By Tim Molloy
There’s no question about Jim Rash‘s writing skills: The “Community” actor is nominated for an Oscar for adapting “The Descendants” with writing partner Nat Faxon and director Alexander Payne.
But that doesn’t mean Rash makes suggestions about “Community” scripts.
“I’m sort of in awe of what they do on ‘Community’ in terms of shifting the tone of the show but keeping the integrity of the characters intact,” he told TheWrap. “If someone said sit down and write a “Community” episode, I would be panicked. But I’m also not spending hours in the room with them and watching their process. I just get to watch the end result, which is pretty amazing.”
Rash, who has also spent 12 years doing sketch and improv with The Groundlings, says character is what unifies all of his work – from short skits to “epic,” homage-filled episodes of “Community,” to the wrenching family struggle of “The Descendants.”
“I like pulling from things I know, as does Nat,” he said of Faxon, who like Rash acts as well as writes. “Like everybody, we have fantastic family members to use and skewer, which we have. In a loving way.”
Payne asked Rash and Faxon to adapt Kaui Hart Hemmings‘ novel, “The Descendants,” after they made the Black List of great, unproduced scripts for writing “The Way Back.” The screenplay balanced comedy and drama much as “The Descendants” does.
Payne then took his own pass on their adaptation. In addition to the trio’s nomination for best adapted screenplay, the film is also nominated for best picture and three other Oscars, including a director nomination for Payne.
Rash talked to us about how improv and sketch made him a better writer, how he divides writing with Faxon, and what he wants for his high strung, never-satisfied “Community” character, Dean Felton.
The most memorable part of “The Descendants” for me is Matt King (George Clooney) and his daughter (Shailene Woodley) venting at his wife while she’s comatose. Where did that idea originate?
The scene where Clooney yells at her is not in the novel. That would be a touch of the finesse of Mr. Alexander Payne. He liked that idea of him yelling at her, because he was obviously so angry. The older daughter did say sort of crass things to her mother in the novel… so that anger is more evidenced in the novel from the daughters, not so much from Matt. He’s more spinning in the book as far as trying to control them. But it felt good to have him have a release as well.
Your improv work at The Groundlings seems like a nice midpoint between writing and acting: You’re writing it on your feet, and performing as you write.
Yes. Improv has been immensely beneficial to me as both an actor and a writer. On the acting side of things, a lot of shows now have embraced improv, starting with “Curb Your Enthusism” and “Reno 911” and all these things where we’re really being in the moment. And then for writing, I feel like it’s almost as simple as the idea of making new choices and trying different things.
You’ve said you enjoy working on structure more than Nat does. Is that rooted in improv? The reason successful improv is possible is because you’re following so many improv rules, from establishing your relationship to the other people on stage, to saying yes to their ideas, to heightening.
The rules are so universal. And it’s sort of like you break them down and then it’s like forgetting them, and it comes second nature. It’s sort of just not doing things that for the most part will stop a scene cold. But I think being open to where they go keeps it a little less structural. It’s being open to whatever happens.
What else did you learn from sketch and improv?
A sketch is just a mini movie. It’s almost more challenging in 3 to 5 pages to get a beginning, middle and end. Even though the sketch might be broad, it’s still character based.
Character-based training, albeit sketch, is still about tapping into what’s real for you. Tapping into your family and friends and people you know really well, to be specific.
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How do you and Nat divide up the writing?
We definitely rewrite in the same room, for sure. We might have days where I’ll take off and hibernate in some coffee house… sometimes I’ll take off and try to get a first pass off. I’m definitely a writer and rewriter at the same time. I’m not a just-crank-it- out-and-not-worry-about-it-and-come-back-and-fix-it-later writer.
I think our best work is when we have a little skeleton on the page. We break the story together. Both Nat and I have been pursuing acting at times as well. So there were times when he was shooting a movie for a month and then I would do “Community.”
When and where – aside from coffeehouses – do you write?
Sometimes we write at the office and sometimes we write at my house. I prefer the morning as far as keeping office hours but if I’m feeling good about it we’ll try to do a long crank day.
It’s always sort of nice when you know you have a deadline. I think we’re good in like little three-hour intervals. I like the idea of working a little bit and then going to do something remedial, like an errand. But then there are those days when nothing happens and it’s horrible. [Laughs] And you sit and get snippy with each other and you check your email too much and say ‘I have to go.’
“Community” is known for wild episodes, from the one set in a space simulator to the ones based around paintball battles. Given its ratings challenges, do you ever worry about the scripts being too weird?
No. You read them and you go, oh my gosh. Certainly things can get a little dark. But as strange as those things might be, a show always comes down to its characters. Your fondness of remembering “Cheers” is because you fell in love with those people.
Yeah, sure, we have ones in space. But you realize this show is not just giving you epics. It’s also giving you a lot of characters and who these people are. At its core it’s doing what all shows do, which is introduce you to characters, show what they’re going through, build on them, and evolve them in such a way that you grow fond of them.
Is there anything you’d like to see for Dean Felton?
I would love to see his home life. And I would love to see him win at some point.
What do you think unifies your work on “Community” and “The Descendants”?
My acting has always been in the world of comedy, but in my writing, other than writing sketches, I really am drawn to the balance between comedy and drama. I like things that sort of toe that line of one minute you’re in this emotional space and then all of the sudden something happens.
It’s like when you’re at a funeral or something that’s been a very emotional plight for your family, and you’re in this house grieving, but there’s always this levity that takes you to a different place, because you need it. I just find human behavior very interesting to write about. I just find it very interesting to tap into people’s flaws.
They’re not having their best moment. And then we look back on it and think what the fuck was that? And we laugh.
I feel like that’s what “Community” does. Dan and those writers know how to tap into this wonderful moment where they change the emotion. … That is very appealing to me. I love looking back on things that were hard and horrible. I think that helps in your comedy.
What experiences like that have you drawn on?
Divorce, I dealt with that, I dealt with a couple of stepfathers. My sister and I were both adopted and there were things that [Nat and I have] used there.
High school was also a wealth of stuff, but that’s pretty universal.