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‘Windfall’: How an Idea From Jason Segel, the Writer of ‘Seven’ and a Pandemic Spawned the Netflix Thriller

Writers Andrew Kevin Walker and Justin Lader detail the origins and execution of their new film

“Seven” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker is not used to working with a co-writer. And yet he jumped at the prospect of working with his friends on a contained, film noir-inspired thriller.

“Windfall” – which is now streaming on Netflix – stars Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins as a wealthy couple who arrive at their vacation home, only to happen upon a stranger in the middle of robbing the place. That stranger then holds them hostage, and what plays out is an incisive and acerbic thriller all set in one location.

The stranger is played by Jason Segel, who originated the idea that would become “Windfall.” Segel, Walker, co-writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell are all friends who were called to a Zoom meeting by Segel during the pandemic to figure out if this idea might be worth turning into a film.

For Walker – a frequent collaborator of David Fincher’s who wrote films like “Fight Club,” “The Game” and “Sleepy Hollow” – the collective screenwriting process was a first. “You go into anyone pitching an idea, you’re going, ‘It’s their idea. How am I going to get my head around it?’” Walker told TheWrap. “It’s not a matter of judgment, it’s just a matter of how can that kismet happen. And much to my chagrin, as we built the story I got more and more excited about the fact that this would actually be something I would be interested in participating in and trying to contribute to.”

For a writer of his caliber, Walker is extremely humble and self-deprecating. “I just want to emphasize that the thing for me that usually keeps me from participating in something is a certainty that I bring nothing to the table,” he said, prompting co-writer Justin Lader to respond that Walker is mistaken during the paired interview.

Lader and McDowell had worked together previously on “The One I Love,” another contained thriller, and the dark 2017 Netflix film “The Discovery.” The two were originally set to make a different movie in June 2020, but the pandemic had other plans. “Under this shroud of uncertainty, the feeling was is there a way that we can make something small, and most importantly safely, while we don’t know what the future holds,” Lader said, describing the experience of writing a movie with Walker. “Other than just the joy of actually getting something produced, it was for me personally just an amazing experience getting at first to just hang out with four friends for a few hours a day and spitball, and then actually getting to sit and write via Zoom with not only one of my screenwriting heroes, but somebody who’s become one of my best friends.”

While Walker, Lader, McDowell and Segel worked out the story of “Windfall” together, it soon became clear that Walker and Lader would write the actual screenplay. In Walker’s case, that meant breaking out a new composition notebook – yes, just like the ones John Doe uses in “Seven.” “I do write in marble notebooks. Those composition notebooks that John Doe has in ‘Seven,’ that’s a tradition that continues.”

windfall-cast
Netflix

Since “Windfall” takes place entirely in one house, knowing the logistics of the location was important for writing the script. “I believe it was Charlie masked, Jason masked, me on a Zoom, Justin on a Zoom, and they walked us through [the house] with a phone,” Walker recalled. “We literally went from room to room and discussed where things would probably happen, and what the layout was, and how to best use the variety of different rooms and spaces there.”

As the story of “Windfall” plays out, it becomes clear that this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill hostage thriller. Each character represents a different rung on the socio-economic ladder, and as the drama unfolds, their position informs how they react to different events. That idea was there from the very beginning, the writers revealed, but Lader says they were aware of a fine line they had to toe. “You have to sort of be careful how you modulate it, because you don’t want it to be so subtle that nobody understands it, and you don’t want it to be too obvious that you’re kind of hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer.”

“We definitely were looking at it as a play,” Walker allowed. “We definitely were looking to embrace that process-driven kind of storytelling of which is so what ‘Better Call Saul’ feels about sometimes. Like a situation where you’re really trying to embrace the reality of it, and let that reality really be defining.”

Indeed, “Windfall” is a home invasion film that answers frequent audience questions like, What happens when someone has to go to the bathroom? Where do they sleep? When do they eat? Through the banality of reality, we witness more of the interplay between the three main characters, and it’s through action and reaction that we learn more about who they really are.

“Windfall” manages to reveal just enough about the backstories of its characters. When asked whether they considered shedding even more light on where these characters’ origins, Lader admits even the writers didn’t agree on certain details. “It’s one of those things that are open to interpretation and quite honestly, there were times – and this has happened before when I’ve worked with Charlie on stories – Andy and I actually disagreed with the interpretation, which is fine because it’s subjective. We knew all the answers to that.”

Walker added, “Anybody’s interpretation of it, in my opinion, is equally or more apt or defining than our interpretation of it.”

One thing they did agree on was keeping the characters nameless. Segel’s character is credited as “Nobody;” Collins is “Wife” and Plemons plays “CEO.” “Calling him Nobody so defined him as the way he was seen, and it only made sense to go and just make every person nameless” Walker explained, while acknowledging the whole conceit is somewhat pretentious. “There’s nothing better than pretending that you’re an artist and allowing yourself to be pretentious, and that conceit is pretty pretentious. But, I love that kind of stuff. There’s a reason that ‘Seven’ was set in a city that’s never named.”

From the onset, they didn’t want the characters as presented to be so strictly black and white. “One of the things that Andy said early on, that I loved, is that at certain points in the movie each of them should make a good argument,” Lader said. Conversely, at certain points each character makes a bad argument. It’s all in service of the realistic nature of the film — life is a world full of greys, and no one is wholly this or wholly that. “We just really didn’t want to tip the scales so the audience would root for one person above the others,” Lader added.

The result is a hostage film unlike any other, one replete with Hitchcock homages but fully its own thing. And as the story unfolds, the viewer may find their allegiance or empathy changing. It’s a testament to Walker and Lader’s sharp screenplay, a trio of impeccable performances, and McDowell’s assured and patient direction that it all plays out in such compelling and convincing fashion.

“Windfall” is now streaming on Netflix.

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