The life-affirming story of one man’s progress through the landscape of loss and what he ultimately finds – with heart, candor, a thread of humor and the recognition that there will always be some things beyond our understanding.
For screenwriter Allan Loeb (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 21), Collateral Beauty began as the germ of a concept that grew to capture his imagination until it could not be denied. “It was a little story in my head that kept nagging at me, about a man who writes letters to abstractions like time, love and death, and why would he do that?”
When a successful New York advertising executive (Will Smith) suffers a great tragedy he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.
“It came together piece by piece over a long period of time as I wrote other movies and worked on other things,” he recounts. Collateral Beauty is about finding your way back to life and love in the wake of unspeakable loss, and about those unexpected moments of hope, meaning and connection – the proverbial silver linings – that light the path through even the darkest times.
“It’s those things we sometimes take for granted or don’t notice all the time, but that might be there every day, like a sunset…or fleeting, like a child’s smile,” says director David Frankel. “There are millions of examples of collateral beauty; they’re unique, and we all have different ideas about what they could be. They’re the reason that we go on, and I think what’s really compelling about this story is that it reminds us to take notice of those brilliant fragments of life that make it worth living.”
Discovering those moments illuminated by every tragic event is an emotional and spiritual journey profoundly personal to each individual, yet something that we all share. Set amidst the warmth, energy and often bittersweet notes of the holiday season in New York City, “Collateral Beauty” tells the life-affirming story of one man’s progress through the landscape of loss and what he ultimately finds – with heart, candor, a thread of humor and the recognition that there will always be some things beyond our understanding.
“The way you see the world, the way your heart opens and the way you relate to people after a tragedy can be very beautiful,” observes screenwriter Allan Loeb, who is also one of the film’s producers. “It can be transformative.”
Will Smith, who stars as the central character, Howard, a man lost in grief, concurs. “The over-arching idea of collateral beauty touched all of us, that no matter how difficult your circumstances, there is something special happening right there; you just have to look for it to see it.” Citing the holiday classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ among his favorites, and one of his inspirations for “Collateral Beauty,” he adds, “So many of the actors David approached first said yes. It was one of those times where we all got it; we all wanted to be a part of delivering this story to the screen.”
Howard was a highly successful and dynamic advertising executive, the head of his own company, for whom those words once represented powerful marketing tools. They were great motivators. In an early scene evoking his former passion, he is seen addressing a rapt crowd with the statement: “These three things connect every single human being on Earth. We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death.”
But after his six-year-old daughter succumbs to a fatal illness, casting Howard emotionally adrift, these concepts take on a larger meaning. Increasingly withdrawn from human contact, the only communication Howard now initiates are the angry, accusatory letters he writes to Love, Time, and Death.
“He’s struggling with big, philosophic questions and looking to the universe for answers,” Frankel says. “Like a modern-day King Lear, you might say, he’s howling at the gods.”
“We call them abstractions, but of course we know there’s nothing abstract about these things,” says producer Michael Sugar. “They’re what drives all of us. Every filmmaker aspires to make a film that is both entertaining and deeply moving, and I think this piece captures the essence of all the things in life we think about, which is why, when I first read this script, I was blown away. We all were.”
Eventually, Howard’s fixation gives his friends an idea to possibly break him out of his endless malaise by somehow allowing him to confront these very concepts. They’ve tried every other means of help from traditional grief counseling to shamanistic rituals, offered comfort and patience, and nothing has worked.
Howard’s friends are also his closest colleagues and long-time business partners: Whit, played by Edward Norton, Claire, played by Kate Winslet, and Simon, played by Michael Peña. Though their concern for him is genuine, their plan has a practical side, too, as Howard’s disconnection from the daily functions has brought the company to the brink of insolvency and they must quickly affect a sale to save it.
Producer Anthony Bregman explains, “He’s in the process of destroying his own agency because he can’t engage in anything in the world anymore, and his partners and best friends fear that everything they’ve worked for together will be lost. So they decide to take matters to an extreme. They do it for the company and the hundreds of people who work there, but most importantly they do it out of love. They do it for him.”
“It’s an intervention,” says Frankel. “Tough love.”
