Eleven years ago, Bradley Cooper, like Rory, was still an unknown. The irony? Bradley wanted to be Rory. He even attended an early table read as a guest of the writer / directors (his childhood friends).
Time and gestation can be a marvelous thing: His stardom (The Hangover, The A-Team, Limitless, The Hangover II) caught up with the dream role. What began at Sundance as a film work-shopped at the Filmmakers Lab in 2000 had come full circle as the closing night film of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Executive Producer Laura Rister (Margin Call) remembers the early days well. She was one of the first to champion the project, then known as The Unknown. “I read it and met with Brian and Lee back in 2000 when I was working at Miramax Film and was one of several fans,” recalls Rister. “At the time they were young screenwriters just getting started, charting a path. A number of years later the other producers on the project Jim Young and Tatiana Kelly came to me with this script.” Rister couldn’t believe it, her reaction immediate: “I thought ‘Oh my God, it’s come back around.’ Of course I wanted to get involved.”
The script came to Young and Kelly through a mutual friend of Klugman and Sternthal.
Young says he and Kelly “had an incredibly visceral reaction to reading it the first time. She read it before I did. She ran in and told me, ‘We’ve got to produce this movie.'”
For Kelly, “I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever read.”
During the interim years, as Cooper’s star began to rise, he never forgot his friends’ exceptional story.
The script “is very seductive. It really allows actors to explore how forceful relationships can be,” explains Cooper. “It operates on different levels. It’s a tremendous love story but in a way, it also has the feel of a thriller. You’re constantly trying to figure out how far Rory will go before his whole world starts tumbling down.”
“It revolves around this idea of authentic talent, whether your dreams can be matched by that talent, what price you’re willing to pay to achieve success and what that success ultimately means to you,” says Cooper. Aside from his character grappling with the agonizing decision of outing himself as a plagiarist, it was how the story’s four relationships intertwined around that central issue that made the story unique.
While three of the relationships were fully formed in the original script, it was the “tremendous love story between Dora and Rory that really happened in the filmmaking process,” says Cooper. “We rewrote it as we were shooting and it is really more about their relationship than just Rory. It is the power of their love that can almost surpass any obstacle. Rory finds himself in a really precarious situation but it is Dora’s commitment to him and them that gets him through it.” He attributes his co-star Zoe Saldana for pushing the power of that relationship in the film – “she is a force to be reckoned with, just incredible. She can vacillate between humor and drama in the blink of an eye and you better bring everything when you are working with her.”
Once Cooper came aboard, the project was underway yet still faced significant hurdles. “It’s a drama and it was developed as an independent film with first-time filmmakers,” says Rister. “We really had to work at putting together the right cast.”
Rister had recently completed Margin Call starring Jeremy Irons. “(Executive Producer) Lisa Wilson and I had been talking about THE WORDS and she said, ‘Why not Jeremy for the Old Man?’ We hadn’t thought about Jeremy initially as Jeremy is in his 60s. He’s not the age this part requires. I said, ‘Well, I’d work with Jeremy in anything, but I wonder if he’d consider aging up for this part.'”
After working with Rister on Margin Call, “I saw the way she took care of that film,” remembers Irons. “This story offered me the opportunity to play a character part, (an elderly man), which is always fun. Bradley Cooper was on board already, and he was a man that everybody spoke well of. The two directors, I knew they’d written a wonderful, intelligent story, with very interesting characters. There are a lot of components, which go into a decision to sign onto a project. I simply thought we had a good shot with this movie.”
The Oscar winner (Reversal of Fortune) trusted his instincts and so apparently did the rest of the cast lured by his involvement in the film. “It’s Jeremy Irons. Enough said,” affirms Dennis Quaid, who signed on to play Clay Hammond. “You know the way (Klugman and Sternthal) wrote it, the structure is really interesting because it’s sort of like a movie within a book within a story. I think it is what attracted Jeremy Irons, Bradley, Olivia and myself to do this movie. When I picked up this script by page 20 I wanted to do the movie and I hadn’t even gotten to my character yet. What’s great about it is that it is not really obvious whether the events that happened to Rory are actually true for Clay.”
