Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, an elder law attorney who moonlights as the head coach of the local high school wrestling team. Mike's practice isn't doing well but rather than admit to his wife (Amy Ryan) that the practice is in trouble financial, he fudges the truth a bit, sending an elderly man, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), to live in a retirement home while he collects a monthly stipend to care for him in Leo's own home. Things get really complicated when Leo's grandson (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a star high school wrestler whose mother is an addict, shows up in town to visit his grandfather.
Bobby Cannavale reunites with McCarthy after starring in The Station Agent to play Mike's best friend. Jeffrey Tambor steals scenes as one of Mike's assistant wrestling coaches.
Writer/Director Tom McCarthy Win Win Interview
The MPAA gave Win Win an R-rating, which is just crazy because this is a film that could and should play to teenagers. It deserves to be seen by that audience.
Tom McCarthy: "Well, there's no reason it can't. It just means teenagers can't go alone. A woman said to me, 'This is such a great family movie.' I was like, 'Well guess what you have the chance to do? Go with your family because if you go, your kids can go.' And look, everyone I know who's brought kids, and at every screening I've done, I say, 'Any teenagers in the house?' And moms raise their hands and go, 'Right here,' because a teenager will never do it. 'Right here.' I'm like, 'How'd you guys feel about it?' And when we did this in LA two nights ago the mom is like, 'He loved it! He won't talk because he doesn't talk.' But she's like, 'He loved it.'"
"Look, shame on me for writing bad words but I wasn't willing to lose the joke 'whatever the f--k it takes'. I just felt that felt so real for that kid, and that came from a real moment watching a practice of a very tough, good team with young wrestlers talking about something. I thought, 'This is too good. I've got to use it.'"
And you chose to highlight a sport we don't see in films: wrestling.
Tom McCarthy: "I know. As a writer, when you have that moment where you're like, 'Wrestling...we never see wrestling in films.That's interesting.' Just like when you find a great location or discover a great actor or a little story turn, you're like, 'Oh, I've got to remember that.' And you're right, we've seen one - Vision Quest - and the wrestling in that wasn't very good because Matthew Modine didn't really wrestle, and it was just sloppy at times. Some of it was interesting; some of the practice stuff was good. But it was also like a whole other level, it was like collegiate level at the high school. This is the kind of wrestling where you go out and you do the whole music and you circle, there's 20 people in the stands, and you can hear everything because it's not a marquee sport. It's a sort of like the bastard child of high school sports."
When you were pitching it to the studio, did they care that it was a movie about wrestling, something that's just not done?
Tom McCarthy: "They care about everything. Trust me, there's nothing they don't care about. I had early conversations with the studio and part of their thing was, 'Look, we're going to be honest. A driving force behind Searchlight's movies' - arguably one of the most successful studios out there right now, especially for these kind of movies. Really, not even arguably. Let's be honest, they do a great job and they rely on women; women drive the marketplace. And they're like, 'Is this a wrestling movie? A men's wrestling movie?' And I was like, 'It's really not. It's a family movie with a wrestling storyline, that I can assure you. But there is going to be that element so that when the women bring their men, the men will have something to enjoy too.'"
"Not a lot of people know much about wrestling. I have a good friend of mine who is an author in New York who I invited to an early screening. She sent me a great email, which was much longer but part of it was, 'I never knew wrestling existed. I thought it was gone with the Romans, but by the end I wanted to put a singlet on.' It was very funny. And I think there's something to that, and I understand their concern because, you're right, who wants to see a wrestling movie? Obviously, this isn't that. I knew I would be playing with the sport genre, and I was curious to see how that would evolve through my filter. And I think I'm pretty happy with the result."
Did it evolve the way you imagined it would?/p>
Tom McCarthy: "Yes, because you're writing away from a lot of things. At times there's a certain adrenaline kick. With this movie, the sport provides a lot of humor because the biggest victory in the movie is when Stemler loses 15-1 and doesn't get pinned. That's the victory - that's our Rocky moment. But, you know, it was finding those moments, like the slap and those things and the wrestle-offs and Kyle talking about what he does to prepare, both the drama and the humor in that. I think that's what we were looking for with this. We were looking at movies like The Bad News Bears or Slapstick or those kind of films, maybe not that broad at times but that sloppy, raw, awkward humor that evolves from sports like this."
And you've got Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale.
