Talk about triple threats: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won an Oscar in 2012 for their screenplay for "The Descendants," both spent the past season on network TV (Rash plays Dean Pelton on NBC's "Community" and Faxon was Ben on the now-canceled Fox sitcom "Ben and Kate"), and now the two are back with another movie that they not only co-wrote, but co-directed as well: "The Way, Way Back."
Starring Liam James (best known for a recurring role on USA's "Psych") as a fish out of water teen on an agonizing summer trip with his mother (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend (a laughably assholic Steve Carell), "The Way, Way Back" is instantly recognizable to anyone who's gone through an awkward phase. James' Duncan finds refuge in a job at the Water Wizz, a decidedly below regulation water park managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes Duncan under his wing (read our Sundance review of the film here).
I caught up with Faxon and Rash in New York City ahead of the July 5 release of "The Way, Way Back" and chatted about making Steve Carell a jerk, the particular charms of an East Coast summer, and the way an Oscar can pull a room together — and start a directing career.
I saw the movie last night and I really, really liked it. I thought it was so much fun.
Jim Rash: Oh good! Thank you.
What was the seed of the idea for this movie? I know the script took a long time to get made.
JR: Yes, it did take a long time to get made. We wrote it about eight years ago. The idea stemmed from a couple of things: First, we walked into it with our Groundlings training, and loving the idea of the water park and the eclectic characters you'd find there. Plus, we both went to water parks as kids. It's just a very specific world. But the first scene in the movie, the conversation about what you are on a scale from 1 to 10, that ride in the car actually happened to me when I was 14. So I had the moment on the way to our summer vacation with my stepfather at the time. So we knew we would like that as far as a dramatic way to start and we loved the water park world and we also, growing up on the East Coast, had a fondness for destination vacations and what that meant, so all of those pieces.
Are you guys both Long Islanders? It's never specifically mentioned where the movie takes place, but it felt very Long Island to me.
Nat Faxon: I grew up outside of Boston, north of Boston, and we spent our summers on Nantucket. So, that was sort of my background.
JR: And I grew up in North Carolina. Other than going to the beach there, we would drive up to Lake Michigan.
And you said the actual conversation, where you were asked to rank yourself from 1 to 10, happened to you, Jim?
JR: Oh, the whole thing! The whole beginning. The question of what I was, me saying 6, him saying 3. And then the whole explanation for why he thought I was a 3 is inspired by that.
JR: Yeah...oof! We actually heightened the character. My stepfather wasn't a horrible man. I understood what his message was and he certainly didn't deliver it exactly the way we wanted for the movie, passive aggressive and the "buddy" and all that kind of stuff, but just the idea of that question and being 14 and how you process that.
What numbers would you assign yourselves on that scale now?
JR: Well...we probably should argue there's no such thing as numbers, is there? It's sort of the idea of the movie. But yeah...Nat's a 10! It took so much for me to say it because I so didn't believe it. (Laughing)
I'll just put a little bracketed note, "insincerely."
NF: (Laughing) No, I think we are doing very well.
JR: That's right.
NF: I think you are at least a 4 now.
JR: "He said sincerely."
Did you guys have Steve Carell in mind for the role of the kind of douchey stepfather from the beginning?
JR: Not from the beginning.
NF: When we began talking about what we needed for the role or what we wanted, we certainly talked about somebody having that likeability factor. And Steve embodies that. Because, as much of a dick as [Carell's character] Trent is, you do need to understand why Toni's [Collette] character is attracted to him and why his friends want to hang out with him and party with him. It's a little bit more complicated and tragic than just who can play a bad guy. Steve does have that innate likability that was crucial and also understood the complexities of this tragic male character who doesn't really change. It was certainly exciting for us to imagine him playing and I think it was exciting for him to do it.
How did you know you guys would click as creative partners?
JR: When we were in the Groundlings. When you get in, especially when you get to the Sunday Team, which is the farm team for the Groundlings, sort of the last level of the school before hopefully getting voted into the main company, you always experiment with everyone, you try to write with each new cast member and take a stab and see who clicks and I think we just had fun writing and subsequently became friends simultaneously. It just became apparent that it was fun to write with sensibilities that matched up.
You two wrote "The Descendants," but you also directed this screenplay. How did you decide to make the leap to directing as opposed to just writing?
JR: It was just a passion to do this the way we wanted to do it.
NF: Yeah, it really was. It was about five or six years of other people explaining their take on the movie and what their vision for it would be and I think a lot of great directors were attached at certain points, but everybody is going to have their own sort of interpretation of it, and I think for Jim and I, we always had something very specific in mind and kind of knew what that was. I think certainly after "The Descendants" we were afforded a little momentum and at that point it felt like, "Why not try and take a stab at doing this on our own?" Really being able to complete the vision from the beginning to the end and have it be on our own terms.
By "momentum," do you mean you had an Oscar and said, "Please let me direct this"?
NF: (Laughing) Yes!
JR: It got the conversation started. The Oscar and "The Descendants" ride led us back to allow people to at least let us get in the door and say "what if?" And I think the directing thing really was Kevin J. Walsh, our producer, saying to us, "Attach yourselves as director, and that's what we're selling. We're selling the script and you." And it took a while. It's a year and a half of just sticking to the plan and sticking to trying to find a cast. It wasn't easy just because of the statue, but it started the momentum.
It certainly doesn't hurt.
JR: It does not hurt. But I think just trying to get a movie made, unfortunately, it doesn't have THAT kind of power. But it gives you five minutes of ear time to win them over.
So they gave you two separate statues, right?
JR: Yes. And Alexander [Payne] has one. The plates are slightly different. Your name's first on yours. So you can distinguish. And if you sold it, it goes, "This is Jim's."
Where do you guys keep them?
JR: In just an unremarkable place.
NF: In my living room.
JR: Yes, it's in a respectable book case for me. On top.
I hear it can really heighten IKEA products.
JR: It took a while to put together.
They're both work.
JR: They are scripts in their own right.
How did you guys find Liam James, the teenager who leads your film? What did you look for? It can be hard, with younger actors, to find the right fit.
JR: Honesty, natural instinct.
NF: Especially for this role that was so...he's such an observer and fish out of water for that first part of the movie, you wanted to feel that in the character and the person playing it. It needed to feel true and we saw a lot of great kids but a lot of them were very polished and rehearsed and I think this role certainly needed to be something a little more grounded in a way. Liam really walked in and just felt like the kid. He felt very natural and very much like who Duncan is so I think we really knew right away. We auditioned and had him read with Toni and all of those things he nailed and it really felt perfect for us.
George Clooney led your last film. Do you think Liam is the next Clooney?
JR: He could very well be. What's so great about Liam is there are so many more things to discover in him, you know, because he's so quiet in the very beginning and as he grows and starts going through all these chapters of him evolving -- I think he could very well be surprising in all types of ways.
Jim had the car conversation that was specifically in the movie. Nat, is there anything specifically from your life that made it into the movie?
NF: No. I think we are always drawing from personal experience and personal stories and--
JR: And people.
NF: And people. And characters.
JR: That are connected to ideas.
NF: Yeah. Certainly there are a lot of characters in this that are inspired loosely by things that happened to us or people we know. I think just in general terms, very much so. Certainly going to a summer vacation spot every year and drawing from those experiences, certainly having a fondness of water parks growing up and then knowing these kinds of people.
JR: And making the East Coast a character. I think that is something we inherently know. I think it does have a Northeast presence even though we don't say it. There's nothing like East coast summer. And by that I mean it's not the paramount best...
It's just its own thing.
JR: The left and right coasts are completely different. Lake community: completely different. Midwest: completely different.