A prolific actor with many film and TV credits to his name (Cloverfield and Castle among them), Brian Klugman has now added writer/director to his repertoire, making his filmmaking debut alongside lifelong friend Lee Sternthal on The Words.
The film stars Bradley Cooper as Rory Jansen, a famous author who is revealed to have stolen another man’s lifework (Jeremy Irons) in order to attain success. A mesmerising and heartfelt journey into regret and the pursuit of artistic success, The Words also stars Dennis Quaid, Olivia Williams and Zoe Saldana.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to Klugman about making The Words.
What inspired you and Lee to make this movie?
We did it for money! (laughs) No I’m just kidding…we were in L.A. traffic and we were having a discussion about art and artists, and in particular about writers who have lost their work. We start asking each other questions like “What if Hemingway stopped writing after he lost his work?” Or, “What if you had found his work?”
It just kind of became apparent that it became a Pandora’s Box that we were dealing with. More and more questions, more and more intrigue for all of the questions that began to come up and we realised we had stepped into something that was incredibly powerful for us, you know?
So we went home and we wrote basically the first 40 pages of the movie that have largely remained untouched, and at that point it was the Jeremy Irons story with him following Bradley and telling him the story on the bench…we wrote that bench scene in the first night.
You and Lee worked on the script for over 10 years?...
Yeah…it wasn’t like we working on it all the time. But in those 10 years the script came to us and we kept on rewriting it and questions came to us and…you know, all of these ideas. It became an ever evolving process for us.
So after all this time and all of the work you guys put into it, what was it like seeing The Words for the first time on the big screen?
You know, putting something out into the world is very nerve wrecking, especially when it is the first time doing it. So seeing the movie and just being proud of the work and all of that has been the most rewarding, wonderful experience.
But there’s all this terror and fear and excitement and all of these things that come with actually putting this piece of material out into the world. It’s an interesting experience. I’ve never done it before on something that I have worked so closely on and for so long.
"To be an actor or to be an artist in this world, to constantly be facing rejection, disappointment, and your own limitations…that’s been a recurring theme for Lee and I." - Brian Klugman
A major theme in the film is the struggle to let go of one’s dreams. Going back to your time as an up and coming actor, were there times during your journey when you reached a crossroads between living your dream and seeking a regular job like Rory did in The Words?
Of course. So many times. To be an actor or to be an artist in this world, to constantly be facing rejection, disappointment, and your own limitations…that’s been a recurring theme for Lee and I as just people, writers and actors in this town and in this business.
The film is a story within a story within a story. Structurally that can be a challenge, yet one met by your editor Leslie Jones.
One of the greatest!
What was the process like working with such an esteemed editor and in framing the film?
I love that you ask about Leslie, because I think her work is so good in this movie with what she did, and I think she is an amazing talent so working with her was…again, this is our formative experience as directors so working with her was like…we had so much respect for the work she had already, so we were really trusting and she was very maternal and helpful to us.
Lee and I had a lot of ideas about what we wanted to do and she was incredibly quick, and could help us to execute and realise what we were trying to get at. I loved working with her...we edited the film at her house. We turned her garage into a studio, so it was a very homey, friendly vibe to work there.
A lot of people say a film is actually made in the editing room. Were there any differences in the final product to what there was initially on the page?
Oh, yeah! The biggest of all was we switched two acts, the first and second act in the editing room. Originally the story of Jeremy Irons happened right out front. The scene with the bench happened at the start of the movie, basically.
When you have this script for such a long time and you decide to change things around, is that a difficult process?
No, I think it’s really a joyous process. Editing is discovering and growing with it and letting something grow and change into something it wants to become. That’s the joy of making any kind of art is the discovery within the process. You go “Oh, I set out to do this and I was so sure it was going to be like this”, but it actually turned out different.
"Actors are my people and we’re an odd breed...So I felt I had a great short hand with these actors, but again these actors were so wonderful to work with and so encouraging and challenging in the best sense of that word." - Brian Klugman
You guys put together quite the cast for The Words. Considering it was your debut feature, were you guys surprised that you could draw such names?
I’m still surprised. (laughs) I mean, these are some of the best actors in the world…we made this movie with $6 million in 25 days, but if we had unlimited resources I can’t imagine we would have done much differently in terms of casting. You can’t ask for better than what we had in this movie.
Bradley Cooper gives a tremendously good performance. You and Lee have known him for a long time.
Bradley is my oldest friend and Lee is my other oldest friend. They’re my two oldest friends.
What was it like to finally work together?
What a dream! (laughs) What can I say? What a dream to finally work with your friends. Isn’t that what we all hope to do in our careers and in our lives to work with our friends? I mean, it was amazing! Every step of it. Like going down and editing the movie to marketing the movie, it was just…doing press, and your sitting there in the press room and it’s you and your two best friends talking about this art project that you made. It’s probably the most rewarding experience making a project like this your friends.
This is your first film as a director. Your background is as an actor. What do you bring to the directing role as an actor? What type of experience can you bring as a director?
What a great resource to draw upon being an actor is. It’s an invaluable tool for me as a director, because actors are my people and we’re an odd breed, you know what I mean? So I felt I had a great short hand with these actors, but again these actors were so wonderful to work with and so encouraging and challenging in the best sense of that word.
Jeremy Irons comes with so many ideas, and Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde…there is not a person in this person who is just a personality. These are actors. Real actors and I love actors. Lee does too.
What does the future hold for you? Will you focus on writing and directing rather than acting? Or will it be a mixture of both?
I hope so. I hope I am not forced to make any choices. I haven’t been up to this point and I don’t really plan on, you know, definitively saying “I’ll do this and I’ll do that”. That’s not my intention to have to choose a specific direction in terms of acting, writing and directing. I enjoy doing all of them, and at some point I’ll do some acting work within one of my own projects or one with Lee and I.
I love being an actor. I love to continue being an actor, I love to continue to write, and I love to continue to direct and I love to do something for the stage, you know…I just love movies and I love acting…I love this! I love entertainment. I’m boring because I like it so much. No one is happier to go to a set than me. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to a set at a commercial shoot, I just get excited every time I go on the lot.