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Interview: The Way, Way Back Co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon

By (July 3, 2013) No Comment

"The Way, Way Back " New York PremiereFans of “coming of age” films, like myself, know there are several subsets within the genre.

For example, I’ve always been partial to the “British Prep School Coming of Age Film” (of which I guess in many ways the Harry Potter films are a very long, goofy entry. There’s a thesis for future essay: “Harry Potter: If… with Wizards and Magic”).

This summer, art-house theatergoers have been treated to several examples of what we’ll call the “Huck Finn Coming of Age Film,” the very American take on the genre in which teenage boys light out for the territories and learn to live in the wild (or a close 21st-century approximation of “The Wild”) while learning about themselves and the adult societies growing up is hurling them toward.

So far this year there’s been Jeff Nichols’s terrific Mud (teen boys meet Matthew McConaughey on a Mississippi island) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s enjoyable The Kings of Summer (aka Toy’s House; teen boys escape their suburban fate and families, build a house in the woods, and live off the land… or at least off Boston Market).

And now comes The Way, Way Back from co-writers and co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants. In keeping with its genre and sub-genre, the young man in question, Duncan (Liam James of AMC’s The Killing), is trapped on summer seaside vacation in a fractured and strained family situation: his divorced mom Pam (Toni Collette) is dating Trent, a puffed-up, over-bearing Alpha-Male jerk (Steve Carrell playing far out of range of his usual lovable schlub).

THE WAY, WAY BACKThe film opens with Duncan sitting in the “way, way back” seat of Trent’s vintage station wagon, listening to the older man lecture him that the young man’s a “3″ on a scale of 10. In addition to coping with Trent and their grown-up summer neighbors (Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet), the young man also has the requisite crush on The Girl in the Beach House Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb).

But Duncan’s summer escape isn’t to a Mississippi island or a makeshift home in the woods–instead the territory he lights out to on his bike is a nearby water park, where he falls under the sarcastic and sardonic tutelage of the park manager and wisened-man-child Owen (Sam Rockwell).

In addition to co-writing and debuting as co-directors on the new film, both Rash and Faxon are also on-screen in supporting roles. Rash (who plays the Dean on Community) and Faxon (who’s appeared in numerous Broken Lizard movies and the sitcom Ben & Kate) met and began writing and performing together at L.A.’s Groundlings improv troupe. The Way, Way Back was a hit at Sundance this past winter, giving the writing partners another bump after their Descendants triumph a year and a half ago.

I and several other writer sat down last month in Chicago to talk with Rash and Faxon about The Way, Way Back; writing about the pains of adolescence and the value of nostalgia; and about how much Sam Rockwell loves to dance.

The Way, Way Back opens Friday, July 5, in select theaters across the country. 

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THE WAY, WAY BACKYou’ve written about adolescents in both The Descendants and now this film. Looking back on your own formative years what would you want to change most about your own teen years?

Jim Rash: I don’t know if this is a universal thought, but sometimes you look back and think, “if I had to do it all over again, I hopefully stress as much as I did over things that, now looking back, that weren’t really were not that important.”

Nat Faxon: Do you stress? [Laughs]

Rash: No, not at all. I’m not at all a neurotic person. Except with everything. But looking back, I’d spend a little less time with that, but that’s part of growing up, I think.

Faxon: I think I would strive to have had a little more individuality when I was a teenager. I did in certain aspects in my life, and then in other things I sort of conformed. I think I would create more of an identity early on, as opposed to just sort flowing the way I was supposed to flow…

Rash: … with the masses.

Faxon: Like I said, certain things I did go with the flow, certain things I didn’t.

Rash: No, it sounds like you pretty much only wanted to be popular and follow the crowd. Just embrace it. There was no time when you wanted to be an individual… even now.

Faxon: Well, people naturally want to follow me. Now, I’m the leader.

screen_shot_2013-04-11_at_4.53.39_pm (1)In that respect, was Owen written as the guardian angel you wish you had speaking to you when you were Duncan’s age, 13 or 14?

