There's not much glamor found in high school wrestling. And Win Win does a pretty good job of showing it.
Here is the latest film from director Tom McCarthy, who is a former high school wrestler turned actor (The Wire), turned writer (Up) turned director. He goes back to his roots for this story, but not to dress up or romanticize the sport. He dispensed with making it glamorous the moment he cast Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, the team coach.
Mike is coaching a pretty lousy team when we meet him. He's also got a lousy law practice on the verge of closing. Barely holding on, Mike finds a way to rake in some extra money by acting as the caretaker for one of his clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young). But his definition of a caretaker is to send him away to a nursing home. It's a shady thing to do, abandoning an old guy like that and collecting money from him every month. But it's also the sort of thing I could see a lawyer doing.
There's a bit of karmic payback once Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) tries to visit. Mike lets him visit his grandpa at the nursing home, and when he learns he's run away from his mother with no place to go, his guilt won't let him abandon the kid. So Kyle moves into Mike's place and becomes another member of the family.
He keeps him around for awhile because Mike discovers that Kyle has amazing wrestling talent. He convinces him to compete on the team, and their relationship evolves into a mentorship.
This is Alex Shaffer's first film. He was picked by McCarthy for his wrestling skills, and mostly mumbles and tumbles his way through the story. He guards his emotions, he shrugs a lot, and he keeps mostly to himself, like any teenager. It's a role tailored for Alex, and he looks pretty comfortable on screen.
It's obvious McCarthy wanted to keep the story grounded in authenticity, and he does a decent job. There's nothing high-spirited about the wrestling matches. The bleachers are usually empty. McCarthy doesn't limit himself to the wrestling scenes, either.
There are other moments that feel borrowed from true experience. Like the huge tree in Mike's yard that his wife nags him about cutting down. Or the boiler in his office that keeps making weird clanging noises. Those are the everyday nuisances that you would expect to find in the life of someone like Mike Flaherty.
Giamatti has a natural talent for making us laugh and making us feel sorry for him at the same time. That helps explain why he can play the everyman character. He does what he can as a coach, and as a father and a husband. The results are never perfect, but that's what makes him feel like a richly developed character.
McCarthy gets the most important thing right. He finds the humor in all of that awkward family drama.
2 ½ stars out of 4.
Win Win opened in Denver over the weekend.
I recently sat down with director Tom McCarthy and actor Alex Shaffer to discuss the making of the film.
Richard: How challenging was it to get a movie about high school wrestling made?
Tom McCarthy: What says big box office more than high school wrestling? Nothing. It wasn't hard actually. I think I'm probably in a unique position, but this movie came together very quickly. [Fox Searchlight] had one concern that it was just a sports movie and I think I had to point out to them that it wasn't, that it was about much more than that. That there was a sports theme to it, which I thought would be a lot of fun and provide a lot of energy, but ultimately it was about a family.
RK: I don't have much experience with wrestling, but there's some scenes where there aren't many people watching it. It had that authenticity to it.
TM: That's exactly what that was. A lot of times we'd go and there would be literally 10, 15 people in the stands. These kids would be out there in the madness, this big gym, and there would be like, [makes sound of one guy clapping]. It would be really kind of depressing. And then you go to some of the tournaments and bigger matches, and people are rocking, so it really depends.
RK: Tom, what was your experience with high school wrestling? I know you co-wrote it with a lawyer (Joe Tiboni).
TM: Yeah he's a lawyer and also one of my oldest friends. He was also a high school wrestler, so there's that. Our experience was different than Alex's, different than Kyle's. I was a pretty good wrestler but really just pretty good. Joe wasn't so good. Our team was actually good. But you know it's hard to recall. I just remember elements of it I liked, and elements of it I hated. I can't say I have much more takeaway than that. I can vividly remember practices, and matches, and being on the bus, and tournaments in the summer.
RK: So there wasn't much nostalgia for it.
TM: No, it wasn't like reliving the glory days.
RK: Alex, this was your first film role. What was it like to act across Paul Giamatti?
Alex Shaffer: The best way to put it is -- it was a lot of fun. I've never done anything like this before, and I really just jumped into it right after wrestling. I could have been very intimidated, and scared, what I normally should have been feeling. And it could have been really bad, they could have treated me like I was just a kid who came in that was just doing this. 'This kid's never acted before, why are we dealing with him.'