Tom McCarthy: "Someone recently said, 'You had me at the credits,' which I think is funny. But you put those three in a coach's office with lime green Pioneer wrestling button-downs on and it's going to be funny. Then you've got to just kind of dial it back a little bit and say, 'All right, how far can we let them go?' That stuff with the chair where Paul and Jeffrey are signaling behind Bobby's back..."
Was that all scripted or did they come up with any of that?
Tom McCarthy: "Everything was scripted, and then we would let them play at times. I think we realized when Bobby leaned forward like that that there was a great opportunity to go over his back and have those guys show that moment of, 'It's going to be okay, I'll sit there next time.' Just to see adults doing that... It's funny because I brought in some wrestling coaches to do ADR, loop group stuff where I wanted them to be in the background yelling out things so that you'd hear real coaches. I was showing them scenes and these guys were like, 'My god, that is my assistant coaches exactly! Every time it's who sits where.' It's so funny and it was like, 'Okay, we feel vindicated.'"
Your movies are always so genuine, so real, and so authentic. I have to say I miss them when we don't see a film from you for a while. We need more.
Tom McCarthy: "I've got to find a way to do it faster. I get a lot of grief for that. I'm going to start a little 'Tom factory' and we're going to do like Pixar, we'll be a mini-Pixar. That's that the beauty of that company; you get a good movie every year almost. It's kind of amazing."
Well, they do have the benefit of having a lot of people working on their films. You just have to clone yourself. Why does it take you so long?
Tom McCarthy: "I'm dumb, first of all. Why does it take so long? I don't know. I do other things. I act here and there, and I take on other projects. I like things to marinate. We say Pixar does it quickly, but they're three or four years per movie. They're not rushing anything. There's quality there. If that story's not good to go, they don't put the movie out. With me, I like to take time and texture to find all the little bits and nuggets. Sometimes you just can't rush. It doesn't mean you can't put a story together; I'm very capable of doing that very quickly. It's finding those things that I think are the little pieces of gold that keep it fresh, and hopefully enjoyable for audiences, that takes time for me."
Do you have a lot of these ideas in your head right now?
Tom McCarthy: "Yes."
How do you decide which one is actually going to get your attention?
Tom McCarthy: "You date them, take them on trips, go out to dinner and sit across from your idea. And sometimes, you know, the meal will go wrong and you're like, 'I don't want to see this idea ever again.' And sometimes you're like, 'I really like this idea. This is a nice idea. I want to spend some time with it.'"
"Win Win started kind of as a joke with Joe [Tiboni] and I talking about high school wrestling. When I invited him, on a really random idea, I was like, 'Hey, why don't you develop this?' This is a guy who's never written anything in his life. He started work by delving into screenplays a little bit, but he's a full-time lawyer and he's got a family. He wasn't thinking, 'I'm going to be a screenwriter.' But to his credit, he jumped in full-bore like he was just waiting for the opportunity. And he worked out this story with me, which was great. But I kept thinking, 'Well, this might not happen. I don't know about this one.' Then it'd get further and further down the road, and by the time I finished the script, I looked at it and gave it to my agent and my lawyer and maybe one or two other people. I said, 'Give this a read and see if you guys think I'm crazy, but I think this could make a fun movie.' Everyone was like, 'Let's do this,' so I kind of knew in my heart at that point that I was going to."
Why did you turn to your friend who hadn't written a screenplay before to write it with you?
Tom McCarthy: "Well, I mean, it wasn't just totally arbitrary because a lot of people have said that. 'Of all the writers out there that you could work with, and people who have been doing it for a long time...' Yeah, Joe wasn't a writer; he was a novice, of course. But keep in mind that Joe's an elder law attorney who lives in New Province who's married with two kids. We wrestled on the high school team together. He lives in a house that looks a lot like [Paul Giamatti's character's] house. He's got an office with files exposed like that. There were a lot of things that I was drawing on, and walking and talking with Joe I felt like, quite honestly, I really wanted to grab this."
"Look, I don't live that life. I'm not married, I don't have kids, I don't live in a suburb. I've never had the same job from year to year. Joe's been a lawyer for 17 years and he's had Mike's life, and I think I needed to get inside that. I needed someone with a passport, and that was Joe."
And he didn't mind exposing his life?
