It wasn’t that John Wells, executive producer of groundbreaking TV dramas including ER and The West Wing, had never considered making the jump to the big screen. He had received offers, but none of them felt right. Then his brother-in-law fell victim to corporate downsizing, and Wells started writing and researching and seeking out thousands of the unemployed, to share with him accounts of life on the frontlines.
“The stories were self-deprecating, tragic and humorous, but above all dignified,” he says. “That integrity was the common thread in all the people I spoke to, from the couple hundred I met to the couple thousand I found online. I knew I had to present their experiences with the same qualities.”
The result is The Company Men, a drama, written and directed by Wells, that addresses not only joblessness in the wake of a historic economic meltdown, but also workplace realities that, he believes, have undermined the good-faith relationship between employers and employees.
Wells, 53, admits that Men wasn’t an easy sell. “Major studios don’t make movies like this anymore, because they’re beholden to stockholders and international audiences. I was lucky to have a great cast that helped keep things moving. But if I didn’t get financing when I did, around the time the Bush administration was leaving office, I think the movie would have disappeared.”
Heading Wells’ formidable cast are Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and, as a boardroom hotshot reduced to manual labor after catching an unexpected pink slip, Ben Affleck. Wells says Affleck was the first to sign on, tireless in his efforts to recruit a solid supporting cast, and ideally suited to playing someone not always easy to love.
“Ben’s character was meant to be someone you don’t necessarily like, and you might even hope he gets some comeuppance,” Wells explains. “He’s successful, he’s arrogant – kind of like Ben, who’s a little too handsome and a little too smart. You want to love him and you want to punch him in the face at the same time.”
For a pivotal conversation between Jones and Affleck, Wells wanted the backdrop of a dilapidated steel mill, the symbol of a failed American industry. The director wanted to set his story in Pittsburgh, where he attended Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama. But when that didn’t work out, Wells moved the setting to Affleck’s backyard – Quincy, Mass., where the shipbuilding industry was on life support.
Wells thinks he knows why, though he’s quick to admit he didn’t arrive at this conclusion himself. “Because of changes in the European and Asian marketplaces, America had the opportunity to make things for everybody, and our postwar production became the base for the entire world. But over the last few decades, changes in corporate culture have fractured the compact between employer and employee.
“It used to be that the employer would look out for your interests to some extent, not so much that they’d go out of business to support you, but their first reaction wouldn’t be to cut you. The Harvard Business Review came up with the theory of the ‘anorexic company’ – being obsessed with trying to be profitable from quarter to quarter without really thinking about the future.”
Now, Wells argues, businesses are faceless entities, with no real connection to their workers, who are treated as commodities. The phenomenon is a double-edged sword, undercutting American industry in the long-term and crushing the victims of downsizing and layoffs in the present.
What the director learned, in talking to these casualties, is one of the lessons central to Men. “Since we can’t rely on our jobs and the loyalty of our employers, who can we rely on? In the end, it’s family and friends. Those are the people there to support you. That’s where you find the loyalty absent from the workplace. It might seem intuitive, but it’s a powerful thing to learn.”