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"ER's" John Wells looks at layoffs in first film


Cast member Ben Affleck (L) poses with director of the movie John Wells at the premiere of "The Company Men" during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Cast member Ben Affleck (L) poses with director of the movie John Wells at the premiere of "The Company Men" during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Cameron French

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Television producer John Wells wasn't exactly starting a new career when he decided to direct his first feature film, corporate layoff drama "The Company Men," but as a 53-year-old rookie he could relate to the movie's main characters.

Wells, who injected heightened drama into real life situations in highly acclaimed TV shows such as "ER" and "The West Wing," had to learn to give up his old producer habits of fretting about budgets and tight schedules and focus on the bigger picture of making the overall story work.

"They (producers) took me aside and said don't worry about the (daily costs), we'll take care of that, worry about directing. That really helped," he told Reuters at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Company Men" premiered this week.

Wells found himself juggling career-shifting issues, much as many people have in the past two years of corporate downsizing amid a global recession.

In the case of "Company Men," the three main characters played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are laid off from a conglomerate and lose their comfortable boardrooms-and-golf existence.

Opening with a scene of Affleck's character smugly enjoying a pre-work golf game at the country club just before he finds out he's fired, the film follows all three as they are forced to re-evaluate their careers and lives, stripped of jobs that provided not only a paycheck but confidence and self worth.

DOT-COM BUST, FINANCIAL COLLAPSE

When he began work on the script 10 years ago, Wells says he was not mining his own experience, but rather that of his brother-in-law who was laid off from a lucrative technology job in the wake of the dot-com bust.

But by the time Wells had the story the way he wanted it, the economy and stock market had begun to mend and the timing for his tale seemed to have passed.

Not fortunately -- but perhaps fortuitously -- the credit crisis and recession brought job losses back to public consciousness, prompting Wells to dust off "Company Men," update it, and move its setting from San Francisco to Boston.

"It made it relevant again," he said of the recession.

Wells chose to focus on head-office managers and executives, a decision he acknowledged was a risk because it might make the characters less identifiable to service workers or other members of the labor pool who recently lost jobs.

"That was the challenge...getting the audience to be sympathetic to these guys," he said.

Wells admits he blanched a bit when he heard that director Jason Reitman's current hit "Up in the Air" -- which also looks at theme of corporate layoffs, but from the point of view of the hatchet man -- would be released ahead of "Company Men."

But after reading Reitman's script, Wells realized his film told a different story -- one that goes beyond the initial panic of losing one's job to an evaluation of the aftermath.

"Hopefully the film, if anything, gives a little bit of dignity to the experience that a lot of people are going through," he said.

The film does not yet have a release date in theaters.

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman)

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