Collateral Beauty director hopes the movie can be inspirational to audiences in a time of darkness

Director David Frankel.
Director David Frankel.PHOTO: REUTERS

Within Collateral Beauty, a story about a man grieving over the death of his daughter, there is a seemingly out-of-place plot development in which the man's co-workers try to con him out of his share of the company.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006; Marley & Me, 2008) embraced the twist.

He also told his illustrious cast of actors, which includes Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Michael Pena and Edward Norton, to lean into the juxtaposition of absurdity and sadness.

"It's a wacky plot that these guys put into effect. It requires grand ambition and maybe a bit of suspension of disbelief," he says.

"I encouraged Michael, Ed, Kate and even Will - though it sounds strange - to at least play the first half of the movie like a screwball comedy," says the 57-year-old director on the telephone from his home in Miami, Florida.

In the movie, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, Pena, Norton and Winslet play Howard's (Smith) co-workers who are trying to dislodge him from the firm because grief has unhinged him. They hire three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Jacob Latimore, each pretending to be someone else, to carry out the deception.

"The actors play actors and I encouraged them to focus on the simplest part, which was that they were struggling artists in a small theatre in the East Village," he says.

Frankel knows his way around comedies, having helmed the hit The Devil Wears Prada and the successful Marley & Me.

He is also aware of how lucky he is, given how rare it is that a big-budget drama, starring such a large cast of A-listers, is greenlit.

"Movies have gotten so expensive, it's difficult to take chances. It's going to cost tens of millions of dollars to market that and the target audience is so small, especially if it's about a difficult topic," he says.

This is why, in the last few decades, studios have preferred to invest in sequels or movies with brands that are easier to market.

Not surprisingly, there is some Oscar chatter around Collateral Beauty, which costs US$36 million (S$52.2 million) to make, according to reports. Its cast reads like a who's who of award winners - Mirren has an Oscar and four nominations, Winslet has one Oscar and six nominations, Norton has three nominations, while Knightley has two.

It still takes a lot of courage to get a film like this made, Frankel notes.

"You see, time after time, those six Oscar-nominated movies gross less than one really popular movie that year," he says.

He is glad that the movie is being released now, around the holiday season, when he thinks its message of hope will do the most good.

The national mood in the United States - with one-half gloating and the other grieving in the wake of last year's presidential election that Mr Donald Trump won - could do with a dose of optimism, he thinks.

"It's been a terrible year. We have a divided nation, politically and socially. We thought that a movie showing how it's possible to get through a period of darkness and loss could be inspirational," he says.

•Collateral Beauty opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'Director's absurd take on dealing with grief'. Print Edition | Subscribe