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The Way, Way Back - Nat Faxon & Jim Rash interview

The Way Way Back

Compiled by Jack Foley

NAT Fixon and Jim Rash, the writers and directors of The Way, Way Back, discuss some of the challenges of making the film and the inspirations behind it.

They also talk about how the Oscar nomination for The Descendants helped to make the film possible, assembling such a great cast and their own favourite movies. The Way, Way Back is out now on Digital HD and Blu-ray/DVD on December 26 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Q. What was the inspiration for The Way, Way Back?
Jim: There were a number of things. In terms of the tone and other movies, we were inspired by the things we grew up with, like John Hughes movies and those sort of coming-of-age stories. In terms of direct inspiration, we pulled from a number of things. The one autobiographical moment for me is the very beginning, the very first scene in the car with Steve Carrell [Trent] asking Liam James [Duncan] to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. That is the only verbatim experience: Being in a car, going on our summer vacation and being asked by my stepfather the same thing. The other, bigger chunks are that Nat and myself both grew up on the East Coast and there was very much that destination vacation scenario, where your families would go to the same destination every year, rent the houses or they owned the houses, the same people would be there… It was like a little time capsule. So, we were inspired by that and going to waterparks. All those little components acted as our inspiration.

Nat: There are movies we grew up with and loved. Thinking of coming-of-age stories, there’s John Hughes, like Jim said, and Stand By Me. More recently there’s Almost Famous and Dazed & Confused. The template for the Owen character [Sam Rockwell] was Bill Murray in Meatballs and we also drew on classics like Summer Of 42 and The 400 Blows, but while we love coming-of-age stories we were also trying to be unique and honest to our own.

Q. The cast are all wonderful. Were they your first choices?
Jim: It all just sort of came together. There were certainly a number of them who were in the forefront of our minds when we started talking about casting. Sam Rockwell was someone we thought of as our Bill Murray type. With Allison Janney, we pretty much wrote Betty with her in mind in the sense that we knew her through social circles and knew of her wide range and capabilities. And she can rock some tight white jeans with cowboys on them. Toni Collette actually reached out to us, having read the script, so that felt like we were being handed a Christmas gift. With Steve Carrell, that was more in thinking about Trent we wanted to go against type. He came to mind as someone who has that innate likeability that could help the audience understand why Toni’s character is attracted to him. It completed this idea in our heads of Trent being this tragic male character, this person stuck in his own cycle, who you had sympathy for only because he’s in a downward spiral and he’s going to be alone if he doesn’t find the capacity to change. Obviously in this story he’s refusing that call and that’s what was so important having a guy like Steve play him.

Q. In the behind-the-scenes features on the Blu-ray and DVD we’ll get to see you in action as co-directors. Do you assume specific roles on set?
Jim: As directors we operate pretty much as one.

Nat: There’s a lot of us nervously talking to each other, a lot of anxiety going on, with us going: “What do you think?” And the other one saying: “I don’t know, what do you think?”

Jim: In the outtakes Allison jokingly describes the ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing. I think I was the bad cop in her scenario and Nat was the good cop. That speaks to our personalities. Not that I’m a bad cop, but…
Nat: He means Nat is nice and Jim’s not.

Q. What’s the process when you’re writing together?
Nat: It’s a product of our training at The Groundlings theatre company, where you sit down to write a script with somebody and you’re improvising and coming up with material together. Directing is an offshoot of that. We acted, as Jim said, as one unifying unit. We had lived with the script for so long, knew it so well and shared this vision, so it felt like a seamless transition from writing to directing. We would talk about things, then maybe one of us would go over to an actor and give notes so as not to inundate them with contradicting ideas and thoughts. Then we surrounded ourselves with very experienced and capable department heads. Maybe we couldn’t communicate exactly where we wanted the light to come from or specific technical things we needed, but we could communicate the mood we were after and have our director of photography translate that cinematically.

Q. You’re also directing yourselves. How was that experience?
Nat: It was challenging.

Jim: People asked me if I lost weight for the part but that was just due to stress. It is difficult because you’re a writer and a director and you’re acting. You can’t help but listen to other people when you’re in a scene and you have to remind yourself ‘I have to just act this – I can’t be thinking about what I’d tell the other actors or what I’d tell myself’ especially when we were both on camera.

Nat: That was when it was very challenging. When the two of us were in the same scene it became very tricky. When we were directing each other it was easier because you felt secure that there was at least one set of eyes on the scene and on the monitor. Other times we were really at the mercy of trusting it would come out OK.

Q. Why do you think viewers are so fascinated by behind-the-scenes features?
Jim: There’s so much social media and that’s added a sounding bored for people to be so vocal about how they feel about TV shows and movies and, as Nat and I both know from personal experience, some shows live and die by fan interaction. So I feel like the way that plays into the Blu-ray or DVD experience is that people have a thirst for more knowledge about their TV shows and movies, in-depth stuff about how they’re made. We’ve become so much more hungry for that stuff. Plus who doesn’t enjoy a good blooper reel? You get to see the fun moments behind the scenes.

Nat: Deleted scenes also add value, although we don’t have a lot of those. We were on such a tight schedule that, while we love improvisation and we both come from that background, we didn’t have the luxury of doing a ton of improvised takes. For the most part we were operating with one camera and that’s limited. We didn’t have time to do 10-12 takes of hilarious stuff and pick the best ones, we just tried to shoot the script as it was written. There were a few things we trimmed, mostly to quicken the pace.

Q. Did Sam Rockwell ad-lib his lines or were they all scripted?
Jim: He did a little bit here and there but because we didn’t have the time for multiple takes and several cameras filming at once he mostly stuck to the script. That said, there were wonderful moments that came from him, and from Allison and Maya Rudolph [Caitlin]. Actors who are trained in improv want to have their input or throw something in, and a lot of that made it into the movie.

Q. How did you persuade Allison Janney to appear so trashy?
Jim: She was fully on-board with it. With her first scene, it was an intense day for her because she comes out the door and it’s five pages of just her talking. We shot the outdoors part of it in just one day. I don’t know how many hours she had to do that speech but by the end of it she was exhausted, but she did it brilliantly.

Q. What do you hope families will get from the movie when they sit down to watch it together?
Nat: A sense of hope, that’s one of the main things. That opening scene happened to Jim, where he was called a 3 by his stepfather, but look at him now. He’s like a 5. He’s really progressed. But seriously, it’s about the fact certain people come into your life at a certain time and while it may be positive or negative it does impact you. It does allow you to look back and think you’re better for that moment.

Q. How did it feel to win the screenplay Oscar for The Descendants and how has it changed things for you?
Nat: It allowed us to return to The Way, Way Back, which was written eight years ago and which got us the job on The Descendants. The success and momentum of that allowed us to go back to The Way, Way Back so they did feed each other. It didn’t greenlight the movie but it allowed us to have the conversation again. It allowed us to talk to agents about casting and it allowed us to dust off a script that may have been forgotten for a while.

Q. What are your own home-viewing routines?
Jim: I’m excited because I’ve recently been re-doing my place and I’ve got a better TV room. I like the idea of hunkering down and turning off the lights to watch a movie.

Nat: I’m definitely a turn-off-the-lights, homemade-popcorn type of guy.

Q. Which films have pride of place on your Blu-ray shelf?
Jim: I feel like a broken record because I always mention Raising Arizona, but I love that movie.

Nat: For me it’s The Jerk. It’s still so funny.

Read our review of The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back is out now on Digital HD and Blu-ray/DVD on December 26 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.