[Interview] Producer-Screenwriter Max Borenstein strikes the right chords with ‘WORTH’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Producer/ Screenwriter Max Borenstein is having a good year. His two films released this year are debuting to hearty, heartening audience support. GODZILLA VS. KONG, centered on two giant monsters punching each other, garnered kaiju-sized success at the ailing box office. And now, WORTH, centered on one man punching through bureaucracy in order to help others during a national crisis, continues to gain momentum off its 2020 Sundance debut.

We spoke with the affable filmmaker about everything from the difficulties he encountered getting this film off the ground to how the story continues to resonate 20 years later.

Obviously we both lived through 9/11. But how did this story get onto your radar and become something you wanted to write? Was it after reading the memoir?

It was. A fellow producer on the film, Sean Sorensen, gave me the memoir during the writer’s strike in 2007/ 2008. I was a young working writer and no longer working and wanted to write something that would stretch me and felt more challenging. The things I had been hired to write had been more genre pieces and I started in drama and was looking for a drama to write. I was immediately taken with it. It was an impossible story to tell and he pushed.

I flew out to meet with Ken Feinberg. In meeting him and, first of all, being taken with him as a character and a flawed human being, he’s a great guy. He’s a lawyer. He can be prickly. He can be focused on, certainly at the time prior to this, the work and the numbers than on the individuals in his previous cases that were at stake. He had been dealing with cases where it had been years since the actual events. For example, long torte actions about agent orange and other things, where the fall out was 20, 30 years after the fact. So he was dealing with children of the victims and even if it was the victims themselves, so much time had passed that it was no longer raw, emotional experiences it initially had been. And he was dealing with lawyers through that buffer.

Here he was an expert in this thing and wanted to help his country and these victims but wasn’t up to the task. He was thrown into a moment where it was weeks after 9/11 and he was forced to interact with people whose lives had been torn apart. No one would be up to that task besides a therapist or a rabbi or priest might be more sensitive. But he didn’t have a bedside manner at the time and evolved. I was fascinated by him and was emotionally taken by the fact that his story was a story of an average American – him – who was asked to become the interlocutor for all of these people whose lives had been torn apart. Their stories were unique and messy and fascinating, but for him, the challenge of being thrown into that and having to do right by these people, but also being torn between the demands of the bureaucracy and the government that was giving him this job and to keep his own head about him – his own ethic. He grew and evolved through the experience.

I felt, even just reading the memoir, in experiencing reading about all these individuals experiences of a tragedy, I grew. I think you realize that 9/11 was a very acute moment. But what it spoke to that everybody’s life can change dramatically on a dime and that therefore the fragility of life is its most fundamental aspect. The choice then is how do we live? What do we value in the moment? Who do we value? That perspective is something that’s utterly universal. It’s part of the human condition. It felt to me that this was the most universal kind of story you could tell.

Was it a challenge to walk that line to not be melodramatic or exploitative? I can see how in lesser hands this subject matter could become something that’s far more melodramatic.

Right. Well, it was important to us that it couldn’t be maudlin or overly sentimental or saccharine or too heroic. Ken did his best in an incredibly difficult circumstance and I think a lot of people would say he did a very good job all things considered. He also made mistakes and missteps. But he’s no hero, either way. What’s heroic about what he did was his public service which is a thing too few people undertake.

This is not an ERIN BROCKOVICH story. This is very different. That’s why I say it’s much more about him as an everyman as the eyes and ears for the audience to be thrust into the situation where he uniquely and Camille Biros, his right hand, were asked first to meet individually with these people and form relationships with these people, a cross-section of Americans, at the most raw moment of their lives. And then asked to find a way to make them whole financially, which was impossible, and to navigate their emotions and maintain their own heads as they did so, which was an incredibly difficult task. If we try to portray it in an overly saccharine or overly heroic manner would very quickly fall apart.

Did you consult with actuaries and lawyers to clear the lingo?

Ken and Camille were both incredibly gracious in support of the film. They were both skeptics that it could ever be made or be anything interesting because it took so long and it was so arcane in the administration of the fund. They had a healthy skepticism that it would ever be made period or be any good. They also had nervousness, wanting to make sure it wasn’t exploitative. So we worked with them and they’ve been incredibly supportive. They were greatly helpful as we were going through, giving us the technical reality and understanding that our job was to try to take that technical reality and try to make it legible and coherent for an audience, which means a certain amount of simplification.

