The dream, as it is usually imagined and, in rare cases realized, is to leave behind the small town and shine in the bright lights of Hollywood. Turning that formula around, Thomas McCarthy proved that you can go home again -- and in doing so, achieved his greatest success to date with the Paul Giamatti-starring hit film "Win Win."
The film's genesis, McCarthy, an actor/writer/director perhaps most instantly recognizable as Dr. Bob from the "Meet the Parents" films, explained, was trading emails with his childhood friend Joe Tiboni. He was at that point practicing as a lawyer for the elderly in their hometown of New Providence, New Jersey, but McCarthy had been encouraging his high school wrestling buddy to turn the funny stories he had been relaying into screenplay form.
"I've known Joe since I was 13 and I never anticipated that from Joe I'd get material that I'd say, 'god this guy is good,' but he was," McCarthy remembered in a conversation with The Huffington Post. "And when I had this idea, it was really just kind of a whim on first, but I said why don't you develop this with me. And he jumped at it, to his credit. Most people wouldn't, they'd be like no I've got a practice and a family and I live here, but he was like hey, I'm game, he's just that kind of guy. And really that sort of spur of the moment decision made a lot of sense suddenly."
From there, long walks in the park where they played as kids took a small concept and turned it into a full blown idea, set in the most obvious of places. The film would eventually become the story of a New Providence elderly lawyer and coach of his town's pathetic high school wrestling team. Familiar, indeed.
"It wasn't something I ever thought, I can't wait to go back and make a movie in New Providence," McCarthy explained. "The kernel of the idea was high school wrestling and then it obviously quickly grew beyond that, but probably half way through that process I was like I know this town, it might be a really interesting experiment to go back and if not actually shoot it, which was my original intention, but at least try to capture that."
Because of tax reasons, the actual filming actually took place in Long Island, with the production manager for the film presenting a real enough substitute to satisfy McCarthy's desire for accuracy.
"Those commuter communities are all so similar, I felt like I could tell you where the pizza place was and where the high school was," he laughed. "The way that translates I think, I was pretty happy with that in terms of the production value."
The film -- a warm dramedy with earnest characters and honest dialog -- isn't totally biographical; Mike Flaherty, the fictional lawyer, played by Paul Giamatti, creates complication by fraudulently placing a client in a nursing home, pocketing money intended for the client out of financial desperation. He then takes in the client's homeless grandson, played by newcomer Alex Shaffer, who turns out to be an inexplicably prodigy-level wrestling talent. Tiboni, so far as the public knows, did not take in a semi-orphaned student or cheat a senior citizen out of money. However, given the basic framework he provided for the character, Giamatti used his example, in life and on paper, for some inspiration.
"I think there were certainly some moments where Paul was drawing a picture," of Tiboni, McCarthy said. "Paul's an actor, and what do actors do? They watch. They sort of take mental notes. When we were developing the character, I was constantly asking Joe questions, 'What do you think of this, what do you think of that?' [He'd respond] 'I don't know, I don't know, maybe I would say this, that.' That was, again, was part of the wonderful part of the collaboration. Ultimately how much did Paul draw from that, I think he drew more from the script than anything, but it was nice having Joe around."
As the film progresses, Flaherty has to balance the demands of his practice and family (with a wife played by Amy Ryan), caring for his client while he languishes in a nursing home, and creating a home for Kyle, the prodigy wrestler grandson. Kyle is emotionally locked up, having lost his father and been sent away by a drug addict mother.
There is an undertone of guilt from the legal and moral transgression Flaherty's committed, and it in many ways troubles an audience. He's certainly the good guy protagonist, trying to do the right thing for his family and helping Kyle come out of his shell, but the drama, fundamentally, is all of his own doing. The result is the viewer going through battle of the conscience that pits his justification and likability against the consequences of his actions.
"I thought that was one of the more challenging aspects of the script, we wanted people to wrestle with that. We wanted people to say, I know I like this guy on some level, even from the first four minutes of the movie, but I know what he did is wrong, and how do I reconcile those two things?" McCarthy reasoned. "We also wanted people to forget about it for a while as they got caught up in the ride of the movie, and then have to suddenly deal with it again. And now, do you root for him? And if you do root for him, what are you rooting for? That he'll get away with it all, or he'll find some kind of redemption?... It's too easy to say, the people who make all the bad decisions in this world are really just bad guys. Nah, not really. Sometimes they're our fathers or our brothers or our neighbors or our cousins, it's not as easy as black and white."
McCarthy, in all, said he really liked Flaherty as a character; despite his flaws, he called him a sort of unconventional leader. The admiration shouldn't come as a surprise, given the creative environment in which he was fictionally forged.
"We just had a lot of fun doing it," McCarthy remembered of the writing process with Tiboni. And while there were some growing pains that came with working with a first time screenwriter, that difficulty paled in comparison with the opportunity the development presented.
"The great majority of it, just had a lot of fun. We hadn't spent that kind of time together since we were kids," he reflected. "We'd gone our different ways in life; although we're friends, you know as you get older you don't have the time to see these people all the time. So we had that time, we had that chance suddenly, and we'd really, we spent a lot of time just hanging out and laughing, and that in many instances would find its way into the script."
Together, the two sought to create a realistic portrait of their home as stand-in for the rest of suburban America. While most films damn middle class pettiness and world views obscured by blinders, "Win Win" is like a photograph of every neighborhood, USA.
"That was something Joe and I talked a lot about, which was not commenting on the world," McCarthy said. "Not condescending it or satirizing it or sentimentalizing it, but really presenting it. And that's a really hard thing to do as writers and filmmakers, to present a world that people just feel like they're there, they're just visiting, and not like they're laughing at it or with it or being manipulated by it, but just really presenting it. I think that's a challenge unto itself."
Having been in the film industry for so long, it was something McCarthy was ready to do; it was a long way to travel, which allowed him to see and show the truth of his former home.
"Maybe I'm at an age now that I have just enough distance and objectivity that I can do that," McCarthy reflected humbly, like the town that he so expertly portrays.