EXCLUSIVE: Twenty-two years ago — longer than the young star of The Bachelors Josh Wiggins has been alive — writer-director Kurt Voelker and then-producer Matt Baer began a friendship. Kurt was just out of film school, and Baer was working at management company Brillstein-Grey. They began working on a film based on a popular video game at the time called Leisure Suit Larry. That picture never got made, but a more important film did — The Bachelors starring J.K. Simmons, which premieres 6:15 PM tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival at the Archlight in Culver City.

The film, which will be released by Freestyle later this year, is a powerful tale about what happens to people after losing someone and how environments can influence the outcome. The film, which has great moments of levity, is about a widower (Simmons) and the relationship with his son (Josh Wiggins) as they try to deal with death. Julie Delpy and Odeya Rush also star.

Finding then-17-year-old Wiggins was a challenge.

“J.K. told me, find someone who could, ‘at least, possibly be biologically-related to me,’ and that actually ruled out a lot of kids,” laughed Voelker.

The writer-director said Simmons signed on well before he won the Oscar for Whiplash: “And when I say signed on, we met him at a coffee shop and he said right away, ‘I want to do it.’ There was no hesitation or equivocation with him.”

Wiggins got in just under the wire. Voelker, who both wrote and directed The Bachelors, and Baer were interested in him, but had been kept waiting for an audition tape from his reps. Baer was just about to give up and offer the role to another actor when Voelker hurriedly emailed him, literally writing  “HOLD THE PHONE.” He had finally received the audition tape and was impressed. After a reading was set up between Wiggins and Simmons, the port was offered. “It was not an easy role. It was a tall order especially for an adolescent boy, but he really pulled it off,” said the director.

The filmmakers didn’t know it until after they cast him, but Wiggins himself had suffered a loss. A year before, his own mother had died, making the scenes in the film about the death of his character’s mother and how it affected him as real as you can get. “That was reliving something that was very recent for him,” said Baer.

The result is a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to relationships in the process and how crucial mental health care can be, no matter your age.

Patrick Meade Jones

The script was written nine years ago and Baer read it right before his movie Unbroken got going. He sparked immediately to the material and never wanted to let it go. “That kind of passion you really need for an independent film,” said Voelker.

At the time Baer read it, he was going through his own battle with grief and depression after losing his father. “It was crucial to me personally and professionally that I get the movie made because I wanted to support something that accurately rendered what it feels like both as a parent and as a man to go through a traumatic loss and come out the other side,” said Baer. “It was deeply personal to me. The mental health arena couldn’t be more important right now to try to educate people. In this film, you see two generations dealing with the same thing. Grief is the same no matter the age.”

They developed a draft of the script and gave it to Simmons, who came aboard, but they had to wait a year for the actor’s schedule to clear because Whiplash was being released and then it was onto the awards circuit for four months. Meanwhile, Voelker was writing the NBC drama Game Of Silence for a season, which took him out of commission for a year. They eventually got Windowseat Entertainment to finance the film.

“I didn’t come at this to tell a story about grief and depression first. I kinda found my way there,” said Voelker. “I began with the story about a father and a son on their own and starting their lives over again. That came first. And then my creative exploration was what kind of challenges are they facing?”

He said today there is not a lot of attention given to the kind of physiological toll that grief can take on a human body. He remembered in his research reading a New York Times headline from the late 1800s that read “Colonel Smith Succumbs to Grief.

“You wouldn’t see that article now, but the truth is that grief really does have a direct impact on your cardiovascular system, your immune system, all the systems in your body. You literally can die from it,” said Voelker. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that we had medical professionals come up to us after screenings and say, ‘Wow, you really nailed this. That is what I see every day.’ When you go into an area that’s under-addressed in film, you have a big responsibility. We went out of our way to have a doctor who practices ECT (a certain kind of therapy Simmons’ character chooses to have) in the room while we were shooting the scene to make sure we were doing everything right. It feels really good to know that, at least thus far, the people who know this world intimately believe we were true to it.”

The film combines this deep understanding with humor as these flawed characters try to find their way to each other. In one instance, the very French Delpy (who plays the possible love interest to Simmons) is almost like an awkward Annie Hall trying to read the complicated la-dee-dahs of a fellow teacher who is certainly trying to hit on her in the break room.

To get away from the him, she walks straight up to Simmons and blurts out, “We haven’t met but if you could pretend to talk to me that would be most appreciated. In my country, we sometimes say, ‘Better the stranger than the one you know.’ ” He smiles and says, “Oh, right. I think our expression is anyone but him.”

Said Voelker: “A lot of it is about watching people struggle to connect. People who are in pain trying to figure out how to do something about it, but in very human, flawed and clumsy ways. At the end, it is hopeful, because they find their way there — to learn that you can survive it — and one of paths to that is through each other, through connections, through love. I wanted to end this movie with this rag tag, misfit family (that emerges) … I call them life survivors.”