As this year’s Sundance Film Festival unfolds, one of the films that made a splash there a year ago, The Company Men, John Wells’s feature directorial debut, is gathering steam in its commercial rollout. The acclaimed writer-producer behind TV hits like ER and The West Wing, as well as Southland (which found a new home on TNT after NBC jettisoned it for Jay Leno’s short-lived prime time experiment), was in Chicago recently to scout locations for Shameless, a new Showtime series starring William H. Macy, and to promote The Weinstein Company’s expansion of The Company Men on January 21st.
The film showcases a terrific ensemble, with Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, and Chris Cooper playing executives who lose their jobs at a shipping firm when boss Craig T. Nelson decides to streamline operations. Kevin Costner, in his best role in years, costars as a salt-of-the-earth carpenter who lends a hand to brother-in-law Affleck when the downsized exec most needs it. Wells and company have made a film that eloquently sums up much of what American workers have experienced in alarming numbers over the past few years. Relaxed and affable despite a grueling schedule, Wells proved equally eloquent in an early morning interview on a day when Chicago was as cold and grey as Park City.
Andrea Gronvall: It’s great that you launched The Company Men at Sundance last year, because it’s an excellent forum for serious films with something to say.
John Wells: Festivals have become even more important, what with the major studios basically out of the business with these kinds of films now—that’s a generalization, as occasionally a wonderful film like The Social Network will come through the studio system. But not often, and most studios can only point to maybe one every couple of years, not one every couple of months, which is what it used to be. So you really need the festivals if you’re going to get any kind of airing or distribution. But that has turned festivals more into marketplaces, where most were originally there just to show films that often nobody would see otherwise.
AG: There’s a current of social consciousness, and frequently, social activism, throughout your work—obviously in The West Wing, ER, and now The Company Men. Did growing up the son of a minister affect your worldview? Were your parents social activists?
JW: My mother’s a schoolteacher and a union activist and my father’s a minister in the Episcopal Church and very much a peace and justice advocate. So I grew up in an atmosphere [where] part of your responsibility as a citizen was to try to participate in the democracy in some way and work toward changes that you believed in. I come from a long line of Democrat activists and FDR supporters. I was born in Virginia, and grew up in Colorado–again, in a very progressive environment: in Denver those were the Pat Schroeder years.
AG: When you first began your research on The Company Men, you talked to about 300 downsized workers one-on-one. Did they consent to interviews on video, or on audiotape?
JW: It started [when] my brother-in-law lost his job, as many people have. He’s very accomplished academically; he had an MBA and a graduate level electrical engineering degree. His company was bought out by a foreign company and 5,000 people lost their jobs on the same day. He started telling me about his experiences, something I didn’t know that much about. So I went online to a bunch of the downsizing and unemployment chat rooms, saying I might be interested in writing about this if you have anecdotes. And I had a couple of thousand responses.
My researcher and I started culling the people who might be more compelling when you actually spoke to them, and then followed that up with phone calls. A lot of them I did, a lot of them my researcher did, and then there were a certain number of people that I interviewed in person because they lived locally, or lived someplace where I was going to work.
AG: One of the many things I like about The Company Men is how you convey the sense of shame Chris Cooper’s character feels; he’s harder hit by the loss of his job than the others. And then his sorrow, disbelief, rage—for him, losing his job is not so very far removed from losing a loved one.
JW: I found among all the people that I interviewed, that no matter how many other people were losing their jobs at the same time, and no matter how you process it intellectually — that it really was no personal responsibility of yours that led to your losing your job — that people always felt like they’d done something wrong, were trying to figure it out, and felt ashamed that they had lost their jobs. I think it’s a cultural thing, the way we so much connect our jobs to who we think we are.
AG: You’ve put your money where your mouth is by taking on the presidency of the WGA West, for a second time. Clearly you believe in labor rights. Where do you see the future of unions in this country? And where do you find the time to do everything you do: two TV series, directing a movie and promoting it, plus heading the Writers Guild of America?
JW: I work with and depend upon a lot of really wonderful, talented collaborators; many I’ve worked with for 20 years and more. So, that’s how I do all those things. I absolutely do believe in unionism and this notion that through collective action people can take care of each other, like in the Writers Guild. We’re basically all freelancers, and people don’t work for individual companies for long periods of time.
The health and pension benefits that are going to be provided when you’re moving from job to job through a multi-guild employer plan, the kind of protections for our work, and the credits and some things like that, are essential for writers to string together a real career. Otherwise, without those protections I think it’d be very difficult for people to raise families.
AG: Are you a news junkie?
JW: I don’t know if I’m a “junkie,” but I spend a tremendous amount of time actually reading the news. I get the New York Times and L.A. Times every day. I regularly read the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. I have lots of friends who send me various articles from all over the country, one of the advantages now of the Internet. I got into the [news] habit as a child—I was raised in a home in which Time Magazine was revered–but as a writer it’s been furthered by the kinds of television shows and things that I’ve written.
When we were doing The West Wing we got the exact same newspapers on our doorstep every day that come into the White House. A large part of the responsibility of the writers on each one of the shows — ER, and The West Wing, and now for what we do on Southland — is to be constantly reading different periodicals, and have researchers pull things.
One of the difficulties in The Company Men was that the economic situation was literally changing as we were shooting, so on a daily basis I was making changes to the script to try to keep it up to date because events were unfolding so quickly during the depths of the credit crisis.
AG: I like that you end the film on a note of hope, and I’m wondering if in all your research you came across a lot of real-life instances of downsized folks who were able to reinvent themselves.
JW: I never want to minimize the economic and emotional difficulty of going through these experiences, but I was really struck by the resiliency of the people that I talked to. It’s one of the great things, I think, of the American character; it is why the country has been successful over time, is that there’s a quality of picking yourself back up and figuring out what to do next. And everybody found other things to do.
My brother-in-law is a perfect example. He had a rough period; there was a huge contraction in his industry so there were lots of people with his exact resume who were out looking for jobs at the same time. And he ended up eventually, after some rough years, going back to school, and getting a law degree, and now is [using] his electrical engineering and business background as a patent attorney up in Silicon Valley. You find a way to get to the other side, and often discover who will actually come to your aid. Americans are a very individualistic and proud people, but we’ve moved away from a time not that long ago in which you were required to depend upon your community to simply survive.
We’ve moved away in the sense [that it’s expected] that everybody should be able to take care of themselves, no matter what the circumstances. And the reality is that in these situations, the first thing that you need to do is to gather your resources, your family and friends, and people who can support you, to pull through the more difficult times.