PARK CITY, Utah — Of the 43 first-time directors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, John Wells is certainly the most experienced. Wells has been a prolific force in television, having had a hand in the creating, writing and directing shows like "ER" and "The West Wing." Blast got a chance to sit down with Wells as part of a roundtable interview about his first film "The Company Men," which filmed in Boston last spring and features Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper. Check out the interview below were we talk about Sundance, Wells’ experience as a first-time director and the corporate system that has made his film so timely.
BLAST: How are you enjoying Sundance?
John Wells: The Sundance experience has been wonderful. I’ve been here before, but not for seven or eight years. And I didn’t really realize how big the theater (The Eccles Theater, where "The Company Men" premiered) was going to be last night. I thought it was going to be 400 or 500 seats, tops. We made a small, intimate movie, and I figured the most people we would ever show it to would be maybe 250 people. So I was waiting in the wings and getting ready to walk in after John Cooper (festival director) said he was going to introduce me, and I heard the noise and I said, "Coop, how many people are out there?" He said, "About 1800," and then walked out on stage and introduced me and I am back stage thinking, “1800?!”
BLAST: What was your experience as a first time director?
JW: I have directed a lot in television, of course, over the years, but the biggest problem I had at the beginning was that I was kind of…worrying about the producing…I was falling back on what I already knew and what I was comfortable with. And around the third day, Roger Deakins, who was the DP (Director of Photography) and Barbara Hall, who line-produced the movie, came over and said,”You know, we’re here so you don’t have to do that. You just have to direct.” It was a great thing, because I got to go back and just focus and not worry about when the meal penalty was and just get to direct. I was trained as a director in college in the theater, and so it was a wonderful feeling to be back and work with the actors and the DP and to be able to worry about the individual details in a scene and not have to worry about everything else that was happening.
BLAST: What brought you to this story? Why this story about men being laid off?
JW: I got interested in it about 10 years ago. A member of my family who was an MBA and had an electrical engineering degree was laid off. He had been approached many times to take jobs with other companies and it was just a situation where his company was taken over by a big European firm and they fired 5,000 people on a Tuesday. And he thought it wouldn’t be that difficult to find another job because he had fielded so many offers over the years, but his entire industry contracted in the same moment. And within about six months, he had lost his house and was living in his in-laws’ basement with his kids.
I wrote that first, and in doing research, I ended up communicating through the Internet with different guys and got little anecdotes and stories from about 2000 people, in very short order, who had experienced something similar. And then I interviewed a couple hundred people over a two-year period, but by the time I had finished it, the economy had rebounded and I turned the script into Warner Brothers, who said “Well, the economy is doing fine now.” And it was right around 9/11, so the attention of the country was elsewhere.
BLAST: What got the project going again?
JW: About two years ago, Paula Weinstein, who I had been developing the script with, called and said, "You know the economy is bad again, and this is happening to a lot of people again. You ought to revisit it." So I went back and started interviewing people again and discovered what had been, at the time, something that was really happening a little below the radar when I wrote it the first time, because it was something people were ashamed of and trying to keep to themselves. But when we went back, we were talking to 15 million people. Sometimes as many as two million people a month were losing their jobs, and not for any reason like they weren’t doing their job well. It was simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and at the wrong moment within their company.
BLAST: How did the cast come together?
JW: I immediately thought of Ben and sent it to him and he responded. And then I sent it to Tommy and he liked it very much, and then suddenly, this was Christmas last year, and Roger Deakins, who I had sent it to, said he would be willing to do it. And Kevin Costner called me out of the blue and said he wanted to play Jack. He had read the script because someone he knew had it and said it was a good piece and he called me and said he could do it. Chris Cooper said he was interested. But what happened when I tried to put all those dates together, I had always thought I would do it sometime in the fall, but the only time they could all do it was exactly eight weeks between the beginning of April and the beginning of June. And that was the second week of January, so it came together really quickly. It was good because we didn’t have a lot of time to think about the wisdom of doing it; we just sort of did it.
BLAST: What was the challenge of dealing with such a topical issue?
JW: As we were researching, all the actors were meeting people and talking to people, and the places we were shooting in were the same places that we were going on. The building we used for the corporate headquarters was a large building, and we were on one of the floors that was no longer occupied. One Friday afternoon, the assistant director came over and said “Go and look in the lobby.” We went out and one of the other firms in the building had let, like, half their employees go, and they all had their cardboard boxes from a window which is kind of a shot that ended up being in the movie. They actually had their cardboard boxes and their plants and were walking out en mass. So it just came to be that was what was going on.
BLAST: What do you hope people take away from the film?
JW: I’m hoping it is more than timely. I think the film is talking about this notion that we have kind of defined ourselves by this notion that the American dream is exactly what Ben’s character has done. Which is come from this working class neighborhood, get an education, work his way up and get a nice house and that then you have then moved into this place where you have done exactly what you were supposed to do and then (you lose your job) and all of a sudden, it’s over.
BLAST: Who is the "bad guy" in the film?
JW: I don’t think there is a bad guy. One of the lines in the movie that’s one of my favorites…I left in the film because it was something I heard from one of the secretaries at a company who had just fired a bunch of her friends and she was in her 60’s and was the only one left. And two days after the big downsizing, her 401k, which was her stock in that company, went up, and she thought it was maybe her opportunity to retire early. And she said “It was bad for everyone else, but my 401k went up.” And the truth is, we are all like that. If you have money in the stock market, you want it to return a profit. We are all participating. Our desire to have a certain kind of return on our stocks forces the companies to act in a certain way. And there’s a lot of hubris and a certain amount of greed in CEO’s who are making 700 times more than the average worker in the company, but at the same time, they are being paid to do a certain kind of job that we are asking them to do.
BLAST: Did you find any answers for that kind of system?
JW: I think we are going to have to find some way to redefine the responsibility employers have to employees in this system. So when you give your loyalty to a company, you have some sense that they may look out for your interest and not only their own. I don’t think anyone has a solution to that yet. But I don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep stable, educated workforces in your place of work who know what their job is if you don’t look after them. And that is what is kind of starting to happen, now, in a lot of workplaces. They’re just leaving. If you have another opportunity, you take it, because you don’t think your employer is looking after you.
BLAST: Are you looking to direct more feature films?
JW: I’ll have to step back and think about it, because I am not sure I will have the opportunity on the next one to work with Roger Deakins, Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper.
BLAST: What do you have slated for next?
JW: I don’t really have anything. This came together so quickly. We shot it and edited in June and we finished in November. Then Sundance accepted it and then I booked the flight to Sundance. That question has come up and it’s the thing that’s striking the most horror and terror into my heart, because I realize I have four or five things that I have started researching. So sometime next week I have to go back to my home, go up to my office by myself and turn on my iTunes and decide which one of those I am going to write next.
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