By Danny Peary
I predict a warm response from critics and moviegoers to the charming and disarming directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for their script for The Descendants. Their new picture, the coming-of-age tale, The Way, Way Back, is set today, at a beachtown in Massachusetts, but if it makes you feel nostalgic for the lost summers of your youth it’s because the directors/writers drew from their own teenage summers, including a difficult one Rash spent with a stepfather. Shy, awkward fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) thinks he’s going to have a lousy summer at the beach house of his wife Pam’s (Toni Collette) new husband, Trent (Steve Carrell playing against type and creating a fascinating character), who constantly belittles him. But he finds safe haven at a fab water park, where he is taken under the wing of Owen (Sam Rockwell, one of our most underrated movie actors) and befriended by other employees, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Roddy (Faxon), and Lewis (Rash) and lots of other boys and girls. And the cherry on top is the slightly older Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, star of TV’s “The Carrie Diaries), the very pretty daughter of the boozy, chatty neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). Receiving needed attention and support, his confidence grows to a point where he can stand up to Trent, even when his passive mother can’t. In anticipation of the film’s New York release today—I think it’s the perfect summer movie for the Hamptons, too—I attended the following press conference with the directors and Rockwell, James, Robb, Collette, and Janney last week in the city. Carrell and Rudolph weren’t in attendance, but it was a lively, free-wheeling affair.
Q: Nat and Jim, talk about the cast that’s here with you today.
Nat Faxon: I think all of these incredible people understand and appreciate ensemble-type films. Jim and I come from the Groundlings comedy group and a lot of the things we do are collaborative, including writing and performing with other people. This movie has a collaborative spirit and is the sum of its parts. It takes a certain type of person to understand that and jump in, so we’re so incredibly fortunate these actors came on this ride with us.
Jim Rash: We were looking for actors that we admired both as wonderful talents and good people. That’s how we found this cast. For the character of Trent, we wanted to go against type, and Steve Carrell came to mind. Sam came to mind to play Owen. Sam understood what Bill Murray was to us in Meatballs. He said it on the phone before we had said anything, so we knew right away that we were all on the same page.
Sam Rockwell: Bill Murray is pretty evident in the script. I think it’s kind of an homage to him, a little bit. But I think there are a lot of good prototypes for Owen, like Walter Matthau, a little Richard Pryor, and a bunch of others.
Jim Rash: He’s the adult who talks to kids as if they’re adults, which is always fun.
Q: When you two got together, did you think, let’s make a movie kind of like Meatballs meets Adventureland?
Jim Rash: I don’t know if we sat down and set up Meatballs and that kind of thing, but we started with a love for water parks and our training with the Groundlings, which is so character-based. The water park seemed to offer a place where an eclectic group of people might be. And then the first scene of the movie, the one-to-ten conversation between Trent and Duncan in the car, happened to me on the way to our summer vacation in Michigan. We launched with that sort of verbatim, autobiographical first scene. Then we merged those two thoughts. The water park became the perfect Oz in this story of this kid, Duncan.
Q: So do you see this movie as your revenge against your stepfather?
Jim Rash: It is cathartic, I don’t know if it’s revenge.
Nat Faxon (laughing): Every movie’s revenge.
Jim Rash: Take that, Mom’s second husband! In your face! Actually, I would not say that my stepfather and Trent are the same person. Steve had an innate ability to elevate Trent above being just something demonic. He made him a real human being, a true tragic male character. In regard to my stepfather, I understand his message to me now but didn’t at fourteen when I couldn’t process it and I was coming from a place of anger. Through Owen, weirdly, what Duncan does that summer is what Trent was alluding to, in a harsh way, when he said he should come out of his shell. Duncan reluctantly gets on his bike and leaves the house and stumbles upon this Oz water park. Trent said, get out, make something of yourself. There are so many things at the beach to take advantage of. That’s what I was told as a kid. We went to Michigan every year, Lake Charleroi, and he was saying to me, I noticed that last year you hung around the lake house. Why don’t you get out? There are so many great people to meet, and explore, and take advantage of things. So regardless of his having no tact and being harsh, he gave me something I didn’t understand then but understand now. So it’s really cathartic to me, because I understand why our paths crossed briefly.
Q: In the movie, I think playtime is used as the redemptive factor in Duncan’s coming of age. He actually breaks away from his miserable home life through play.
