Max Borenstein is probably best known for being the architect of the MonsterVerse, as the only writer to have been credited on Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong. However, he’s recently been broadening his horizons to tackle a number of projects in different genres.
The 40 year-old penned and co-created Adam McKay and HBO’s star-studded upcoming series based on Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, while he also partnered up with Robert Rodriguez to crack the screenplay for high concept sci-fi thriller Hypnotic starring Ben Affleck, which is expected to start shooting in a matter of weeks.
Before that, though, Borenstein has Worth coming to Netflix on Friday. The biographical drama stars Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg, dealing with the implementation of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. It’s a passion project for the scribe, with his pitch initially making the 2008 Black List, and he’s stuck with it ever since.
In a new interview, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Borenstein about the project, where he dived deep into persevering with the project, his enthusiasm at the Obamas getting involved, the timeliness of the themes and much more, which you can check out below.
Obviously, since we last spoke, Godzilla vs. Kong went on to strong reviews and even bigger box office. Is it pleasing to know you had a hand in reigniting the box office with the second-biggest movie to be released since the start of 2020?
Yeah, that was a thrill, that was a real thrill. The timing became special, in being able to have a part in that movie, that we all needed in that moment, I think.
Worth first gained notice after landing on the 2008 Black List, but you’ve stuck with it ever since, so it’s clearly a project you hold very close to your heart. How close was the shooting script to the one you first wrote? Because a lot of time has elapsed since then.
Shockingly close, actually. You know, this is one where first of all, it’s based on a true story, but it’s certainly evolved over time. We made it better, we found nuances, it got better when the actors got involved. But it was really the same film it always was all that time. And that’s kind of… you hope that one day you can make it into something that people can actually watch, and to get to do that after all that time it felt like it would never happen, it’s a joy.
You wrote the script a long time ago, but the themes are still prescient today in terms of social upheaval and perceptions on the value of life, so the broad thematic strokes are as still as timely as they ever were.
It’s funny, I agree with you. I think they are much more timely now than they’ve ever been. At the time that I first wrote it, it was only six years after 9/11, I started it in 2007, and it was very close, and very raw. And even though the movie’s not about 9/11 as much as it’s about this aftermath and this idea of how a government sought to compensate the victims, played a role in the country and the people’s human journeys, to try and heal and move on with their lives.
Still, at the time the idea of a movie about 9/11 felt like it was too close, and too painful, and too raw. And time has allowed people to have perspective of how that aspect of it. It didn’t feel like an obstacle as much anymore, but at the same time we made this film before the pandemic, and we shot it before the pandemic, and what’s happened since with the pandemic has felt like it made the story so much more resonant right now in this moment, where we see the enormous tragedy of a proportion far larger than 9/11 that’s transpiring across the world, but also one in which we’re forced to depend on and trust the government.
In a way, our society has grown cynical, and the difference is it’s not cynical and antagonistic to the idea of government being able to do something positive to help the citizens, but in a way we’re in this situation where the problem is so large that it requires trust in government and our fellow citizens. And I think that this particular story about this moment in the aftermath of 9/11 is a relatively lesser-known story about that particular event.
Actually, I think it feels completely resonant with the challenge and, hopefully, an optimistic possibility right now that people across the aisles could in the past, in times of great political division, manage to come together in empathy and with a shared sense of responsibility and obligation. Not to their party, or their ideologies, but to their fellow citizens. To bond, and to make their lives a little better despite the loss and an imperfect system.
The financial implications of 9/11 to the victims’ families isn’t a point of view we typically see in movies about the attacks, and it’s something a lot of people outside of America might not even have considered, understood or even been aware of. Was that important to you cracking the story to give it that accessibility?
Yeah, you know I think the fund was started out of the pragmatic political need, and economic, to prevent lawsuits from cratering the airline industry and other industries. And so, in exchange for those people refusing or giving up their rights to sue, those people were going to be compensated. So it didn’t come into existence as an effort from the government to be nice to people, but the people, the functionaries including Ken who were part of it, were doing so out of a sense of responsibility and civic duty.
Which I think is an underappreciated value and virtue these days, when I think there’s a kind of self-centeredness to the way we approach our society. But that civic idea, and that idea of people that you’re seeing flare up more and more in activists and people kind of engaging with the process, is that civic duty is kind of what the film is about, you know? And Ken is a flawed protagonist in many ways, he’s a well-intentioned American who’s up to the task in terms of the administration of the fund, but he’s not up to the task initially, emotionally, as a guy who has bedside manner that will allow him to empathize and connect individually with all of these people, but that’s ultimately what the job requires from him.
It’s not in the initial memo, and to his credit he was able to in many ways grow as a human being and try his best to see things from a way that was as humane and as empathetic as he could. He wasn’t perfect, I don’t think he would say that he was, but I think it’s an inspiring redemptive idea for a lot of problems in our world, and we feel like we’d like to make them better, get involved, but to be overwhelmed by the possibility of it and our own issues. And I think, here was an instance where an ordinary guy in many ways, someone who’s not Mother Teresa, is able to get in there and actually grow himself, and do his part to try and make the lives of his fellow citizens better. I have no idea if I answered your question, but I talked!
