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Q&A: John Wells

The writer/director of The Company Men talks about male identity loss in these uncertain times

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Roger Deakins (left) and John Wells on set.

John Wells, better known for television—he created 2005’s Third Watch, wrote episodes of The West Wing, and executive produced ER—was busy shooting exteriors for his new Showtime comedy Shameless in snowy Chicago when we caught up with him by phone Jan. 27 to discuss his first feature film, The Company Men. He wrote and directed the very topical story of three men—played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper—laid off from the same downsized company and the challenges they face not just moving forward but reassessing their priorities.

City Paper: How and when did you get interested in this story?
John Wells: Although it’s not his story, it began with something that happened to my brother-in-law [about 10 years ago], a very talented guy, an MBA, an electrical engineer, and his company was bought out in a big merger with a foreign firm and 5,000 people were let go on the same day. He’d had lots of job offers before and opportunities to do other things and didn’t think it would be a big deal, but his entire industry contracted at the same moment and he ended up finding himself having a hard time finding another job for a while.

So I put up some postings on some downsizing and unemployment web sites saying I was interested in the subject if anyone had any anecdotes. That first weekend and the next week I got a thousand responses so I thought, This is probably even bigger than I thought. And I spoke to some people, a little over 100 in person, and followed up with folks and then wrote a first draft of it and got WarnerBros. interested in it. By the time I turned it in [in 2001] the dot-com boom had ended and they were worried there wouldn’t be any interest in it because the recovery had completely restarted, and then we got into 9/11.

But I didn’t think the script was quite right and the researcher I worked with in 2007 said, "I think this is heating up again and you might want to take a look at it." So, I went back and rewrote probably 65 to 70 percent of the piece because I had to update it to the [current] economic circumstances and the mortgage crisis. Really it came together in 2007, 2008, and we shot it in the spring of 2009.

CP: It’s set in the now of then, 2009?
JW: It’s set in the time when we were shooting it. Events were happening so quickly we were trying to make changes every day in the script based on what we were reading in the newspapers. At one point we just had to stop because we were done shooting.

CP: Did you have to boogie on the production?
JW: We assumed it was going to be a historical document by the time we finished and got it out there and everybody would be saying, Thank God we made it through that. It’s been a surprise that everything has continued the way it has and, frankly, we added that whole opening montage sequence because people were a little confused that if it was happening [right now, the couple] would be having a little more trouble with their mortgage, so we went back and made sure it was set at a specific time.

CP: It must have helpful to have those seven years from when you first started the manuscript because of everything that’s happened with the economy and so many people’s experiences.
JW: It was. The first time I was working on it, there were about 5 million people unemployed and now we’re talking about a situation where tens of millions of families have been affected by [the recession]. When we did the test screenings and more recently when I’ve done Q&As in various cities as the film has opened, I would have the same question at the beginning: "How many people here have had this happen to them or a member of their immediate family or a close friend?" and every hand goes up. We had the same experience when we were shooting the film: All the actors, all the people in the crew, everybody knew someone who was having to go through this. So it went from being something I thought was exposing a little subculture that people get caught up in to something I think everyone is aware of.

CP: What was it about your material and your handling of it that you felt was sensitive enough? Because some of the characters make over six figures, more money than many in the audience.
JW: In the first draft, I explored doing it with and researched blue-collar workers that were affected and what happened in the last recession. The depth of this recession has affected more white-collar workers than it has blue-collar workers and that’s because, frankly, the blue-collar workers—people in fabrication and industrial work—have been going through this for 20 years now so there isn’t any shock to it. What’s been a shock in this last recession that I was trying to get at in the film is there’s a lot of people who felt they’d done all the right things: gone to school—we’ve been told forever to get a college education and things will lay out for you in a certain way—that people who felt they had done all the things they were supposed to, they had these things happen to them through no fault of their own.

So you can say we shouldn’t feel sympathy—or some people have said we shouldn’t feel sympathy—for people in these white-collar jobs when in reality that’s the bulk of how the society repelled itself. All of the college-educated people who thought they were at least vaguely immune to this are discovering that they’re in exactly the same boat that all of the blue-collar workers have been in for the last two decades. So there’s this huge seismic shift going on in the way in which our economy works and the relationship between our employers and the employees. And I was trying to get at a bit of that in it.

CP: Do you have an expectation for the audience’s reaction? Do you expect the audiences to react in a certain way, to sympathize or empathize?
JW: My hope is, and the film is crafted to do this, is that you don’t like Ben Affleck’s character very much in the beginning. I mean Ben is an immensely likable actor so I think you like him and yet you feel he deserves some comeuppance. He’s very arrogant, he’s not really accepting the realities of what’s happening around him, and I think there’s a quality of watching him and being glad there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude—it’s like, Oh yeah, great, I’m glad you’re finally getting this.

