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Interview: Director John Wells (The Company Men)

January 26, 2011
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A couple of weeks ago, I named The Company Men on my top 10 films of 2010 list. The movie tracks a handful of employees at a large company, and follows their stories through the economic downturn.

It’s an amazing film (full review will run on Friday) that captures all the anguish, anger, and fright that I have witnessed my own friends and family experience. This movie absolutely nails it, and it can be difficult to watch at times, because it hits so close to home.

When I was given the opportunity to interview director John Wells, I jumped on it.  This film means a lot to me, and I couldn’t wait to talk to the man who wrote, directed, and produced it. Wells has an impressive filmography as a producer on a myriad of projects. He served as executive producer during the entire run of television’s ER and The West Wing. He has also been President of the Writer’s Guild of America.  Although he has directed several television episodes, this is his first feature film.

Right before we started the interview, I told him how much the movie meant to me, and shared a few personal stories about friends and family members who have suffered since the recession.

FROTHYGIRLZ You did such a good job of conveying this particular class of person.  I think we are going to see a lot of movies that are about extremely poor people who were affected by the downturn, but I think the movies about the middle to upper-middle class will tend to vilify the characters.  I thought it was interesting that you went the route of making them sympathetic human beings.

JOHN WELLS You know, millions and millions of people have been getting hit by this, it’s not a class issue, it’s something that has now affected many, many families. I think a lot of people aren’t talking about it, because there is that sense of shame involved in it, even though you realize its not really your responsibility, you’re just caught up in larger forces, you still feel like you’ve done something wrong. I spoke to a lot of people and I did a lot of research, I was just trying to get across the dignity and the humor with which they talked to me about the problems that were happening to them.

FROTHYGIRLZ  According to my notes, you wrote, directed and produced the film.

JOHN WELLS (Laughs) yeah, well I took on too much.

FROTHYGIRLZ And isn’t this the first film you have directed?

JOHN WELLS  Yes, it the first film I have directed. I’ve directed a lot in television, and produced some smaller feature films, but this the first one I directed.

FROTHYGIRLZ You had an amazing cast (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Rosemarie DeWitt).  How did you get all those people to commit to the film, especially since this was your first feature film?

JOHN WELLS You know, I’m sure it will never happen to me again in my career, I simply asked the people I was interested in and they kept saying yes. Ben (Affleck) was the first person I approached. He read it, and said he would meet with me and we could talk. We met and spoke and he immediately said yes, and then Tommy (Lee Jones) read it and he had some notes and some things he wanted to address, and we did, then Chris was in.  Kevin (Costner) really came completely out of the blue. He had read it, someone had given it to him, as a writing sample and he called me up and said “I’d really like to play Jack if you could make it work for me in a relatively short period of time.”

FROTHYGIRLZ When you  were writing the story, did you have any of these actors in your mind, or did you completely finish the story and then start thinking about casting?

JOHN WELLS Interestingly enough, the only one I specifically had in my head was Kevin, and partially that was because I didn’t ever think he would do it. It’s dangerous to write exactly for someone because for me I find I end up writing in their particular way of speaking, then often times other actors you show it to might recognize that and think the role really was made for someone else.

Although, I had been a big fan of Ben since he did a picture called Changing Lanes a few years ago. I thought he was terrific in it, and then I have always been a huge fan of Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones, they are both just terrific actors.

FROTHYGIRLZ I was curious if anyone ended up changing characters during the casting process.  I can see a few of them being interchangeable.

JOHN WELLS No, because again, everyone just kept saying “yes” to the roles we offered to them. Often times people switch parts because they read a script and call and say, “Well, I don’t really want this part, but I would love to do this instead.”  I just really didn’t have that experience on this movie. Like I said, I would be surprised in the long run, if that ever happens to me again.

FROTHYGIRLZ  I tend to think that this movie will become a modern classic. I think in ten years, people will pull it out as a perfect representation of this particular moment in time. Did you ever have any concerns that so many still have fresh wounds, or  that it might be too timely?

JOHN WELLS  You know, when we were making the film, I felt like we would be making an historical document, and when people watched it,  they would think, “Whoo, thank God we got through that.”  So my concern was just the opposite, which was we would be in some kind of huge recovery, and then nobody would want to have anything to do with it.  Like something that you experienced that you never want to revisit again. You don’t set out making a film thinking exactly how it will fit into a time frame, particularly a smaller film, because you never know how long they’ll take to get released. I was just hopeful that when I made it that I could get across the drama or tragedy of these small events happening to a lot of people, rather than huge events happening to few people. Not that many people end up in a bank in a hostage situation, for example.  But this is actually happening to everyone. This is not something that is only happening to a few people, this is happening to everyone in some connection to this economy.

FROTHYGIRLZ I really appreciated your handling of Rosemarie DeWitt’s character. Nine times out of ten, we would see the woman in that situation playing Ben Affleck’s character, being in denial that they are in trouble. I really liked that she was the one from the get-go that took charge.

JOHN WELLS  I heard that time and time again when I interviewed people that oftentimes the spouse had a much clearer grasp on what was happening to them then the person who was actually going through it. The person going through it often felt like they were in shock and in denial.

FROTHYGIRLZ  It was refreshing to see the woman take charge of the situation, and be a stronger character for once.

The second time I watched this, I got a distinct American Beauty vibe (which is a huge compliment). The tone, the timing, the pacing, everything about it.  Do you have any influences or directors you really admire?

JOHN WELLS Well, lots.  That wasn’t one, although it’s a picture I admire. I was trying to go back to a little more classic type of film making. You know, where you would go Best Years of Our Lives, but I wouldn’t want to pretend I achieved that kind of success, because that is a classic movie. I was trying to get at the sense that we don’t do this a whole lot anymore–things are happening to lots of people in this country that aren’t well publicized. We sort of think we know about it, but we don’t actually go through that emotional experience with them. I was hoping that I could kind of get that across somehow.

FROTHYGIRLZ Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?

JOHN WELLS  Well, it’s been announced in the press, so I’ll talk about it here. I’m working on a screen adaptation with the playwright of August: Osage County which won a Pulitzer prize a few years ago for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts to be in and direct.

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