Here's an elevator pitch for you: Thomas McCarthy's new movie is "about a sad cobbler." "How's that?!" he said, laughing when giving the rundown over the phone. "It's about a cobbler from the Lower East Side who's asking the eternal question: Is this all there is? In the midst of that, he discovers he has a special ability to change his future. It opens up his life in a whole new way."
Not that McCarthy needs to do anymore pitching on that project. He's currently in post-production on The Cobbler, which he directed and co-wrote, and which stars Adam Sandler in one of those rare and often surprising non-Adam Sandler movie roles. It's a safe bet that the film's headed to a premiere at one of the major festivals, where McCarthy's three past features have all premiered to acclaim.
As a filmmaker, McCarthy's been an indie darling since his 2003 debut The Station Agent, the first introduction for many to Peter Dinklage, who starred as a railroad-loving introvert who inherits and goes to live on an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey. 2007's The Visitor and 2011's Win Win have continued his tradition of taking potentially cutesy scenarios and spinning them into nuanced, warm, but never easily sentimental portraits of ragtag communities and families of choice.
McCarthy began his career as an actor — you might remember him as shady reporter Scott Templeton from the final season of HBO's The Wire — but it's his work behind the camera that's been commanding all the attention lately. That's included writing screenplays for other filmmakers, like Pixar's Up, on which he shares a story credit with directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, and Disney's recent Million Dollar Arm, starring Jon Hamm as a sports agent who goes looking for pitching talent in the cricket-loving market of India and ends up bringing two village boys to L.A. to train.
These are much bigger films than the indies McCarthy's helmed himself, but they share a clear sensibility. They're more stories of people from different walks of life finding connection and community in one another, and they reveal themselves to be much sharper and less easy to pin down than you'd expect when first hearing their innocuous descriptions. Those complications are what drew McCarthy to Million Dollar Arm, which is now in theaters, and which he described approvingly as an "unconventional story, something I hadn't quite seen before."
"It has the sheen of a sports movie, but it's really not a sports movie at all," McCarthy said. "If anyone goes into it thinking they're getting a straight-up sports story, they're going to be disappointed."
That unconventionality may not have helped Million Dollar Arm at the box office, where it failed to pick up steam, but it does set the film aside from the usual underdog formula. McCarthy traveled to India when doing his research, and also spent a lot of time speaking with J.B. Bernstein, Dinesh Patel, and Rinku Singh, the real life inspirations for the characters.
McCarthy also didn't shy away from the themes of globalization in the story and the idea of people as commodities — something he sees sports and the movie business as having in common. "You find yourself in an artistic profession, and oh, this guy doesn't care at all about the artistry of it, all he cares about is the bottom line," he observed. "That's fine. It's just two different perspectives on it."
McCarthy, who takes on one or two screenwriting or rewrite projects a year, doesn't take a more business like approach himself when writing for others — he doesn't see it as all that different from scripting his own films. "When I intend to direct it, I try to noodle on it longer," he said, noting his own features have been original stories will less preexisting material to draw from. "There's a more of a process of letting the story bubble up through characters a little more organically." But he said he enjoys the "cut and dry" qualities of a studio job: "I'm going to start now and I'm going to turn something in here. Sometimes you need those deadlines. I like writing for other people. It gives you a little different perspective on the material."
McCarthy allowed that his background as an actor has shaped his approach as a filmmaker: "It helps, just in terms of getting inside character and dialogue. Any actor knows sometimes you have good material that you wear like a tailored jacket, and sometimes you've really got to stretch into something. When you sit down to write and keep those things in mind, I'd like to think they are helpful on some level."
Still, McCarthy's yet to write a role for himself in his movies. "Everyone always asks me that," he said. "I have friends who are like, why don't you just put yourself in your own movie, make it easy. I don't think that that is easy.
"Writing and directing is so difficult that the idea of also jumping in front of the camera doesn't make sense to me," he continued. "Maybe someday, if there was a role that I just thought, oh, nobody can do this better than me, I would consider it, but I haven't found that role yet. You always feel like there's guy who can do it better." And in the end, he noted, "I can be more helpful when I'm writing and directing on the other side of the camera."