John Wells on Directing The Company Men and Being Fired Because of Jay Leno
John Wells, the director of the recession drama The Company Men, knows very well what it's like to be fired. In 2009, the creator/producer/director of TV institutions like ER and The West Wing lost his new prized show, the critically praised Southland, when NBC made the decision to remove five hours of prime-time per week in favor of Jay Leno.
As Wells makes the point in The Company Men -- currently having its Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles before opening nationwide Jan. 21 -- we all have different way of reacting to the news of professional mortality. (Wells' reaction was to tell the L.A. Times, "I wish NBC and Jay Leno well; personally, he's a very nice guy, but I hope he falls flat on his face.") Men, meanwhile, follows the plights of a handful of executives (played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper) caught in a downsizing epidemic -- one initiated to do nothing more than raise the current stock price of the company. In preparing his feature-film debut, Wells spoke to hundreds of laid off workers, honed their stories, and created an honest look at what happens to employees after they've received their pink slips.
Movieline spoke to Wells about the stories so bad that he couldn't even use them in the film, how George Clooney almost ended production of The Company Men before it even started and if he now feels validated for his comments about Leno.
Was there any way that you were going to have Kevin Costner in this film and not have him playing sports?
[Laughs] He was very happy to go out and toss the football with the kids. He's in great shape; I wouldn't want to take him on.
It was announced that the main run of the film is moving to January. Are you disappointed or is it just the same to you?
We're doing a one-week qualifying run and then we're opening in 50 cities on 300 screens. Yeah, I was happy with it; I depend upon the distributors to make the right decisions. We had moved it, and we were going to try and hold it into early January through a couple of screens. Then we looked at the screens that were actually going to be available -- Black Swan looks like it's performing, King's Speech and The Fighter is coming in. And our film requires a little more word-of-mouth. I mean, I hope it does a lot of business in the first weekend, but we want to make sure it has that kind of time to build.
That's a good point about word-of-mouth; it's not like Ben Affleck is robbing Fenway Park in this film. It takes a pretty real approach to the issue of downsizing. Was that the goal?
Yeah, the piece was based on something that happened to my brother-in-law during the dot-com boom. That's the basis for it; it didn't actually wind up being their personal story. And I interviewed a lot of people for it; I interviewed probably over 300 people directly for it in all different levels of their lives, ages and employment. And then a couple hundred thousand online, going into chat rooms and asking people for anecdotes and stuff. So I certainly heard a lot of people's stories and realized that there were ways that the story was going to be big and more "movie, movie," and ways in which it was just going to be what really happened with these people. With this subject matter, if people came and saw it and felt that it was inauthentic in some fashion, they would dismiss the film and not come at all.
Were there any true stories that you couldn't put in the movie because no one would believe it?
It wasn't so much that no one is going to believe it, but some companies do such a lousy job of firing workers and helping them move on in their lives in some fashion that I really couldn't put them in. There's a scene that I wanted to put in that somebody told me about, but every time I tried to write it in and think about shooting it, the film would never recover. [At] one of the major defense contractors -- because everyone has high security clearances -- there's a parking garage under the building and this glass lobby that you had to enter to get to the elevators. And there was a security swipe. And the way that they would let you know that you had been let go was that your card wouldn't work in the door. So what happened is that people would come and put it in and it wouldn't open. Then someone else would try and theirs would work and they would go in. Then you realize that it was a layoff day. And then people would start to gather around the doors and hold hands because they were all friends. And then someone would walk up and swipe and as they got in they would wave goodbye to everybody. Others would hold hands and cry. Then a van would pull up and take everybody to outplacement.
A major character is given some bad news by human resources, not his best friend who made the decision. And I'm sure it happens that way, but when I'm watching the movie my first reaction is, "That would never happen like that."
It's real. Yeah, that's real. And I've heard that from several different people. Often, which I didn't include in this, a lot of times people hear about it on Bloomberg or on MSNBC that they've been let go.
Or the press calls...
Or the press calls and asks a question. The film is trying to get at this thing that's happened to tens of millions of people. This isn't just a couple of folks anymore. When we did the test screenings, at the end we would always ask, "How many of you have had this happen to you or a close family member or friend?" We would have everybody, every single time, put their hand up.
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