Interview: John Wells On the Challenges Faced By ‘The Company Men’

By  · Published on January 27th, 2011

It’s been a year since the Sundance debut of John Wells’ directorial debut, The Company Men. Films like these are a rare breed. It’s not only a small type of film (despite its star power) that is more than difficult to get off the ground nowadays, but it’s also tackling a timely and difficult topic. Who wants to go see a film about job loss in this climate? Well, that’s a hurdle and a question Wells overcame.

Even with the hopeful and upbeat outlook of Wells’ first feature film, it’s sure to be a hard sell for some audiences. Yes, Up in the Air tackled a similar matter and ended up doing gangbuster business, but that also had George Clooney’s wit and charms at the center of it to make it an easy sell. This isn’t a film with irresistibly likable leads, but instead follows genuinely believable modern day workers. Hopefully, as I’m sure the extremely friendly and well-spoken director hopes as well, more than a few people will look past its downer concept.

To start off, I imagine getting financing for this wasn’t the easiest…

[Laughs] Honestly, we were putting it together just as the Bush administration was ending and when the Obama administration was starting. We got lucky. Two or three months later if we had been trying to put it together… credit for making small independent films had completely dried up, so we would have never been able to make it. We were lucky enough to get in there at the last minute. You know, it’s a small film. We made it in 40-days with not a lot of money. The actors all came on, and did it for very little. I was very fortunate enough that Roger Deakins came in to DP it. We made it as a small film with a great cast, but I would have never been able to put it together today in this market. We’ve made a lot of small films over the years, and it’s just gotten harder and harder. I’m sure you can see by what’s getting made, and how it’s getting made. Smaller films are still getting made, but it is getting tougher and tougher.

Would you say it’s getting better at all? Films like The King’s Speech and Black Swan are doing really great business.

Yeah, it’s all coming through. There’s a lot of interesting stuff. I’ve been producing long enough that, a few years ago you would have made Black Swan for 25-million dollars. Now they made it for 15-million. You would have made The King’s Speech for 15 or 18-million, now it got made for 12-million. You can put it together if you get the right actors and director and depending on the timing, but the major studios have completely moved out of that market place. What used to be a middle budget film, which is that 35 or 45-million range, doesn’t exist anymore.

With the film’s subject matter, how was the pitch process of trying to convince investors that this could be a commercial film?

You cant, really [Laughs]. It doesn’t matter how much you pitch it. You do it with the quality of the cast and you say, “Look, some people will want to come to see these actors.” So much of it depends on the performers that are willing to come into it, because of the subject matter. I was so lucky to get this group together. You know, you just pound your head against the wall. You take it to everyone you know a couple of times, and finally, you pull it together.

When the main cast was involved, did you still have trouble getting financing?

Sure. At this point in time, there are all different kinds of films waiting in the wings to get made with major movie stars. They’re also with budgets that are very small. The pressure is also on films that will work in the international market. Anytime you have a film that’s based more on an American centric idea, it’s tougher. We took this film out to a number of film festivals, and sold internationally. A lot of people were interested in it. The perception is that they’re not going to be.

Can you recall any notes you got when trying to sell the film?

“Can you try to make it with the guys at the end of the picture instead of [Spoiler Alert] starting a small company at the end of the picture, they actually get the goods on the CEO of the company, take him to the federal government, take the entire company down, and then he’s arrested and taken away in handcuffs.” [Spoiler Over]

How do you respond when you get notes like that?

Well, you always try to listen. You do want to get the movie made, so you don’t want to be arrogant [Laughs]. In that case, I thought about it and tried a couple of times to see if I can get my head around doing it, but it just wasn’t the film I was interested in making. That’s a film that maybe someone else is interested in making, but that’s not why I had written it or wanted to do it. There’s a movie to be made there that people may actually like, given how the economy is and how the world is for people. That’s just not what I was interested in.

The film is pretty hopeful, were you surprised that didn’t make it an easier sell?