Rash: I think in a way, yeah. Thinking about Owen, we think about Meatballs and wondering who’s our Bill Murray now? And Sam fits that bill completely. He’s someone who’s so likable and so full of charm, and is in real life also very social and warm. All those things you hope everyone gets in their teen life, whether it’s from a teacher, or it’s someone working at a water park or a camp, or even a relative who serves that purpose as someone who can be outside your own life and give you any type of wisdom. Based on that, I think we would all love to have that person.

Faxon: I had a little bit of that growing up. I had an older cousin, Josh, who was about four years older than I was. There were certainly moments where he would bring me along and let me hang out with the older kids, or introduce me to girls, or let me go surfing with him and his buddies over the summer. So there were certain qualities–that inclusiveness and guidance–that I think were incorporated into Owen. The character became a combination of the people I knew and that Bill Murray-type actor.

Many of us remember those old station wagons with the third “way way back” seat.

Rash: We both grew up with station wagons that had that very dangerous open-seat idea.

Faxon: I always wanted to sit in that seat. It was cool, you could look at all the cars behind you. I enjoyed the view back.

Way Way Back 5And the title can also mean that: looking back as adults, at the way back.

Rash: Yes, it has a double meaning!

Faxon: See, it’s very deep!

Did your background in improv influence your approach to directing?

Rash: We came from an improv background through the Groundlings program at the exact same time that [Way, Way Back co-star] Maya Rudolph did. She was a friend before we got into all this. We brought her in for that purpose. And Sam and Steve Carrell also have improv backgrounds.

Obviously we wanted an atmosphere that allowed Sam and Maya and others to explore, but we were also shooting on such an intense schedule with a small movie, so you couldn’t afford to do multiple takes of long improvisations and see where it goes, and then turn the camera around and get all that goodness on the other side of the shot, especially when you’re operating with one camera instead of the two or three some improv movies have running at the same time, which makes it much better to get everything you need.

Our budget only allowed us to have two cameras on certain days, and those would be reserved for days when we needed a Stedicam for a bigger scene. There was improv certainly in the water park where the lines often came from Sam or Maya, but when it came to most of the house stuff, it pretty much sticks to the script.

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Faxon: It was more of a function of just time and schedule than it was a creative decision. We were shooting so many pages a day, and if we didn’t get what we needed during a given shooting day, we were in trouble. So we had to make sure we got it and could move on to the next thing.

Rash: We would throw lines at the actors as well, and would keep honing the script during shooting. There are definitely lines that are improvised.

Plus you had to let Sam dance at least once.

Rash: He loves to dance.

It should be in all his contracts.

Faxon: He did let us know early on, “I love dancing, so …” We said, “You got it, man.”

It must have been challenge, especially your first time, shooting on location at a water park.

Faxon: We shot at Water Wizz in Wareham, Massachusetts, and that’s its real name. It fit the bill perfectly. It was a smaller family-run place that didn’t feel so small that you wouldn’t want to go there, but didn’t feel so huge like a big massive corporate place that didn’t have any communal sense to it. It was the perfect size. They worked with us, and allowed us to shoot in certain parts of the water park. We didn’t have the budget to shut the whole place down for weeks nor did they want to shut it down for that amount of time.

So literally all of those people in the water park were actual patrons that were coming to spend the day there, and we would take over one slide and say, “You may be seen in the background and hope you’re okay with that.” [Laughs]

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Rash: We had our smaller group of actual background actors, or sometimes used our PA system to get people to come over to an area for larger scenes.

Faxon: We had our PAs and interns dressed up as Water Wizz employees so they could help control the extras, but if they were seen on camera they just looked like they were a part of the park. But when we were editing, it’s impossible not to say, “And… there’s the person going down Lazy River waving directly into the lens. There they are. There’s the guy about to walk by and turn his whole head and walk backwards.”

