TheWorkBuzz recently had the honor of speaking with John Wells; writer, director and producer of the film “The Company Men,” starring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie, which hits limited theaters tomorrow, tells a tale of successful, white collar male workers and how they cope with the harsh reality of unexpected unemployment.
Initially inspired by the story of his brother-in-law, who was laid off when the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, John Wells set out to write a screenplay about unemployment and its effects on the individuals and families that experience it. Early research led him to Internet chat-rooms, where he connected with, and later interviewed, more than 2,500 people who had lost a job during the century’s first recession. The lengthy research process, however, meant that by the time the script was finished in 2002, the recession was over and Hollywood wasn’t interested in making the movie.
But five years later, in 2007, history began to repeat itself in an extreme way. The economy became unsteady and talk of a recession began. “I got a call from the researcher I had worked with on [the script] and she said that [there was interest in the film again],” Wells said. “So I went back in and did a bunch of additional interviews — changed probably 65-70 percent of it until I had a draft I liked more. We were putting the movie together right as everything collapsed during the TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] situation and the economy kept getting worse. What we thought was going to be kind of a historical document by the time [production] was over — well, we’re still in it.”
Below, Wells tells us about what he learned from interviews with thousands of laid off workers, why he chose white-collar men as the subject of the film and how he expects the movie to hit close to home for millions of people — in a good way.
TheWorkBuzz: A major theme in “The Company Men” seems to be the idea that people base their self-identity and self-confidence on their jobs, and how — when those jobs are lost — people often lose themselves as well. Do you think the recession forced a lot of people to examine the meaning of their lives beyond their work?
John Wells: One of the things that I heard over and over again [during the interviews] was that ‘it was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to me.’ That it reconnected people with their families, and that they were surprised by how many people came to their aid and how many people were in their corner that they didn’t expect … family, friends, old colleagues. People discovered these communities around them that they didn’t know were there.
That is one of the positive things about all this; it kind of reorders what’s important in your life. There’s that great old line in corporate America which is ‘If you’re not coming in on Saturday, dammit, don’t bother coming in on Sunday, either.’ And we have gotten into a situation in many jobs where working 70-80 hours a week is the norm. It’s difficult when you’re doing that to actually maintain a lot of the other things in your life which are important.
TWB: You’d mentioned before that when you began production on the movie in 2007, you thought that by the time the film was released it would be a historical piece, but that’s clearly not the case. Right now, a lot of people are still out of work and unemployment is still a daily struggle for millions of Americans. Are you worried at all about the movie hitting the audience too close to home?
JW: We were worried about that when we made it, but as we tested it we didn’t find that at all. Some of the people who responded most warmly to the film — those who were most anxious to see it and happy that they had seen it — were people who were actually going through it.
To give a perspective on it, when we did the test screenings of the film, we’d show it for 200-300 people and ask them questions about it afterwards — we did about 10 of them — there were two things that always happened. One was, the very first question I would ask would be ‘How many people have been through this personally or have had someone in their immediate family or a family friend go through this?’ and inevitably, every hand in the place would go up. This is not something that is rarefied and only happening to one segment of the economy or one group of people.
So, that would go on and then the other thing that would happen, is that I would ask, you know, ‘What in the film did you like?’ And with that, you’re really looking for [responses like] what actor you liked best or that you liked a humorous scene or that you loved the way the husband and wife were with each other, things like that. But always, somebody would raise their hand and say, ‘I like the fact that this makes me feel not so alone.’
There’s a certain amount of — no matter how many people you know who are also going through this — there’s a sense of shame and this feeling that you’ve done something wrong even if you know intellectually that half of the company was let go, there’s this feeling of failure, of failing something, when the reality is that that’s not what’s happening out there. The economy has contracted in a way that’s affected tens of millions of people and these things that you think you’re going through on your own are actually something that millions of people are going through. I think people really like seeing that and understanding that this thing will be difficult but that we can survive it and come out better people on the other end.
TWB: When you decided to write this script, both the first time and again when you revisited it in 2007, was that the takeaway that you wanted people to have from it, a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ or was that an unexpected effect?
JW: I ended up really wanting to make the movie because of the people that I interviewed. They had told me these remarkable stories which became the basis of the film, and as they told them to me, they told them with this tremendous dignity and humor and integrity and I thought you know, we should show that the people who are really going through this are going through it with this remarkable humanity. And that’s really what I wanted to get across.
TWB: At one point in the movie, the character Jean McClarey talks about how GTX [the manufacturing conglomerate at the center of the movie's drama] was a better place when the workers actually built products they could see. Overall, this seems to be a big trend in our country — we’ve left behind an economy based on manufacturing and goods-production in favor of a knowledge-based one. After interviewing people for this movie, and as someone who’s had experience in the construction industry, how do you think this shift has affected the job landscape?
JW: Well one of the themes I was trying to get at — because I heard it a lot, especially from the older executives — was that they’d gotten away from having a sense of what they actually did. When I interviewed a lot of blue collar people, they were angry and frustrated about what was happening to them, but they had a sense of what they did. They would say I built that house or I put that bumper on that Tacoma that just drove by — a tangible sense of doing something. And that gave them an identity. They had a skill that they understood.
One of the common themes with the people that I talked to who had gone through this in the white-collar world, particularly in finance and marketing and some of the sales jobs — were that the things they owned were the physical representations of their success, because they couldn’t actually point to anything they did. So their identity was wrapped up in the things that they had, and as they lost those things they started to lose their grip on what it was they’d actually done. And I was fascinated by that.
TWB: The movie focuses on white-collar men. It’s been said that men have been the face of the recession more so than women, because many of the hard-hit industries like finance and construction were male dominated. At the same time — and Ben Affleck [who plays Bobby Walker, the movie’s main character] has been quoted as saying something to this effect — layoffs can be particularly humbling for men because they’re more often stereotyped into that ‘provider’ role and feel such a large responsibility to support their families. Is this why you chose to focus on men?
JW: I interviewed a lot of women as well and I never want to minimize how hard these experiences are for the women who are involved in the workplace or for the blue collar workers who have been involved in it, but the women that I found hadn’t based their entire personalities on their work. They had other support systems in place that they could use. The men, particularly the white-collar men, I found, were completely unmoored by the experience. That’s what fascinated me about it. The women, no matter how difficult the circumstances were, they seemed to have more resources.
From a story-telling standpoint, [the motivation was] finding a group of people who we probably weren’t going to feel very sympathetic towards, and having the audience end up feeling sympathetic toward them anyway. You want Bobby to get his come-uppance at the beginning of the picture but by the end you’re sort of saying enough already, he’s learned enough lessons; it’s time to let him up off the mat.