Philadelphia natives Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal first met when they were 10 and 11 years old, respectively, at summer camp. Being, by their own admission, the least athletic kids at the camp, they spent a lot of time “making stuff up,” in Sternthal’s words. They’ve been collaborating ever since. While Klugman has had a busy career as an actor, starring in the film “Cloverfield” and appearing in various episodes of dozens of TV shows, Sternthal says he’s “much happier behind the camera.”
Klugman and Sternthal are about to see their first film as co-writer/directors, “The Words,” hit the big screen on Sept. 7. The film stars another childhood friend, Bradley Cooper, who has known Klugman since they were classmates at elementary school and met Sternthal through a mutual friend. A passion project over a decade in the making, the film stars Cooper as a struggling writer named Rory who comes across a lost manuscript that he passes off as his own. Though fame and fortune follow, Rory finds himself struggling with issues of truth and identity. It’s a powerful performance from Cooper, best known for his work in comedies, who leads an all-star cast that includes Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, and Jeremy Irons.
I think artists are particularly fascinated by the subject of plagiarism. How did this story come to you two?
Brian Klugman: It actually started with us stuck in the middle of a traffic jam and telling stories of writers who had lost their work, from Hemingway to T.E. Lawrence. It became kind of a “what if?” game. What if you found a work by Hemingway that was lost?
Lee Sternthal: This was in 1999 and from that conversation, we came home and wrote the first 40 pages of the movie, which largely remains unchanged. The plagiarism became a really good metaphor to talk about these questions of being an artist, being a person in this world, and loss, and romance.
Why did the film take so long to get made?
Sternthal: I think it was a very precocious script and it was hard for two unknown 25-year-olds to walk into an office with our unshaven little baby faces and convince people to take a chance.
Klugman: The movie came together and fell apart quite a few times in those years. It almost got made a few times until finally we said, “We are sticking with this no matter what.”
Sternthal: That was about three years ago. And honestly, the film would not have gotten made without Bradley. “The Hangover” came out right after he agreed to do this film, and he stayed so true to it despite everything that came at him.
Klugman: He came to the first reading of the script back in 2000. He sat in the audience and afterwards he said, “I really want to do this.” When the opportunity came 12 years later, he stuck with us all the way down the line.
How exciting is it to be showing a whole new side of Bradley Cooper to audiences?
Sternthal: I think to the world it will be a new side but to us, it’s just another facet of the kind of actor and artist he is that we’ve known forever. He’s such a truthful actor, and so well trained and instinctual, that there was no question he was the guy to do it.
Klugman: We cast him because we thought he would be amazing and he was down to do it. We were so fortunate. We never questioned that he could do it. He’s a tremendous actor and he’s got incredible range.
How did you go about assembling the rest of this ensemble?
Klugman: Bradley was the first one on and Jeremy Irons came on after that. Once we had those two in place, coupled with the script, I think it became intriguing to actors. It just kept happening, actors kept signing on—Zoe Saldana and JK Simmons and Ben Barnes and Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde. I couldn’t believe it.
Sternthal: It’s pretty amazing. We had a board in our production office with our cast on it and I think at one point we looked at each other like, “Are you kidding me? How did this happen?” When you wait a decade to make a film and then you get to make one with that caliber of actors, we were so lucky.
Did the casting change any of the roles as you’d originally envisioned them?
Klugman: When Zoe came on board, she had such passion and gusto and such a connection with Bradley, we actually changed things. It became even more romantic. She really became the heart of the movie.
Sternthal: Originally, I think it was singularly focused on the character of Rory, and Zoe brought such intelligent choices to the role [of Dora], it really became about the two of them and the effects this has on their relationship. It was a huge contribution on her part.
Brian, how do you think your career as an actor helped you work with actors as a first-time director?
Klugman: I think directing is a lot about having actors trust you, and I think having that shorthand is incredibly helpful.
Sternthal: I think his years of experience on sets and having gone through just about every experience an actor can go through, good and bad, really lends him to be able to really know what actors need. It’s obviously an invaluable skill and talent to have.
What’s up next for you two? Will you continuing collaborating?
Klugman: This interview is the last time we’ll actually talk to each other. (Laughs) Yeah, we have a couple of amazing projects in the pipeline right now and we’re writing some really great stuff.
Sternthal: We’d love to make another movie real soon, if someone will let us.
“The Words” will be released in theaters Sept. 7.