Nat Faxon: There are a couple of things that go into this. There are two male roles in Duncan’s life. Trent’s idea is to have Duncan fend for himself and make something out of himself. Owen gives the same message but in a much more nurturing way. He says to Duncan to come into the fold, put on our shirt, you’re official. In other words, join this sort of playground. That is pretty much how Owen’s mind operates. He is at his best for three months out of the year, while this water park is open in the summer. It’s a play opportunity for Duncan, too. Owen’s offering something completely different than Trent. This place nurtures all types of people, so that they can celebrate who they are. Duncan shares this wonderful experience people who come to this place have. The water park does in a sense become Duncan’s Oz. We had long conversations with our DP, John Bailey, about how we could make Trent’s summer house feel suffocating and isolating and closed-in. That included shooting from a low angle so you can see the ceiling and feel that claustrophobia Duncan is feeling when he’s in the house. Visually, this contrasts with how we shot the water park. We shot it with a Steadicam to create movement and excitement, and we had a ton of walk-and-talk moments with Owen and Duncan so there is no feeling of claustrophobia. We wanted to make the park feel colorful and bright and open and fun and playful.
Q: Owen and Duncan is the relationship at the heart of the movie. So, Liam and Sam, how did you two work together?
Sam Rockwell: I think there was a pretty immediate chemistry between us. We had an immediate understanding of the relationship. It was just so easy, we were just sort of on the same page, all of us. We read the script a couple of times, but we all knew what it needed to be. It was kind of instinctive. Jim and Nat would guide us, but it was very free-feeling working on this movie.
Liam James: A couple of days before we started shooting, Sam, Nat, Jim and I sat down together. I was doing this new thing, this huge part, something I’d never done before, and they really made me feel comfortable and that I could do anything I needed to do for the movie. The thing that made me the most comfortable was how funny they were, all the jokes they were telling. Between scenes, I would go to them and just listen and laugh and have a great time. Sam and I had a lot of fun together. He’s really into boxing and he showed me some moves. That was one way we kept loose between scenes.
Nat Faxon: Some cage-fighting, Liam survived.
Jim Rash: Kid’s gotta learn.
Q: To the actresses: I want to know how you got into the heads and hearts of your characters, and whether there was anything in your personal lives or youths that you drew on to play them.
Toni Collette: I’m not one of those actors who draws on previous experiences or anything that blatant. It’s always the script. To play Pam, I started with this wonderful material, which was so clear and so rich and so complex and so enjoyable to play. Everyone was so receptive and open to the material, and it was such a wonderful atmosphere to work in. That opened vice allowed something really relaxed and natural and special to evolve.
Annasophia Robb: I definitely agree with Toni. My character, Susanna, was all on the page. I drew everything from the script. It’s nice to see a girl-next-door character be multi-faceted, not just one-dimensional. She’s going through things herself. Being on set and being with all these people just really got me into the headspace I needed I remember my first meeting with Nat and Jim and how we clicked. The chemistry felt so natural and comfortable. Being able to spend time with Liam and getting to know each other for the first time was great and I felt sort of adopted by Allison in a way. Being able to hang out on the set was a real privilege for me.
Allison Janney: Parties! I can relate to Betty’s fun side because, Nat, Jim, and Sam, you’ve seen how I throw down at a party! I like to dance, I like to have a great time. So I was excited about that when I first read the part of Betty [Trent's loud, nosy neighbor]. But I was also hooked by the fact that she’s in a lot of pain and self-medicating with alcohol and chatter to cover up what’s underneath. That’s what fascinated me about her. She isn’t just a one-dimensional, silly character, she’s actually very complicated. It was very exhausting to play her but incredibly rewarding because she’s a brilliant character. A little Betty goes a long way!
Q: That first scene of yours when everyone arrives at the house next door and you won’t stop talking to them basically tells us everything we need to know about Betty. Because of all your dialogue, was that scene daunting scene for you, or was it fun?
Allison Janney: I’m thrilled when I get to do a scene like that. It’s like being in a pinball machine, and I get to be in control of it, which I love doing in my acting–I’m not so good at it in real life. I relish getting to take over a scene like that and be the one spinning it all over the place. I can’t get enough of that. It was fun when we got to go all the way through it; when I had to break it up to do coverage of the scene it became a harder to keep the same energy. By the end of the day I was exhausted and had to get into a hot bath.
Nat Faxon: That scene took the whole day, so in a way, the day was Allison. She was really in control of the pace.