But what the film is trying to do—and I think it does it fairly successfully, you guys will be the gauge of that—is that we do grow to have great empathy and sympathy for him, that we do end up caring about them. And the reality is in our society there are a tremendous number of people in the workforce—70 percent—involved in service and white-collar parts of the economy. We don’t have much of a large manufacturing and industrial fabrication base anymore. The idea behind the film is what I heard from people over and over again: These are very difficult things to go through and I don’t mean to minimize them in any way, but if you depend on your family and your friends and the community around you and reorder things and start thinking about how to reinvent yourself, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It can be a very difficult experience but that’s what’s great about the American character: this resilience we have.

CP: As successful as these three men were at the beginning of the film, their family life wasn’t so good.
JW: We’ve given up so much. We’ve given up a great deal of our family and our time. The joke in corporate America is always, if you’re not coming in on Saturday, then damn well don’t come in on Sunday. We’ve given up a lot for it and we thought certain things were guaranteed in exchange for it and the economy’s not going to allow that so what’s important to us? How much do we need?

CP: Did you have a certain tone you were looking for and how did you achieve it?
JW: I decided to direct it after interviewing all of these [unemployed] people and the stories they told me were kind of wonderful and a lot of the scenes in the film came directly from things people said had happened to them. And a big part of it was I kinda felt that over and over again people told me stories that were very emotional and difficult because of what they were going through in their lives, and yet they had this great courage and humor and self-deprecating sense of themselves as they told me, and there was a great deal of integrity in [their stories].

I was trying to get across that the struggles that people are going through are just as important and difficult to those families as the things that we often times end up dramatizing in films. This is happening to a lot of ordinary people just going through their lives and it’s just as traumatic and difficult as the things we usually [see in films]. Most of us are not really trapped on a runaway train full of nuclear weapons or hostages at a bank. That doesn’t make the drama of it and the humor expressed in it any less important. I was hoping to get that tone across, and the actors completely got it, and Roger Deakins, the wonderful cinematographer I got to work with, completely got it, and I think we got that across in the film. There’s a dignity to it and a sense of laughing at ourselves a little bit—not to say it’s a comedy.

CP: Thank God for the funny moments.
JW: You need them.

CP: Why is the film about company “men”?
JW: What I discovered when I was doing the interviews and talking to people—and I spoke to a lot of women—is that the women were a lot stronger than the men. They had more of a social network to support them and they were far less brittle. I became interested in this idea of men whose identities are completely wrapped up in what they do and that they don’t have other things to fall back on, particularly the white collar men.

Blue-collar workers, when you talk to them if they’ve lost their job, they’re angry about it, they’re frustrated, they’re aware of all the financial hardships, but they have a complex sense of what they did. They’d say, "I poured a concrete curb in that neighborhood," or "I built that building," or "I put that bumper on that Tacoma, probably, because we were on shifts that year." They had a sense of what they did. Men who were involved in finance and sales and marketing and insurance, they couldn’t explain to their kids what they did day-to-day. So as they started to lose their possessions and their jobs, they literally lost their identities. I didn’t find that with the women I spoke to. Their experience was anger and frustration and all the things that you would expect but they didn’t lose themselves in losing their jobs. It wasn’t the only thing that defined them. They had other worlds and other things around them. It became for me as I was writing it more about the loss of identity that these men had and I was fascinated by it and I just made the choice.

CP: Affleck’s character hangs on to the illusion that it’s all going to be OK or the same until he’s working on that construction site.
JW: It’s a very common story. Guys talked about how long they put it off and how they couldn’t accept getting another job if it wasn’t the job they had before. Right now we have this difficult-to-erase roughly 9 percent unemployment rate, but that doesn’t include all the people that are underemployed. There’s a whole reassessment that’s going on that I was trying to get at and a lot of it’s about men and male identity.

CP: The scene with Chris Cooper getting his résumé slaughtered with a red pen at the outplacement center says it all about the aging workforce.
JW: And I watched that, the Tiger [mantra: "I will win. Why? Because I have faith, courage, enthusiasm"] and all that was what I witnessed at an outplacement center. I went to several outplacement centers and that woman [in the film] is based on a woman I met at one of them. She did the Tiger, I didn’t make that up. You couldn’t make that up. I said to her, "Don’t you feel slightly ridiculous?" And she said, "We all know it’s ridiculous but people that come in here have been in a major automobile accident and I’m the physical therapist who walks into their room and says get up, get up out of that bed. I’m going to make you walk today even though you don’t want to." Because they’re in shock and she said, "I have to do the same thing on their résumé—I have to shock them into realizing that their expectations of what’s going to happen to them next are completely out of whack with what’s happening in the economy." She saw herself as a truth-teller who was helping. It’s really tough out there and I’m trying to be honest about it.