Interview: John Wells, Director of The Company Men Starring Ben Affleck

by | Jun 7th, 2011 | 9:48AM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

The Company Men stars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones as three executives of a major transportation corporation–each at a different level of the corporate ladder–whose jobs fall victim to the current economic climate.

Written and directed by John Wells, the film follows the men through their struggles with their families, job hunting, giving up their opulent (even excessive) lifestyles, and coping with damaged senses of pride and self worth.

This is Wells’ first feature film, but as a television producer, writer, and director his name should be very familiar to fans of E.R., The West Wing, and Southland.

Wells sat down with me earlier this year in Chicago to talk about not just his film and its terrifically talented cast, but also about the larger economic issues facing the United States workforce. The following is a reprint of that interview.

The Company Men is now available from redbox.

The film is so attuned to the events of the current recession. How did it come together?

John Wells: That’s just serendipitous. My own brother-in-law and sister went through it during the dot com stuff a decade ago. So I started going online to downsizing and unemployment chat rooms and asking people if they had anecdotes they wanted to share. And the first week I had about 2,000 responses. Then a couple of years later things were heating up again around 2007, and I went back and interviewed new people and made a number of changes in the script, shifting the setting from the dot com world to heavy industry.

We made the film in 2009 assuming that by the time it came out the recession would be over. It’d be like a historical documentary, you know. Like, “Oh golly! Glad we got through that.” We kept changing the script on a day-to-day basis as we shot to try and keep up with what was happening in the real world.

It’s a timely film, but also timeless.

Wells: There are those universal themes of loss and lost identity. Particularly among American men who put so much of themselves into what they do. At the end of the Second World War, you could have a high school diploma or less and make enough to buy a small home and a car and all of those things that so many of our parents did. That has disappeared, and we haven’t figured out what to replace it with yet.

Your three main characters undergo very different kinds of unemployment experiences.

Wells: You have the younger go-go guys, who Ben kind of represents–when you meet his character, you’re kind of hoping he gets his comeuppance. Yes, he’s living beyond his means, yes there’s arrogance to what he’s doing, but you should also feel tremendous concern and sympathy for him, because in many ways he represents what the American ethos has been.

And then the Chris Cooper character represents workers who are older. That really is the tragedy of this recession, because younger workers will figure it out–they have some options.

I also spoke to CEO’s who were shockingly willing to talk to me. So Tommy Lee Jones represents these men who came up feeling like they were self-made, who built something and cared about something deeply. And they felt like they were letting the workers and themselves down when the thing they had built was destroyed. So I tried to kind of take those general archetypes and turn them into living breathing characters as much as I could

The film also underscores the lesson that the corporation you work for is not your friend or your family.

Wells: A recent Harvard Review article noted there are significant consequences to companies undermining that sense of family among their workers. That didn’t used to be the case—there used to be a sort of a compact between the employer and the employee. You gave your loyalty, you worked hard, you did your job, and that company had a responsibility to look after you.

In this economy, young talented workers don’t feel the company has their best interests at heart, so if they don’t feel any loyalty to their company, there’s no reason not to take any opportunity that comes up. So you’re spending a lot of money training your best workers, and they are going to jump away. You starve the human resources out of your company while looking out for your company’s short-term interests.

You had four different types of actors of different ages and experience. Did they have different working styles?

Wells: I find that almost every actor has a little bit of a different style. And one of things you’re trying to do as a director is understand what kind of environment you can create for that actor that allows them to do their best work. So I try to talk to other directors who’ve worked with them and then sound the actors themselves out about what feels best to them.

Chris Cooper is very methodical, extremely prepared, stays to himself and does his thing and he’s terrific at it. And Tommy Lee Jones is very script-intensive–he wants to talk about it a lot, wants to know what he’s doing in advance. Then he wants quieter work environment where he can do his thing.

Ben is very facile–he’s very smart and his mind is very quick, so there is a lot more levity when he’s around, but you have to make certain you’re getting what you need. And Kevin Costner [who plays Affleck's blue-collar brother-in-law] has done so much, directed and written and acted in so many things, that he is a bit of an observer. So you’ve got all these styles–it’s like trying to host the perfect dinner party and get the mix just right.

The film is painfully honest about the reality of unemployment in this economic climate, but also very uplifting and inspirational.

Wells: Yes, this film is emotional and intense but it has hope. The real people who told me about their experiences had this remarkable amount of integrity and dignity and humor. It’s one of the great things about the American character: We are resilient; we tend to pick ourselves up and move on. This was the worst thing that ever happened to them and the best that had ever happened. People came out of it saying, “You know, I rediscovered my kids, I found out what was important to me. I lost a lot of my stuff, which was hard, but it’s made my life better.”

The Company Men is available from redbox.


More from the cast of The Company Men at redbox:

More on-the-job drama from redbox:

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