Jim Rash is sitting a few feet from Nat Faxon, his longtime writing partner, and he’s insisting that there were no notable fights or outbursts during the time they spent directing their first movie together, The Way, Way Back, in Massachusetts last summer.
“We don’t have any good stories about yelling, ‘You motherfucker! Get the fuck off my set!’” he insists, turning his head to indicate that he’s mimicking a conversation. “Your set?!” he replies to himself, “My set!”
Faxon raises a single eyebrow at the display.
“It feels like that was very specific in your mind…” he deadpans. “This is a conversation that you had when you were going to bed.”
“That’s why I found it so fast,” Rash replies, shrugging and then laughing.
By now, the pair have a pretty well-worn routine. They met while training with The Groundlings in Los Angeles in 2001, found a similar comedic sensibility, and have been writing partners ever since. You’re more likely to know them from their acting — Rash plays the eccentric, cross-dressing Dean in Community, while Faxon has had an assortment of roles, including last year’s short-lived sitcom Ben and Kate — but their impact behind the camera has become even more significant in the last several years.
A coming-of-age story about a teenage kid (Liam James) who gets stuck spending his summer in a small beach community with his mom (Toni Collette) and her jerk boyfriend (Steve Carell), The Way, Way Back was the first script that Faxon and Rash wrote together, about eight years ago. It sold quickly to Fox Searchlight, with director Shawn Levy attached; the two writers didn’t give much thought to directing it themselves, seeing as they were still pretty new to the industry.
As is often the case in Hollywood, the project fell apart, producers and talent unable to line up properly, and at one point, it was with Mandate Pictures. It sort of fell apart there too.
As it would turn out, that was the best thing that could have happened to them. Selling The Way, Way Back earned them the opportunity to adapt Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants for film. Ultimately, Alexander Payne would come on to direct the movie, which starred George Clooney, and the filmmaker would share an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay with Faxon and Rash.
As The Descendants was earning raves on the festival circuit, Faxon and Rash decided that, to hell with it, they were going to make The Way, Way Back themselves. It was a story close to their hearts — they spent summers in New England, and Rash had an asshole stepfather — and there was no way it wasn’t going to get made.
“I think over the many years of being on this roller coaster, you become more attached to it, and you become more invested, obviously, and you hear other peoples’ visions for it that may not necessarily match up with how you saw it,” Faxon says. “I think all of those pieces influenced our decision to ultimately take hold and helm it ourselves. Just because you sort of, we got to the point I think where we felt like, let’s be bullish about this, let’s take ownership of this and let’s make this on our own terms, and whether we succeed or fail, at least we’ve done it ourselves, and I think that was sort of the motivation and inspiration to do it.”
Sam Rockwell, as a man-child water park manager and mentor to Owen, is the scene-stealer alongside Allison Janney, who plays a boozy neighbor. The movie earned a huge reception at Sundance, and here’s a nice irony: Fox Searchlight bought the movie again, this time for over $10 million.
You had a great cast in this movie, but as first-time directors, what were the main obstacles you felt you were facing? What was the hardest part of directing your first movie?
Nat Faxon: I think just handling probably all of the responsibility that comes with being a director. I think managing your cast, your crew, all the questions that are asked of you, and instilling confidence in people where they can feel comforted that you know what you’re doing.
Jim Rash: You go into it and we got advice, and some really valuable and even [the people giving advice] would say, “This might be applicable, but everything is going to change,” which I think is the hardest thing, because you can go into this with all this great advice about what to do, but then you realize, “Oh, we sort of need to create our own rhythm here, we need to create our own process.” All these things make sense, but it terrifies you because it gets in your brain. I think for us it really was surrounding ourselves with amazing department heads from DP [director of photography] to production designers, all these people we could have great chats with and make sure our vision was understood by everybody. And it gives you that sense of collaborative effort.
How’d you split it up?
JR: I think we tried to work just as we did as writing partners; we’re pretty much working together. I think for us it was about consensus, it was about conferring with each other and listening to each other, and then taking that consensus from us to, one at a time, we would just sort of, you’d go chat with the actors or I’d go, he’d go, same sort of thing with everybody. We’d just try not to inundate them with two people.
JR: Any blowups were from the frustration of rain or some element you couldn’t control, but certainly not anything —
NF: Nothing creatively. It really was just a logistical thing, of getting into a discussion about whether we had time to shoot a particular shot that we had liked and thought about that maybe now we didn’t have time for. Conversations about having to sacrifice things, it was a lot of time and weather more than anything else.
So when you write, do you pass drafts back and forth? Sit nose to nose?
NF: Our training is sort of for The Groundlings, and we’d be putting up a show, you’re sort of writing on your own, you’re writing with other people, and obviously Jim and I found a similar sensibility and friendship and had a lot of fun writing together. And a lot of that is sort of carrying over to what we do now, in terms of brainstorming and improvising and collaborating together. There are times when, usually at the end of the day or something, I’m tired and then Jim will, wanting to solve the problem, take it home with him and come in the next day with a beautifully crafted scene. But we don’t usually pass stuff back and forth. We don’t usually split up duties and say, “You take this 20 pages” or whatever. We do as much as we can together without killing each other — or without Jim killing me.
We’re in a summer of huge blockbusters, and this is one of the few indie movies that has broken through in terms of publicity.
JR: Obviously we’re going up, but we’re not going up against them on the amount of screens. Hopefully it’ll be a slow build, and Searchlight is probably a master of understanding these movies and how to find that audience. I think the good thing about it is variety. I think the good thing is encouraging people to see any and all of it, and find our movie within it, rather than choose us over them.
NF: Yeah, and I also think the audience that would like those big movies would like this movie, so it’s not as if we’re a totally different art-housey crowd.
Exactly. This is a very broad appeal movie. So a lot of teens would love this and might go see Superman.
JR: I think Searchlight approaches it that way.
NF: Ideally they’d see both. That’s our hope. I think certainly as a moviegoer, you’re looking for diversity or a change of pace, and obviously you may love huge-explosion action movies, but maybe you also enjoy quieter, fun summer movies. And that’s at least what we’re hoping.
It had a timeless quality, like it was an ’80s movie.
NF: That’s good, that was certainly intentional. In crafting this, I think we talked a lot about nostalgia and timelessness, cast and crew departments, just in terms of giving it that feel of connected to older generations, and then also younger generations that could watch this now. I think we grew up on movies like that, and I think it was important for us to connect universally and not any era specifically, just more of a feeling.
Were there any movies that you looked at, that you grew up with, that you kept in mind?
JR: I don’t think we kept them in mind, I think we certainly think of great coming-of-age movies — like Stand By Me and Meatballs came to mind, not necessarily in making the movie but the heart that they actually have, and Meatballs and that relationship is certainly something to draw from. Almost Famous, Dazed and Confused, all these great movies, you can’t help but think of good coming-of-age stories.
NF: And John Hughes.
JR: And John Hughes, that balance of comedy and drama and approaching kids, to not talk to down to them.