Wells discusses his early years in New York, guides us through his amazing TV series career, demystifies the duties of a producer and discusses his new film, “The Company Men”.
Backstage Notes: I met John Wells in a swanky suite at the James Hotel in Chicago. He was dressed in jeans and a comfy sweater, appropriate for our cold winter weather. Immediately, one notices his big welcoming smile and warm personality. It was my pleasure to have had the opportunity to interview such an accomplished Hollywood writer, director and executive producer.
When Chicagoans hear the name John Wells, typically, images of the successful television show ‘ER’ come to mind. Debuting in 1994, the show ran for 15 seasons, becoming the longest-running primetime medical drama in American television history. Winning a total of 23 Emmy Awards, Wells was not only the head writer and producer; he collaborated alongside Michael Creighton on the initial script. Chicago was the location of the TV series, and the famous CTA ‘L’ train was a frequent visual landmark on the show.
The last episode of ‘ER’ was filmed in Chicago for the 2008-2009 season. Casting the Chicago extras at the time was Extraordinary Casting Company, led by Darlene Hunt. I remember a particular filming day, three years ago as I was called to work in the morning, which just so happened to be the last day of filming of the final episode. A crisp, clear, production-perfect day ensued, as John Stamos stood reciting his lines on a bridge overlooking the Chicago River.
Undoubtedly a bittersweet ending for Chicagoans, it was onward for writer, director, producer John Wells. Life is interesting, as who knew almost 3 years later that I would be interviewing Wells at the James Hotel in Chicago. Wells was in town promoting his new film “The Company Men.” The film centers on the theme of America now − in particular the economic crisis and corporate job loss.
John Wells also has a new television series that is based in Chicago entitled ‘Shameless’ on the Showtime network. My goal for the interview was to unravel the mystery of a Hollywood producer’s job description and to also shed some light on Wells as he’s progressed through the Hollywood scene.
He’s a family man who lives with his wife Marilyn and their two children, a 13 yr. old daughter and 9 yr. old son. Growing up outside of Denver, CO, he began his college education in Pittsburg, PA at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. He studied production design and stage management; he also dabbled in a bit of directing work. After graduating, Wells moved to New York where he was a stage manager, directing really off, off Broadway plays. He saw an ad for USC Film School in a trade magazine and applied on a whim. When he received his acceptance letter, he thought he’d better go. “I always thought that I might want to get my master’s degree, but wasn’t sure if that would ever happen,” stated Wells.
It was during his USC graduate cinema school days when he started writing. After graduating, his first big break was on the television show ‘China Beach.’ “Bill Broyles Jr., a writer and a Vietnam vet, and John Young created the show. I worked on it 3 years and moved up in the hierarchy; it was my first time to work on a really good show,” said Wells.
Then came several TV movies and the many TV series’ such as ‘Third Watch’, ‘The West Wing’, ‘ER’, ‘Southland’ and ‘Shameless’.
I asked Wells if his children ever watch any of his TV shows.
“They’ve been aloud to watch some of them, but certainly not ‘Shameless.’ (Laughing…) They watch some ‘Southland’, ‘ER’ and ‘West Wing.’ I sort my way through them to make sure they’re appropriate. They are both very curious as to what I do.”
Here’s a bit of the Q&A:
Sarah Adamson: What does a producer do? I always thought they either had to have lots of money or spent most of their time raising money. (Both Laughing…)
John Wells: That’s certainly true in theater − you have to raise money! There’s no single avenue to being a producer. In my case, I had produced a lot of small plays and had gotten used to it. Through TV, I had opportunities to produce. Many times writers will produce their own projects. You can work your way up in producing and there are a lot of similarities in producing television and independent films. Ultimately, they let you executive produce once you’ve had enough experience.
The best example of a producer is that you are starting up a small business with 150 to 200 people. You need to know everything about your business and be very hands on.
SA: What do you like about writing?
John Wells: The challenge, its very solitary, the research of it, the storytelling aspects; I like hearing stories and telling them. I enjoy hearing about other people’s lives. I spoke with over a thousand people when I began working on “The Company Men”.
SA: You’re certainly telling a story of job loss in corporate America in your film, “The Company Men,” and I’m not certain that story has not been told before now.
John Wells: Generally, tens of millions of people in this country who have done everything they’re supposed to do: gotten a college degree and in some cases advanced degrees, had very productive careers, spent years and years climbing the corporate ladder; they’ve done everything right yet they find themselves in this situation due to the economy.
SA: You’ve portrayed this situation so well in the film. One aspect that stands out in my mind is the outplacement scenes and the progression of the characters through that process.
Ben Affleck is forced to swallow his pride and carry on, as do all of the characters.
JW: It’s kind of a particular thing that has happened in this country. It’s a difficult journey but certainly the resiliency piece of the film is what I admire. As Americans, I believe we’ve pulled away somewhat from the dependency aspect upon one another and in this case, people are seeing it again. The common theme during research is that everybody pulls together to help during this situation. The new normal is that you are going to have to reinvent yourself.
SA: I really feel that you’ve captured the family aspect of the film, particularly with Ben Affleck and his son. Also, the scenes between he and his wife are poignant as well. His wife does tell him at one point, “You know, you really weren’t here before, but now you are.”
JW: Thank you, the joke in corporate America has always been, ‘If you aren’t coming in on Saturday then don’t bother coming in on Sunday either!’ We have changed the work environment so that it has become all encompassing.
Most people I interviewed said this was the most horrible experience that has ever happened to them and in some ways the best thing that has happened to them, because now they had time just to be.
The real lesson here is that too many families were living on the assumption that everything is just going to continue and go the right way for them. This notion has certainly changed!
SA: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, and best of luck with the film.
JW: Thank you!