When you are watching a movie at Sundance you have to put everything in perspective. The movies might have big names attached yet they are essentially projects of love that actors and directors have failed to make as commercial ventures with studios and end up being independently financed.
Bradley Cooper's fee on the Hangover Part III may be $15millon, yet The Words, a movie he helped make with his best friend Brian Klugman, cost around $6 million all up.
After Limitless Cooper had been keen to again display his acting chops in the kind of lead role actors dream about playing. Written and directed by Klugman and another friend Lee Sternthal, The Words follows the struggle of novelist Rory Jansen who, having delivered a bestseller, must face the fact that he didn't write it. It's a morality tale of sorts.
“Brian and I been making stuff together since we were eleven,” Sternthal explains. “We have a good shorthand and it's pretty effortless. But this is a small budget movie spanning three time periods and we had only 25 days to shoot it.”
“It was a struggle to find all of the locations,” notes Klugman. “Postwar Paris – that was a real challenge. Then we had a lot of cast coming in and nobody was there at the same time so it was a huge effort to bring it all together.”
Cooper relished the challenge. “The structure, as rigid as it was with all these intertwining stories, offered a real a sense of freedom, of exploration,” he notes. “With Rory and [his wife] Dora, there was a major change at the end of the movie that wasn't in the script. We just went the other way and that was very gratifying. It showed Brian and Lee had confidence to allow the story to take off in an organic way.”
Without Cooper on board, the film would never have gone ahead and his presence helped attract a big-name cast including Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, J.K. Simmons and Jeremy Irons. “We couldn't believe how many actors wanted to do the movie, and the thing about independent films in general, is that everyone's there for the right reason,” Klugman says.
Irons was gladly recruited to play the original author, simply called The Old Man. “I didn't know Brian and Lee before and the screenplay was good and complicated,” Irons admits. “I'd done Margin Call with [the film's executive producer] Laura Rister last year and she said, 'You have to work with these guys because they're fantastic' and, really, I signed on for the movie because Laura came on board.”
Whether or not the character was written in the manner we see him on screen, Irons certainly made him his own. “The Old Man,” the 64-year-old says chuckling at the thought of playing a 90-year-old, “has to choose whether he wants retribution or he wants to let things go and he chooses to let things go. In a slightly Machiavellian way, he allows the man who took his work to live with that action. But in truth, by the time he found his book, he had already dealt with losing it. He was at the end of his journey so to speak, so he handed the baton on so Rory could take it and run with the load you choose in life.”
Ben Barnes (Dorian Gray, Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia) plays the younger version of Irons' character, Young Man, and as with most things, the always amusing Irons has something to say about that.
“I was very surprised they needed Ben really, but then I thought, given the time constraints, it was better to get somebody else to play me! When I saw the movie I was delighted because Ben somehow had a lot of the mannerisms that I have. I could believe it was me! It's a tough one in movies to get that right and I felt my performance was enhanced by what Ben had done.”
In turn, Quaid's character could be an older version of Rory, though Klugman says he isn't. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have left audiences to draw their own conclusions so ultimately there are many ways to read this yarn.
“It gets blurry,” admits Cooper. “Maybe the old man never even existed. Maybe he's just a manifestation of Rory's insecurity as a writer.”
“I think that's the great thing about the movie,” says Irons, “you come out asking questions. It really stays with you in a way that many movies don't. Making a good movie is like making wine. You do your best, you get the best grape, you get the best soil, you hope the weather's alright, but you don't really know how it's going to turn out. You know it's been a good summer. With independent movies, you get the right ingredients and wait to see what happens. And if you allow what happens to happen, rather than trying to impose some pre-determined idea, and create an atmosphere where people can do their best work, then interesting work is likely to come out of that.”
Irons, of course, is currently chuffed as he is experiencing a career resurgence on television as the decadent Pope Alexander VI in Neil Jordan's The Borgias and he's coming in two new movies: Bille August's Night Train to Lisbon and Richard LaGravenese's Beautiful Creatures.
“I went through my 50s and nothing was really exciting me very much,” he says. “But my career's caught on fire again, I'm glad to say.”
Watch 'The Words'
Friday 18 June, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Saturday 19 June, 3:20am on SBS World Movies
Sunday 20 June, 12:50am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde