Filmmaker infused 'Company Men' with compassion

John Wells is mostly known as a TV producer behind such hits as “E.R.,” “The West Wing,” “Southland” and the new Showtime series “Shameless.”

He has also written, produced and directed the new theatrical feature “The Company Men,” about three corporate executives (played by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones) forced to redefine themselves after being laid off by their international conglomerate.

I sat down with Wells, 52, at Chicago's James Hotel to talk about his movie.

Q. Your movie is like a church sermon with its warnings against materialism and its promotion of compassion. Where did that come from?

A. My father passed away last year, He was an Episcopal minister. I literally grew up in the church, living in the rectory. When you grow up as I did in a very socially progressive, Episcopalian household, there's a great deal of importance placed on the teachings, the parables and the notions of Christianity, teaching a certain generosity and kindness and understanding and empathy for others.

I think that colors all of my work. It would be impossible for me to separate that out from what I write, what I think, and how I hear things. Everything I hear is filtered through that moral framework I grew up with.

Q.When you were doing research to write your script, did you hear many stories about acts of kindness?

A. Lots and lots of stories. It was one of the recurring themes. We've had a very individualistic society in there's this assumption that you take of yourself. It's all your own drive. But 100 years ago, you couldn't literally survive in your community without everybody around you. It was that interrelated.

Everyone told me that the biggest surprise they had was how much they had around them that they didn't know they had around them: family and friends. The process of reinventing themselves #8212; that millions of Americans are now doing #8212; is only possible with the support of the others around you.

Q. What was the toughest cut you had to make on #8220;The Company Men#8221;?

A. Inevitably when you make a movie, there'll be one scene you love that won't make it into the film. The scene I loved the most I cut out of the Sundance (Film Festival) version. To take another 10 or 12 minutes out of the film, the scene that I loved the most was cut, but ended up being completely essential and went back in.

Q. How did that happen?

A. Because of the trims we had made to other scenes, there was information that had to be put back into the film, so, I had to put the scene I most loved back in.

Q. Describe the scene.

A. There's a wonderful scene where Craig Nelson comes to talk to Tommy Lee Jones in his office, and they talk about their friendship, and their history. And Nelson winds up warning him never to cross him again. It's a scene between two old friends in which one is exerting his power over the other. You really feel it.

Q. What was the greatest joy you had making #8220;The Company Men#8221;?

A. As I sent it (the screenplay) to people, they said yes. The day when we had all the actors gathered and Roger Deakins (the Coen brothers' favorite cinematographer) had signed on was actually my favorite day of the entire experience.

If this many people whose opinions I really respect want to do this with me, then maybe there's something in this that's worthwhile. When you get that affirmation, first it's complete elation! Then, it's oh my God, I actually have to do this!