Daniella, played by Olivia Wilde, is obsessed with Hammond’s talent and success and tries to seduce the author’s sequestered truths. Although all of Wilde’s scenes are with Quaid, whom she described as “extraordinary,” she was attracted to the film because of Irons. “He is one of the greatest living actors, consistently intriguing, fascinating, intelligent and hilarious.
His character, the Old Man is a sage, the rock of the story and the only honest person in this movie. Because Jeremy brings it all there, you do fall madly in love with him. And that is what’s wonderful about this movie,” she says. “Its really a very sexy movie because it explores three different couples who are extremely passionate and intense, yet very different from one another. You don’t see many movies with this much sexiness explored in this way.”
Saldana, who plays Dora Jansen, sees the relationship between Dora and Rory simply as “a beautiful love story. He is everything to her. There is nothing she wouldn’t do or give up for him and she thinks he feels the same way. They love each other dearly, but she realizes how much she loved him from the moment she saw him and he realizes how much he wanted to be a writer first and then how much he loved her.”
Their relationship mirrors the downfall of the Young Man and Celia. As their relationship begins to fall apart, “he realizes this emptiness inside of him has not necessarily been only love but a yearning to create, to have a story to tell,” says Ben Barnes, who plays the Young Man. “He finally does have a story to tell but its an acutely painful one. And that is the story which causes all the trouble 50 years later in Rory’s life.”
Although Barnes has very little dialogue in the film, he was drawn to the role because he found it “an interesting challenge. Their story is told over a course of 25 pages and its mostly (Irons’) voiceover, an older version of myself. It is kind of this hyper-romantic, hyper-realistic version of what’s happening yet a bit like a dream. It was an interesting challenge to be able to see how much emotion you can convey without words.
When he hits the lowest point in his life, from that abyss comes this incredible story that he writes. That sort of emptiness is turned into something very powerful and creative and it’s the most powerful he has ever felt in his life. The idea of playing that out was really exciting.” Barnes was impressed by the ability of his French co-star Nora Arnezeder “to just snap into a scene.” At the train station, where he tells her goodbye, “she was utterly heartbreaking.”
For Arnezeder, playing Celia was “all emotions” like being in “an old movie with no words. The irony is I had to play little words in a movie called THE WORDS, meaning sometimes ‘less words’ can be much stronger and deeper. What a gift for an actress to experiment that range in a role, a deep and emotional part. And Ben Barnes is one of my best shared acting experiences. It’s a film where the words of these characters’ lives spin others’ while their characters fall silent. The impact of words can change people’s destiny. When I saw the movie I was blown away. I just had no words! What I appreciated was what you feel in the movie – a real need from the writers/directors Brian and Lee to share their passion of writing.”
While Irons involvement anchored the cast, finding Celia was crucial. “She’s the muse of this story that affects everyone,” says Klugman, affirming there are no small parts. Again, as filmmakers Brian and Lee were traveling, this time in the air, inspiration struck. “I was watching a tape of Nora and we knew right away. There’s not a lot of dialogue for Nora and Ben. He has about nine scripted lines. But there is so much to express. Ben and Nora, they looked like they walked out of another time.”
But the wins didn’t stop there. The writer/directing team couldn’t believe their great fortune in scoring their supporting cast. From Ron Rifkin to Michael McKean to John Hannah and Zeljko Ivanek – “you just turn on the camera and let them do their work. They took what was there and raised the bar,” says Klugman. Even he, the multi-hyphenate, had a cameo role. “I do make a cameo… the most obnoxious character on film I think,” he quips. But it is his acting experience (Cloverfield, House) that brought a certain comfort level and unique awareness to every actor involved with the first time writer/directors.
“When we were finally ready to shoot,” recalls Klugman, “we put pictures of the cast up on the wall and started to see them all together and we just thought, ‘Really? All of these incredible actors are doing this movie?'”
Reflects Sternthal, “You’re never glad that something takes 11 years, but I’m glad that I’m older because now not one part of the experience, including the cast, is lost on me. I don’t take anything for granted.”
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