DP: Toni, you had the difficulty of playing a passive character. How did you do that without letting the audience lose interest and drift away from Pam?
Toni Collette: From my point of view, I thought the audience was going to find her so frustrating, so passive, so inactive. But what I loved about it is there was so much going on in this new world around her. She’s trying to provide something for her son with the wrong man. She knows the truth, she just lying to herself. There are a lot of wheels turning for a very long time, although she’s not expressing what she’s thinking. But I think there’s so much she can express without words, so I kind of enjoyed that. I’d like to do a silent movie!
DP: Liam, how difficult was it playing a shy, tongue-twisted kid and not being able to let yourself go?
Liam: I didn’t feel frustrated with Duncan, but it was almost painful how awkward he is at the beginning. So I was pleased with what happens with him over the summer. Everybody was talking this transformation Duncan goes through, but we shot the film out of sequence, so I just had to trust Nat and Jim when they were saying that I was doing it right. When I saw the film at Sundance and in my hometown of Vancouver, I was really happy how it all came together.
Q: Duncan comes alive when he dances for that young crowd at the water park. How much of the dancing was you?
Liam James: That wasn’t me.
Jim Rash: No, it was. He was terrified when we said, “Now you need to dance.”
Liam James: So terrified. I got there that morning and read what we were going to be doing that day, and was like, “Where’s the choreographer, guys?” And they were like, “Get up there.” One of the moves I did was “the leafblower.” I think that says a little about how little they showed me.
Sam Rockwell (laughing): I like that you’re attributing a style to what you were doing.
Liam James: It’s a move I learned when I was twelve years old, someone showed it to me one time so I thought I’d do it.
Sam Rockwell: To me it was more like a zombie thing you were doing.
Liam James (deadpan): Thank you.
Sam Rockwell: You’re welcome. It was a compliment! No, everyone, he was fantastic.
Liam James: The dancers were amazing who were there, I was really intrigued to talk to them and get to know them. I even asked them a couple things when I was nervous. That’s kind of how it worked.
Q: Summer is often a time of transition and change. Jim, you talked about it a little before but can you, Nat, and your actors recall any of your memorable summers of change?
Jim Rash: As I said, the first scene in the car happened to me on the way to our summer vacation. That was my stepfather at the time. But that wasn’t transitional. I do remember that for some reason my dad decided to be involved in my development as well and he sent me to Outward Bound for about three weeks. As a teen, at first you’re like, “Ugh, this sucks,” and then you sort of really embrace it, and then you come back and tell your high school friends, “I’ve changed! You don’t understand what happened, guys. I was in the woods and things happened.” We did backpacking and rock climbing and I had to do a three-day solo trip with only an orange, a bagel, tarp, and four pieces of string. I came to realize that three days is a lot of time to be alone.
Sam Rockwell: Especially for someone like you, Jim, who lives inside his head.
Jim Rash: And there was a huge thunderstorm. It was not very entertaining. I remember I tried to write a really short story there, I think I still have it. It was so terrible, you know. That was a summer I remember.
Nat Faxon: I spent my summers on Nantucket Island. That inspired us to instill in the movie the sense of going to a certain place summer after summer. So much happens in the nine months you’re at school and then you come back and open your summer house and nothing has changed. There’s something very comforting and familiar. I have a lot of fond memories of growing up like that.
Sam Rockwell: I spent summers with adults because I was in the theater as a kid. I was around people who were sort of bohemian and were a little crazy. So I had some unconventional summers for sure.
Annasophia Robb: I started acting when I was nine, and I think last summer, when we shot this, was probably my most transitional. I had just graduated high school, I was 18, it was my first movie when I was on the set by myself, and it was kinda scary and a little bit lonely at times. But to be able to spend time with an amazing cast was so much fun for me and it’s now so exciting to see the final film because it reminds me of that time.
Allison Janney: I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and did a little theater when I was about fifteen. I did some backstage crew work and I got a big eyeful of some colorful people like the Ames Brothers, Kitty Carlisle, and the Smothers Brothers. There were a lot of very funny stories that I can’t tell you. It was an unbelievable world I saw–professional theater.
Toni Collette: Australia is one big beach. It’s all very oceanic and salty, and you have these feelings of freedom. Summer is my favorite time of year. I absolutely come to life and love it. There’s one holiday that I had when I was young that wasn’t planned at all. I had a fight with my parents on Boxing Day, when they went to visit my auntie Betty in the city, I rang a friend who was going on a road trip with some girlfriends that she’d met at university. She said, “One of them pulled out, there’s a spare seat in the car, I’m coming to get you.” I grabbed a load of clothing, shoved it in a duffle bag, grabbed a guitar, and ran out to the car, not knowing where I was going. We drove up the coast. I slept on beaches, got kicked off beaches by rangers, and ended up at a folk festival and had the time of my bloody life.
