About three years ago, actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were hired to wrote a screenplay based on the novel THE DESCENDANTS, which was then, to some degree rewritten, by the film's director, Alexander Payne, but all of them received Academy Awards for the script, so everyone went home happy. But now these two fine gents--Faxon was most recently the star of the one-time Fox sitcom "Ben and Kate"; Rash is very much still Dean Pelton on "Community"--have written another winning screenplay to a glorious coming-of-age film called THE WAY, WAY BACK, which they also co-directed.
Both former members of the L.A. improv group The Groundlings, Faxon and Rash have appeared in countless, mostly comedic films and TV series over the years. Faxon has appeared in several Broken Lizard movies, as well as BAD TEACHER, HAMLET 2, ORANGE COUNTY, and the recent THE BABYMAKERS; while Rash has been in quite a few episodes of "Reno 911!" as well as small roles in BALLS OF FURY, MINORITY REPORT (!), SKY HIGH, and THE NINES.
THE WAY, WAY BACK is one of my favorite films of the summer of 2013, and will likely figure well in my year-end list as well. It's sweet, funny, painfully awkward and perfectly written and acted. They were in Chicago about a month ago for a Q&A screening I did with them, and we had a chance to chat a few hours before the event about all sorts of things. I think the only topical reference you may need to be aware of is that at the time, it had not been confirmed that "Community" creator Dan Harmon was coming back to run the show in its next season after being fired from it last year. Please enjoy my chat with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash…
Capone: Hello, sirs.
Jim Rash: Hello.
Nat Faxon: How are you? I’m Nat.
Capone: Hi, it’s good to meet you, Nat.
NF: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: So they told you I’m going to be with you tonight moderating the Q&A?
JR: Yeah, they did. We’re going to try and get really drunk and then just stumble into that Q&A.
Capone: I’m just going to let you do improv like you did last night [the two went to the Improv Olympic the evening before].
NF: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: Have the audience call out situations.
JR: And then try to answer the question within the situation.
Capone: I remember coming out of the movie, and the first question that popped into my head was: “I wonder which one of them had the messed-up childhood.” Or at least the messed-up childhood that resembles this kid's messed-up childhood.
JR: [Raises his hand] Yes, for this one.
NF: For this one, yes. For a future movie, it will be mine.
JR: This one is definitely me, yeah.
Capone: Which parts were the closest to things that you experienced?
JR: The opening scene is factual.
Capone: I was afraid of that.
JR: That scene happened to me, so that’s one of the things that started the whole script for us, or the journey for the movie. But yes that opening scene was a conversation in a station wagon between me and my stepfather at the time on our way to our summer vacation, and we would drive from North Carolina to Lake Charlevoix [in Michigan] and spent our summers there. And that was the conversation we had probably during our second year of going, where he asked me what number I thought I was. Same thing, "Six", "Three"; and then the speech about getting out there and meeting people and that kind of stuff. So yeah, that’s when it began.
Capone: That’s when the mental notes began.
JR: The mental note taking. I know, yeah.
NF: And the journey still continues.
JR: Still climbing up that ladder of numbers.
NF: Still got to get you out there.
JR: I still need to meet some people.
NF: Get some friends.
Capone: That particular conversation stuck with you. What was the impact on your life from that point forward, or was that just one of many situations that were equally uncomfortable and cruel?
JR: It’s interesting, that exact moment--and it’s a little bit sort of like what Duncan is going through--it’s like this message that's horribly delivered, and while the meaning might make sense in his head, Duncan inadvertently follows through on what he was told to do and has the summer of his life. So sometimes the message we get from people in our lives, while negative in delivery, become eye-opening and powerful moments for us that should they not have said that, who knows what would have happened? It’s hard to listen to what he is saying, but at the same time then Duncan followed it.
NF: That’s what I keep trying to tell you, just follow that advice.
JR: I’m not listening to it! I’m staying in the hotel, that’s where I want to be.
Capone: It’s not the worst advice; it’s just delivered in the worst possible way.
JR: Yeah, exactly. Tactless.
Capone: That’s obviously a very deliberate choice to begin it on one of the most uncomfortable moments in the whole movie, but you want to say “As much as there are going to be a lot of laughs here, this kid’s pain is what really pushes him through as he tries to rise above in some way and escape it and reconnect with his mother."
