By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 22, 2013 at 4:20PM
It was no surprise last January when Fox Searchlight scooped up Sundance coming-of-age comedy "The Way, Way Back" (July 5) from actor-writer-directors Jim Rash ("Community") and Nat Faxon ("Ben and Kate"). The duo memorably shared the adapted screenplay Oscar with Alexander Payne for Searchlight's "The Descendants," when Rash adopted the Angelina Jolie leg pose. It was the "Way, Way Back" script, written eight years ago, that paved the way to writing "The Descendants." Finally, after their Oscar win, they landed backers (Odd Lot Entertainment, Walsh Company, and Sycamore Pictures) for their $5 million summer comedy, which closes the Los Angeles Film Festival Sunday.
This soft lob down the middle for summer moviegoers stars a raft of hilarious scene-stealers, from Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry to the filmmakers themselves, who play workers at New England water park Water Whiz, where 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) lands a summer job as far away from his mother (Toni Collette), her bullying boyfriend (Steve Carell) and hard-drinking neighbor (Allison Janney) as possible.
Thing is, many awkward adolescents have suffered through summers feeling abandoned by their socializing and often soused and neglectful parents. The underlying pain in this story rings all too true. In fact, the first scene in the movie--when Carell asks the kid what he thinks of himself on a scale of 1 to 10, and tells him he's a 3-- comes from Rash's own life, he admitted in a phone interview: "My stepfather took me apart."
To their credit, the filmmakers cast the believably awkward James as their nerd lead. "A lot of that was a result of finding the right kid for it," says Faxon. "We knew the kid had to start out kind of suffocated. That way by the end he has this rite of passage and can come out of his shell and become his own person. Liam came in and read with Toni, he embodied Duncan's shrunken shoulders and pale skin, but you could tell there was something warm and beautiful underneath. We had confidence that he could make that change."
They landed Carell (Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine") to play Trent, the mom's dick boyfriend, by literally shooting the movie down the street from his Marshfield, Massachusetts family summer home. "He understood that Trent's a complex, tragic male character stuck in a bad cycle with himself, and he can't break out of it," says Rash. "He's a person that a lot of people know, who doesn't have the capacity to change." Luckily Carell was willing to embrace the fact that this guy neither has a character arc, nor does he find redemption.
They wrote the role of the Bill Murray-in-"Meatballs" Water Whiz manager Owen with Sam Rockwell in mind, after abandoning various attempts in the eight-year development process to make the character younger. "Sam can do everything," says Faxon. "The character has to have depth, the experience to teach this young kid about life, so to have them so close in age doesn't make sense." They were gearing up to give Rockwell the big pitch at their first meeting, but he was already on board making suggestions on how to play scenes.
Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") was looking to direct for Searchlight at one point, "but it was a small picture for him to do," says Rash. They couldn't get a deal or a cast together and the project was shelved. For a time producer Mandate tried to mount a version of the movie, but "the actors didn't feel right," admits Rash. "We wanted it back in our hands."
Of course they learned a lot on the set of "The Descendants," watching Payne direct. So why didn't Searchlight take the movie back then? "I'm not sure," answers Rash. "They knew us as writers, not directors. They wanted to wait and see what we could do before they stepped forward. And they did, in a big way, it couldn't be a better place to land."
Part of the delicacy of this film is the changes in tone from raucous comedy to painfully intimate emotions. There's a fantasy aspect, as the Rockwell character Owen is almost too good to be true--the ideal mentor parent surrogate who's hip, understanding, and supportive in a coolly attractive masculine way. "I don't see it that way," says Faxon. "It's not fantasy. The water park is in the realm of the real. By design we're trying to mirror Trent and Owen. They have two ways to try and help. Trent has a tactless approach to get you to do something, to cut you down. Owen's version is to see something's wrong and build you up...giving reassurance in a positive way."
Rash agrees: "There are people who come to help you, and sometimes there aren't."
The filmmakers had a tight 25-day shooting schedule of five five-day weeks with a budget under $5 million. They fell behind due to rain almost immediately during 11 days shooting at roped off areas of the working water park with many moving parts, noise, water, and extras galore. "They were breathing down our necks to make our days," says Rash. "They were threatening to cut scenes. Luckily Nat and I met 13 years ago doing sketch comedy and knew how to work as actors with actors, teaching and directing at The Groundlings. We were lucky we had a talented crew. We brought what we'd learned as actors on set."
Before coming to Sundance, they showed the film to various small groups of friends for candid feedback. The first screening at the Eccles, the cast hadn't yet seen it. "'Ooooh," they like us,'" recalls Rash. Now the duo wants to try another comedy-drama with fun characters. They're willing to go low-budget again, says Rash: "Small is a nice place to be when everyone's doing it for the right reasons." But they'd be happy with a bigger budget too. They've earned it.
"The Way, Way Back" trailer and many clips, some of which feature Rash and Faxon --Searchlight marketing likes to release multiple video elements--are below.