Oscar-winning screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) teamed up to make their directorial debuts with what is easily one of the best films of 2013: The Way, Way Back. It took years for Faxon and Rash to find the right producers to back their coming-of-age dramedy, time which was spent collecting together an incredible ensemble that includes Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell (in a Oscar-worthy performance), Toni Collette, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, and Rob Corddry. But the real star of The Way, Way Back is teenager Liam James, best known for playing Jack Linden in The Killing. And in my exclusive with Faxon and Rash, they talked about Liam's performance as well as creating the film's diverse group of characters.
It's such a smart script. Why did it take so long to get into production?
Jim Rash: "We had that kind of journey, in a way. It was that we had producers attached and we were almost going to make it, not going to make it... It was everything from the economy turned, to small movies became tough for a while there. Still are."
Is it more difficult now than it was 10 years ago to make a small movie?
Jim Rash: "I don't know, but at that particular moment, it was. I feel like now, yes, you can either make a really small movie or a huge movie. Now the middle movies are tough to make."
Nat Faxon: "And then I think also when time goes by, people for some reason, it becomes tainted in a weird way. We would have a lot of meetings where people would say, 'Oh, I love that script! Somebody should make that movie! Anyway, we want to talk about this other movie...'"
Jim Rash: "Time fights against you. Really, when it felt like we were on a path to make it but it didn't feel quite the way we intended, we sort of took a step back and said, 'Let's wait.' So we waited until it came out of turn around so it's free of all those things that we'd gathered. With the strength or at least with the momentum we had coming out with The Descendants, we were at least able to get people to engage in the conversation again. We attached ourselves and said, 'Let's just see what happens.'"
Speaking of that, do we always have to address you when speaking to either of you as "Academy Award winners?" We have to use your formal title.
Jim Rash: "No."
Nat Faxon: [Laughing] "Not Jim, but me."
What is it with the water at The Groundlings that all of you are such comedic geniuses? How did that come out about?
Jim Rash: "We've had a nice run. Certainly, even before we started there. Because I think we were students probably when Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan and all them were all hitting their strides...Cheri Oteri and Kathy Griffin and all them."
Nat Faxon: "It's just a great school, in terms of the things that you learn there are so applicable to everything that you do, really. Certainly as actors and as writers and as directors, I think we draw upon our training continuously. It's certainly the learning how to improvise and collaborating and brainstorming ideas and all the lessons that are incorporated with that, and then also you really learn how to write pretty much there as well."
Is there a lot of bouncing ideas off everyone when you're writing or is that solitary?
Nat Faxon: "There is. It can be either, really. When you're putting on a show with the company, you're..."
Jim Rash: "...you're writing both by yourself and with them. Some people prefer to co-write, some people like to do both, and I think everything is based and rooted in improv so it is fun to bounce around stuff. A lot of sketches get born out of just improvising, and then it becomes a written sketch."
Nat Faxon: "What we're taught, really, is to delve into character and what makes people act the way they are and what their flaws are and try to be as specific as possible. And so I think that foundation makes its way into everything that Jim and I do."
How did you get into a 14 year old boy's mindset for The Way, Way Back?
Nat Faxon: "Yes, we're a little bit older than 14. We just went back into what it felt like."
Was it easy to put yourself there?
Jim Rash: "I don't think I ever let go, in certain ways. I certainly understood the first scene of the movie in the car with the whole ten scale conversation. That exact same happened to me when I was 14."
That is so cruel.
Jim Rash: "I had that in the station wagon on our way to summer vacation. It was my stepfather at that time. And now we heightened the character of the boyfriend who took the place of my stepfather in that he certainly wasn't a horrible guy by any means. I understood his message, not then, but I understand the context that he felt in his mind, just like Trent [played by Steve Carell]. This is really great advice about getting out there and exploring and being more confident, regardless of the number thing. So getting back into that, that emotion was easy to tap into. I think if you really think about being a boy at that age and you're quickest to anger, probably that's the only think you can really grasp onto. I used that when he was up on top with the Sam's character, trying to contemplate who would ever say that to somebody. But it depends on what type of child you were. I probably was a little bit introverted at some points. I still am, like Duncan, so I understand that whole idea of observing, taking in the room. You're a sponge and maybe you can't understand some social cues, but you certainly can process the behavior of adults."
