What a difference winning an Oscar makes. Friends and collaborators Nat Faxon and Jim Rash started writing the film that became The Way, Way Back (due in theaters on Friday) eight years ago, and continued to refine it and search for backers even as they became recognizable faces on the big and small screen as actors in shows like Community and films like Beerfest. But it was their roles as the co-writers of the 2011 much-lauded George Clooney drama The Descendants, for which they each received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar alongside co-writer/director Alexander Payne, that finally helped them bring their own script to cinematic life as first-time directors. Set over the course of a typically hot East Coast summer in a beachside town, the movie depicts the turbulent coming of age of quiet teenager Duncan (Liam James), his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), an alpha male who experiences a severe personality clash with the more reserved Duncan. During a recent press tour swing with New York, Faxon and Rash spoke with us about turning the erstwhile Michael Scott into a villain, how they adjusted to being behind the camera as well as in front of it and their turbulent seasons on television.
TWoP: One of the things that struck me right off the bat is the way the movie takes its time letting us know what time period we're in -- it could be the '80s, the '90s or, as its eventually revealed, the present day. Was that a conscious choice, to give the film a feeling of timelessness?
Jim Rash: The first draft was set in the '80s, but early on in the process we decided to pursue the timelessness sort of thing. And then as we got into production, more things came to our imagination that would help with that, like the music and the cars. In a weird way, we wrote a script that had no real technology in it, save for a couple of phones. And that feels really true to summer. The film harkens back to that time when you could be at a summer house that didn't have a phone or even a TV sometimes. You could be completely disconnected.
Nat Faxon: I also think we were trying to connect to all generations. People that were older could connect to it to a time when they grew up and also kids now could associate with it. It's not until he pulls out his iPod and puts the earbuds in that you recognize the movie is contemporary.
TWoP: I guess it's because of movies like Stand By Me that we've come to expect coming-of-age stories to be rooted in a specific time period, generally one that the filmmaker themselves grew up in.
Rash: Yes, which is probably why we initially set the film in the '80s. But these are timeless stories for a reason.
TWoP: I was also really impressed with the degree to which Steve Carell was willing to make his character, Trent, completely unlikable, thus departing from his typical screen image as the awkward, but ultimately endearing hero. When did you think of Carell for the role and how closely did you work with him to erase his familiar "good guy" tics?
Rash: To the first part, he was cast fairly early on. Any conversation we started having about Trent, we realized we needed someone with an innate likability -- and that was Steve -- because it made Trent less of a demon and more of a true human being who was complicated and on a bad path that he created and can't break out of. As for the second question, one of the great things about working with Steve was having conversations about the character and in those conversations he clearly came to the table with a lot of the work already in his head. I feel he inhabited Trent pretty fast. We were working on such a short time frame, so these actors came to us from other projects and we didn't rehearse -- we just jumped right in. So a lot of them came in with wonderful, surprising work or it was effortless for them to get into character.
Faxon: You have to applaud Steve's courageousness for taking on a role like this. He doesn't say one comedic line in the entire movie, at least not intentionally. He also understood that this guy is this tragic figure who doesn't evolve or change or learn his lesson. Many actors want that in their characters -- they want to see someone over the course of the movie have this big arc where they figure it out. I think what was so fantastic about Steve jumping into this was that he recognized this wasn't that and that he appreciated it. Like Jim said, you almost feel sympathetic for a guy like this, a guy who wants to be different, but can't.
TWoP: In terms of the writing process, did you each find yourselves writing for different sets of characters, like one person had a better sense of Trent's voice while another focused on writing the kids?
Faxon: I probably spoke more to the youth in the film, because I've got the younger voice, you know. And Jim probably more to the old characters, just because he's so much older. [Laughs]
Rash: I'm sort of floored by this answer.
Faxon: I just get the youth. I'm a little bit closer in age, I guess.
Rash: Yeah, so close. No, I think because we both come from a Groundlings improv background, we think up these people and who they are together. It just comes with the territory. I couldn't think of a way to go, "I'm Trent!" We both like to improvise each voice.
TWoP: Given the accelerated pace at which you had to work due to time and budget, it seems like directing an independent film is probably the closest thing to directing television. Do you think your TV backgrounds helped you make the transition to feature filmmaking easier in this case? And how did you split up the directorial duties on set?
Rash: For sure. Mainly also because we had the most experience observing television and we also have a lot of cast with television history and they know the nature of that beast. I think that was very helpful to us.
Faxon: In terms of how we directed as a team, it was pretty similar to the way we write in that we did stuff together and it was a very collaborative process. Having known this material for so long, we shared a unified vision for what we wanted. Generally on set, we'd talk about a scene first and then so as not to inundate our actors with too many notes or conflicting notes, only one of us would go over and talk to them. But we didn't necessarily divide duties like, "Okay, you're the technical guy and I'm the actor guy." There were times where one of us was at the monitor and one was next to the camera beside the actors and that way we could cover both bases. One of us could really see what it looked like on camera and the other could be more intimate with the actors and communicate and give notes close by as opposed to yelling them from another room, "Do it this way now!"
TWoP: The film has a very loose, improvisational feel. Did you storyboard shots beforehand or was your approach to make directorial choices on set?
Faxon: Having never done it before, we really had no idea what to expect when we started to film. We tried to prepare ourselves as best we could, but it really was a learn-by-doing experience. Having the familiarity with the material, we had a clear vision of the style we wanted and we pulled from our own acting backgrounds and what we appreciated from people who have directed us and helped us flourish as actors and tried to use that with our actors. And a lot of that was trying to create a fun loose atmosphere, despite the stress that may have been going on in our brains. But we also had such great performers that a lot of the heavy lifting is done by them. It's such a comfort as director to have that and know these people are elevating your material without you having to do a ton of adjusting. Every day was a little different and we evolved though the whole process. We tried to storyboard a little bit, but we ended up really not using much of the storyboards; we found it more useful to go and be on location and to really see the space.
TWoP: Speaking of television, you both had somewhat eventful years on the small screen. Jim, after working with new showrunners for Community's fourth year, Dan Harmon is coming back for Season 5. Are you happy to have him back in the fold and will you be writing another episode? The one you contributed this past year was definitely a highlight.
Rash: Well, thank you very much. I trust Dan and Chris McKenna so implicitly, I don't think they're gonna need me. I think they're off and running and I'm excited to see where they take us. I don't know if that includes me at all, but I'm just happy to don some dresses and do what I have to do.
TWoP: And Nat, are you still smarting from Ben & Kate's cancellation?
Faxon: It's definitely a bummer. I feel like it was a premature ending to a really fun show with a great cast and creative team behind it. You never want things like that to end and sometimes it's out of your hands really. We go to all these Q&A's around the country trying to get the word about The Way, Way Back out and obviously there are so many people who come up to Jim about Community. But there's also always a large section of Ben & Kate fans and that just makes you go, "If all these people liked the show, how'd it get cancelled!" I don't know, I'll never understand that. So I do mourn for it, because I love the people who were involved. And the network did promote us, so it's not like we were buried or anything like that.
TWoP: That's more than you can say for Community most of the time!
Rash: Yeah, we just sort of survive. [Laughs]
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