Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Due to my rapidly deteriorating sleep schedule I spent most of Sunday sleeping, so I’m going to officially make Quint’s Weekend of Interviews a three day weekend! So, my deluge of catch-up chats will keep on coming as the work week kicks off!
Out of all the interviews left in the queue, this one with Director Tom McCarthy for his film Win Win is one of my absolute favorites. He’s incredibly open about his process and for whatever reason I think we clicked and squeezed a lot of real dynamic film talk into the short 7-ish minutes we got in a noisy corner of a crazed Sundance press room.
We discuss the tone of his films, working with inexperienced actors and seasoned vets alike and just how awesome Burt Young is. Enjoy!
Quint: What’s interesting to me with the worlds you create is that you are able to dance with melodrama, but not make the story cheesy or eye-rolling. You take a lot of time to flesh out your characters, ground them in reality. How do you know when you’ve hit that sweet spot where you have the heart, but not the inauthenticity?
Tom McCarthy: I think that’s a great question. I really wanted to go back and tell a suburban story, a middle class story, and there’s something about the world that is conventional. Do you know what I mean? It’s like “How do you let something that’s so conventional not become TV?” It’s trying to find the movie in that. That was just a lot of writing.
I kind of got the story down pretty quickly, more or less, and then it was rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, and trying to find that line between the drama and the comedy. Look, when I knew I had those three guys I knew it we were going to have some fun with it and the wrestling had a nice adrenaline shot to it. Then it’s like how to tell a simple story about these kind of families, but let it still be compelling for a movie audience.
Part of that was I knew early on that Bobby [Cannavale], Amy [Ryan], and Paul [Giamatti] were going to be a big part of that family and I thought “I have actors who are going to help elevate the material.”
Quint: What’s interesting to me is not only do you get a great lead, but you populate the movie with so many great character actors. I love that you have Jeffrey Tambor in there. I love that you have… (I show my notepad to McCarthy, a list of questions for the interview) Here’s one of my questions “Burt Young. With an exclamation point.”
Tom McCarthy: Do you know how that happened? We were sitting around with Paul and Bobby and we were talking about the movie one day and I was like “Guys, I don’t know my Leo yet.” And we can’t remember which one of us, because there were so many actors that age and finally someone went “Burt Young” and we were all like “Oh, yeah.”
Quint: Paulie, man!
Tom McCarthy: (laughs) Literally I called him the next day and I was scouting out on Long Island, Burt lives out there now, and I popped into his loft to see him. The nicest dude… I sat down and had coffee with him and it was just like… He was classic. I was like “This guy gets it” and it’s such a beautifully nuanced performance. There’s so much other flash in the movie that I hope that doesn’t get lost, because, man, he’s riding that fine line of a guy just starting to loose his grip on reality.
Quint: It’s not a cartoon, though. I could easily see that performance being over the top, but again he’s authentic and heartbreakingly so.
Tom McCarthy: Yeah. Tricky. That’s a tricky thing to do and, man, he is just a pro. Paul and I would just watch him, because they had a lot of scenes together early on, and I would just be watching with Paul and every time Burt would do it differently. He’s just from that school. Big, small, crazy, mix it up, drop it… It was really fun to watch and you always knew you had something.
Quint: I always hear about people who do that, mix things up, giving different material in different takes and I am curious how the directors work with that kind of material. How often do you use the extremes? When it comes to editing how do you use those wildly different takes and still find a consistent character.
Tom McCarthy: It’s a great question and you don’t know is the answer. For instance, there’s that moment where Burt and Kyle are watching the TV. The scene starts out very funny where he says “That damn judge,” he’s talking about the TV. Then it turns on a dime and we went with one of Burt’s more violent takes where he screamed it out “just turn the damn thing off!” He really yelled at the kid and that time I wanted to use it, because I wanted to show a man frustrated that he knows he’s not quite putting it together right, we can sense that in the anger that comes out of that. From my research, that’s very appropriate to people battling early dementia, that they know it’s not quite right and they have these fits of anger, because they are dealing with that.
But that’s a great question, because a lot of times you are right, you get the big and the small and you are like “Oh let’s try this.” You never know, so it’s always great when actors can give you that range. The trick is, though, with that is that they have to at least be able to deliver. Sometimes they are so much all over the place, you never have that take. They’ve got to be good enough to give you that and then you go crazy.
Quint: Without making the character schizophrenic, yeah.
