Working Man, a new film by Robert Jury, follows a factory closure in a small rust-belt town in the midwest and one man’s attempt to find meaning in his life after he loses a job. When I first got asked to cover the film, I wondered if it would hit too close to home. The world I once knew had entered the uncertain reality of Covid19. All across America, businesses shut down. 30 million people out of work with no idea when things would go back to normal. Breadlines foreshadowed the collapse of American prosperity harkening back to the days of the Great Depression.
As I watched the film, I realized that even in darkness, there can be light. The central character rallies the community in an effort to save the factory and in doing so, he finds a sense of purpose. In making the film, Robert Jury drew upon his experience growing up in a small factory town in the midwest and recent memory of the 2008 financial crisis. As we started the interview, he told me about his 10-year journey in making Working Man.
Robert Jury: Working Man, the first draft was written about ten years ago, post-2008 financial crisis, and I submitted it not really knowing what I would do with this movie. I knew it wasn’t going to be a big studio film. I worked for studios in the past and never had anything of mine get made. This was a story that connected with me, based on the mood of the country, my experience having grown up in the river, and factory towns of the midwest. I wrote and submitted it to the Film Independent labs. I knew that the first draft I had written and had submitted to Film Independent was imperfect, and it was flawed. It was accepted into their screenwriting lab and they invited me back to their directing lab. I was really hoping when I went through the screenwriting lab, that some smart writer or someone in that room would suggest ways to make the script better. Of course, life doesn’t work that way. Nothing happened with it for a very long time. I was fortunate that I was introduced to, now my longtime producing partner on the project, Clark Peterson, who knew Patty Jenkins, of course through [the film] Monster and one of the early jokes Clarke told me [he] said, ‘Look, you hang with me Bob, in ten years you’ll be doing a superhero movie.’
We tried a lot of different ways to get the movie made until 2017, where an angel investor jumped in and believed in the project, and then we were off and running. I don’t know if it’s mine, or this movie is the exception, I think it’s more the rule. You get caught a long time in development sometimes, or you’re lucky if you get the movie made at all. You’ve got to be true to yourself. Is it ultimately something that you would want to see and share yourself because you are going to be living with this thing for so long after you finish writing it. The life that you have with this story just doesn’t end with the screenplay. Particularly, if you are also producing. [You have] responsibilities to other people, to the movie, to the project in general. It has a life of its’ own after that so you better be happy with what you have committed to on the page as a story.
If I was to offer anybody some unsolicited advice about writing, I would provide the advice that I received which is, I remember Lawrence Kasdan said this. I went to hear him speak one time at the Skirball. It was just a simple idea. You just as well write what you want to write, certainly if you are doing it speculatively, because the chances of that happening as opposed to something else, where you’re thinking commercially only, the chances are probably about the same, as far as getting it done, getting it made. I think you always have to go into it with the belief that maybe someday this could happen. if you’re fortunate enough to get a movie actually in the can. But I would also caution, again, younger writers or anybody else who might have an interest in working in film, it’s not just contacts alone, it’s the quality of the contacts you have. It’s the quality of the people you are working with. Clarke along with Lovell Holder, and Maya Emelle, my producing partners on this [film], I couldn’t ask for better people, not just solid professionals, but really good people in general that understand and are able to put aside business interests for what’s important personally. You have to be a different kind of person to hang in there as long as Clarke did, and again Lovell and Maya to participate in a movie like this. Because at least on the surface, we are not going to be a blockbuster. This isn’t a superhero movie. This is a very small and personal story, so those partners that you have to go into the trenches with on a day to day basis, again, is just, kind of like the story itself, you better be comfortable and happy with those folks that you’re dealing with on a daily basis because it’s a long haul and if you’re fortunate to be with good folks, maybe there’s that moment when you get to celebrate a little bit together in the end. I think we’re doing that now. We’re really happy with what we’ve done and the results with Working Man.
Mark Gordon: I don’t get the impression that it’s about the money for you. I think it’s more about the craft.
Robert Jury: Yeah, I’d like to think so. I mean, there’s a lot of other ways a guy could make a living. I mean, I’ve done a lot of other things to make a living. But, I’m just of the opinion, if you are going to spend that much time and energy writing or trying to do something, within any field, honestly, what good is a life if it’s not something you enjoy doing, right? We don’t know how much time we have on this earth, so it better be more than money, as far as motivation is concerned.
Mark Gordon: Just back to this notion of when it’s done, when the script is done. How do you know when it’s good enough or how do you give yourself permission to let it go?
Robert Jury: For me, it’s always about, ok, is this absolutely the best that I could do right now? Not like, is this the best version of the story ever, or could someone else do a better job? Probably. But is it the best that I can do right now at this moment? and if you can be satisfied with that, then I think you can walk away from it. You’re always trying to make it the best it can be but at some point, you have to be satisfied with where you’re at and I felt like when we got to the final draft of Working Man, and the one that we shot, that was the best that I could do with that story. The factory where we shot, Makray Manufacturing [Norridge, Illinois] is no longer operational. It closed its’ doors in December of this past year and we just felt as though this was a movie that needed to be authentic, and real, Piero Basso are DP did a beautiful job capturing the realness that was necessary and something, as you say, wouldn’t be common.
Mark Gordon: What did you learn as a director?
Robert Jury: I think the biggest takeaway being a director as opposed to a writer, you just have a greater appreciation for the slog that production can be and the exhaustion that goes into, get a film, any film made, from every element. When you’re only working on the story, your framework is limited but now every choice, you have a hand in and particularly if you are also producing.
Mark Gordon: What was your ultimate intention by making the film?
Robert Jury: The intent and the purpose was to see portrayed people that I knew and grew up within the rural midwest, the industrial midwest, portrayed in a way that I felt like we didn’t see done very often. In a lot of films, folks in the industrial middle, or blue-collar America are portrayed as, either in some sort of drug-induced stupor or somehow lacking intelligence. To me, I just wanted to give another portrayal that I felt accurately gave a view of what it was like to be a person working in blue-collar America. I have a cousin who worked a factory job who told me after watching Working Man he said, ‘I thought that the movie really captured that feeling of the robotic nature that can sometimes happen when you’re performing a factory and how that you can feel that way, a little bit trapped within the cycle of the work.’ and at least as it pertains to our working man, our main character, he uses that trap to his advantage because it helps him escape from what he would otherwise have to face. and I think sometimes we use work as a way to maybe avoid the more personal and painful parts of our lives.
Mark Gordon: And would that be the loss of the working man’s son?
Robert Jury: Yeah, I think so. and it’s something that may be on a deeper level he takes responsibility for, not having been there. but the only thing he knows how to do, or how best to cope as a mechanism is to go to work. I think that’s maybe why a story like this might connect with so many people right now. Now we’re having to look in the mirror, quite frequently, right? and evaluate our lives, our working lives, our personal lives, our family lives, in a way we haven’t had to do before. This is something that our working man, our character in this film is addressing himself.
Mark Gordon: In some ways, the hardships that happen, it seems like there is always a positive intention that follows. We realize those simple things that we’ve taken for granted. How has that notion impacted your work now that you have more time? What are those things that you want to address or attend to that you might have forgotten or forsaken?
Robert Jury: I think for me personally, I’m reassessing what is truly important now as to what I thought was more important when we were living our lives “normally.” I think a lot of us are going to pull away from this time, providing we have our health and we’ll look back on this with some pretty fond reflection, honestly. What we were able to gain in this, however many weeks, how many months, we were separated from our work, from our jobs, from that definition of what we know is normal.