Michael Keaton is also listed as producer along with yourself, was he heavily involved in putting his own stamp on the character, or does playing a real-life figure make that more difficult?
Yeah, well Michael’s obviously one of our finest actors, and he’s wonderful to work with, and when he came aboard he, as all great actors do, he was able to see all the aspects of the role that he connected to. And he was able to respond and polish the role a little bit. He brought a point of view to it and aspects to it that we were able to improve in big ways, just because of his acting. The great actors do characters in a way, from an angle, that writers can’t, and it’s part of that process. When he came on board, a polish was done to really bring the character out that much more.
Worth was shot in 2019, premiered in January 2020 but releases on Netflix in September 2021, so you must have gotten used to the waiting game when it’s been fifteen years in the making.
Sure, and the COVID of it all just created this extra wait! But, by that point I’d grown patient, certainly, and the biggest thrill over the course of the pandemic when we were waiting to try and figure out how and when we going to try and distribute the film came when we found out that President Barack and Michelle Obama had seen the film and really fallen for it, and came aboard to present the movie [via their Higher Ground Productions], which is just thrilling beyond belief.
It’d be a thrill no matter what, because I admire them so much, but I think it’s about government in so many ways, it’s about the way the government interacts with people. For them to give their stamp of approval, and for them to communicate that it feels authentic to what it’s like to try and work in government and the people who do it in a non-sensationalized way, in a real way, I thought that was a huge vote of confidence in all of us. It meant the world.
President Obama signed the Zadroga Act in 2011, and now his production company Higher Ground partnered with Netflix to distribute worth, which is an incredible coincidence that gives the movie an added layer of legacy, if that’s the right word.
Yeah, obviously 9/11 took place during the Bush administration, but Obama knew Ken and put Ken… In a funny way, like one of the reasons the film didn’t get made a lot sooner was because of the Obama administration, because President Obama, because of the great job Ken did with the fund, he’d given him the job of Pay Czar of the administration in 2008, and that moment in Ken’s career was part of him deciding that he didn’t want a film to be made about him at that point. In a funny way, that stalled the journey of the film for some years, but the idea that it’s all coming around full circle, and for them to be involved with the distributors and the presenters is kind of an amazing honor.
It’s a big question to ask – what is life worth? It’s sort of answered numerically, but did you always want to have people leaving the movie having that conversation among themselves?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s obviously an unanswerable question in any way other than spiritually, philosophically, whatever one turns to. There’s obviously no concrete answer of course, but we live in a world of concretes and a world of practicalities. And there’s another truth, which is when families are left behind, there are pragmatic costs and concerns, and things that might help them move on with their lives. And so, obviously there’s the philosophical quandary and there’s the job that Ken and his team have, and it’s not uncommon in our legal system where a number has to be assigned to life on some level.
It feels mean, and it feels wrong in some ways, but at the same time I think when it forces us to address it firsthand, and I think the film forces us to confront and question ‘what is life worth?’ in a larger philosophical and spiritual sense, I think it shakes us out of the everyday, mundane, pragmatic banality that we go through every day. That momentary joy in life is to get perspective on the fact, so I don’t think you’ll be able to walk out of the theater and answer that question, but for people to be able to watch the film and be moved, to think to look at their own lives and think, ‘God forbid, if it stopped on a dime what would it be worth today?’.
Feinberg was put in an unwinnable position, but did the best anyone could hope for under the circumstances, was it hard to balance the weight of the circumstances with humanizing someone as a protagonist that was all about the mission statement?
I think the challenge for us was just keeping it, you know, the actors and Sarah I think did it beautifully. Even though Ken is our protagonist and our way in, we’re not telling an Erin Brokovich story about some kind of crusader hero, it’s a much more nuanced and complicated thing. He’s going on a personal journey, where he grows and changes and evolves, and becomes a more empathetic, better person over the course of the story. But he doesn’t own the story, he’s kind of our point of view, our way in.
That is to say, all of us who experienced that tragedy or other big events and aren’t directly affected, but want to play a part in helping and find themselves overwhelmed or incapable of fixing problems right now. So, what do we do in a world where the problems are so much larger than us? How do we engage? How to engage on both a human level, you know, you’re telling citizens who’ve lost more than you, and how do you engage in larger levels whether it’s activists or in politics or whatever, in a way that you can make a difference?
You wrote the script and it’s your first producer’s credit on a movie, does that generate extra nerves and responsibility, or is it a greater sense of ownership and influence?
Both. You know, I think we felt a responsibility to the sensitivity of the subject matter, to do a really beautiful job and do our best. And also, on a personal level, it was something that I’d been pushing up that hill for so long, but I felt a responsibility to all that on the project, to really make sure that we didn’t leave anything on the table. And I think, thanks to wonderful collaborators, it’s something we’re really proud of.
That concludes our interview with Max Borenstein. Worth is coming to Netflix this Friday, September 3rd, and you can check out our review here.