When The Descendants won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay last year, more than a few viewers sat up in their seats and squinted at the screen: was that Dean Pelton from Community? (And was he making fun of Angelina Jolie?) Indeed it was; Community’s Jim Rash and his writing partner Nat Faxon shared that award with director Alexander Payne, the duo old friends and collaborators from their time in Los Angeles’ famed improvisational comedy troupe The Groundlings. Subsequently, the long-gestating script for their coming-of-age comedy/drama The Way Way Back was put into production, with the pair sharing directorial duties; that film is out today in limited release, and it’s wonderful.
The picture focuses on Duncan (Liam James), a solitary teen and introvert. His single mother (Toni Colette) is getting serious with Trent (Steve Carell), a smug tool who asks Duncan, in the film’s painful opening scene, where he’d rate himself on a scale of one to ten. (“I think you’re a three!” Trent announces.) The question is asked en route to Trent’s vacation house, where the makeshift family is spending the summer, but Duncan’s at that awkward age where you fit in with neither your peers nor the grown-ups your parents hang out with. In desperation, he wanders into the local water park and gets a job — and a much-needed father figure in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the irresponsible jokester who lends the story its heart.
The Way Way Back is a sweet, evocative movie; it feels like summer, remembers the way it feels to find your place in a crew of outcasts, or to talk to a pretty girl when you can barely string a sentence together. Rash and Faxon’s writing is generous, and their impressive cast (Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, the writer/directors themselves, and a hilariously inappropriate Allison Janney also appear) has the ensemble feel of a summer stock company. I talked to them about that cast, the film’s inspiration, their working methods, and the upcoming changes to Community at the film’s New York press junket.
Flavorwire: The new movie seems very personal, like it could be autobiographical. Was it inspired by any of your own experiences?
Jim Rash: A little personal, just for the first theme, as far as sort of a launching nugget, which is the conversation about what he is on a scale of one to ten. That actual thing happened to me when I was 14 in a station wagon on our way to our summer vacation, but with my stepfather at the time, so we had to have that sort of little nugget. And then, like you said, everything else was more like our shared experiences — and I don’t mean “shared,” because we didn’t grow up together, obviously — but the idea of growing up on the East Coast and what that felt like to go to the same location year after year and that world of that sort of community of characters. And then, you know, we also hit some water parks as kids, so all those little components sort of fed into the idea.
Are you guys fans of Meatballs? Because I could see that influence in a really wonderful way.
Rash: The heart that Meatballs had, strangely, is certainly something that was beating for us as far as creating Owen [Rockwell’s character].
Faxon: That was something we thought a lot about and, interestingly enough, Sam, when we talked to him on the phone for the first time about his potentially being in the movie, it was the first thing that he mentioned too, and then we sort of knew exactly that we had found — the match was sort of made in heaven because he was sort of like, “Oh, Bill Murray from Meatballs! That kind of guy, right?” and we were like, “Yes, exactly! That’s what we were thinking!”
How long did it take to make the movie? When did you write it?
Rash: We wrote it eight years ago. It had many almost-starts where it was going to be out of the gates, “We’re going to make it!” And then, you know, it was always a factor of everything that normally can happen: time, schedule, different directors, economy, small movie — everything you can imagine, we got thrown at us, which was probably not at all abnormal for a small movie; maybe movies in general.
How heavily would you say the little gold statue weighed on it finally coming together?
Faxon: I think it certainly helped provide momentum for this conversation to occur again in terms of trying to get this made. We, like Jim said, have been on this roller coaster ride of it almost happening many times, and then we finally got the script back in our hands, like, three years ago. And that was when we sort of hit the reset button and decided to direct it ourselves, and that was right around the time when the campaign for The Descendants was heating up and obviously it was garnering a lot of attention.
So after the Academy Awards, we certainly tried to use that thrust into getting people to look at this again, because time, sometimes, can taint things in Hollywood. There are probably a lot of conversations about, “Loved that script! Somebody should make that movie! Now let’s talk about this other project!” So I think it at least opened the door for conversation again and with agents and with actors and just with the idea of us directing it, so it certainly played a part.
It seems like there were a lot of different variables at play here: you guys are first time directors, you’re both acting in the film, you’re directing it together, which seems like it would be tricky. What were the day-to-day logistics of working on set?
Rash: I think it was fueled by how we’ve already been operating as writing partners, as far as going into directing, and that is fueled by what started as more of a friendship, and that is fueled by… birth. No, it all goes back to our training in the Groundlings, which is inherently character study, but also improv. So for us, it was always about just how we wrote as a team and sort of working off each other and being able to check egos when you can at the door. And with directing, it’s interesting, because we were directing as non-union — because there’s almost a litmus test for co-directors that’s correct, unless you’re siblings or married to be able to show that you have a consensus vision, which is a very interesting concept.
But the consensus, I think, is how we fueled both our writing and our directing, and we never wanted to inundate our actors. We would sort of confer, then one would go off and give the notes and take turns, so it really was making sure that we were acting as a team and that we weren’t inundating them with any other thoughts but one, and pretty much approach the set with that sort of (hopefully) very nurturing and supportive and improv sort of feel. And I don’t mean, “Let’s all improvise,” but I mean to allow people to be open and honest and give and take and that kind of thing.