It started as one of those “What if” rambling conversations between two writers about the lost works of one of America’s greatest authors while stuck in L.A. traffic more than a decade ago. It ultimately evolved into a collaboration between three friends exploring the stories of three fictional writers who converge at the tipping point of life’s greatest regret – choosing ambition and acclaim over love.
“There’s an old story about Hemingway. His wife wanted to surprise him on their vacation in Spain. She brought along the novel and carbons he was working on. They ended up getting lost on the train. It took a long time for him to start writing again,” tells Writer/Director Lee Sternthal.
The ensuing conversation about Hemingway’s lost stories “opened up Pandora’s Box,” recalls Writer/Director Brian Klugman, Sternthal’s lifelong friend and collaborator. “What would happen if (Hemingway) stopped writing? What would happen if you found those stories? Would you know they were really spectacular? What if you were trying to be a writer and all of a sudden you are confronted with the real deal?”
Inside those questions the duo found their premise – a struggling young writer discovers a lost manuscript in a weathered attache case and realizes its extraordinary story set in post-WWII Paris was something he could only dream of composing. The byline may have been missing on the rough draft but the fingerprint of a master craftsman was embedded in the prose.
What happened next was a case of life imitating art, fiction following fact. Known as the Mozart effect, it’s the experience writers live for – a literal inexplicable channeling of words into form as if guided by an invisible hand, a divine gift that can’t be explained and rarely repeated. “It just spun out,” remembers Sternthal. “We actually wrote about 40 pages in one night, the first part of the movie. But it only happened once.”
“The pivotal confrontation scenes between Rory Jansen (BRADLEY COOPER) and the Old Man (JEREMY IRONS) remained largely intact in the film,” adds Klugman. Both say it took them a long time to write the stories that completed the other characters’ journeys in the final script.
“When you get older, as a writer and filmmaker you wonder, why doesn’t this happen all the time?” muses Klugman. “When you’re young you just expect that inspiration to happen all the time.”
The magic of their nonpareil experience as young writers is mirrored in the Young Man’s (BEN BARNES) poignant epiphany, pouring the bittersweet story of love and loss of his child and his wife Celia (NORA ARNEZEDER) onto the page. Their story becomes the bedrock on which all of THE WORDS relational stories are built – from the tormented interplay between the Old Man and Rory; the unraveling of Rory’s marriage to Dora; and the challenging dalliance between novelist Clay Hammond and Daniella. But it is Rory’s moral dilemma that arises when faced with the agonizing decision of admitting his plagiarism or continuing to live as a fraud and the fallout from either choice that is the central focus of the film.
What Rory faces is “the embodiment of everything you want to be and at the same time confronted with the reality of everything you’ll never become,” says Klugman. “To me, Rory is such a sympathetic, tragic character. He’s infinitely relatable as someone who is constantly confronted by his own limitations, as someone who makes a choice as an impetuous youth and has to suffer those consequences as a man.”
In the end, of all the recurring themes, Klugman says a standout is “everybody wanting to touch something truly great. Rory wants to touch it in these (lost manuscript) pages; the Young Man wants to touch it (the magical writing experience) and he does; Rory wants to touch that through the Young Man’s words; and Daniella wants to touch the fire of this great writer that is Clay.”
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