Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On blending comedy and drama

After winning an Oscar for their screenplay for The Descendants, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon take a shot at directing.
If you don’t remember that Jim Rash (left) and Nat Faxon (right) won an Oscar for adapting the screenplay for The Descendants -- the 2011 big-screen version of Kaui Hart Hemmings's much-acclaimed novel -- you may know them as actors. Rash plays a community-college dean on NBC's Community; Faxon worked on the late Fox sitcom, Ben and Kate.

Graduates of the famed Los Angeles improvisational troupe, The Groundlings, Faxon and Rash took their first shot at directing with The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old who begins to hit his stride under the mentorship of the owner of a Massachusetts water park called Water Wizz.

Rash and Faxon wrote the screenplay for The Way, Way Back before they were hired by Payne to work on The Descendants. Their movie went through a variety of incarnations before the writing duo decided to direct it themselves. In all, The Way, Way Back -- now opening around the country -- took eight years to reach the screen. On a recent visit to Denver, Faxon and Rash discussed their movie.

Q: Can you talk a little about why we seem so endlessly fascinated by coming-of-age stories?
Rash: I would argue that we all probably had some kind of rite of passage -- either big or small -- when we were kids. There’s something about looking back at that that’s almost therapeutic. Inevitably, people are going to connect with those moments because there’s a promise of hope in a coming-of-age story, a promise of growth. We all tend to look back on our lives and think, ‘That was a tough time. I’m glad I survived it.’

Q. You (Rash) have said that there’s a scene in the movie that came directly from your own life. Early in the film, Steve Carell’s character -- a guy who might wind up as the stepfather of the movie's 14-year-old main character -- asks his potential stepson to rate himself on a scale of one to 10. When the kid hesitates, Carell’s Trent gives him a three, an obviously cruel slap for any adolescent.
Rash: My stepfather did do that, but we had to heighten it a bit. When I look back at that time, I don’t really think, ‘How dare you?’ I don’t believe in rating people by numbers. I’m not saying that’s right. That said, I understood the message. He was telling me to suck it up, to get out there and meet people.

Q: Devoting eight years to getting a movie made shows real perseverance. The movie went through a bunch of false starts before it actually got rolling.
Rash: The Way, Way Back took a while to get made, but it did open a lot of doors for us. It got us in the door to meet with Alexander Payne, and we got to adapt The Descendants. Coming off that success, we were able to get some momentum. We used it to come back to this script.

Q: For a small movie, The Way, Way Back has a big-name cast that includes Steve Carell and Toni Collette. How did the cast come together?

Rash: We went after actors we loved. Allison Janney (who plays one of Carell's neighbors) is someone we both knew. She signed on first. After that we met Sam Rockwell (who plays the owner of Water Wizz) and then Toni Collette (who plays the mother of the movie's 14-year-old protagonist).
It wasn’t only the material that attracted these actors, but the chance for them to work with great actors who chose the movie for the right reasons.
They knew it was a small, independent movie, and there probably wasn’t a huge financial gain for them. But creatively, it fulfilled something -- not only in their individual roles -- but in the opportunity to work with one another.

Q: You finally got to make the movie, but you also bit off a lot -- writing, directing and even playing small roles in the film. How did you handle all that?
Faxon: It was fun, but a lot of stress, close to overwhelming. Most of that was the result of a tight shooting schedule .... It rained the first days, and we immediately got behind, so the stress level shot through the roof.
But we were comforted by the fact that we were surrounded by actors who were all great talents and great people. We never had to worry about any diva type moments. We also were surrounded by an incredible crew. Being first-time directors we knew we needed experienced, veteran hands.

Q: How did you select Liam James to play Duncan, the teen-ager who occupies the film's center?
Rash: We had a number of sessions with our casting director. Liam came somewhere in the middle. We’d seen lots of kids. There are a lot of kid actors who work professionally. They come in. They know how to work a room. They’re like adults. ... Liam came in pretty much as himself. He was slumped over and pale. ... He’s natural and very believable.

Q: How do you find the balance between drama and comedy? That seems like a pretty tricky business.
Faxon: We received our training from The Groundlings (the fabled Los Angeles improv group). We were taught early on about character and character development. There’s always a fine line between the very serious moments and the ones you laugh about later -- or even during.

Rash: The writing process starts more dramatic and then comedy seeps into it as opposed to trying to write a comedic thing and then realizing in the third act that it doesn't have any heart, and you have to make something happen. That’s a trap. You see it in a lot of big comedies. .... As people, we’re always in some kind of weird head space. We’re conflicted with anger and sadness and stuff, but some funny things can come out of that. We find humor in those type of moments. ...

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