Screenwriter Allan Loeb on “Collateral Beauty”
Posted on December 16, 2016 at 10:27 am
I was very touched by “Collateral Beauty,” the story of a grieving father named Howard (Will Smith) who engages in a very literal way with Death, Love, and Time, and I enjoyed talking to the Allan Loeb, who wrote it.
Three of the characters in the film are actors, and we first see them rehearsing a very literary production. Was that a real play?
Oh, that’s so funny that you asked because I was watching it at the premiere last night and when that scene came on I thought, “I wonder if anybody knows that this is nothing that’s real.” I completely wrote it. I wanted to give it a cheesy, Shakespearean vibe, the kind of thing pretentious actors in The Village want to put on. That was all just improvised, spur of the moment, sitting at the computer. I was just like, “What sounds really over-the-top?” And I wrote that dialogue and when Helen Mirren delivered it you’re like, “Oh, that sounds pretty good.”
If you listen carefully, what Helen Mirren says in that kind of quasi-Shakespearean language and then what Jacob Latimore is saying and then what Keira Knightley is saying relates to the roles they take, Death, Time, and Love. When you break down the dialogue they are speaking of who they are.
I read that you write while you walk.
That is absolutely true. I’m a huge walker. That’s what I do most of my day. I walk different routes. I like to shake it up and I’ve lived both in LA and New York. New York is easier because you just hop out and you walk or you jump on a subway but in LA, I might be the only person in LA who drives to random weird LA neighborhoods, parks the car and walks for 5 miles. I’ve had people I know say, “Did I see you walking on Hollywood Boulevard the other day?” And I am like, “Yes that was me” and they’re like, “Where were you going?” “Nowhere. Just walking, just doing my thing.”
I’m in my head, I’m listening to either music, mostly listening to music and meditating on certain things, elements of whatever script I’m working on or if there is a character, dialog, and I am jotting it into my phone. I also make a lot of phone calls while walking and I listen to podcasts. It’s my exercise and it’s how I try to keep sane in a stressful world.
Did you think about possible letters to other abstract concepts?
That’s kind of the process I did when coming up with this idea: who or what abstractions should he be writing the letters to, and I did land on Love, Time and Death as the kind of godfathers of abstractions. I guess Forgiveness could be one, Patience could be one, Peace could be one, Healing or Catharsis or these things, but I think if you break them all down as I wrote out every one possible I said, “This is kind of a son or a daughter of Time, Love or Death.” I kind of thought those three sat over all the rest in some other way shape or form. And that’s kind of how I landed on Time, Love and Death.
It’s interesting that you set it up at the beginning by having it expressed in terms of exploiting those concepts for the purpose of selling products to people.
Yes and not just that, it’s not just that Howard said, “These are how we do our job, and this is the way we can connect,” but it is his worldview, it’s what he believes. He truly believes as I do, that love, time and death are the godfathers of all abstractions and the reason we’re here and the elements that connect us all. So if Howard believes that, later on in the movie when you find out that he’s been writing letters, it makes all complete perfect sense that those are the three he would be writing letters to.
Howard spends days building elaborate domino structures and then knocks them down. Where does that idea come from?
It was one of those things where I was kind of thinking, “What is this guy doing?” He’s really checked out. I wanted him showing up to work but if not working, what would you be doing? And I thought, “Well, he could be sitting in an office just staring into space, but that’s a little boring and expected so what could he be doing that just is about the passage of time?” And so the dominoes were something that made sense to me because I feel like there is the passage of time of time with dominoes. You build them all up and then knock them down, and then build them up again and to what end? It’s kind of a Buddhist belief with mandalas, sand mandalas that these monks create so meticulously and then they wipe them out. This was kind of our version of that and that’s why the dominoes were always in the script. But when Will read it the dominoes really spoke to him. He told me that he was kind of obsessed with the mandalas in the Buddhist tradition and that concept of kind of praying to time or honoring time or honoring beauty and honoring, almost celebrating the destruction of everything in a way but not in a malevolent way. Just understanding that everything beautiful perishes. It’s about relief and acceptance and all these concepts and I feel like the dominoes are kind of another expression of that but at the same time cinematically I thought, “Hey, that would look really cool,” and it did.
In a world of email and text, what is it that letters can do that no other form of communication can do?
In this day and age communication and email and digital communication creates an immediacy and it’s about getting business done and it’s a means to an end. But when you go to the mailbox, when you open up an envelope addressed by hand, with a stamp — in the olden days that was normal, that was it but now it’s something special. I like to send cards for no reason to people. I’ll send these cards, a quick post in the mail and you wouldn’t believe the response. It’s like a really quick way to get people to go crazy and say, “That was amazing.” You can just jot a note down, throw it in the mail and people basically treat you as if you flew across the world. It’s so appreciated and it’s so funny and it’s a real statement on how rare and special it is now, the art of letter writing, the art of post.
Recent films have been a little skittish about acknowledging the possibility of a spiritual element. This is more like classic films along the kinds of “Miracle on 34th Street” or “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” Are you was fan of some of those old movies?
Oh yes, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol,” in terms of the holiday fables and then of course I grew up on all the great high concept movies like “Big” and “Groundhog Day” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” those magical realism movies which are really devices just to meditate on real issues in our lives and regrets and how we have lived our lives. Those are all fables. I wanted this to be a fable, too.