Q: Jim and Nat, this is your first opportunity to direct a film. What was that like for you?
Jim Rash: It was stressful for sure, but in a wonderful way. It was a whole new chapter for us. We’ve been writing together for a long time, so we just tried to approach working and directing together from a similar place. It helped that we knew this story very well because we’d lived with it for eight years. We had to trust ourselves and pull up anything that as actors we’d appreciated about the directors we’d worked with. That was the artillery we’d go in with and feel confident about. We knew that whatever advice we took from every director we sat down with, it was going to be a whole new game when we got out there. It was a wonderfully complicated but an awesome experience.
Nat Faxon: I echo those sentiments. Often on the set you’re stressed out because you’re asked so many questions, and you have so many decisions to make, but you try to remind yourself, “We’re so lucky to be doing this and to be surrounded by these actors and this incredible crew who are all working together to create something and fulfill a dream of ours.” We just tried to create a set that was loose and fun and enjoyable.
Sam Rockwell: I love working with actor-directors, and these guys were no exception. They really did create a great, loose set. They wrote such a wonderful script, that it was kind of a no-brainer to do the film. Maya Rudolph, who Jim and Nat knew from Groundlings, would come in and I felt she was almost like therapy for you guys, right? You guys would do bits with her and it seemed like that would relieve your stress. These guys are so funny, and they would throw me zingers, and I’d do some adlibbing to get them in.
Q: By the end of the first act, I was waiting for Owen and Trent to have a huge confrontation. I wanted something like McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched. I don’t understand why you guys didn’t do that!
Sam Rockwell: We did do that. Owen confronts Trent at the water park. I understand your expecting more but it’s probably good you’re left wanting more. I think a taste, a little moment, is all you need.
Nat Faxon: Jim and I always try to use restraint in what we do, both in our writing and our directing. When we worked with Alexander Payne on The Descendents, we admired his ability to recognize that less is more.
Jim Rash: I think there’s something so subtle in Owen’s action, when he steps between Trent and Duncan. I think it’s almost expected that they will have a big blow-up and a throw-down, but by having him do something as small as a simple physical move, we were achieving the same thing.
Sam Rockwell: I was going to muddy that moment with an adlib, and they pulled me back. They were right because it would have diluted the moment.
Toni Collette: You may want a confrontation because you care about Duncan, but I think it makes sense that Owen confronts Trent in a gentlemanly, minimalist fashion. Duncan’s the one who gets to push him and actually show his anger, and that’s who you want it to come from.
Annasophia Robb: I think it feels real, also.
Sam Rockwell: That’s true, there’s a real catharsis.
Q: The balance of comedy and drama was executed really well in this movie, so I was wondering how you went about that.
Jim Rash: Nat and I have always been drawn to finding the comedy in what seems to be very dramatic moments. Obviously it’s that way in The Descendants. To us, it’s just about really thinking about our day-to-day lives and finding the comedy in true-life moments. We can go from something that’s so funny to something that’s tragic in our day-to-day reality. It’s just being honest.
Allison Janney: When they were directing me with River Alexander, the young boy who plays Betty’s son, they told me–and it was just such a great piece of direction—to look at the relationship as if they we were an old married couple. And it was really fun to play it that way with him. Some of the things that Betty says to her son seem, on the page, to be pretty harsh and I wanted to make sure that was balanced with the enormous amount of love that Betty has for him. I wanted that to be there so that her saying harsh things came from a place of love; in that way it comes out wrong and funny in an awful sort of way. That was my challenge and they were wonderful directing me to do that.
Q: You mentioned living with the story for eight years. Did you keep revisiting the script during that time? How’d you know when the writing process was done?
Nat Faxon: The script evolved over the eight years and many things changed, but the core of the script stayed true to what it was in the beginning. We probably pulled back on some of the broader moments that we’d originally thought of in the water park, as the family stuff took more prominence in the script, just trying to make sure that those two worlds belonged in the same movie, in tone. It’s always an evolution, really, because you’re always constantly tweaking until you’re shooting. We knew that it was done and I had to put a stop to it, when Jim’s part, Lewis, just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. “We’re done revising now, Jim. We don’t need any more of Lewis!”
