Just as “Little Miss Sunshine” snuck up on the summer of 2006 and won the hearts of critics and moviegoers alike, “The Way, Way Back” employs a similar formula of comedy, rich characters and dysfunctional families to become one of the best films of the year so far.
Written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning scribes behind the 2011 hit “The Descendants,” “The Way, Way Back” is the story of an introverted teen named Duncan (Liam James), who sets off on a summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her pompous new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). While Pam and Trent spend their days partying with neighbors Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), Duncan finds sanctuary at the local waterpark, where he befriends a charismatic slacker named Owen (Sam Rockwell).
Faxon and Rash, who have been friends since their days with the world-famous Groundlings comedy troupe, also co-directed the film and appear in bit parts as juvenile and neurotic (respectively) Water Wizz employees.
I recently sat down with the duo to discuss life after Oscar, summer vacations, dysfunctional families and making Steve Carell the bad guy.
David Onda: How has life changed since winning the Oscar in 2012?
Faxon: We’ve become a**holes.
Rash: Yeah, we have. I’m surprised we’re sitting here.
Faxon: It’s crazy that we’re talking to you. [laughs] We’ve been in Hollywood for a long time, and long enough to understand that it is filled with highs and lows and certainly that was an incredible high. We try to stay grounded as best we can and, I think, professionally, it certainly allowed us to come back to this movie, which was something that was very important to us that we wrote 8 years ago before “The Descendants.” We got asked what we were gonna do next and what we wanted to do next and, really, this was always the answer.
Onda: Where did the seeds of this story come from? Did one of you start out with the idea?
Rash: It was a collective of ideas, I think, from our brains. We did set out with the world of the waterpark in our minds. The first scene in the movie is autobiographical in the sense that it happened to me when I was 14 and I was in a station wagon with my step-father at the time, going to our summer vacation, and being told on a scale of 1-10 that I was a three. So, that scene, plus our waterpark, plus growing up on the East Coast and just knowing what it felt like to go to the same place year after year after year, and the people who inhabited those worlds – that was interesting to us.
Onda: Nat, do you have a similar vacation horror story?
Faxon: I grew up outside of Boston, we went to Nantucket Island every summer and, as Jim sort of touched on, [I had] those experiences of literally spending 10 or 11 months away from that community and then going there and opening up the house, which has been closed since Labor Day and everything has been preserved and frozen in time and you literally, physically open it and all the same people are there. It’s as if you changed and evolved over the year – you all did, individually – and then you come back to this preserved area where it’s safe and comfortable and familiar and nothing has changed.
Onda: Is there something about complicated family dynamics that you two are particularly drawn to?
Rash: I guess we like to write what we know, is part one. My mom’s been married three times, I’ve gone through step-siblings in each of those. My dad’s remarried, they got divorced when I was young. Nat’s got a wealth of characters living in his family, despite his parents being together, it’s just as dysfunctional. I think there’s honestly when you’re writing from your heart, when you put yourself out there. I don’t mean we have to skewer our families, but we understand those themes.
Faxon: I also think we were heavily influenced by our training at The Groundlings theater, which really does emphasize character and development and writing what you know and pulling from your own life and the specificities of those people. And as performers on a stage, the more complex and specific a character was, the better it did from an audience reaction standpoint, because I think people really connect with it or they say, “Oh, my god, somebody in my family is like that” or “my coworker is like that.”
Onda: Actors don’t tend to get buzz for playing a jerk on-screen, but everyone who sees this movie seems to be talking about how unlikable Steve Carell is.
Rash: We knew we wanted to go against type with Trent, and [Steve] does have an innate likability that we knew we needed for Trent to be a fully realized, complex, tragic male character. And for that very reason, I think, people’s visceral reaction is, “What a jerk!” But then we have to hide it to show his affection for [Pam], show his need or his proclamations of change… so I feel like what Steve did was, in a great way, shock us all about his continuing to prove himself, which he doesn’t need to, but you know that he has got lots of layers to him as an actor and a person. If you’re gonna have sympathy for him, it’s way down the line, ’cause he’s not giving it to you right now, he’s not gonna change. In a weird way you’re like, “I feel for him. I don’t wanna be around him, but I feel for him.”
Onda: And Liam James is such a likable person, too. What did you see in him that made him right for the role of Duncan?
Faxon: I think just that he embodied what we were looking for in Duncan. He came in with this sort of concave chest and the sunken shoulders and that look and there was something so natural and honest and grounded about him, just as an individual. He wasn’t as polished and as rehearsed as some of the kids we saw, and we loved that. It felt very true, that he was maybe going through some of this in his own life, in a way. And, certainly on set, you could kind of see his awakening a little bit. He did develop a deep bond with Sam Rockwell and he did sort of grow more comfortable around everyone as the summer went on, as he took on this huge responsibility of playing this kid. So there was a slight art imitating life both on-screen and off. He’s just such a good kid, too. When he walked in the room, you did cheer for him, you did want him to succeed, and I think all of those things just wonderfully worked to our advantage.
Onda: If you were watching this with an audience and could point out some of the little things you love that they might not notice otherwise, what would you point out?
Rash: I had a friend who was one of the people who got to see the movie twice. And she actually just made full note of everything Amanda [Peet] was doing, that she had missed, because they’re small subtle things. Amanda’s doing a lot more work than you can see to give us these small hints along the way to this ultimate connection back to Trent. One’s at the dinner table, when she takes this quick glance at him, and then, also, if you watch her during the whole [ex-wife] conversation – him talking about, “I want you to redo this place, put your stamp on it.” You see this jealous woman. And it’s really to Amanda’s credit that she took this smaller part in that sense and really fleshed out what was important about her in this.
“The Way, Way Back” is open in select cities now. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.