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.

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Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty

Posted on December 14, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

With typical understated euphemism, the military calls the damage inflicted on non-target sites and civilians “collateral damage.” Screenwriter Allan Loeb calls his new film a fable and he asks us to consider the possibility of “collateral beauty,” beauty that is revealed only when our pain forces us to pay attention. Emily asked in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” The State Manager answers, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” This movie would add, “And those who are grieving.”

Howard (Will Smith) is confident, charming, and successful when we first see him, asking his partners and the employees of his advertising agency, “What is your Why?” He is not asking them to participate in a discussion of existential metaphysics and man’s search for meaning. He was asking them to think about how to describe their client’s products to answer the potential customers’ Why questions. Death, Time, Life, according to Howard, are what we grapple with. “We long for love, we wish for more time, we fear death.” Products that help people feel that they have some control over mortality and intimacy are the ones that will sell.

But three years later, Howard has suffered the most shattering loss of all, the death of a child. He sits in his office creating elaborate domino structures and then watching them fall. He’s “the domino champion of crazytown” and the jobs of everyone in the company are at stake.

Howard no longer even speaks to his friends and colleagues, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) and he no longer meets with clients. The business is in trouble. They have one hope — a sale of the company. But Howard will not discuss it, and he controls the majority of the stock.

Desperate, Whit, Claire, and Simon hire a detective (Ann Dowd) to help them build a case that Howard is not mentally stable enough to control his voting shares. She tells them Howard has been writing letters to express his pain. He has written to Death, to Love, and to Time. And so Whit, Claire, and Simon hire three actors to play the roles of Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley), and Time (Jacob Latimore), to answer Howard’s letters. Best case scenario, they make it possible for him to move forward by engaging directly with his questions about life and pain and loss and meaning. Worst case scenario, they document his mental instability so they can override his ability to block the deal.

White, Claire, and Simon each have their own problems, it turns out, and the actors provide some gentle guidance on that as well. And Howard is provoked into responding. Each encounter makes it possible for him to take another step toward re-engaging with the world, including attending a grief support group for parents whose children have died.

I was touched by the film’s willingness to do what it asks Howard to do — to confront death, love, and time and ask what it all means and why it hurts so much. Its heartfelt sincerity and lovely performances beguiled me into its world. It is worth seeing for Mirren’s exquisitely witty turn alone. She is clearly having a great time playing the part of a Capital R Theatrical Capital-A Actress. Norton is also excellent, especially in scenes between Whit and his tween daughter who is furious at him for cheating on her mother. Naomie Harris as the leader of the support group has a sweet gravity that is as important to bringing some grounding to Howard as his conversations with the embodiment of abstract concepts. And Smith brings all of his full-out charisma to the role of a man who cannot figure out how to go on when he has lost everything that matters because his view of the world has been shattered into sub-atomic particles and nothing makes sense. Howard has become a man who spends days adjusting the precise placement of elaborate domino structures and then knocks them down and leaves the room without watching the way they knock each other down.

The raw elements of Smith’s acting anchor the more fanciful and symbolic elements of the story, tenderly told, with a conclusion of warmth, healing, and perhaps some connection to a fourth spirit, hope.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of loss and devastating grief, including death of children, and a few swear words.

Family discussion: If you wrote letters to Time, Death, and Love, what would you say? What other concepts would you write to? What is collateral beauty, and does it take a profound loss to be able to see it?

If you like this, try; “Our Town,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”

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