Tom McCarthy: Exactly.
Quint: I’ve just got to give you kudos for putting him in the movie, because I remember when I saw ROCKY BALBOA and I’m like “Oh my God, not only is he still around, but he is awesome in this movie.” I couldn’t wait for the upswing and for him to have a comeback. I’ve been waiting and waiting for it.
Tom McCarthy: I hope he gets the well-deserved attention from this because he’s just a great guy to work with.
Quint: So when you cast something, especially with so many known people, do you just immediately go “Okay, well Paul will work well with Amy” or do you actually have them get together before you’re sure?
Tom McCarthy: Hey, it’s just like sports, right? You can go get the best athletes and it doesn’t gel. You need the types of actors that like to work together. All of these guys come from the theater. Most of them live in New York right now and they all come with a certain amount of… they like rehearsal. Not every actor likes to rehearse. Whenever I mentioned it to Richard Jenkins and he was like “Ugh, no…” and then, of course, he got so into it, like way more into it than anybody else. I was like “Dude, you are unbelievable! You are a bandwagon rehearsal guy!”
But with these guys it was really enjoyable, because they really liked to feel out the material and they all knew each other, so there was that. You always want to create a safe atmosphere where they can try stuff, you know? And they all work differently, like some guys were like this (Snaps his finger)… Amy, you know… She’s a fabulous actress to watch, because she’s a real slow burn. The first couple of rehearsals, you are like “Hmm, she’s going to get there, right?” and then all of a sudden when it clicks in it’s so complete and so effective. Man, I love her performance in this.
Quint: She’s great and she’s kind of well known for… At least she was made famous for being that crazier, horrible person. I love the interaction between her and Paul in this film. I love even when she’s getting violent, it’s all from such a sweet and protective place.
Tom McCarthy: Yeah, but it’s sort of like “Look, I love you, but you’re a fuck up and I want to kill you right now. I’m still going to go to bed with you. I might not sleep with you…” (laughs) And you can see that in their levels. You know, both of those actors, Amy and Paul, have made a career out of playing these really dynamic characters and it was fun for them I think to rein it in and play a content couple and still… Anyone who’s been in a relationship, man, no matter how normal you are, you know how crazy that can get and I think those guys do a beautiful job of rendering it.
Quint: I was kind of cringing waiting for the moment where it’s like “Okay, yeah he’s going to get caught in the lie and then she’s going to kick him out” and I am so glad that you never got to that point. You could see her angry, see her disappointment, but it doesn’t follow the formula like you’d expect.
Tom McCarthy: Yeah, I think you are right and I think the key word there is disappointment and I don’t think there’s anything more heartbreaking than when you see that disappointment in someone you love. Do you know what I mean? That’s the thing. She is his world and suddenly it’s like “Wow, I’ve let down this person who thinks the world of me.” It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Quint: Can we talk a little bit about how you change up directing these seasoned professional theater actors versus the non-actors, especially the knew kids coming in, especially Alex Shaffer.
Tom McCarthy: I think really the idea is just to, through the rehearsal process, try to create a sense of “Let’s just play. Let’s just commit to the text and let’s just have fun. Let’s keep it light.” If you can create that atmosphere, everyone starts to do it, including a young non-actor. He’s just like “Oh, I just pretend.”
Quint: So you take away the pressure?
Tom McCarthy: Yeah and he really got along with Paul. They’re both really great people. There was once scene with him and Melanie when they are at the courthouse saying goodbye and Melanie really brings it with such a tough role, and he turns to me after one roll and he says “She’s really crying.” And I said, “Yeah buddy, she’s really feeling it and that’s okay. That’s our job.”
I almost had to teach this kid… Remember at that age you were just worried about being cool, when you start becoming an actor you’ve got to feel all of these different things. I had to keep teaching him “It’s okay. It will be cool if you commit to it.” He got that and so it was really cool to see this kid in the course of a seven-week shoot kind of become an actor. You could see it. We could all see it. You are like “That’s cool, he’s getting it!” It was neat.
Quint: Excellent man, well I think they are pulling you away.
Tom McCarthy: They’re flagging you?
Quint: They really are, but thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoyed the film.
Tom McCarthy: Thanks, I love your site; it’s cool.
Well, that was nice. We think your movies are cool, so we’re even.
My extended Weekend of Interviews continues as I labor into the wee hours of the night! Stay tuned!