Tom McCarthy: "No, because he was quickly involved in developing the story. It wasn't just like me picking his brain. You know, the surface things are what we used for the story from Joe. I used visuals and things like that. Beyond that, it's nothing to do with his story at all. There is no parallel. He's got a very successful business. His wife is his partner. They are two really different scenarios. But I've got to say I give him credit. I thought this might be the case because we talk a lot, we're dear friends, but he really has a sense of story. Like, he got it. I feel like if Joe decided he didn't want to be a lawyer today and he committed himself to screenwriting, he would be a screenwriter. I don't say that about everyone. I don't say that about screenwriters sometimes. I just think he's got a natural knack for it."
You cast Alex Shaffer, who hadn't acted before, to play the key role of the high school wrestler. Why did you do that?
Tom McCarthy: "I wanted to get the wrestling right."
You could have trained an actor.
Tom McCarthy: "No. Look, I love sports, okay? That's my church. I can tell with any actor when they really can dribble a basketball or throw a football or hit a baseball. It takes me out of any movie, just like, 'Nope, he can't do it. I could stop that guy.' I don't believe it. When he wrestles, you watch the real deal. He's every bit as good as Kyle. Alex is every bit as good as Kyle. That would be a great match - Alex versus Kyle."
Who would win?
Tom McCarthy: "I don't know. That would be a great match. Maybe Alex, depending on the head space Kyle was in at the time. But it would be a great match. But I felt like the script lent itself to that. And I did see some actors for a couple of days, and some really talented young actors. But there was a rawness to it that I thought I might capture with a non-actor, and I thought the script as written really lent itself to that. So, was it a gamble? Absolutely. Were we all willing to take it, including the studio? Kudos to Fox Searchlight, yeah. And it wasn't like he came in and killed it. He came in and he was good. He got a lot better, so we had to allow for that."
If he wasn't good, it would have ruined your entire movie.
Tom McCarthy: "It wouldn't have worked. It was a big old gamble. Movies are a gamble and not for the faint of heart. It's like every element of it's a gamble. But, look, I'm pretty good with actors. It's probably one of my strong-suits."
You always get the best out of them.
Tom McCarthy: "I had a very dear friend of mine, Jackie Brogan, who's collaborated on me with my last two movies - I've known her for 20 years, 25 years. She's a terrifically talented woman and is also an acting coach too, and has really built up that part of her professional life the last couple of years in New York. She works with a lot of great actors now, and I had her working with Alex. So, it really took a village. We all kind of focused on this young man and we got him there."
Why is the studio putting it out this time of year? Are you asked that question a lot?
Tom McCarthy: "As opposed to?"
Later in the year during the awards season.
Tom McCarthy: "You know, I've had a lot of success with releases. I've released all my movies this time of year. Actually, The Station Agent I released in September. And the reason is is with the right company - and even with Overture, which was a pretty new company that isn't around anymore - with The Visitor, they released The Visitor then. The Visitor was a harder sell, wasn't it? I'm very proud of that movie, but it was more dramatic, more delicate, and maybe it wasn't for everybody. Where I think this movie actually has a broader appeal."
The Visitor stayed in theaters into the fall, into September, and what that does is just builds on word of mouth. What Searchlight is thinking is sort of counter-programming, which is put it out in March where there hasn't been any good movies and we're about to go into a season where there are about to be a lot of those big, silly movies, and give people a smart, fun, hopefully quality alternative to those movies, and keep it in theaters and run up the box office, which I think they have a shot at doing. One, because I think they're very good at it, and two, the movie's going to play very well with audiences. You know, when they presented it to our team, 'Here's our first thought,' and we were all like, 'That's a good idea.'"
But come award season - and I know you don't do it for the awards - I don't want it to be forgotten.
Tom McCarthy: "Yeah, that could happen."
And that would be a real shame.
Tom McCarthy: "It would be unless the movie performs like we hope it can, you know? If that happens - and there are a lot of other examples of that - then you have something to build on and revisit. I think every year...look back this year and look at movies like Winter's Bone. Winter's Bone came out early in the year and that movie stayed in the theaters forever. It didn't even make that much money; it's just one of those movies that people remembered. So, there a lot of cases where that can work. But I try not to over-think it. I'm just, right now, just super pleased with it. You finish a movie and you work so hard on it, and the first wave of critics have been very kind to it, and more importantly the movie is finding a home with audiences. It's like, 'Okay, we weren't crazy. What we thought would work is actually working.' That's really the biggest thing."
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Win Win opened in theaters on March 18, 2011.