One would think that a recent Oscar win would lead to most people getting a blank cheque and carte blanche to jump right into their next project regardless of quality, but for the screenwriting duo behind The Descendants, it wasn’t quite that simple.
For the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (a.k.a. “Academy Award Winner Dean Pelton,” so affectionately called thanks to his double duty as a cast member on TV’s Community), the title of their latest film and their directorial debut, The Way, Way Back, holds a lot of truth. Faxon and Rash had been working on their tale of a teenager (Canadian actor Liam James) searching for solace on a family summer vacation from hell for the better part of a decade, even pre-dating their award winning collaboration with director Alexander Payne.
Faxon (the one who seems to be the more introspective and analytical of the duo) and Rash (who seems to bring a lot of the charm and comedy) look at a kind of suspended adolescence for adults where a young man can only watch as his mother (Toni Collette) and her stern, douchy boyfriend (Steve Carell) party their summer away in a drunken haze on the Massachusetts coast. He finds solace in a goofy and equally child-like (but in a fun way) water park proprietor (Sam Rockwell) and a kindred spirit in the girl next door to his family’s cabin (AnnaSophia Robb).
Dork Shelf sat down with Faxon and Rash during a recent promotional stop in Toronto at the end of May to talk about the deeply personal journey to get it made, what it takes to craft a believable coming of age story, and looking back on the real life inspirations, themes, and moments that made the film what it is.
I heard that the opening scene that you can also see in the film’s trailer where Steve Carell’s character asks his potential step-son to give himself a rating was something that actually happened to you. Was there more personal moments in the film that speak to your own personal experiences?
Jim Rash: Obviously that first scene in the film with Liam and Steve in those characters is close to verbatim of what actually happened to me, and that was the point that we really started with. I think that Nat and I both have a fondness for water parks and character work in general. That was kind of our training, so I think that both of us relate to those aspects of this movie, which I think is always the case with the things we have written together because it’s much easier to write what you know and the things that you’re connected to. I think often times when you’re stuck in writers block hell, it’s probably because you have not connected with your character in a way that you would have hoped.
Nat Faxon: And certainly with Owen, the Sam Rockwell character, we were thinking about Bill Murray from Meatballs as our template for that. Someone who’s confident, but it comes from within and not necessarily from the world around him. We didn’t want to cast this model-y looking guy to be this kid’s mentor. I had an older cousin that was really similar in that sense. He was the person that guided me and brought me to parties and introduced me to his friends and I would tag along. We were hoping to find something relatable to everybody or hopefully create someone that everyone had at one point in their lives.
This was really a passion project for you guys that you worked on for years and years, but does it make it a little harder seeing how close you are to the material?
NF: Most definitely, and it’s made this process more emotionally gratifying just because when this project started eight years ago, you know, we had a lot of the same things happen to us that happen with many Hollywood films. They happen, they don’t happen, they fall apart, that whole roller coaster that exists. But along the way you see all these choices that another director might make and in the back of your mind you sort of think that you might not do it that way or that you’re never sure how it’s going to turn out. It is a director’s medium, film is, so when after years we finally did get the script back in our own hands and we decided to do it ourselves it was so much more gratifying to get to the finish line and then look back and think that this movie could do well or it could fail, but at least we got to do it on our own terms. Certainly, it’s an emotional thing when something takes this long to become fully realized.
When the movie ends, during the credits you guys include a really sweet and heartfelt thank you to all the people who made the film possible that most films forego. I assume that this was more of struggle for you guys to get this one made and that a lot of this was in motion before you guys sort of struck it big with The Descendants.
JR: What basically happened eight years ago was that it really was a film that we thought wasn’t going to be a Hollywood movie and it could be made like this (snaps fingers), but then you realize, no, it’s going to be the same one where it falls apart, then falls apart some more, then comes together, then falls apart.
