Before the Oscar and the Angelina Jolie leg strut, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were just two successful Groundlings with a hot script on their hands. With the win, however, Faxon and Rash, of Descendants and Community fame, gained the right to direct their first film. The Way Way Back, a coming of age water park flick with subtle notes of Bill Murray, premieres Friday. With Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell acting as legendary and horrendous father figures, respectively, the film’s star, Liam James, plays a painful adolescent, Duncan, contrasted in priceless relief by an ensemble cast that includes Maya Rudolph, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, and naturally, the directing duo themselves. During a recent chat, we got Rash and Faxon’s dry schtick going while discussing their decades-long relationship, future collaborations with Kristen Wiig, and one man’s smooth, smooth dance moves.
Where did the idea for The Way Way Back come from?
JIM: The idea came from a few things. One is autobiographical, the very first scene of the movie, the scene in the station where Trent (Steve Carell) is asking Duncan (Liam James) what he is on a scale of one to 10. And the six-three conversation is pretty much verbatim of a conversation I had with my stepfather at the time, when I was 14 in a station wagon, on our way to our summer vacation in Michigan. So we sort of had that little piece as a launch point that we wanted to use. And then Nat and I both grew up on the East Coast, and both of our families went to the same location year after year so that destination vacation world was something we were interested in, and then finally the component of going to water parks and knowing, we wanted to create that as our Oz.
So a painful childhood is necessary for a career in comedy?
[Both Laugh] NAT: It can help.
When you won the Oscar, the doors opened for you to direct the film. How did you two prepare for that transition?
NAT: In terms of our working relationship it was pretty seamless. Having known each other as long as we have, over 15 years and writing together for a long time, it was an easy transition in terms of directing. Creatively we also had lived with this script for so long and knew it so well that we both felt very comfortable, obviously. But we also had a unified vision of what we were trying to achieve.
As far as preparation, we sat down with friends who had just come off their first movie or had directed several movies and tried to glean as much advice as we possibly could from them, but nothing really prepares you for directing entirely. I think it is a learn-by-doing process and you’re faced with more questions than you’ve ever been faced with your entire life and only you have the answers to them, so we just tried to surround ourselves with an experienced crew and also incredible talent who didn’t need a whole lot of traction.
So the bromance was not tested?
NAT: No we managed to keep it intact, surprisingly.
How did Sam Rockwell enter the equation? Was he on your wish list for the get go?
JIM: He was definitely in our brains sort of early on, because the part of Owen in our minds was, “Who feels like our Bill Murray from Meatballs?”—the movie we grew up on—and Sam just came to mind. So we reached out and we heard he wanted to engage, at least to chat with us. I remember we were preparing for this phone conversation because he lives in New York. We were randomly going to another meeting, so we had to pull to the side of the road to take this call. While prepping we said, “We gotta be on our game. We gotta talk about the part. Give him confidence about us as first time directors,” all these things to sell him on it. And he was pretty much chill when he answered the phone, like, [mellow Sam Rockwell voice] “Hey guys.” And before we even got into our spiel, sort of goes, “Yeah, yeah, like Bill Murray from Meatballs, yeah. Awesome. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.” And you just want to hang up real fast, before he gets a chance to take it back.
Thank you for putting another Sam Rockwell dance scene on the screen, by the way—
BOTH: [Laugh] Yes!
NAT: It continues. It continues.
What kind of prep work did you have Steve Carell do to play this tragically bad, bad guy? It’s very against type.
NAT: We had unfortunately, dreamed about having this two-week rehearsal period where all our actors got to know each other and none of that was able to be accomplished just because we were working on a smaller budget, things were moving so quickly, and also, the actors’ availability—literally these people showed up and started working that next day and that just goes to show you how talented they are. Steve is someone who takes a cerebral approach. So in the short amount of time before we were in the shoot, we would talk at length about the role and the character, and where he was at this time and we would just delve into it.
What were some of your influences for this movie?
NAT: We talked a lot about John Hughes as a filmmaker and the movies that we grew up on, sort of dealing with younger teens and real issues that they were going through, even despite their comedic nature, in a way. And then, certainly other coming of age stories that we remember like Stand By Me and even later on Almost Famous and Dazed and Confused, just as influences in this type of genre.
There’s so much talk nowadays about kids and Generation Y—you didn’t seem interested in that at all.
JIM: We approached this trying to keep it timeless. For me, launching from that first scene and knowing the head space I personally was in at that moment and the transition my mom was going through and knowing that the world of families and the world of divorce—we approached those kids as being real and honest. We tried not to talk down to our kid characters, and make them feel very observant instead. To me when I think about that time, it’s like, you sometimes might be the smartest person in the room, because you’re taking in everything, although at 14, you probably can’t process the tone or intention of what Trent’s trying to say, because it’s very without tact.
When you met at Groundlings so many years ago, what was it that attracted you to each other?
JIM: Well, I guess my looks for Nat.
NAT: It was all eye candy for me. I just wanted to only be associated with gorgeous people.
JIM: And then my looks faded. The Groundlings basically, when you’re in the Sunday company which is like the farm team, hopefully, before you get voted into the main company, every six months new people are entering that world, so you’re introduced to all these new performers and actors with new points of view. Everyone tries to write with everybody at least once and then write by themselves. I think Nat and I just sort of got each other’s humor and had an easy way of working with each other, so after that first or second sketch we did together, we just found almost like a our own shortcut into writing a scene, looking for ideas, and what made us laugh.
Obviously, the big question on everybody’s mind now is will you two ever work together again?
JIM: Awkward pause.
NAT: Very uncomfortable moment between the two of us.
JIM: Yes, we are already deep into writing again, so we’re committed to keep working together until, well, there’s no until.
JIM: Oh my god, could you imagine? Forever and ever.
Tell me about your next projects.
JIM: We’re writing two things right now at the same time, or trying to. We’re writing an original, similar size as The Way, Way Back, sort of mining more dysfunction and pain from our own lives. And then, the other one is an action comedy for Kristen Wiig, who’s our fellow Groundling and also long-time friend. We’re writing her something a little darker and grittier in tone than we have so far. tTe through line for both of those pieces is our love of ensemble, so they will both have that in common.
The Way, Way Back hits theaters July 5.