Collateral Beauty had a long Hollywood history before director David Frankel came on board. Hugh Jackman was attached at one point and Rachel McAdams had been approached to play a part.
The long development came to an end when Will Smith signed on to play Howard Inlet, a charismatic advertising kingpin who becomes despondent after the death of his six-year-old daughter.
“When I came on it, it felt like it was written in stone,” says Frankel. “Everybody loved the screenplay and we were going in three months and then people started whispering, ‘I wish we could fix that.’ So it turned out to be a pretty normal development process where we tried a lot of stuff.
“Once the actors got involved, Professor Will Smith, Professor Edward Norton and Professor Kate Winslet, there was a lot more writing. Mostly condensing. Edward had this brilliant vision of the movie as a screwball comedy, which I think was really smart. Will always said, ‘We have to make the first half of the movie as funny as possible so that we don’t kill people.’ We worked on that.”
The changes continued into the shooting. In the story Howard spends his nights practising self-therapy, writing angry letters to the abstractions of Time, Love and Death demanding answers as to why his child was taken. In the original script he met the abstractions, personified by Jacob Latimore, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, in a different order than in the finished film.
“It was written where he first ran into Love, then Time then Death,” says Frankel. “We shot them in the order, Death, Time, Love so as we were approaching Love Will and I were still arguing about whether Love should be first or last in the sequence.
“We had prepped for six months up to that moment thinking Love was first. He came to me the day before and said, ‘I think Love should be last.’ I fought him tooth and nail about it because I really thought that moment on the train when he confronts Death was the pivotal moment and then it rained and because of the weather (the shots) wouldn’t have matched. The sequence wouldn’t have made sense.
“Of course Will said, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ But Will Smith got his way. Big surprise.”
The movie details the anguish Howard feels and the steps his friends take to help him reconnect with the world.
“I have seen some pretty profound grief,” says Frankel. “My wife lost her mom six years ago and grief really can distort someone’s connection to the universe. I learned you don’t just get over it. That’s why the line Helen (Mirren) has, I think is the most profound line in the movie. ‘Nothing is really ever dead if you look at it right.’
“That I thought was really beautiful. That is how we all live on, in memory, not in fact.”
It may seem like an odd subject for a Christmas film but Frankel says, “In holiday movies you always want a sense of hope. That’s ultimately what we dreamed of for this movie.
“I know when Will saw it for the first time he ran to hug Willow who was in the audience with him. People want to connect and realize the fragility of our time here.”