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Director John Wells on the white-collar blues of 'Company Men'

TV whiz John Wells ("E.R.," "West Wing") makes his feature-film writing-directing debut with "The Company Men." It's a smart, compelling account of the impact of corporate downsizing. It's got bumps and blank spots, but it overflows with the energy of a filmmaker trying to make a movie that hits audiences where they live. The core story is about Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a white-collar go-getter who takes a psychic shellacking when he's axed from his six-figure job. Wells surrounds Affleck's character with a bottom-line CEO (Craig T. Nelson), the CEO's guilt-ridden longtime colleague and best friend (Tommy Lee Jones), and a fellow who worked his up from the factory floor to a big office -- and is now put out in the cold (Chris Cooper).

Wells spoke to me from Chicago last week.

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Why focus on a fellow like Bobby Walker, who was doing really well but also over-extending himself even before the bubble burst?

We did a tremendous amount of research. We talked to blue-collar people and women. But the people who were becoming unmoored were men in white-collar jobs. Blue-collar workers have been taking it in the neck for twenty years. Plus, they're immediately sympathetic, so if you focus on them you're speaking to the choir.

The blue collar men were angry and frustrated. But they weren't surprised, because they had been going through this for a couple of decades. And the blue-collar workers had a sense of what they did. "I built that building." "I poured the concrete for that sidewalk." "I put the bumper on that Tacoma."

If you gave them a million bucks the white-collar guys couldn't explain to their kids what they did. When the white-collar guys lost their jobs they lost their things, which was all they had to represent their success. They were unmoored because they lost their sense of value and they didn't know what to do.

When it came to the women -- they didn't have the same experience, because they invariably had a greater support system and a sense of community that was larger than their job. With the men, a lot of them lost their job and lost all their friends, because all their friends were connected to their jobs and they didn't realize it.

Bobby being the perfect example. He's arrogant, and you're hoping for his comeuppance; as you're watching him you're not sure you like him. But through the course of the film you develop empathy for him. No matter what his salary was, he's going through an experience shared by tens of millions of people.

When we were testing the film we'd hold Q&As, and I'd ask how many people went through this experience themselves or had a close family friend who had. Every hand would go up. There's a new reality to the cliche that we coined, "What's the new normal?" We do not have the security we thought. Going to college and getting advanced degrees, then good evaluations, and doing well –- that path is not necessarily going to be rewarded and is not going to result in you being offered another job if you lose the one you have now. It's a pressure brought to bear on everyone.

Why did you choose Ben Affleck?

I was a huge fan of his from years ago with "Changing Lanes," which Roger Michell directed; I really loved him in it. Here he's playing someone unlikable at first, someone you're confused about a little bit, someone a little too handsome, a little too cocky –-at times you feel like punching him in the face. Ben can get all those things and still get an audience to feel for his character without making him become too pathetic. When Ben started out, he swiftly became a "young leading man," which is always a tricky thing to be. Now that he's matured, I think we're going to see a lot of great things from him. He's an extraordinarily talented writer and director, but he's also a terrific actor.

Affleck is equally good at real confidence and fake confidence.

Part of the job of his character to put on an act -– the problem for guys like these is that they stop remembering it's part of the job. I knew a guy at one point, an agent I was working with in the TV business, trying to sell me on a terrible idea. I asked him whether he was serious. He said, "I have to believe in this or I can't get up in the morning." Part of the belief that you're infallible and that you're going to take the world by storm and be the Master of the Universe, what Tom Wolfe talked about so brilliantly in "Bonfire of the Vanities" –- that's just confidence. And the system used to build up that confidence. It told people that if they were deserving all good things would come their way. That's not the world we live in now. With Kevin Costner's portrayal of Jack, Bobby's brother-in-law, a contractor who gives him a job, you've been accused of romanticizing the 'good carpenter.' How do you respond to that?

I'm not trying to be sentimental about [men who work with their hands]. When you're closer to the people you're working with, you assume the responsibility to help take care of them. That's what Jack does. On the corporate level there's been a huge change in the relationships between employees and employers. The Harvard Business Review coined the term "the anorexic corporation" to describe the perils of downsizing and stripping assets. Once if you did well for the company and gave them loyalty and worked there for a long time, you thought, not unrealistically, that a company would look out for your best interests. Man oh man have the last three years knocked hell out of that notion!

But small business owners and guys like Jack, who works freelance, take their responsibility to their employees seriously, because they're dependent on the few people they work with. What I was trying to get into with Kevin's character, more than the 'honorable working man' thing, was the leader of a working unit in which everybody was dependent on each other. When I worked as a carpenter, this is what I experienced.

150 years ago everyone in a community needed everyone else to survive. We still do. Contrast that to the responsibility of a CEO to the workers of his corporation today. His responsibility to the shareholders is real, but what about to his employees? They no longer feel for a minute that the company is working for them. The sense of loyalty is gone, destroyed from the top. That's going to have serious significance for our country's long-term productivity, just when we want to expand.

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Your film is full of telling details: the way a fear of firing goes up and down the line of offices; the way Bobby sees a row of people just like him when he's lugging a packing box into his car. Are those moments easier to capture in a theatrical film?

There's a lot of freedom on television, but there's also a lot of pressure -- you don't want people changing channels. In a film, if people have paid $9.50, they're probably not going to walk out unless you've done something really awful or offensive. So you can work to envelop them in a theatrical experience. You can create a world for the movie and walk them into it.

Can I just say how great it was to get [cinematographer] Roger Deakins [just nominated for an Oscar for "True Grit"] to shoot this movie? He began his career as a documentarian and he approaches scenes and places with a documentarian's eyes. It's lucky that we have people working like that in this still very vibrant independent film scene. You can get a great cast to do a smaller film like "Company Men," and do it in 40 days, and still create the kind of experience you only get by being in a theater.

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