenes that I would oftentimes get a little nervous about trusting myself. By the end, though, I started to scare people. We shot [a pivotal scene with Chris Cooper] without any coverage, so it had to be as long as it was. When I said, “Okay, we’re done here,” everyone was like, “Really? It’s pretty long. What if you want to trim it a little bit?” and I said, “I don’t want to trim it a little bit.” I told them, “You’ve created a monster now.”
Tribeca: Do you want to do more directing?
John Wells: Yes, I’d love to. It’s been in the press, so I can talk about it, but we’re working with the Weinstein Company on August: Osage County—Tracy Letts’ play. Meryl Streep wants to do it, and I think Julia Roberts also. So we’re trying to figure it out for next fall. I think that it’s going to come together.