What happened was after the last sort of close attempt we made when the film was over at Mandate Pictures a few years ago and right about the time that they were bought out by Lionsgate, there was still interest from Lionsgate but only within the framework of certain actors being cast. And while they were all fine, we knew that they weren’t right for the movie. So we had to make that hard decision if we wanted to push forward or if we were going to wait. In order to wait, you then have to wait for turnaround, so this script was stuck in this sort of limbo that couldn’t be touched for a certain amount of years. It was five years by then, but when it was free it was all about shaking it loose of all these hands that had been on it or wanted a part of it. Only then could we sort of do a grassroots approach with our producer Kevin Walsh and then we sort of went after actors in a more underground way, while respecting their team. We would try to get letters to them or different approaches while we were trying to get financing.
So when we got to the end of this movie it really had to be a heartfelt thank you to everyone. Even the town that we shot in, Marshfield, Massachusetts, in this little subsection called Green Harbor, which was just so kind to the point of just bringing oysters to set and just shucking them for us because they wanted to. The water park was in East Wareham. We shot the big climactic party scene there, and you can’t see it because it would ruin the illusion of the movie, but there was just a wall of people around us that were just hanging out at their own houses and having their own parties and watching us film that night scenes. It was like theatre in the round and there was this really great community feeling. The actors were having a great time! We would rehearse and there would be applause. Even the slate got applause. They just stayed there most of the night, and they were super quiet and they just enjoyed it and liked being there. So that’s a great example of why this couldn’t be done without so many thank yous from the bottom of our heart to everyone both above and below the line.
NF: Yeah, it was such a massive collaborative effort. Because it took so long and there were so many people helping out along the way, but we were just gifted with such an amazing cast and crew, that as first time directors it was so crucial for the movie. We were leaning on people like John Bailey, a legendary DP, to people like our production designer, Mark Ricker, and legendary costume designer Ann Roth. We were so thankful for the job that they did and it truly was a group effort on this project that meant so much to us. We wouldn’t have ever been able to do it without them.
What’s the hardest part of looking back on your own lives to create a coming of age story?
JR: Well, the pain. (laughs) Mining the pain. Also, we write in ink, so all of my tears were there for everyone to see. (pauses) We don’t write in ink, by the way. I WISH.
NF: And in cursive.
JR: (laughs) Cursive? Oh, my God. My cursive is terrible now. What’s the hardest part? I don’t know. I think it’s about two things. I would say it’s the honesty of writing kid characters and honouring their voices and showing respect to them, first. Because I think often there’s a fine line between making them the most intelligent and clever person in the room and making them the most intelligent observer in the room, and those are two very different things. I think we were doing the observer in the room, here. We were all sponges at that age and while we might have been soft spoken or quiet because we were wallflowers or intimidated by our parents and new situations, we were so hyper-aware and absorbing everything that I can see a character like AnnaSophia’s Susanna can really understand what these older people and parents are going through. It’s all about having a 360 degree view of the world. Your eyes can go all around and see everything, but you can’t look up. There’s that one area you don’t understand about your parents or that you don’t understand about those closest to you.
I think it was about being true to them and never talking down to them, and second, and this is always the biggest challenge, which is showing restraint. Knowing when to pull back and know that no words are going to say more than these words that have fallen out of your mouth that you might adore but you have to cut. You have to be honest.
NF: That’s something that Alexander Payne does remarkably well and something I think we strive for now after having worked with him in terms of not making things too saccharine-y or over stated. It’s about allowing the audience to figure it out without shoving it all in their face.
JR: I would say the theme we were most interested in was to explore characters with their flaws and all in a state of flux and going through that moment in their lives when they were in-between chapters. That was why we sort of loved the idea of summer and destination vacations, because what happens there is that you have a group of characters that come together once every year and a year has changed. So the reason that Betty (Allison Janney) gives you the whole overview of what’s been going on and what happened over the year is so unfiltered. And people often do that. We all have people who send Christmas cards that tell us what their year was, and I think the theme of the film is about people asking if they are moving forward or not. We have families who are divorced. We have a husband who comes out to deal with his past. We have Duncan, whose mom is in a relationship that’s really questionable. So all of that was a mix of what they were like was what we were most interested in. We wanted to look at people when they were at their most vulnerable, which I think is when they’re on vacation.