Rash: It is inevitable. But we tried to think, “Okay, they’re just watching Owen.” He is that clever [laughs]. Everyone knows who he is.

How did you two end up pairing as writers?

Faxon: We met at Groundlings in Los Angeles back in 1999, 2000? We were in the Sunday company, which is the farm team that overlaps with the main company and we started writing sketches there for a year. We both got into the main company and continued to write, and found that we had the same sensibilities and wrote well together. So we did a lot of dumb bits there and then decided to try our luck at writing something bigger.

We wrote a pilot that we ended up doing at ABC that didn’t make it. But that sort of started our journey in terms of our writing career. It was always born out of a frustration with characters and parts that we were going out for, and so we decided to write parts for the two of us that would be really fun for the two of us to act in. That’s still something we strive to do, to write material for ourselves. It’s been a long journey together, and one really that started as friends and then became professional.

THE WAY, WAY BACKWhile this and The Descendants have different narrative focuses, some of the themes and tone seems to carry over between the two projects. How do you guys describe your style of film writing and film making?

Faxon: The Nat Faxon Style. [Laughs]

Rash: Let’s keep work-shopping that. That’s a great launching point, but maybe we’ll isolate and take out a word. Like maybe “Faxon.” I’m just spit-balling.

But I think writers are always pursuing restraint. They’re always chasing that way of saying more with less. We always overwrite then pull ourselves back. Descendants was a great experience for us for a lot of those reasons.

We wrote The Way, Way Back before we got the Descendants job, but we’ve always been attracted to grounded and interesting realistic stories that have a certain heightened element—the water park gives us that little heightened Oz place that allows us to believe both worlds—the park and his home life back at the cabin with his fractured family. Both exist in the same world, but a change of venue changes everyone’s mood. I think we’re attracted to that slice of life, something that feels small and true.

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What is your approach to writing young characters? Faxon: That’s sort of instilled at The Groundlings, too. Despite the fact it’s at a broader level, it really boils down to character and point of view. It’s writing about people you know, your family, your co-workers, your friends, and getting as specific as you can about the characters.

That’s what we try to do when we’re writing, to make the characters connect, to give them flaws, to show they don’t always make the best decisions, sometimes with tragic—or comedic—consequences. We strive to make it real and relatable.

Rash: I think that it’s really just connecting with what you remember. Obviously, things change and kids today are different from how we were at their age, but at the core, we all understand pain, what hurts us, how we feel. When you’re that age, everything comes out as anger. You’re really hurt, so everything comes from an angry place. It’s not just tears, but as writers allowing Duncan to vent.

I think when writing for any kid, it’s finding what doesn’t speak down to them. We’re all still growing and maturing and evolving, but children for the most part are not developed yet; they haven’t experienced things, or maybe they’ve experienced something too soon and they can’t process it. And for Duncan, dealing with his parents’ divorce, he’s got adults going into their own transitions, and his mom’s in this place where she’s not making her best decisions.

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Then you have these two male figures—Owen and Trent–both who are giving Duncan the same message in a completely different way. Trent’s message is, “Get out there and meet people. Don’t stick around.” In other words, “get out.” Owen says the exact same thing, but the his message is, “come in.” It’s nature and nurture that anyone else can tap into, but that’s the design of what Duncan sees: a good relationship and a bad relationship.

Faxon: I also think kids are smart, very smart. I think we try to write it so it’s probably more adult than you think; that kids have mature thoughts, so you don’t write them as young or basic or general. Thinking about it in a more intellectual way, the film was better because that’s the way kids are; they’re constantly out-thinking you.

The casting of the relatively unknown Liam James as Duncan was fitting in that he truly looks like an outsider alongside such familiar actors’ faces.

Rash: We always knew that Duncan would be played by a discovery. It helps the movie to have someone new and fresh so we’d feel like we’re getting to know him. We lucked out because it’s a challenge when you see lots and lots of auditions, and we didn’t have as much time to do a huge country-wide search. So we just lucked out with Liam.

