In New Line Cinema’s thought-provoking drama Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith), a successful New York advertising executive retreats from life after suffering a great tragedy. 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.
Addressing the basic premise of film, screenwriter Allan 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.
“We had some fun with it,” director David Frankel recalls, “with Helen Mirren’s character, Brigitte, confronting Howard about his thoughts on Death, Keira Knightley arguing the case for Love, and Jacob Latimore talking to him about Time.”
“Love has been pondered endlessly,” Will Smith, who plays Howard, notes. “Death, people tend to avoid, but everybody has to confront it, and when you confront death it burns away all the foolishness. You can only see the things that are important. And to me, the idea of time was the most difficult philosophical concept to figure out in the context of a funny scene, but I think Jacob Latimore did a great job with it. It was so interesting to sit around and ponder all of these ideas and develop the point and counterpoint, because, in the end, nobody really has an answer.”
Howard’s most recent letter to Love said simply, “Goodbye,” and it’s now incumbent upon Keira Knightley’s character, Amy, to make him realize that giving up on love is not an option. Quite the contrary; this is when love matters most. Says Knightley of the role, “She’s highly empathetic to Howard’s grief, empathy being a part of love, and talks to him in emotional terms that he can feel. But she wants him to understand that love isn’t just the part where everything is great; it’s also the unbelievable pain you feel when something is taken away, and that in no way diminishes it or ends it.”
In his letters, Howard has been especially harsh toward Time, and receives a response in kind, as similar accusations are thrown right back at him. “Howard writes what any father might say to Time, if he could,” Jacob Latimore concedes. “‘You’re dead tissue; you’re petrified; you kill beauty; you ruin things.’ All in all, he just wants to be with his child forever and, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I skate up next to him to get his attention and get through his head, by telling him flat-out that he’s wrong. Time is a gift and he’s squandering it by doing nothing and letting it all go. There’s more to live for. Our conversations are frustrating, but I have to believe they’re helping him in ways he doesn’t understand until later.”
But it might be the conversations between Howard and the woman who speaks for Death that unsettle him the most – firstly, perhaps, because she isn’t at all what he might have pictured.
Consequently, her strategy was to surprise him in every conceivable way. “Helen decided that Death has this great sense of humor and so, when she interacts with Will, starting with their first meeting, she took an almost playful approach, which she balances later with a show of compassion, equally deep,” Frankel recounts.
In so doing, Mirren feels, the character is consistent with the story’s main theme, “that there can be something positive, beautiful and unexpected to be found in the most difficult circumstances. It’s very often in the humanity and the way people respond to one another. The essential center of the story is that idea of collateral beauty, and it’s my hope that people will come away from it with a sense of optimism and engagement in life.”
Opening across the Philippines on Sunday, January 8, 2017, Collateral Beauty is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment company.