Written by Dylan Callaghan
The new dramedy Henry Poole Is Here, starring Luke Wilson, is a veiled allegory based on one of screenwriting's most vaunted, and hardest to learn laws: when you let go and stop trying to write what you think will sell, you find salvation. Though there are no cue cards, or computer screens beaming empty pages of Final Draft in this film, Albert Torres, the first-time-to-screen scripter behind Poole, based this tale of a man who finds hope after surrendering to hopelessness, on his own journey to despair with screenwriting. The Downey native had toiled fruitlessly for years trying to write the movie he thought they wanted to buy until he gave it all up, got depressed as hell and came back to finally, at long last, write a movie that sprang from his own truth. Poole was that script and, just like that, he got an agent, sold it and now is seeing it actualized on the big screen. The film uses Torres' own grief to tell the simple story of man who abandons his entire life after being given what appears to be a death sentence. He finds himself an innocuously blah tract home in which to drink himself to death, but fate -- and some snooping neighbors -- intervene, and hope unexpectedly revisits his bereft life.
Torres spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his road to Poole, the perils of telling hopeful stories and why, there's nothing at all wrong with It's a Wonderful Life.
I've read that, aside from this being your first produced script, this story is personally significant to you. Tell me a bit about where this story came from personally for you.
I wrote it five years ago. It was born out of a long stretch where I had decided to quit attempting to become a professional screenwriter. During that stretch, I became very depressed. It took me a while to realize not writing was making me sad.
From that point on, I just decided that I would write a movie that I wanted to see versus what I had been doing before, which was writing movies that I thought would sell. That's how Henry Poole got started.
Photo: © 2008 Overture Films
Radha Mitchell and Luke Wilson in Henry Poole Is Here.
How long was the stretch where you had eschewed writing?
About two years where I did nothing to pursue what was really my dream, to become a writer for film. I just had day job and a lot of friends were like, “What's your problem dude? You're so bummed out all the time.”
This is an oft-told story I hear from screenwriters where they say that once they let go and write the movie that they want to see, everything opens up.
That's almost screenwriter mythology, but you believe in it for real?
I do. I have to believe in it because it worked.
Now this story has large religious themes -- were you seeking to write film about the importance of having a belief in God?
No, not at all. You call it religious overtones, and I think that's an accurate description, but the pieces of the movie that assign themselves to religion are, to me, only vehicles to tell the story. This is a movie about spirituality and hope, more than anything. It's about finding your way out of desperation. This is the story we wanted to tell -- hopelessness and finding hope. That was our starting point, so I don't really think religion is the anchor for the whole piece.
That theme of hope can be, ironically, a treacherous one for a screenwriter. Tonally, you've got to kind of discipline the script to avoid becoming too soft or sentimental. How did you grapple with that here?
It's easy to fall into the traps of sentimentality when you're dealing with these kinds of themes. What I attempted to do -- and I had help along the way because of the way the movie evolved -- was ground this almost surreal aspect of the story in a character who dealt with it in a very real way through denial. The characters that surround him are the ones that prod along the idea of hope. His cynicism and the heavy thing he has laid upon him help balance that.
Then we were lucky enough to get someone like Luke into the movie. His mere presence and his performance both help carry that realism into a better place than it was even on paper.
It seems to me -- and by all means tell me if you disagree -- but this does not seem to be a huge era of hopeful films.
I do agree with that. I think it's hard because a lot of the bigger movies that get released deal with criminality and good versus evil. It's a rare thing to see a film that is truly a journey toward hopefulness. I'm proud of that fact. I was really blessed because I was part of the process from start to finish. I was on set every day, so I got to see the evolution of it from page to screen. It was a very conscious objective we had to make a movie that left you feeling good at the end, not feeling troubled that the world is a difficult place to live.
And there's no shame in that.
To make a film that leaves you feeling good? No, of course not. One of my all-time-favorite films is It's a Wonderful Life. What better film than that? How good do you feel when you see that movie?