Walk me through a timeline here, because if I remember correctly, what I read was that this screenplay, or at least the original incarnations were done well before THE DESCENDANTS gig. And I understand that at different times, other people had control of it to a certain degree. But at what point in relation to the Oscar win did it come back to you, and you actually got it to where it is what we see here?
NF: I’ll try to figure this out. I believe we wrote it in 2005, and then we were going to do it at some point Shawn Levy was involved and then the movie fell apart, and then we were going to do it with Mandate, and they were bought by Lionsgate, and that fell apart. We eventually got the movie back.
JR: But that was post-Oscars.
NF: No, I don’t think so.
JR: It was before it? Okay.
NF: Yeah, it was before it. I think it was the May before the Oscars, we decided to take it back and start over and start fresh, and we started working with one of the producers on the movie, Kevin Walsh, that fall I believe and started going out to actors. Meanwhile, we were going through the whole DESCENDANTS campaign, and then we won the Oscar in February and then started attaching talent more seriously, and then we started shooting that summer in June.
JR: I think certainly the DESCENDANTS experience helped us get back to this and also realize that we wanted to do it on our own, I think, and just take a consorted effort to say, “Whether we fail or not, it will be on our terms.” I think certainly the Oscar helped to push us into people trusting us enough, because it was our first time directing, to do that.
NF: Yeah and to get reads from actors.
Capone: Were there any actors that were attached through the many phases of this, or did you all have to line them up once it came back to you?
NF: Yeah, there wasn’t really anybody.
JR: The first was Allison.
NF: That was not in any previous incarnations of it. I think once we got it back and once we really started moving forward, there wasn’t any holdover from any previous version of the movie. It was just sort of a fresh plate, and we just started from there.
Capone: What is ADOPTED? [The first script they wrote together.]
JR: That was a pilot we wrote.
Capone: Okay. I knew it wasn’t a feature, but I thought it might have been TV.
JR: IMDB calls it a “TV movie” for some weird reason.
Capone: Yeah, that’s why I was asking.
JR: But no, it was a multi-camera sitcom that we did for ABC with Christine Baranski and Bernadette Peters.
NF: It was our first real writing break in terms of eventually having people want to do our material. [Laughs] As opposed to us just doing it on the Groundlings' stage. So we did that, and then the next year is when we wrote THE WAY, WAY BACK.
Capone: You both came out of The Groundlings and as much as that's about improv, they also write a lot of shows. Did you also do a lot of writing as Groundlings members? Was there that component in there? Did any of what you learned there come in handy when you became writers?
NF: Without a doubt. The Groundlings is first and foremost a school, and so you audition to get into the school, and then you take Level One and Level Two, and those two levels are pretty much improv. Then in Level Three you start writing.
JR: You start with monologues, and it's about honing your point of view.
NF: And then you write scenes with other people. Level Four you’re writing a lot of scenes with other people, and then so by the time you make it up to the Sunday company, which is sort of the farm team, you’re putting on a show every Sunday of mostly new material that all the people in that little company have written. Then if you eventually get to the main company you’re doing the same thing. So Jim and I met in the Sunday company, started writing together there, and then you find people that you have fun writing with or you're good friends with, and it makes it easier. And such was the case with us. I think we just enjoyed it and had similar sensibilities and enjoyed hanging out with each other and coming up with silly bits to do on stage
But it really truly is the same fundamental basics of writing a three- to five-minute sketch that can apply to writing a pilot or to a 120-page screenplay. For The Groundlings, it’s really about character and character development and certainly pulling from your own lives, pulling from people that you know--family, coworkers--and really trying to investigate what their eccentricities are, what their flaws are, what their weakness is, maybe they make horrible choices. I think that has carried us all the way through, and certainly point of view. Wouldn’t you say, James?
NF: Did I do a good job?
JR: Oh my god, yes.
Capone: As actors who also have this other talent, do you find that other actors are more willing to come on board, because you're more likely to understand their sensibilities as actors and they might be more willing to come onboard as a cast member for you?
JR: Yeah, I think so.
NF: It’s hard to say. I don’t know what our actors in our movie would say.
Capone: No one came up to you and just said, “I’m doing this because you’re an actor?”