I think the film is hopeful, in the sense that it shows the strength of the American character and the resiliency that we have of going after things and trying to make things work, but that wasn’t enough for a lot of people to feel that it would be a broad enough mandate.

I always hear a big note that directors get is, “People don’t want to see reality,” did you get that note?

[Laughs] Yes, yes. You always hear that. I hear that in everything that I do, whether it be for film or the television stuff that I do. I mean, nobody wanted to make ER for three years, because they thought it was too real. It worked out okay. The truth is, I think people do want to see reality. They want to see themselves portrayed, and want to get a sense of seeing themselves in the world, and what they’re going through. Look, I love going to a Pixar movie, and I would go even without kids. I love seeing a good action movie. I like seeing a great romantic-comedy. I like seeing great horror films. But I always want to see films about things that are actually going on around me, and I want to be moved by those films. When I go down to a multiplex, I want to have a lot of different choices for the experience I’m going to have that night.

When it came to the tone of the film, what was the process of trying to find that sense of realism?

I was very lucky when I got Roger Deakins to do the film, and he’s a wonderful cinematographer that shoots beautifully. He kind of creates that world that makes you feel like you’re really with them. You also try to write it that way, so that it feels that way. I also try to cast actors that are terrific and can bring a sense that you’re really with them and forget who they are as an actor. You just see them in that role. That’s a big part of the job when you’re directing: being able to work with those actors who are going to bring a sense of realism to it, so you believe every moment of it.

Was there ever a fine line to walk in terms of, “This could be great drama, but would it be real?”

Constantly, yeah. In particular with this film, I emailed a couple of thousand of people who had been through this. I talked to another couple of hundred, too. I was very conscious while making the film that a lot of the stories and scenes were things that I actually heard from people. I wanted to stay true to what they told me. They told me these stories with a great deal of integrity, dignity and humor, and I wanted to make sure that is what came through when they saw the film. I worked at that very hard, and hopefully it came through.

Do you remember any moments you cut because of that?

We shot a scene with Chris Cooper on a yacht where he was trying to make a sale, and I had just not written it well and didn’t believe a word of it, so we cut it [Laughs]. You definitely look at it sometimes and think, “I didn’t do that very well,” and I found that mostly in the script stage. And again, most of the things that happen in the film are based on real stories and the things that I heard from those people. A lot of the dialog and a lot of scenes in the film are things that actually happened. People told me what had happened to them, so it was of trying to put it in dramatic terms that for these characters. That formed a basis for it and also gives it realism, which I hope comes through in the film.

Was it important not to make a black and white relationship when it came to how big business is shown? I’d say Craig T. Nelson and Maria Bello’s characters aren’t treated as villains.

Thank you for pointing that out. I worked hard on that. I wrote the first draft of it and I felt… I talked to a lot of people who lost their jobs, but not really to the people that made those decisions. I went back and made a bunch of phone calls, and I was surprised by how many CEO’s and human resources executives called me back. A lot of the stuff that’s in the piece are directly from those conversations, including Tommy Lee Jones and Maria’s character. They had a point of view. They felt guilty about things they had done. They also felt it was their only choice. Some felt that it was important to make those choices to protect the jobs of others. I tried to put those things in the film, so people didn’t come off as mustache twirling villains for doing what they thought their job responsibility was, even when they had their doubts about whether or not it was something they should be doing.

And when it comes to your three main characters, can you talk about showing them warts-and-all, and not lionizing them?

Well, I was very concerned… I actually wanted Ben Affleck’s character to be a little smug and unlikable, at first. If he seemed like a victim, why would we really care? You need to have conflicting feelings about all of them. That’s why I had Tommy Lee Jones’ character having an affair, because I didn’t want him coming off as this salt of the earth guy with no conflict. He’s made a lot of money and is living very well. He’s lavished up his life, and enjoyed it, but now it has consequences. I went out of my way to try to show them warts-and-all. And really, the people I spoke to didn’t present themselves as heroes or victims. They just presented themselves as people going through an experience.

The Company Men is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.