The new movie “Collateral Beauty,” in theaters now, offers a touching way to deal with grief and the loss of loved ones in the heart of the Christmas season, when many people feel those emotions most strongly.
Starring Will Smith as Howard, an advertising agency owner who has been sleepwalking his way through life since the tragic death of his young daughter two years earlier, the movie’s script had such an emotional impact on those who read it that Oscar-favorite actors Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley also jumped aboard.
The movie centers around the fact that Howard writes letters to the abstract concepts of “time,” “love” and “death,” because, as the movie notes, “These three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death.” When Howard’s friends find out that he’s writing these letters, they hire actors to portray the three concepts in human form, in the hopes of waking him up to life again.
For the film’s writer, Allen Loeb, the movie arose from a desire to explore and process universal emotions. One of Hollywood’s top writers, whose hot streak for character-driven films about moral quandaries include “21,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (which featured a positive pro-life theme) and “The Switch,” Loeb found that the movie started out as a germ of an idea that grew into an undeniable storyline.
“It came together piece by piece over a long period of time as I wrote other movies and worked on other things,” Loeb recalls. “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? And 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. It can be transformative.”
Loeb wrote each of his characters to have realistic flaws, an approach that gives the movie a diverse blend of situations that viewers can relate to even if they’re not processing grief. One of Howard’s friends is hiding a serious illness, while another is coping with the sadness of divorce and struggling to remain a presence in his young child’s life.
“Howard isn’t the only one who needs perspective, who needs to be healed through this piece, because it’s the three of them also. It becomes their journey and their lesson too,” says Loeb. “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.”
Loeb crafted characters whose primary purpose was to take on the defining elements of these concepts and let them challenge Howard’s attitudes and assumptions, face to face, about their purpose in the world and what they mean to him. Another major factor came when Loeb decided to set the film at Christmastime in New York City, as a universally desirable place and time for the emotional dramas to unfold.
“On my first meeting with the director,” Loeb recalls, “he felt that Christmas in New York City — Manhattan, especially — is one of the greatest images, with all that gloss and excitement. People all over the country know what that looks like and want to be a part of it. It’s America’s favorite small town in the biggest city and he wanted to capture that.”
Toward that end, the bulk of filming occurred on location, beginning in February 2016 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and continuing all over the city during its 40-day schedule. And it was easy for Loeb to write about the Big Apple because he has spent most of his life there.
Loeb originally broke into the industry in 2004 with a script called “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which was compared to the classic “The Graduate” and soon became one of the first scripts to make the Black List — a coveted honor that lists the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Since then, he has worked continuously as a screenwriter and script doctor, writing on more than 40 studio movies and six television pilots for various studios and networks.
Having built a successful career as a true working screenwriter, Loeb has refocused on his passion projects, including “Collateral Beauty,” which was so personal that he took six months off to write it. Additionally, Loeb just finished production on “Living Boy,” with Kate Beckinsale, Jeff Bridges and Pierce Brosnan as the stars.
Yet it wasn’t always easy for him. Despite selling five screenplays for solid sums during the 1990s, none of them was actually produced, and by 2004 his agent dropped him when his work stopped selling. By early 2005, Loeb admits, he had a net worth of just $90 and wound up selling his Jaguar and even his Xbox video game console to survive. But admitting he had a gambling problem and joining Gamblers Anonymous helped him see life with a newer, clearer vision that inspired him to dig deep in writing “Living Boy” and put him on track to his current life with $20 million worth of script sales in the past decade.
“‘Collateral Beauty’ is about finding your way back to life in the wake of unspeakable loss, and about those unexpected moments of hope, meaning and connection that light the path through even the darkest times,” says Loeb. “Collateral beauty is found in the things we take for granted like a sunset or a child’s smile. 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.”
The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.