There’s something about this film and The Descendants that really gives a sense of – pardon the kind of pun – community. They feel small and contained and very localized. Is that a product of the writing or is that something that comes over time.
NF: I think it’s the story.
JR: Yeah, they both call for this kind of quiet story. No matter that the names may be big or loud on the page in terms of casting, I think they all respect that sense of honesty these characters have. I guess there’s not a lot of really loud, set piece type stuff. We certainly have our moments, like here with breakdancing and trying to pass people on the waterslide that are triumphs for our character, but they’re simple and real and rather doable by all of us without some great leap. I guess I would say it would start there, and the family element at the core of both of the movies is what also sort of pushes it towards being a little smaller and more intimate.
NF: I think a part of it, too, is the locations.
JR: The house here is meant to feel really claustrophobic for Duncan and this community was relatively small. If you saw the street we shot on, it really was just one big street. It just sort of comes out of those pieces.
How did you guys decide on Liam James for the lead?
NF: Well, he’s Canadian, as you probably already know. He flew down from Vancouver to our session in Los Angeles. Our casting director Allison Jones brought him in, and he had been on that show The Killing, which Jim and I weren’t familiar with, so he was new to us. And, you know, a lot of kids come in and are really rehearsed and polished, and Liam was the opposite. He came in and very much embodied this kid, at least physically. He was paler and had the kind of sunk-in shoulders, and he just seemed very naturally right. There was no pretence. He just was the kid, and I think that was really attractive to us. And certainly when he sent us the lines, he played the sullenness and it was really believable. We had Toni Collette come in and read with him and we did some scenes that come towards the end of the movie where his character has a bit more confidence and we could see on her face afterwards this flicker of a smile. It was something so intoxicating and we were so drawn to him and the part went along with this kid.
As someone who grew up in Massachusetts, I know exactly the kind of family that you guys are talking about and sort of showcasing here. That kind of family that takes off for the summer and just gets loaded on a beach somewhere for an extended period of time and act like teenagers. So now that you guys are older and put a bit of yourselves into this film, how have your opinions of this kind of culture changed now that you are professional working adults? Are you guys still closer to what Duncan thinks or do you have a greater understanding for the adults in your story now?
JR: I think you have a bit more sympathy now looking back on your parents and certainly understanding what that was about. I think you understand what that release was about and why they wanted you to go have fun and let them have their time. I think that when you look at it, whatever it is that they are doing, it really is their only time to let go of the stresses that I think we don’t have context for until we get older.
NF: Yeah, I certainly relate a lot more now to what my parents were going through at the time. You do. We were saying that for Steve Carell’s character that this is the two weeks, or month, or whatever, that he has every year to really let loose and to release and not have to work or anything else. And that’s something that really does inform his character and why he can be so selfish. He tells Duncan to get out of the house and do his thing because he wants to go and do his own thing and sort of be done with being a parent at the moment. He just wants to have a good time, party, and hang out. When I go on vacations now, that’s very much what I say. (laughs)
It also gets back to that vulnerability that you spoke of earlier, though, because once you take away work, it also give the time for almost inadvertent reflection to allow all these long gestating problems to come to the surface.
JR: Yes. That’s really it, that concept of bringing that laundry with you and not being in the comfort zone of being in that castle that you built for yourself. There you can control things, and I think that’s what makes people have that choice. Some of our character make it and some of them don’t. Some of them open their eyes like Toni’s character. Some stay the same like Sam’s character. Some we are led to believe that they will be okay in the long run, like Allison’s character and her on screen daughter. These are people who can start thriving in new chapters of their lives. This is the balance that you get with characters like these on summer vacations. Some people had a great year and some people had a horrible year and they’re all coming to this party to say exactly what happened. It just feels like that’s how people allow themselves to interact with people they don’t see all year or every year.