Faxon: He just innately had the qualities. First off, physically when he walked it just felt very right. The concaveness of his chest, the slumped shoulders, the paleness, the shuffle. After first seeing him, we knew if this guy could say anything close to the words then we’ve got the right kid.

MV5BMTg0MzU0NDg4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTY4MjY3OQ@@._V1._SX640_SY428_Rash: But there’s always this glimmer, that you see in kids of what they will become or can become. Liam got to know us, and he really bonded with Sam in real life. And just the way he would talk about Annasophia Robb, you could see he had a big crush on her, but they are different ages as in the movie, which works by design. I think she’s three years older. Liam’s friends came to visit over the 4th of July weekend, and it was just funny to see how when you’re friends are around you’re a different person because you’re confident with your group there. It was just fun to watch him.

Jim, how did you achieve the gaunt look of your character in the film?

Rash: Extra large T-shirts did me no favors. I said from the beginning, “I want the largest T-shirt you have.” I don’t look great in the film, that’s for sure. When I watch it, it’s sort of hard because we were so stressed. It was all a great amazing experience, but I feel like I probably wasn’t eating. So when I see that party scene, it’s like “Good lord, I look like I’m half dead.” It all worked out for this guy who hates this place, but loves this place.

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But I think for both of us, as actors you play parts for a period of time and you go through phases, like on Community, and people start seeing you as that. “Oh he’s always the persnickety this…” or “He’s always the angry that…” You’re always having to prove yourself. And I think for me, it was important to do something as different at least energy-wise as I could from the Dean on Community, and part of that was changing physically. Growing the mustache.

Faxon: I think also you allowed yourself to put on 30 instead of 80 sunblock. So right now you might have a little color.

At our age, we all know how easy it can be to get sucked into reminiscing about our teen years. For you guys as writers and film makers, what is the value of that sort of nostalgia? 

Rash: It gives you perspective. Take the first scene: that’s the nugget that we started as a true story coming from my own life, having that conversation with my stepfather at the time, being told I was a “3” on a scale from 1 to 10, and believing in this weird number system.

As a writer and performer, I embrace all of the things that are now amusing to me. It’s too much time to waste thinking and worrying of these experiences as traumatic, which they weren’t, though at the time it affected me.

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As a writer, nostalgia is about opening yourself up for discussion. “I’m gonna put this out there, some of it is true.” We’re always interested in what makes characters do what they do, and asking “why?” over and over until you have all the answers, or at least the most interesting answer you come to.

After the screening at Sundance, a woman kept nailing us with the question of how Trent could be such a dick and how Pam could still be with him. She wouldn’t let it go. Steve did a funny bit where he was like, “You really hate me.” But finally, we just embraced this question. It seems awkward, but as viewers we get obsessed with the need for characters to change.

And I said, “I’d be surprised if everyone you know in your life has changed or come full circle and evolved as far as you want them to. We designed Trent as this tragic male character, stuck in a cycle he’s created for himself but will never break by choice. He wants all these things—the family—but his actions don’t back that up.

That was a long-winded answer, but I like picking apart things and trying to start to understand them, whether they’re true, or a fictional someone we can connect to. [to Faxon] Do you have a better, shorter answer to that?

Faxon: I did about half an hour ago. [Laughs]

We had nostalgia in mind when we wrote this, and when we were about to shoot it. We were reminded of the John Hughes-types movies that we grew up on and wanted it to feel like.

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It was originally written for the ’80s. We wrote it eight years ago and about four years into the process we took that ‘80s angle out because we wanted it to feel timeless so people could relate to it, and didn’t necessarily want it pinpointing a certain decade or time or era; but that it was a universal feeling.

So it was something we were certainly aware of, and having watched [Descendants director] Alexander Payne and the way he pulls back in scenes and doesn’t allow things to get into a sort of saccharine, syrupy level. We were wanted to allow the audience to figure things out without having to put it right in front of them. That was our hope—whether we achieved it, I don’t know. [Laughs]