NF: No, but I would think so. From my own experience as an actor…I’m trying to even think if I’ve had directors that have also been actors. I think there’s a camaraderie that exists. I think there’s an understanding. There is a lot of patience and a way to communicate with each other that somebody who is maybe only a director might. It might be a different experience for them.
JR: I think it’s fair to say there are people who would say, “Oh, that director is more of a technical director,” and there are directors who are a little bit more hands on with their actors. I think there’s all types of directors, some that are actors and some that aren’t. But I do think that there’s a vulnerability that sometimes actors have on set, and we're all, speaking for myself, a little neurotic, we want to know that we're doing a good job. We probably need some instant, “How was that?” But at the same time, you want to give them a leash that’s loose and allows them to not have pressure to get it exactly the way you see it, but allow them to bring something to it.
I don’t think that actor-directors are the only people who can do this, but I do think that if I were to say what I would want for us growing as directors to nurture is that aspect of it that you are inviting these people to come and explore and make these characters their own, because you spent so much time and you hear it a certain way, and then when you take a step back and you see these gifted people bring something to it, because they're connected to it, it’s really a reward.
A great example for just me is Allison Janney. We probably performed that speech over and over out loud. Then for her, she added these small little things that she pulled from friends. She has a friend who is like this who always says “Whoodie who!” So that was her or “press my laundry” was another thing she was affectionate for. So not that that totally answers the question much more as a…
NF: Yeah, I think there are directors who are not actors who certainly understand all of these things, but I would say as an actor, you are also in tune with it, because you’ve been there before.
Capone: You’ve both been fortunate to have worked with some really great directors of comedy, certainly on "Community" you’ve had a nice run of people come in to direct, and of course the Broken Lizard guys are just the greatest. Is there anything that you learned stylistically as a director from working with some of those people?
NF: We did sit down with a few to get their advice before we started, speaking of Jay Chandrasekhar, we sat down with him, but also getting to watch. I remember watching Alexander [Payne] briefly while he was doing THE DESCENDANTS when we visited set and not that I had never seen this, but it was fun to sort of watch him sit beside the camera monitor-less and just watch the actors. In television, I couldn’t remember anybody who sat there. They were always behind a wall.
Capone: Most movies, too, they're watching them on a monitor.
JR: There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we really enjoyed that and I think often during the process not all of the time one of us would satay there and one of us would go to the monitor. It felt like this great way to connect with them and really see it for yourself and hopefully, even if it’s small things, to whisper and let them keep rolling, but I think that’s one thing I can remember.
NF: Yeah, also just in general having a fun and positive attitude. You’re doing this very collaborative thing and obviously you need to be focused and professional, but it’s a luxury in a sense to be able to go out and make movies and to have fun doing them. Jake Kasdan has directed me in a lot of things, and Jay and all of the Broken Lizard guys. When you’re surrounded by people that are enjoying it and are loving what they are doing and their profession and it’s a lot of fun, the atmosphere that’s created is one that is very creative and also very enjoyable.
So it was always important for us to try, as stressful and as hard as it can be at times, to make sure that everybody is having a good time and that everybody is taken care of. That’s a very general, vague thing, but I think it does make a difference when you are on set. When you’re on set and it’s stressful and people are snapping at each other and having bad attitudes, I feel like it does affect your performance.
Capone: Speaking of performances, I want to talk about a couple of your actors. I watch "The Killing," so I know who Liam is. But a lot of people don’t and won’t recognize him. How extensive was the search for Duncan?
NF: It was not as extensive as I think we both had feared. [Steve] Carell was the last piece to come on board, and when that happened, the movie really accelerated, because most of our cast was in place, with the exception of our Duncan, who is on every page of the script and every frame of the movie. We had a short window in terms of “Well, we’ve got to shoot,” because Jim was going back to "Community," I was doing "Ben and Kate" at the time. So we had like a small window to get the movie made, which meant we had to go into preproduction by a certain date, so I was immediately like “If we can't find this kid, we’re doomed.” I think we both felt that way and luckily it fell into our lap.
We had a few sessions in L.A.; Allison Jones was our casting director, and Liam flew down from Vancouver to audition, and we just lucked out. As soon as he walked into the room, it just felt right. You just got the sense that he had this very old soul quality about him that just felt perfect for the movie. We had him read with Toni Collette a few hours later and then we had him do some of the scenes towards the end of the movie where he’s got a little more confidence and he shows that smile. It just fell in our lap in a wonderful way. So it was not as exhaustive as I think we had feared. We were worried that we were going to find this kid in some farm land.