There’s a few segments where we see interviews with victims and the bereaved. Did you speak with actual survivors to get their stories or were you given access to tapes?

Yes, but not recordings. Many of those statements and testimonials in the film are verbatim or very close accounts that were reprinted in Ken’s memoir, which we – and Ken – got permission from the victims to use them in the film and dramatize them. It’s one of the most affecting parts of his memoir is reading those. It felt like it had to happen in the film, but we really didn’t want to invent our own stories whenever we could. We were relying on the real words of the victims. In certain cases, the details are changed and composited certain things as a matter of protecting people’s privacy. It’s very much a collection of real accounts.

You’re a producer on this and I know 9/11 can still be a touchy subject in entertainment. Was that ever a factor in getting the funds and getting this made?

Oh yeah. This is a movie I wrote 14 years ago and it was difficult to get made because it’s a difficult subject matter. It was even harder back then because it was closer to 9/11. For a long time, every opportunity I had, when I had an incremental step in my own career, I was looking for a path to get this film made. Ultimately, we had a meeting with Michael Keaton and he was intrigued but not quite ready to commit initially. A few years later, he was more intrigued. We managed to get him aboard and then I started assembling other producing partners and financing. It’s my first experience of actually really producing an independent film – and I had great partners in it. But I was the first in.

Do you try to write towards more of a producorial side on a film like this?

Once we were in the process of making it, there were certain budget concessions that had to happen. But relatively limited. It’s obviously a movie that, in this day and age, you know what kind of budget these films command. You know you need an actor of Michael’s caliber in order to drive financing and you need an amazing ensemble cast like Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Laura Benanti and others to further that and tell audiences this is a film worth seeing. It’s not coming with Marvel IP attached. Maybe 30, 40 years ago this would’ve been a middle budget Hollywood production, but now, movies like this are always independent films of some stripe. It was kind of written with that in mind so it didn’t require any tremendous concessions. But certainly, it’s something you work on as you get closer to production.

Is it more or less nerve-wracking to put a movie like this that really does have real implications out into the world than the MonsterVerse movies?

It’s much more. There are people that will have very personal emotional reactions that we can’t control and have to do our best to be sensitive to, and to try to walk the right line, which is often times a matter of your own ethic and efforts to be as sensitive as possible. But there’s no black and white solution as to what you’re allowed to dramatize, fictionalize and to what extent. So it’s really a matter of doing your best and, of course, you expect to run afoul of some people. Luckily, thus far, we’ve had a wonderful response from the 9/11 museum, from Ken and Camille and a group of families who’ve watched the film. Charles Wolf, the character played by Stanley Tucci, he was involved in so far as he and I spoke before the film and he’s become a tremendous supporter, ally and advocate for the film having seen it. That was nerve-wracking because it’s so close to home for him. It was thrilling he’s had such a positive response. It’s scary, but I can at least sleep knowing that we’ve tried our best.

I love the two big scenes with Kenneth and Charles Wolf – in Ken’s office and later at the opera – and the ways those sequences complement each other.

Oh yeah. Amazing, aren’t they?

So good. But I was curious if there’s a scene that you wanted to nail, that you think embodies the essence of the film?

Yeah. To me, those are the scenes. First of all, the idea of those two actors, being able to give them scenes that I’m proud of that are these meaty actor dramatic scenes, to watch them at work was just a thrill. The scene where Stanley is in the office with Michael and he challenges him on the fund and neither man is wrong, right?! Cause Ken’s job is to administer this law. He didn’t make the law and the law isn’t great, but it was made for pragmatic reasons. And Stanley’s character, Charles, doesn’t care about that pragmatic government nonsense. He cares about his wife’s memory and the other victims. It’s really a rock and a hard place with the two of them – they’re both right and passionate about it. And it’s an impossible situation.

 The way it’s ultimately resolved between the two of them has a lot less to do with the pragmatic questions of the law than it does than with Ken finding it within himself to listen to the people like Charles and to their specific complaints and thoughts and concerns and do his best within the structure of the law to accommodate as many people as he possibly can. But even just the fact of him changing his tact and treating it not as a formulaic situation, but something specific and unique to each individual was a huge factor in what changed him, what changed the fund and what the movie as a whole speaks to in terms of the possibly for government when run right by the people with the right intentions to do right by its citizens.

WORTH begins streaming on Netflix on June 3.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.