Jim Rash & Nat Faxon have been comedic forces individually for awhile now, as evidenced by Rash's scene-stealing role as Dean Craig Pelton on NBC's Community and Faxon's memorable turns in films such as Walk Hard and Bad Teacher. However, they've also been creative collaborators since their time with legendary comedy troupe The Groundlings. They were awarded a "Best Adapted Screenplay" Oscar (with director/co-writer Alexander Payne) for 2011 dramedy The Descendants, and for their next project, they've not just penned the script but also co-directed coming of age tale The Way Way Back.
The film stars young Liam James as troubled youth Duncan, who must contend with his mother's overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) while learning lessons from young-at-heart rebel Owen (Sam Rockwell) about the truly important things in life. Also featuring memorable appearances by Toni Collette (as Duncan's mother), Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and Maya Rudolph (not to mention Rash & Faxon themselves), The Way Way Back is a charming film that packs a lot of laughs and a lot of heart into its breezy 103 minutes.
I had a chance to talk to the twosome at length recently, and was absolutely delighted to be able to pick their brains about how the film, which spent some time sitting on the screenwriting "black list" (the annual compilation of the best unproduced screenplays floating in the Hollywood ether), finally came to fruition, how they breakdown their creative partnership, and how Rash feels about the late word that his sitcom Community had garnered a last-second renewal from NBC:
Jim, I read in the notes that the first scene of the film started with an experience you had. I was wondering if you could expound on how you found the kernel of a story in that experience.
Jim: Yeah. It's true. We went into this with two things. We had a fondness for water parks and going to them, and growing up on the East Coast and destination vacations and all the things that come with that and the connection of that. But then we had this sort of story that I had shared with Nat, that was pretty much verbatim what you see in the very beginning of the movie in which my stepfather and I had that conversation in the station wagon on our way to our summer vacations in Michigan.
We'd go every year. In our second year maybe going he had this conversation where he asked me what I thought I was on a scale of one to ten, and I said "six," thinking "above average," and he said "three," and then went on to say pretty much what Trent said which is in his mind this great lesson, as mine was. "I'm telling you to go out, and meet people and take advantage of your summer, not stick around your mom and me all the time." And I think the kernel that stuck out with me, looking back on it, was when you think of a quintessential moment for a coming of age, you think of an inciting incident like that and this challenge.
It presented itself with a great way for us to launch our character and almost immediately connect to who our protagonist was and also to do it in sort of a surprising way as far as having this against-type performance from Carrell and launching us into this trajectory form. And for me, I knew this was a cathartic moment for me when we were using it but also looking back on it. I think that's the test of a good... a litmus test for a good launching point for the movie.
Now, who is the "Owen" in your lives?
Jim: Each other.
Nat: Well, you're more Duncan and I'm Owen...
Jim: Oh, that's true. I have nothing to offer.
Nat: In this relationship.
Jim: I mean the movie. We sort of help each other.
Jim: I wish I could say I have an exact connection for other than the inspiration for the beginning. I think whether people's...their mentor comes in the form of a teacher or a family member or something. I mean look at people that influenced me but I didn't know if I had that sort of "I'm going to take you under my wing" person.
Nat: I had an older cousin, Josh, that was a mentor for me when I was a kid. I remember definitely making the transition from little cousin boy to come along with me and hang with me and my friends and do the...be included in different parties and surf tricks and things like that. So, I certainly remember that transition. And as far as the movie it was really the template. We thought it was Bill Murray from Meatballs, and when we thought of who today best represents that, we thought of Sam Rockwell.
Well, the movie ended and I was just like, "I want to be buddies with Sam Rockwell."
Jim: Yeah, and if you meet Sam Rockwell, you'd really want him to be your buddy.
Jim: ...because he is very personable and very extroverted in the sense that he just really feeds off people and he takes them in and is very affectionate. It's like all the things that you would hope for.
Jim: He makes them come true.
Nat: Very thoughtful too. I think he's very...which comes across, I think, in the movie, in the sense that he's very charismatic, but it's very grounded and real. Sam is very much that way, I think, as a person in general too where it doesn't feel like this false, "I'm going to be your best friend, here we are." There's a depth and caring-ness to him as a person which I think he really taps into for this part.
Just to pick up on what you just said, the notion of a very grounded and real. I think that informs the film in general and I think that's something that I really glommed onto was that the characters are not cookie cutter. I mean even Trent who is arguably the antagonist, you can't help but want to like him.