JR: But you also have different types of child actors. You have ones that are almost too professional; they come in and they own the room and they probably work a lot, and it’s not that they are not good, but they have this very polished demeanor. Then you have these kids who just seem natural and effortless, and Liam was one of those kids who just sort of comes in and just does it.
NF: It felt very much “the” kid.
JR: Which is another thing I think we took from Alexander. He has such a knowledge of film, Alexander, old films and would talk about them for days, but he would admit that he doesn’t know television that well. So when he hears Thomas Hayden Church is on a show called "Wings", that doesn’t register, but he knows that when Thomas Hayden Church came in the room, he goes “That’s the guy.” I think that that’s something that we learned from him, and we also knew that Duncan needed to be, hopefully, someone that was sort of fresh outside of being known in "The Killing." So that we are sort of meeting him at the same time as he’s meeting this world. I think that really does help when you take a fresh face, even though he’s among many familiar faces, it really sort of makes you connect with him.
Capone: It’s a rare gift, especially for someone that young, to be the normal center with all of this weirdness around him, to be that grounding force at the center of it. That’s not an easy thing to do.
JR: He doesn’t say much in the first parts of the movie. He’s just taking it in.
Capone: It’s painful to watch sometimes.
JR: Yeah, that’s what it is. I think that’s what a lot of kids are like. I remember, you're sort of the smartest person in the room, because you are not talking, in other words, you're just taking it in, and there’s something to be said about that.
Capone: There’s a power there.
JR: There is a power in observing and understanding. Although he doesn’t understand those words that were said to him until Owen gives him some context for where that’s coming from, and that only comes from his age and being able to look back and say, “Here’s where that man is, and I can tell you exactly why.”
Capone: There had been some talk right around the Oscars of you selling a script to Kristen Wiig. Is that still a thing? Is that still happening? And I also just read that you're got more of a family drama idea that you also were working on with Fox Searchlight. Do you just have a drawer full of scripts at this point?
JR: Those two are sort of being written in tandem, but the Kristen Wiig one is, again with the Groundlings connection, and we wanted to write for her. So yes, we started this before all of this happened, then we got side tracked with directing.
Capone: The Oscars were a hell of a year for Groundlings members.
JR: It really was. It was almost more of a rewarding experience because of the proximity of your friends and this crazy timeline matching up at the exact same time. But yeah, we are in the process of writing the Kristen Wiig one, which is more of an action comedy, and that’s in the mid-stages. Then we wrote a more dysfunctional family type thing for Fox Searchlight. It’s one of those things where we're writing.
Capone: Nat, is that your messed up family story?
NF: A little bit, yeah.
NF: It’s definitely inspired by my life a little bit more. We try to share our pain as much as we can.
Capone: I realize this is a tough problem to have, but have you found that the TV acting work is interfering with the writing work?
JR: It becomes a schedule, that’s for sure. I think it’s always navigating and all high-class problems, nothing to get upset about. I think writing is always a love… I wouldn’t say “love-hate,” I would say “love-frustrated” relationship. I know both of us love writing, but it's good days and bad days. There are days when those days off work out perfectly and there are days when those days off you’re like “Argh, and then tomorrow I have to go do this…” But I think we're just loving the moment of at least three things coming together at the same time. We always wanted to write and act and make those blend, and I think that the fact that we’ve had the opportunity and want to continue that opportunity to add directing that I think is hard to complain about in one piece.
Capone: As a huge, huge "Community" fan who has attended several of the Comic-Con panels, I was very excited to see that it was coming back and now it’s looking like Dan might be part of the works?
JR: I was telling Nat this earlier; I only know as much as everybody out there, because it was the Hollywood Reporter where I think I saw it, and I knew through Joel that “Is this a possibility?” At least I like to hear that he has been reached out to and that he’s open to discussion, so I hope he does. I really do, just because if it is another “final 13,” which we always hear every year, if we could have the opportunity to have him take us to the end, that would be fantastic.
Capone: That would be a nice way to wrap it up. Alright, I will see you at the Q&A in a few hours.