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.
When did you decide what roles you were going to play? Did they ever change throughout the long development process?
Faxon: No, I think very early on, we knew that we would play these roles—
Rash: That we would do something.
Faxon: Yeah. What we loved about the water park is that it did provide an environment for all these fun, eclectic characters, and so we thought, well, maybe we can slip in there and feed our vanity. But certainly we started writing really as a result of wanting to act in different things and assume greater responsibility and challenge ourselves as actors, and so that was sort of why we started writing. So I think we always loved the idea of trying to marry our acting with our writing, and this seemed like a very manageable, small way to do it in the sense that we could —
Rash: Get our feet wet.
Faxon: Yeah, kind of jump into it. I think down the line, maybe we’ll assume more and do more and be more.
Rash: Or pull back.
Faxon. Or pull back.
[They both laugh]
Rash: If we’re a distraction.
Faxon: Yeah. I don’t think we’ll ever dictate that we’ll be performing [in] everything that we do. I think if it makes sense — like, for this movie it made sense; there’ll probably be projects where it won’t and we will not be in them. But it was certainly fun to be in front of the camera and to be a part of this kind of ensemble and it was stressful, but it was great.
To go just a little off-topic, Jim, I talked to you just before the airing of the Community episode you wrote, about that experience and your thoughts on the show without Dan Harmon. So I was curious to hear your thoughts on his return and where you think the show’s going to go from here.
Rash: First, I’m very curious about where it’s going to go. I have no idea — if we’re wiping the thing out, if it was a dream, if we’re going to take what movement we had with Jeff graduating and go from there — I have no idea. I’m very excited about him being back, and I know that Joel and I think the rest of the cast would second that thought, in the sense that because we’ve always had this journey of, “I think we’re coming back, we’re on the bubble…” If [the upcoming 13 episodes are] this little bookend chapter — I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it would be so nice to just sort of close it out with the person whose mind this all came from and gave us this great opportunity and this job. So to me, it’s like I trust him and Chris McKenna to no end as far as their vision for Community. But it’s like, you wait for that first script, and you’re just like, “I have no idea.”
Do you think you’ll be writing for it again?
Rash: I don’t know. Not at this point, I don’t think so. And like I say, it’s like, they got it. They’re the guys who made me freak out that I was going to try to, so I’m very happy they’re doing it.
Jim and Nat, IMDb says your upcoming projects are The Birches, Untitled Nat Faxon and Jim Rash Action Comedy, and Untitled Nat Faxon and Jim Rash Drama, so I’m curious as to what exactly is coming next.
Rash: The third one’s weird. I think that might be mixed with The Birches. I don’t know what that would be.
Faxon: There are only two.
Rash: There are only two. The Birches, which is the tentative title, so it could well be the “untitled drama.” And the other one is, yeah, an action/comedy with Kristen Wiig, so we came from the Groundlings and wanted to work with friends and that’s paramount to us and we love her, both as a person and as an actress. So this was — I mean, the connection here, it’s going to be a little tonal, not tonal shift in the sense that it might be a little darker and grittier, but our love of ensembles will pretty much be the constant.
You’re directing again on both of these?
Rash: The hope would be.
Ras: We’re writing now, and certainly with the Kristen Wiig one I hope, maybe Searchlight, will…
Faxon: I think both, yeah.
Rash: No, I’m just saying, the permission.
Faxon: Oh, yes, yes.
Rash: With the Kristen Wiig one, it’s pretty much sure, and I’m sure Searchlight will come around, I hope, and let us do it again.
You guys are now actors, writers, and directors. Do you have a preference for what you continue doing, or do you want to try and keep doing all of them?
Faxon: I think so, yeah, we’re kind of always interested in evolving and growing, and this was certainly our first thing and it would be fun, obviously, to get the opportunity to do more and take another stab at it and establish our own voice in terms of directing style, maybe? But I think it’s important for us to feed all of those elements, in terms of acting and writing and directing, and sometimes I think they’ll all align into one, and like we said, I think there’ll be others where just one or two of them will be in play.
The Way, Way Back is out today in limited release.