John Wells is an award winning television screenwriter and producer with mega shows like “ER” and “The West Wing” to his name. He brings that success to his writing/directing film debut, The Company Men, a recession relevant drama that has stunning cast of four Oscar winners – Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Chris Cooper. After picking up some praise on the film festival circuit, the movie about fired employees trying to hold themselves together is finally making its appearance in theaters, whether the recession is over or not.
In a roundtable interview, I sat down with Wells to discuss the making of the film, and to dive deeper into The Company Men’s ideas, which includes the philosophy that all employment will soon be like working for television.
The Company Men opens in Chicago on January 21.
What does Massachusetts have to say exclusively about the topics talked about in your film?
Well, we ended up there because of the heavy decline in the shipbuilding business, and we ended up shooting that in Quincy, that whole shipyard, which is actually hard to find. Most of the places that are now shut down have been turned into manufacturing. The industries are just gone. There are parks, or just gravel. That was what really brought us there, the Massachusetts tax incentives helped. And then [Boston] is a city that still retains its – in the midst of high finance, has a blue collar mood, and is proud of it.
You’ve done a lot in television and film. Is there one form you think that you like better, or is it equal for you?
There are different things about them, but there are a lot of things that are similar between television and film. The biggest difference between them is that things happen in television much faster. This film we made a year and a half ago, and we took it Sundance a year ago, and now it’s being released. During the time that we had worked on an individual screenplay, I had sold a television show, written a television show, produced the pilot, done the series, had it canceled, and we were still doing notes on the screenplay. There is very much a different pace in the television world. If you’re the person who likes to work many times on your screenplay, which has real advantages, or if you’re the person who wants to get things done fast, it’s kind of the difference between cooking in a restaurant for months and months to find the recipe, or being on one of those cooking shows where a whole bunch of ingredients are thrown in and timed with a chess clock.
I noticed that in the film there was a very distinct difference between white collar and blue collar. Is there any personal relationship to that?
Yeah. I came up in a middle class family, my dad was a minister and my mom was a schoolteacher. We built all the houses we lived in, we didn’t have a lot of money. I was a carpenter and got into the entertainment business as a carpenter. Someone asked me if I’d build a set for the talent show, because I had a hammer. I worked my way through Carnegie Mellon and USC graduate school, and then spent six years trying to sell my first screenplay in television stuff. And worked as a carpenter the whole time, it was a good job to have if you want to be able to write in the evening. I’d go to work at 6:30 AM and get back by 3:30 PM, write at night. Personally, I think its good solid manual labor. It’s an excellent training ground for anyone in college, because it clarifies why you want to be in college.
We were talking about your TV work, and how sometimes it does lead to a sort of rejection. Is there any bit of that experience in this script?
[In the business] there’s always a sense of being freelance. You’re never really employed unless it’s a set period of time. You’re always looking for jobs, you’re always in a different mindset. And I think that sense of job security that a lot of people have had for a long time is changing dramatically. Honesty, I think that people come out of schools now with a very different idea of what their employment life is going to be like. Between what’s happening in the economy, and with your parents, aunts and uncles. When I was growing up, you were making a choice between taking it freelance in an artistic world, or you would take a job that would last your entire life and you’d retire from it, and you’d have the security to raise a family. I think as a whole, I don’t think that’s really an option anymore. To answer your question, a lot of that mindset that you’d have when you do what I do, is becoming the mindset of everyone in this country. And I’m not sure if that’s really in the best interest of these individuals companies. When you get out of college, you don’t have any illusions that you’re going to get a job with a company that if you give them your loyalty, they’re going to look after you. You think, “I’m going to jump from whatever the best opportunity is to the best opportunity is.”
If you can get hired.
Yeah, if you can get hired. It’s a completely different mindset. This is not just a recession that we’re going to pass out of. It’s going to be a complete reordering as to how people think about work. That’s a huge change that will be a part of your lives, all of your work lives, the same way tat my parents worked Depression era, that powered their decisions. The movie is trying to get to that – we’re in this time of change, in which we look at work, and are gonna have to approach our lives differently.
What has the time been like since the movie first premiered at Sundance?