Thus one day, while at his usual bench in the dog park, Howard is approached by a self-assured woman smartly dressed in vivid blue, who sits beside him. She holds a letter he recently posted to Death. Taking him completely off-guard, she introduces herself as the recipient of that letter. When Howard recoils, she reminds him that people are forever seeking answers from the universe but not many are granted a direct response. And so it begins…
Reflecting on the scene’s unusual set-up and Howard’s response, which might be equal parts incredulity, curiosity and revulsion, Frankel acknowledges, “It’s a very touching story, but it also has natural opportunities for comedy, especially in the often playful relationships between characters and the workings of human nature. The biggest challenge for me was in balancing those moments with characters that are quite deep and ideas that are profound.”
The woman in the blue coat is played by Helen Mirren, who, like many of the cast and filmmakers, was drawn to the project by its story. “It’s original. I hadn’t read anything like it before and I responded to the concept of collateral beauty and what that means,” she offers. It’s a lovely idea. The reality is everyone has a different understanding of these elements; it’s private and personal to them. But undoubtedly, these are among the most important and imaginative ideas we have to grapple with as human beings traveling through life.”
“I was probably 20 or 30 pages into it when it grabbed me,” shares producer Kevin Frakes. “I knew it was going to be an amazing screenplay, but I didn’t realize how personally it would affect me. I was in tears. It completely crushed me and really hit home, so I knew that this was a movie I needed to make. For me, it’s about the miracle of life…birth and death. And when someone dies, their soul stays with us. That is my interpretation of what collateral beauty means.”
At the same time, notes Edward Norton, “It has a lightness of touch, while working underneath are some very poignant themes, and a blend of elements that reminded me a little of Billy Wilder movies. If you look back at some of the movies of the ’30s and ’40s, they were able sometimes to layer in very adult themes but also had a sort of confection quality to them. When you look at those kinds of films, you marvel at the ability of the filmmakers and actors to straddle those tones and when I read this, I thought it presented that kind of challenge. The tonal balance is interesting.”
“We knew David was adept at delivering humor and emotion without being manipulative. He’s always excelled at capturing special tones in his films,” says Sugar.
Equally important, “He’s able to get very grounded performances that keep the story feeling as real as possible,” producer Bard Dorros attests, “while allowing audiences to also feel that there’s something more to the story. There’s a meaning behind these events. There’s a meaning behind grief, a meaning behind love, and a reason why all these elements interact. I hope it gives audiences that sense of satisfaction you get when you watch a story that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
As events unfold, those parts are revealed to include the lives and longings of the other main characters, apart from their focus on Howard. We see that this journey is also relevant to them, to the issues they need to resolve and the things they’re searching for, as the concept of collateral beauty expands to touch all of them in ways they never anticipated. “In each scene, what I focused on was the connections people were making, how they were being drawn together, and how they were trying to find what they needed in life,” says Frankel.
In addition to Smith, Norton, Winslet, Peña and Mirren, the film’s stellar ensemble cast includes Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, who make the case, respectively, for Love and Time, and Naomie Harris, as a grief counselor who truly knows the terrain.
Frankel worked closely with screenwriter/producer Loeb during production, as Loeb tailored aspects of the characters and dialogue – an uncommon experience for the Hollywood veteran, and most welcome. “There was a lot of on-set writing,” he recalls, “not changing the structure of the piece or its heart, but tuning to the voices of our stars. Writing for Will is a little different than writing for Edward, or Kate, and each of them brought their own insights. I was on set every day, working with the actors, and I must give a nod to David Frankel for that because it’s rare that a director allows the writer such access.”
Addressing the film’s basic premise, Loeb says, “the script was a Trojan Horse of a discourse about what I believe are the three most important elements of all of our existence. And I wanted to talk about it not from a Greek chorus point of view but literally from the mouths of Love, Time and Death.”
Toward this end, he crafted characters whose primary purpose was to take on the defining elements of these concepts and let them boldly challenge Howard’s attitudes and assumptions, face to face, about their purpose in the world and what they mean to him.
Returning to the themes of Love, Time and Death, Frankel says, “I don’t expect that people will necessarily come away with a deeper understanding of these profound ideas, but they might be moved to think about how it affects their own lives. We all have to grapple with the importance of these abstract notions, and that’s the heart of the movie.
“What I’m hoping,” he concludes, “is that we can give audiences a life-affirming, chest-swelling experience that takes them out of the everyday and gives them something to talk about.”