Q: AnnaSophia, could you tell us your favorite water park ride?
AnnasSophia Robb: I had never been to a real water park until this film, but of the water park rides that we shot on, I’d say my favorite was the big black slide that goes shooting down. I’d get a little drop in my stomach sliding down. I got a big wedgie also, but it was funny.
Sam Rockwell: I never heard a man’s voice go as high as Jim’s when we went down that slide.
Jim Rash: I was terrified of that. We’d pretty much wrapped and they opened up the park for us to have some night-sliding. It’s terrifying in the day, then add to that fear that you’re going to go down this very steep incline at night when it’s pitch-black. I don’t even want to talk about the visuals that went through my head about what could happen. I sat for a good amount of time before I would go down. There was a bar that you can hold on to if you want to go faster but there was no reason I’d want to go faster! I just let my body naturally fall down.
Sam Rockwell: Jim also shares a character trait with his character, Lewis. He’s also a germaphobe. So that always played into Jim’s thinking about going down the slides.
Jim Rash: I had a really hard time in a lot of the water park!
Sam Rockwell: Where’s this water been???
Liam James: I’ve been to water parks once or twice in Vancouver. The whole water park for me was such a great experience, I think I did it the most out of everybody. Sometimes after work I would go throw my bathing suit on and I’d go down all the slides.
Jim Rash: This is the first time I’m hearing about this! Why weren’t you working on the next day’s scenes? Why didn’t you go home and work on your dancing?
Liam James: And my singing.
Q: Steve Carell wasn’t able to be here, but can you guys talk a little bit about working with him?
Allison Janney: It was my first time working with him. I adored him. I loved to watch him laugh when they called Cut! on a Betty scene and I would literally just slump and fall out of my chair. I’d go from Betty to zero and that was his favorite part of my performance. He would make me laugh, too. Once we had a late-night shoot, for scene “The Adults Stumble into the Dunes.” So Steve, Toni, and I, being a method actress, sat up in the house, in the actors’ holding room, and had some champagne, some “beach punch.” We sat around and told stories and laughed until they called us to the set. We literally ran and stumbled into the dunes. And we nailed that scene!
AnnaSophia Robb: I remember the night that Allison was talking about, because Liam and I were downstairs filming Duncan and Susanna’s first awkward scene, and I remember in-between scenes I could hear laughter Liam and I would run upstairs and just listen to all of them tell their stories and laugh. I felt like I was eight. It was a really special time just to be able to hear all these wonderful actors that I admire so much just bond and share stories.
Toni Collette: It was wonderful to get to work with Steve again after Little Miss Sunshine. He’s just such a pleasure in every way. He’s so open and lovely to work with, a brilliant actor. And a gentleman and truly nice person.
Liam James: Steve and I had scenes in which Trent and Duncan are butting heads and Trent even throws luggage at him. Between scenes it wasn’t like that a at all. Steve wasn’t trying to make me feel bad about myself. [Laughter] One time Duncan had to have this big smile on his face for a scene. Steve was off-camera at the time and I heard this funny laugh that he does and it just cracked me up. So Duncan’s smile was genuine and I can thank Steve for that.
Sam Rockwell: I didn’t really get a chance to work with Steve in the movie except for that brief scene at the water park, but I’ve been a fan for such a long time. I think he’s so great in the movie. I usually play the creepy guy and he’s always the nice guy, but for this movie we switched it. It’s a great red herring for the audience, I think. What’s so great about these press junkets is you get to see the people you made films with again. Last night I had a nice conversation with Steve. It’s fun to become friends with people I admire.
Nat Faxon: I certainly share all the same sentiments that Jim does about Steve’s approach to his character, and his bravery in playing a character who really doesn’t have a huge arc. Trent’s a tragic character who doesn’t evolve, who doesn’t start at point A and end at point B and learn his lesson and become a changed man. This is a guy who says he wants things to go well but his actions don’t reflect that. You almost sympathize with people like Trent; you hope they figure it out but they may never do that. Kudos to Steve for having the courage to play a guy like that. I just have such respect for him.
Jim Rash: Nat and I really appreciated Steve’s desire to talk in detail about Trent with us. He wanted to talk out loud about Trent and his headspace. He just reaffirmed that it was a great choice to have him play against type. And to watch Steve Carrell walk us through his process? It was a real honor.