Obviously a part of that is Steve Carrell because we love Steve Carrell, but specifically what I'm thinking of is the moment when Duncan overhears Trent when he's talking to Amanda Peet. He overhears him saying, "Get away." I thought that was a very interesting choice where you guys decided to add that level of complexity. I'm wondering did you face...was this part of the resistance you faced in just trying to get the movie made where studios probably want something more broad and easily broken down.
Jim: Well, speaking to the character design of Trent, I don't know if that totally answers that piece of it, but it was important for us to have that moment on the side of the house, in the sense that we always imagine that he's this imperfect person, this tragic male character, who proclaims what he wants but he has no...he's unable to obtain it. His actions don't speak to that. And even in that moment he's stuck in this vicious cycle where he can...he knows he's making a mistake.
And I think that's what makes him sympathetic. "You need to change. You need to evolve, or you're going to be alone," in our heads. And...'cause think a lot of people look for this overall arc with their character. Like, "What's he going to learn? What'ss she going to learn? How will she change?" And he doesn't really. He's stuck like this. I don't know if people have resistance so much to that. I think that...I would say that sometimes people get afraid of when you're balancing comedy and drama. For the most part the people that we connected with understood the movie.
Nat: Yeah, it was really more about finding actors that have the...I think, like Steve, for example, who had the courage to understand that there was no huge lesson for Trent at the end of the movie, that he is this tragic male character. I think it takes someone to branch out a little bit and to tackle something like that.
It's more about having actors I think that are courageous enough to play those parts or to...for example, Toni Collette's character who is for the most part an observer and, like Duncan, a fish out of water for most of the front of the movie.
Doesn't have probably a ton of lines on all those pages but I think clearly understood how to internalize this into...for us to see all of those emotions that she's going through subtly with her face and to visually show us those things as opposed to have to say them all. I think it takes really courageous and talented people to recognize that.
I was wondering if you could elaborate on your own process as collaborators both in terms of writing and directing. How does the byplay work between the two of you?
Jim: Well, on the writing side thing, which we've had much more experience doing together, I think all writing partners have different processes and they probably evolve day to day because they just need to. I think for us we...coming from the Groundlings, we're already coming from a place where you're sort of this ensemble mentality and you're writing with each individual person and along with yourself so you adapt to each other's tastes and strengths and weaknesses and stuff. I think for us, we're not really a divvy-up group.
We don't go off and separate ourselves and, "You take that and I'll take that and we'll reconvene after that scene is written." We're more often - certainly in the early stages -
together as far as breaking the story and the outline and the treatment and stuff, and improvising our way through story and even in the rewriting of scenes I think is...it's fun to be a part of that coming from my improv background. As far as directing, I think again we just worked in tandem because we were friends before writing partners, and writing partners before directors.
They all went hand-in-hand and I think we just operate as a team. We would confer and one would go and speak to the actors. Take turns doing that so we didn't inundate them with both of our nasally voices and...we just approached it as we've been actors first and sort of, we knew this story. We know these characters. We know how to talk about the intention of all these scenes with our fellow actors. Give them the trust and respect that we would want for ourselves and we went from there.
Last question. Jim, were you as surprised as the fans to know that Community was coming back?
Jim: Yeah. I don't think I've ever been fully sure we're coming back. We've always been on the bubble. I think we were born in the bubble. (laughs) I was pleasantly surprised 'cause I knew it could either way, especially when NBC cleaned house. When I saw that Parks was picked up I was like, "That makes sense to me, for sure." I was like, "I hope we're included in that company," and then as you watch each one happen before we even heard. I was like, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe they're just going for it..."
It was down to the wire.
Jim: Down to the wire. So, very happy but then obviously beyond belated that Dan [Harmon] and Chris [McKenna]...
So, that's official?
Jim: That is official, for sure. Yeah. I think there are already wheels spinning. I think their deals are closed and we're moving forward so...it'll be exciting.
That is exciting.
Well, good luck with the film. Again, I'm spreading the word. I think it's fantastic.
Great thanks to Jim Rash & Nat Faxon for their time. The Way Way Back is playing in theaters now, and it's the perfect antidote for folks who might be feeling a bit deadened from the usual summer movie sturm-and-drang, featuring a terrific cast and a terrific message.