We took it to Sundance, didn’t have a distributor. The Weinstein Company picked it up to distribute it in the United States. Then they wanted to do some testing, which is a perfectly valid thing to do, and then we went back and made some changes in the film. We cut out about ten or twelve minutes in the film. I hadn’t seen the movie since Sundance, and I realized there were a lot of things that I had thought of that I hadn’t done. So we did that. We were going to release it in October, but Ben Affleck got another movie and wasn’t available to promote The Company Men, and The Town was doing very well, so we wanted to hold off. It’s been the experience of anxiously awaiting to get it released. We were foolish, apparently now in hindsight, to fear that the recession would be over, and it wouldn’t be interesting subject matter. People who were making it thought it would be kind of a historical document. And we were actually involved in something, with the economy and world economy, that was different than what we had assumed. A lot of it is worry about “Does the film lose its relevancy during the period of time that it takes to do this?” when you makes something like this that is timely. In this case, I didn’t wish for the economy to be in collapse, but that timing could’ve worked to our advantage. We had timing to promote it, we took it to a lot of different festivals, and had to time to talk with people about it across the country.
You have four Academy Award winners working in this movie.
And directors, too.
Did any of them come in with any suggestions about directing?
Actually, working with actors who are also directors has some tremendous advantages. I think its difficult for some actors to step back from what they’re doing and see what the larger issues are. But directors, they’re so focused on the emotional experience that you have to bring to the screen, they are aware of what’s going on around them. When you have someone who has also directed, Kevin Costner has won an Academy Award for it, they’re very aware of what your problems are, and that’s a good thing.
How important is luck to you, and how do you feel it comes into play in the film?
I interviewed a lot of people going into the film. Several hundred directly, and email communication was a couple thousand. One of the common things was that, and this is going to sound like its coming from a self-help book, all you can do is to constantly leave yourself open to what opportunities are going to present themselves, and to do everything that you can do. You have no idea where your opportunities are going to come from. Sometimes its good luck, sometimes its bad luck. But it’s like, throw a very wide net and remain open to anything that can happen. That’s one constant thing. The other constant thing is that in these difficult times, the people that really come to your aid are your family and your friends, and you discover that you have a larger community than you thought you did. And you have to depend on that community, no matter what your sense of personal pride is, about being individualistic. That is not only what gets you through it, but actually what gives life more meaning. A lot of these things, you can put on coasters. But it’s true. We had a society within the last 150 years that it was essential to keeping the people around you. And we have gotten this false sense since the second world war that we can go along and do it ourselves. And that’s just not true.
What other things came up in your correspondences?
Follow everything, things happen to you, roll with the punches, and the people around you are the ones who will carry you through.
Can you talk about working with cinematographer Roger Deakins?
It was a tremendous experience, he’s so incredibly talented. He has this very beautiful naturalistic style that comes out of his first career, which was as a documentarian. He’s always trying to not intrude upon your sense of direction, he’s really in your place and time. I feel that he’ll be nominated again this year for True Grit, which was a beautiful film. And one thing that he did that was completely essential was that he made himself available for five weeks of pre-production, so we had spent a lot of time together already on the locations. It’s definitely a quick-shoot [kind of film], so when we got on location we could adjust to them most of the time, but mostly did what we were planning to do, which is the only way we got through it in one piece.
This movie shows the distance between CEOs and their employees. What do you think, from your own experience, needs to change in corporate America?
I’m a big believer in the fact that the income and inequality is actually very dangerus for the economy. It’s one thing to reward personal initiative, and I think that entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, started something, and refused to sell out, he deserves whatever he makes, but I think that’s different from career managers who are brought in to manage something, or to negotiate contracts for themselves who are making hundreds of multiples of average salaries. I think that’s just unhealthy. I think it’s dangerous, and I’m not sure progressive taxation is one way to change it, but there has been too much emphasis on personal gain and stock value, and not enough on the value of the workforce that you have that is making the product. There was a big Harvard Business Review article this last month called “The Anorexic Company” which says that it’s possible to starve your company in such a way that you eventually kill the host. There’s a lot of that going on considering talent, etc. And for younger workers going in, you’re going to count on other opportunities, because you don’t think that company is really looking out for you. If you’re training people and you lose one of your best people to the next highest bidder, that’s going to be the next wave of how this is not good.