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‘Company Men’ deals with woes of downsizing

Director sees personal cost of layoffs

It might seem hard for John Wells to relate to Americans scouring the classified ads and craigslist for new job opportunities.

Mr. Wells' entertainment career hasn't slowed, let alone stopped for a breath, since overseeing the critically acclaimed "China Beach" in the early 1990s.

But the force behind "ER," "The West Wing" and "Third Watch" has a personal connection to downsizing, one he drew upon while writing and directing his feature film debut.

"The Company Men" follows three white-collar workers whose jobs are threatened by the country's fiscal malaise. Ben Affleck plays a talented salesman suddenly cut loose from his financial lifeline. Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones co-star as colleagues standing on equally shaky ground.

Mr. Wells started writing "The Company Men" after the dot-com bubble burst, but the story took a deeper meaning for him when his brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, lost his job. That led Mr. Wells to go online to learn more about the personal cost of downsizing. He started communicating with dozens of newly unemployed people to gain their perspectives.

"They told me their stories with tremendous humor. They had dignity and integrity," he said. His interview subjects did suffer from feelings they couldn't easily dismiss.

"There's shame involved. You still feel like you've done something wrong," Mr. Wells adds.

Mr. Wells shot "Men" while the Troubled Asset Relief Program legislation was on the table. That meant he had to become a news junkie to make sure his film didn't bungle any business facts. He had a little help from his cast.

"Everybody is politically involved," he said of a cast that also includes Maria Bello, who dedicates some of her off-camera time to human rights issues like the situation in Darfur.

Those behind-the-scenes debates helped connect the cast to their characters, he said, and ensured the film gave an accurate depiction of the country's economic situation.

"The Company Men" hits theaters at a time when the unemployment rate remains high and job-creation figures low.

"Nobody anticipated we'd still be struggling with the recession," he said. Yet the film's release timing could still help it at the box office. In a rare turn even during Oscar-bait season, adult-themed films ("Black Swan," "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter") are crushing lightweight fare ("Yogi Bear," "Gulliver's Travels").

And, Mr. Wells notes, audiences are more receptive to a film like "The Company Men" than they were at the start of the recession.

"What's on the news is far more compelling than what you can do dramatically," he said. "Now, we're on the other side of [the recession]. We've assimilated it all."

Mr. Wells could have turned a story like "The Company Men" into a television project given his long-standing connections in the industry. But he saw Mr. Affleck's character, the heart of the ensemble piece, as someone whose story arc could be told in a two-hour format.

"You're not sure you like him in the beginning," he said of a character who is aghast at the thought of giving up his golf-club perks. "You're hoping for some comeuppance. But you begin to feel sympathy for him."

Mr. Wells doesn't appear obsessed with making the transition from television to film work, which is less surprising than once it might have been. In today's media world some of the most critically acclaimed content is found on television, not the big screen, and such brand-name film directors as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch and such stars as Al Pacino, Matt Damon and Helen Mirren regularly work on TV projects.

He traces the change to corporate-minded studios trying to appease their shareholders.

"[Studios have] moved away from doing the kind of writing they did for many, many years," he said. "A lot of talented writers have gone to television. They can tell their stories there."

The way consumers watch — and demand — content has helped television close the quality gap between it and the standard feature film.

"The audience is fragmented. You can do TV shows that appeal to a relatively small audience and still have them be very successful," he said.

Mr. Wells thinks one of the supporting players in "The Company Men" will resonate with more than a few demographic groups. Kevin Costner plays a blue-collar construction worker who rides out the recession with a little sweat equity.

"He's the American we have always thought of ourselves as, but increasingly don't get a chance to be," he said.

Not all victims of downsizing get a Hollywood-style happy ending. But Mr. Wells said he's learned a great deal about his fellow Americans while making "Men." The people he interviewed for research on the film described being laid off as both the best and worst thing that ever happened to them. Many were able to resurrect their careers on their own terms. They rarely did so alone.

"It's the community that rallies around you that makes the difference and what carries you through," he said.

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