The white-collar struggle in "The Company Men"

Writer-director John Wells arrives at 'The Company Men' screening during AFI FEST 2010 presented by Audi held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 10, 2010 in Hollywood, California.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: This isn't a fun number to remind people of this time of year, but the reality is that more than 15 million people are out of work in this country right now. As the layoffs piled up the past three years, they hit almost everyone; a pretty broad sweep of the American economy.

There's a film opening opening in New York and Los Angeles this Friday -- just in time for Oscar nominations -- about a slice of those layoffs, people who don't have much experience with losing their jobs: white male white-collar workers. The film is called "The Company Men" and stars Ben Affleck as one of three well-paid, white-collar guys cut loose the struggling shipping company they work for and not handling it well.

Bobby Walker ("The Company Men"): What the hell's going on? I just got thrown off the course at the club. We haven't paid the dues since October?

Maggie Walker ("The Company Men"): I haven't paid a lot of things.

Bobby: I look like a (bleep) deadbeat.

Maggie: This is real, Bobby. This is happening to us. You are wandering around like you're in some sort of daze. You're playing golf? Getting your Porsche detailed?

Today in our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy: John Wells -- he wrote, produced and directed "The Company Men." Welcome to the program.

John Wells: Thank you so much for having me.

Ryssdal: A lot of the stories in this film are middle-, upper-middle-class Americans; that clearly was an important point for you.

Wells: Well yeah one of the things that I discovered, I really assumed when I started it that it was going to be a lot of the blue-collar workers. And the blue-collar workers were angry, upset about what had happened to them, but they weren't crushed in the same way, or lost in the same way that the white-collar workers were. It was a very interesting thing and it took me a little while to kind of figure it out, but what seemed to be the common theme is that when you're working in white-collar, particularly when you're working in finance and things in areas in which you have no physical representation of what you actually do day-to-day, that the only thing that you can show people that you're actually working is the things that you own, the things that you possess -- your clothing, your car or your home. And so what started to happen, I realized, was that they were the people who ended up being the most lost because they were the ones who had no idea what they'd actually done, and really started to question the value of what they did.

Ryssdal: And that's really the Ben Affleck character in this film, this guy who drives a really nice car, has a really nice house, and almost literally is lost the day he gets laid off.

Wells: Yeah, he really doesn't know what the next thing is. He's sort of assumes -- there is an arrogance to it -- you don't necessarily like this character as the film begins.

Ryssdal: You don't like him at all, for a while in this film.

Wells: And you come to feel, I believe, a lot of sympathy for him because you realize that this is actually something that we all go through.

Ryssdal: This has been called, actually -- as long as we're talking about that Ben Affleck character -- this is has been called the "mancession." Because it hit white-collar males so hard.

Wells: And it's not over, unfortunately. When we started making the film in 2008, I think we all assumed that we'd be releasing it as a historical document by the time the film came out, that it'd actually be something that happened. And now we're sort of going through waves of it. American men are having to reassess what their relationship is to their work, what their relationship is to what they value in their work, and with their families. And there's an uplifting, or an attempt at an uplifting message in film is that we will come out of this. We do come out of these things as a country. But not without a lot of sacrifice and a lot of personal difficulty.

Ryssdal: His character Bobby goes through outplacement services, as so many millions of Americans have. And there's a scene in a seminar room where this training leader says to him, the mantra is:

Training leader ("The Company Men"): 'I will win. Why? I will show you why. Because I have faith, courage, enthusiasm.' Everybody, this time. 'I will win.'

Ryssdal: And you can see Ben Affleck, and me in the audience and millions of people just going, 'oh come on, man.' What was going through your mind as you wrote that scene?

Wells: You know I actually didn't write that, I sort of transcribed it and I went in and visited some outplacement centers and that is actually -- everything that's said in that scene was said by a woman who ran a group here in Los Angeles. Doing the tiger. And I asked her about it afterward; I said, 'don't you feel slightly ridiculous doing that?' And she said, 'people come in here virtually suicidal; they're comatose, they're in shock, they've been in a major automobile accident. And we're responsible for getting up and moving, and I look at myself as the same thing a physical therapist does after surgery, is I'm going to be upbeat, I'm going to grab 'em and I'm going to pull them out of that bed and I'm going to make them walk down the hall.'

Ryssdal: Did you ever, as you were plotting out how to get this movie made, think about instead of doing a major studio, big-budget expensive stars movie, do a small indie thing?

Wells: This is a small indie thing. It's just a small indie thing that a whole bunch of actors I was really, really lucky to get them to do it. No, the movie was made for very little money and on a very short schedule, and I thought I was going to have to get the actors involved with people who were actually going through this, so they could talk to them and kind of get some of their experience. I didn't have to. Everybody had a family member or a very close friend who was going through it. Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner both have very close family members who are going through it. Everybody knew somebody, or a lot of somebodies.

Ryssdal: John Wells, and his new film "The Company Men." John, thanks a lot.

Wells: Thank you so much for having me on.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

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