Director Sara Colangelo on the Ensemble and the Moral Conundrum of WORTH – Leslie Combemale interviews

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In a rare example of the pandemic reordering a release to more relevant timing, the film Worth, which had its original premiere at Sundance 2020, is finally coming to Netflix this weekend, just over a week before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Worth is based on the memoir What is Life Worth, by the lawyer in charge of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Ken Feinberg. He and his partner Camille Biros were assigned with the allocation of financial resources to the victims of the catastrophic event, the next of kin and family members of those who were killed. Screenwriter Max Borenstein penned the film, his first feature as both writer and producer. Sara Colangelo, winner of Sundance’s Directing Award for 2018’s The Kindergarten Teacher, helms Worth as her third narrative feature.

The film stars Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg and Amy Ryan as Camille Biros, and Stanley Tucci as a character who is also drawn from real life, Charles Wolf, a community organizer and grieving widower who disagrees with the way the fund is being handled, and challenges Feinberg’s process. Featured and very central to the story are dozens of claimants created as composites of multiple real victims, whose pain and grief is fresh, and whose lives have been forever altered by the tragedy. It is in the interactions with these victims that Feinberg and Biros find a new compassion and rethink the true value of human life.

Leslie Combemale of The Alliance of Women Film Journalists interviewed director Sara Colangelo about her experience filming such a powerful story, what it was like to watch two acting virtuosos like Keaton and Tucci face off as acting partners, the many ways this production changed her, and how she brought the Female Gaze to bear in directing Worth.

Leslie Combemale: How are the acting processes of Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci similar or complimentary? Were there rehearsals for the scenes in which they acted together? They were in Spotlight together, so they’ve worked together before. You’ve said the actors are so talented you just try to get out of their way, but as a director, how did you work with them in their scenes together?

Sara Colangelo: That’s a great question. Well, really, we didn’t have much time to rehearse. And, you know, Stanley and Michael knew each other, certainly, but we worked separately. I was working with Michael on creating the Ken Feinberg character, and Michael had met the real Ken Feinberg. They had had a sit down, and I think that was hugely helpful for Michael. Amy Ryan did the same with the real Camille Biros. Amy and Michael really wanted to meet the real people, and do the research and delve into it, hear how those people spoke, and, you know, they wanted to know how their offices were decorated. They wanted those details. Stanley was really interesting. He had an approach that he didn’t want to do research in that way. He didn’t meet Charles Wolf. He really wanted to read a few articles and create the character on his own. Even with his character in Spotlight, he just didn’t over-research it, because he really likes to embody the character his own way. I really respected that. So I was working with each of them separately. And then when Michael and Stanley had the scenes together, they really have just wonderful chemistry on set. And I think it shows. And, it was really easy, I did the regular job of directing, but I didn’t have to do too much, because they were just so prepared. And I could just kind of stay out of their way, but they’re both phenomenal. And obviously, it was certainly an honor for me to work with them. Coming to it without much rehearsal worked in a way, because in real life, it was a remote rivalry between them. Charles and Ken probably didn’t see each other more than two or three times in real life.

LC: I’m curious about the scenes in which Michael Keaton, as Feinberg, is listening to opera. How were the specific pieces chosen, and what was the actor’s connection with the music? The music in those scenes reveals aspects of the character, and also speaks to universality of the power of music, I think.

SC: Yeah, that was a really important aspect of the film for me, because it’s a way for Ken Feinberg as a character to unwind, and take in everything that’s happening in the office. He has to be the public face of the fund. He can’t show too much emotion. And he said this to me in real life that opera for him was a way to experience the full range of human emotion in a private way. He enjoys it so much, and he’s such an aficionado. And he does indeed, like in the movie, have this room in his real house. I think it’s a way for him to really decompress, and I think it’s important to show that. Camille actually loves opera as well. I know they see a lot of opera together. Camille also loves old movies, classic movies and she said, she could never shut it out during the interviews, but she would go home and watch movies. That was her way of mourning privately. I thought that was really interesting, so those are aspects that I certainly wanted to show.

LC: There are a number of small roles in which the characters tell their experience of 9/11 and their loss. You had some people who auditioned who had lost someone on that day. Also a number of small roles and extras were played by firefighters and other first responders who actually answered the calls on 9/11. You said the audition process with them, and having them on set changed your life. Can you talk more about that?

SC: Yeah, I mean, it was something I just didn’t expect. I didn’t expect that firefighters or policemen or first responders would have SAG cards and come into these auditions. Invariably, when you’re doing auditions, you engage in a little bit of small talk at the start of the audition, and a lot of these people would say, “Oh, well, what’s the film about?” And I would tell them a little bit about what it was, and they would say, “Here’s my story. Here’s what happened to me that day.” It was just really fascinating. We never used their particular stories, unless they gave us particular permission. I think there was maybe one person who told her story and there’s audio of her and her real experience. Otherwise, these were things that I think were boiling, or bubbling under the surface, and were present in the scenes. and I think it made the cast, however small the part, so emotionally engaged in in the film. For me, it was a huge honor to have them be part of the film, but it was also just really interesting, because everyone brought their own personal experience to it.

