The Sundance Film Festival is often full of surprises, and every once in a while, an independently-made movie with a big name cast shows up in the “Premieres” section without already having distribution. In the case of the festival’s Closing Night film, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s The Words, it managed to score a distribution deal with CBS Films before any audience was able to see it, but it probably shouldn’t be too surprising with a cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde, Jeremy Irons and Ben Barnes.
It’s a drama set in the literary world, dealing with plagiarism and doing the right thing when something too good to be true falls on your lap. That’s what happens with Bradley Cooper’s Rory Hansen, who honeymoons with his wife Dora (Saldana) in France, where he finds a valise with an old manuscript for an unpublished novel. The book is the best thing either of them have ever read, and not knowing its origins, Rory’s wife convinces him to approach his boss to read it. Soon, Rory is receiving awards and acclaim for the work. Quaid plays the film’s narrator who tells Rory’s story to a rapt audience at a reading of his novel called “The Words,” while Irons is an old man who comes forward knowing something about the manuscript.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to both of the film’s writers and directors, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, best known for their work on Disney’s TRON: Legacy, as well as most of their primary cast: Bradley Cooper, a long-time friend of the filmmakers who came on board as producer, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Saldana and Ben Barnes.
Bradley Cooper & Brian Klugman
First up, we have the star of the film, Bradley Cooper, who has known the filmmakers for many years and helped them get their intriguing film made. His close relationship with co-writer/co-director Brian Klugman was evident from all the goofing around the two of them did during our interview. Cooper also spoke about going to Prague to work with Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier next month.
Dennis Quaid & Lee Sternthal
Next, we have the other half of the writing and directing duo along with the other lead actor Dennis Quaid, who has a lot of other projects coming up, but since this was Sundance, we decided to ask about his work with Sundance vet Ramin Bahrani on an untitled project.
The beautiful Zoe Saldana probably needs no introduction after starring in James Cameron’s Avatar and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, and though playing Bradley Cooper’s wife may not allow Saldana to show off any of her action skills, she certainly holds her own when it comes to the drama. Besides talking about the role, we also talked a little about returning to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek sequel, which she took a couple days off from to attend Sundance.
ComingSoon.net has been on the Ben Barnes bandwagon for many years and he has a great role in The Words, essentially part of the backstory of the found manuscript. After Sundance, Barnes is off to Vancouver to start filming Seventh Son with Jeff Bridges and director Sergei Bodrov, and he spoke briefly to us about that, too.
The Words is the Closing Night Premier at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, but it’s already been picked up by CBS Films for release later in the year. You can read our review of the film below:
The Words (CBS Films)
Written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, John Hannah, Nora Arnezeder, J.K. Simmons
Many writing teams have successfully made the transition to directing in recent years and the results often tend to be character-driven pieces rather than big flashy studio movies. That’s certainly the case with the directorial debut from Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who wrote an earlier draft of “TRON: Legacy,” as they’ve created something that feels fairly high concept but ends up being far more complex than its premise as it pays tribute to the art of writing and literature.
It opens with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an author reading from his book “The Words,” which tells the story of struggling New York writer Rory Hansen (Bradley Cooper) and his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana), who are happily broke even if he can’t seem to get any of his stories published. He eventually takes a job in a mailroom to make ends meet, but when they get married and honeymoon in France, they find an old valise and inside is a manuscript. Rory reads it and realizes it’s brilliant, but when Dora reads it, she assumes Rory wrote it and she pushes him to get it published.
The choice to have Quaid’s character begin as the narrator in what is essentially a framing device and then halfway through the film start following his interactions with a rapt fan, played by Olivia Wilde, is an interesting and daring choice. One might assume the entire movie would be all about Bradley Cooper’s character but this departure begins the film evolving with a far more complex format.
The character of the “Old Man” is introduced almost immediately at the beginning of Hammond’s story, but you may not realize it’s Jeremy Irons until the second chapter, when he confronts Rory about the authorship of his bestselling novel. As the two sit on a park bench, he tells the sad story of how he met a French girl during World War II, the two of them falling madly in love and getting married, but then the death of their baby ending their happiness. He uses that grief of being apart to write the manuscript, which she then leaves on a train.
“The Words” is very much about literature and storytelling, which may be why Rory’s story is told through Quaid’s narration, and the “Old Man” tells us his own story with his younger self played by Ben Barnes, as the stories become layered and connected in a way that’s not unlike Steven Daldry’s “The Hours.”
Klugman and Sternthal’s first film benefits greatly from having so many actors with a strong enough presence to lead a movie, although other than Irons, none of them are required to do a lot of heavy lifting in playing their respective characters. The dialogue, at least in the modern-day sequences, isn’t particularly showy or impressive, although things improve greatly during Irons’ narrative, which is also where we see that the filmmakers are just as capable of creating a lush period piece.
Rory tries to make right by giving the “Old Man” money or credit on the book as the guilt about what he did starts to get to him. The question is whether someone can live with that level of guilt or it will forever enslave them, and that’s the question the film leaves audiences with as it returns one more time to Quaid and Wilde for an ambiguous ending.
“The Words” is a strong drama that may seem simple at first, but it’s likely to leave you wondering whether what you watched was real or whether the various stories were all just layers of fiction. It’s something that may take multiple viewings to know for sure.