Your young actor Liam James is awesome. If he didn't connect with the audience in that lead role, the movie wouldn't have worked.
Nat Faxon: "Oh, he's fantastic."
Jim Rash: "That's the scariest thing: we have a guy who's on every single page and so you need someone who, again, commands the room without saying anything. Since we let the audience know pretty much right away, 'This is your hero, this is who you're attaching yourself to,' you're on his journey and you needed someone who is effortless and natural and real, and everything you could want in a performance Liam was there."
Is there any particular character you wish you could have included a little bit more than you were able to?
Nat Faxon: "I think Roddy [his character]. We both felt that the character was underdeveloped."
Jim Rash: "For me, there's so many people that it was so fun to write - Betty [played by Allison Janney] and it was so much fun to write Owen's character [played by Sam Rockwell]. I don't know if we could never not have enough Betty, so if we could go back and have this whole ... if they allowed the movie to be about four hours, we would have more Betty."
Nat Faxon: "But I think all the characters are serving each other and I think Jim and I like to write ensemble pieces with a lot of different voices. I think it was a good representation, certainly of the eclectic types of characters."
Jim Rash: "It is the sum of all its parts."
When you're actually writing all these characters, at that time are you more in love with that character at that point than you are all the rest? Do you switch your allegiance to different characters as you go along?
Jim Rash: "Interesting. I don't know. It's so much fun, especially when you're doing a scene with a bunch of them in particular, because the dynamics get all changed because, obviously, the character acts differently sometimes when a certain person is around. Certainly Pam [played by Toni Collette] is a great effect to that. Duncan actually acts very different when he's around Trent than he does when he's at the water park. That becomes this fun balance, so it's just as fun to write as antagonist in Steve Carrell's character as it is to write this happy-go-lucky Betty character. It's fun."
Was there one that was more difficult to write, that you just didn't connect to quite as much?
Nat Faxon: "No because I think if there's a disconnect your having, then you have to find out and make sure your character's as strong as you thought it should be, voice-wise. If the voice becomes difficult."
Do you leave characters behind? Is there anybody you created for The Way, Way Back that didn't make it into the final script?
Jim Rash: "Yeah, we cut some characters from the water park just because we pared it down, like the crew, if you will. Some played off a little broader than we needed for the movie so we said, 'We really don't need this character.'"
Nat Faxon: "I think you're always looking to economize and to pull back and use as much restraint as you can. And sometimes other characters will leech on or feel too similar or feel superfluous and ideally you're trying to trim those."
Jim Rash: "We did have, they didn't speak but we had a visual of the Keegans who Betty was referring to - the neighbors - and we did have one that we had to cut, which is her referring to them and we could see them. They weren't invited to her party, and if we could have made more of the Keegans and Betty's relationship, that would be a blast."
Nat Faxon: "That would be a whole other movie."
Is there any possibility you'll go back and visit any of these characters in another project?
Jim Rash: "I think, if anything, we would take elements of probably someone like Betty, if we ever wanted to do something bigger, but not do Betty. The great thing about Betty you only get a taste of, because again, in an ensemble they're all servicing for different proportions and amounts, but there's so much pain underneath there that would be interesting to mine. It's like she's pushing a lot down."
Nat Faxon: "Almost trying to convince herself that everything is fine when clearly it's not."
Jim Rash: "And you get that one brief moment of connecting with Toni at the end and I think she's basically saying to her that those two have a very similar path, but I think that she sees so much of herself in Toni, but also Toni's Pam operates in a different way that I think that she envies."
I think you guys should write a TV show about the water park.
Nat Faxon: "We thought about it a long time ago."
Jim Rash: "We'll have to revisit it."
And now as Academy Award winners you can go back and get that done.
Nat Faxon: "People ask us about a sequel but I think a spin-off makes more sense to the small screen."
Jim Rash: [Laughing] "Or a musical."
(Photo © Fox Searchlight)