TM: Why are we giving him any words!
AS: But they were all very supportive, very nice, and made me feel very comfortable on set. I always had a lot of fun working with Paul.
RK: Tom, did you want to find an actor who could wrestle or find a wrestler who could act? What was the priority for you in casting the role.
TM: It became very quickly evident that I was going to need to find a wrestler. Scenes were just written in such a way that you didn't want to fake it. There were four to five college wrestlers last night at the screening. I asked, what did you guys think? The guy's like, 'I was kind of surprised, it was very real.' [laughs] And that's what we were going for. It's not always the case with filmmaking but stories like this, I think it's essential.
RK: What were the things you had to have? Was there a list of certain things you wanted?
TM: No, I think whatever was inherent in the scene was our focus. 'Let's make this real.' It was written that way. The number of fans in the stands, the way they come out, the way the coaches talk, the vibe, the lighting. It was written that way, to be an honest portrayal, an authentic depiction of what I would go and see. Little things, like the regional tournament where Kyle loses his shit. They have this orange, traffic, what's that, plastic gating around the mats? So I saw that, and it was so weird that they have this. Usually you see them at construction sites.
There's something appropriate about that, because it's a really blue collar spot. There ain't nothing fancy about wrestling. It's a tough sport. You see it in the kids, and the folks that attend it. It's a different vibe. Even with parents in the stands there's a different vibe. Because it's one thing to look out there and watch your son losing in a basketball game. It's another thing to see your son losing and getting his butt kicked. It brings out a different emotion in parents.
RK: Alex, your character in the film is always confident about his chances against his opponents. Were you that way when you were wrestling in real life?
AS: Yes, I wish I wasn't as cocky as I always was in wrestling. But that was one thing I was always so cocky with.
TM: How would that play itself out?
AS: There are some funny things in the newspaper that I would respond to. One of the things [the newspaper] asked me was what I thought going into the tournament. I said, 'I didn't look at my bracket, I just thought I was gonna win.' I was always extremely cocky and always thought I was gonna win. It was just how I felt about the sport. And I always told myself that I was gonna win states and nobody believed me. Lots of people gave me shit on the wrestling team.
TM: Look, you're obviously a really good wrestler. And there's a part of an athlete that has to have that mentality. I don't think it's all wrong.
RK: It's cool to see that on the screen. In terms of "finding your character" for the film, did you have to find one?
AS: It was kind of hard to get into character, since me and Kyle were so different. Tom set me up with an acting coach, and she helped me a lot. Some things I would think before scenes was what this kid has gone through, not just what is happening now, but what happened one week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, a year ago. Just what he's gone through. What this kid's gone through is more than what I've ever gone through.
RK: Tom what did you to help Alex, since this was his first role? Did you do anything on set to help him, shooting sequentially?
TM: We couldn't really shoot sequentially because we didn't have that option in terms of the schedule. That said, the way the character is written, and it's one of the many reasons I thought a non-actor might apply for this role, the kid's pretty monosyllabic. A lot of 'yeah, nuh, uh huh, what?' until he starts to open up. So we would start with some of those easier scenes just to get him warmed up. Even if you've been an actor for awhile, your first movie set is kind of, oh wow, this is a lot. And he maybe had the luxury of not understanding any of it, just being present. Paul and Amy were a lot of fun, and we have actors that are that generous and keep it light. Your job is just to play along with them. I think he learned a lot like kids learn on a playground. You watch the older kids do it and think, that's how I'm gonna do it.
As a director there's a lot to catch him up on, and there's a lot to protect him from. Just keep focused on the goal, which is to be present. How does he get ready for scenes? The answer is always in the script. It's not like you have to create everything. If the script is good, the answer is to commit to the script. You can really boil it down to that. You gotta do your homework but then you have to find your answers in the story, and in the actors.
RK: Alex, are you still wrestling, or will you continue acting?
AS: I'm going to do acting. I'm just focusing on becoming better. I was gonna wrestle this year but I ended up injuring my back, so I am really just focused on acting.
Follow Richard Karpala on Twitter: www.twitter.com/karpala