LC: Worth takes place over three years, it seems, at least in part, to examine the mourning process and the evolution of grief, but from a lot of different perspectives. Did you and screenwriter Max Borenstein talk about that aspect of it? How did that become personal to you as a director?

SC: I think for me what was so fascinating about the script is there’s a real moral conundrum at the heart of it, which is that Ken and Camille are tasked with the job of calculating dollars and cents and applying it to a person’s life. There’s an uncomfortable, cold, rational math at the heart of it. I was really interested in how that would collide in the raw emotion of 9/11 and the heartbreak of families. What is the tension inherent in that scenario? That was something we talked a lot about and we talked a lot to the actors about it, too. What is your public role in administering funds and how are you suffering privately? How do you show it or not show it? I was also really interested in how Ken and Camille were on the receiving end of this national tragedy, and how they would experience the grief, the anger, and frustration of others, but also the gratitude of others. People brought in their children’s bronzed baby shoes, and shoeboxes full of photos, and mementos and letters. There was just this really interesting interaction between these lawyers and all of these families who were suffering tremendously.

LC: In a way, maybe it helped them process their grief, which had to be a byproduct that they couldn’t have expected.

SC: Absolutely. Ken and Camille, I’ve spoken to them in real life, and they said, “You just can’t imagine the stories that you hear, and some people just want to vent and talk about their loved ones. And and then other people were more interested in the money aspect or their awards. And I think for Ken and Camille personally, and again this was something I was interested in, work was a way for them to process this tragedy and, in their own way, put a world back together.

LC: On Worth, you collaborated with editor Julia Bloch, and the editing in the film has a huge impact on how it comes together. Can you talk about your collaboration with her?

SC: She is just really wonderful and such a smart and emotionally astute editor. So I was really lucky to work with her. We talked about how the victims’ families were going to be the heart of the story. It’s certainly about Ken and Camille and their work, and the procedural aspect of it, but we really wanted to make sure that these stories of the victims’ families were pillars of the film, and so we worked hard on building these interviews with claimants, and really making those areas of the film shine and be just emotional. Not not overly draining, but emotional. I think there was a fine balance, and really creating a sense of hope within the story. We were also putting together a tremendous amount of footage from 9/11, from news broadcasts. There was this feeling that we wanted to create of the 24 hour news cycle, so that’s present in the editing in an interesting way. We try to have TVs on everywhere, because that was really a reality in those first few years.

LC: In what ways did you bring the Female Gaze to bear as director of Worth, or do you feel like you did? You do have Heads of Departments that are women on all your films, so I think you do believe it’s important for women to be represented below the line. What’s your perspective on all that?

SC: It was funny, when I being signed on to the film, when I was on officially, I was thinking about the fact that there aren’t too many women who have directed either political thrillers or legal dramas of this sort, and I was thinking about movies like Spotlight or All the President’s Men. I was just looking at these sort of procedural films, and there aren’t too many women that have done this kind of stuff. So I was thinking a lot about it. What will I bring to it? Could I even ponder what the differences would be? I do think that I was very conscious and sensitive to Camille’s role in particular. Ken Feinberg said this to me privately, he said, “You know, I want to make sure that Camille has as strong a role as Ken does in your film, because she really was and is my partner. I can’t do this work without her. I mean, she’s really half of the operation.” That really meant a lot to me. He said that, and so Max and I worked on the drafts, and we really tried to bolster that role, because it was such a fascinating one for me, as a woman, but also as a director to see what their partnership was, and what she added to the story. I think she’s always a step ahead of him emotionally in the story. She’s just trying to tell him it will not be like other cases that they’ve worked on. It is a completely different beast. And I thought that was really interesting. I think Amy did such a nice job with it.

LC: Worth was shown first at Sundance 2020, but a lot has happened politically and society since then, and now it’s being released on the 20th anniversary. How do you think it fits in the current climate? In some ways, it has even more resonance than it would have had a few years ago.

SC: I like to think that it has more resonance now, as we’re in the throes of COVID. At the worst of the pandemic, these kinds of conversations were in the public arena, having to ask “What is a life worth? Who gets a ventilator? How do you put dollars and cents to to life?” These were things that were unfortunately part of the public discussion, and heartbreakingly so. I think that maybe after this recent tragedy, we look at 9/11 in a different way, and perhaps with more poignancy. Certainly as we are ending the war in Afghanistan, we’re at a moment when we are thinking about the last 20 years, and what the repercussions of 9/11 have been for our society, both on a personal and emotional level, but also geopolitically.

Worth is streaming on Netflix as of September 3rd.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.