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Q&A: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, and Dennis Quaid on Their Sundance Film ‘The Words’

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Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana in ‘The Words’

Jeffrey Hansen

Those who wanted to see Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s directorial debut, The Words, had to wait until closing night of the Sundance Film Festival for its world premiere. That seemed only fitting, however, as both directors openly admitted at Friday’s screening that the film took nearly 12 years to make and waiting anxiously a few extra days “felt like par for the course.”

Led by a strong cast that included Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, and Zoe Saldana, The Words tells the story of Rory Jansen (Cooper), a budding novelist who struggles with his sudden propulsion to literary stardom, brought about by a yellowed manuscript he finds in a beat-up satchel in a Parisian antique shop.

With the pressures of a new wife (Saldana) and a dogged determination to work his way up and out of a publishing company mailroom, Jansen decides to call the work his own, and immediately struggles with the soul-sucking realization of what he has done, especially after meeting the elderly man (Irons) whose work he plagiarized.

The story of this one writer (or two, maybe three…it’s sometimes hard to tell) makes us examine the choices we make and the unexpected impact those decisions have not only on our own lives, but also on those closest to us. After the film’s premiere, Klugman and Sternthal were joined by Cooper, Quaid, Saldana, Ben Barnes, along with other crewmembers for a Q&A.

Q: Combinations of directors and writers where both people share both jobs are unusual. How do you guys work together?

Sternthal: Every day is different. There’s a mystery and magic to it. I don’t like to talk bout it because I’m just really lucky to have that with Brian.

Q: When you write about a writer who writes about a writer, it’s natural to wonder if the writer is writing about himself.

Klugman: Any time you take pen to paper we have our own subjective experiences and lives to draw from. I think every character is drawn in some parts from you. That’s really one of the big themes going on here, I think.

Q: The film took a long time to make. What advice can you give to other filmmakers who are struggling to get their work finished?

Klugman: The best advice I can give is to hang in there. It comes together with the right timing and with the right people. I don’t think we were ready to make the film that we made 12 years ago. It happened when it was right.

Q: Why do you writers have such a fascination with Paris?

Sternthal: It’s such a beautiful city. It’s such an historic setting in literature. Even going back to the 19th century, it’s just so full of romance. I think Americans grab onto that because you don’t have as much of it here.

Q: How did you arrive to these actors after such a long process and how did Bradley become involved as an executive producer?

Cooper: I’ve been a part of the project since almost its inception. So being cast, I think it was a nice gesture on (the directors’) part because I was already so invested in it.

Klugman: All I can say about the casting process was that we had very limited resources and very little time to make this movie. Had we had unlimited resources and unlimited time, we still would have cast every single person the same. We got the actors that we wanted to play these roles. We went after them and we could not believe when they started saying yes. And consistently saying yes! There are so many wonderful performances to work with here, so we really wound up with a dream cast.

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

In Memoriam: Diane Weyermann (1955–2021)

A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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