Since premiering at last March’s SXSW Festival, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 has garnered unanimous praise for its delicate balance of tragedy and comedy. The film took home SXSW’s top two prizes, and has built steady buzz leading up to its release date this Friday. Cretton’s film follows Grace (Brie Larson, in a career-making performance), a twentysomething supervisor at a foster care facility who is struggling just as much as the kids she is meant to help. Cretton, who before this wrote the slyly titled I Am Not a Hipster, spoke to us recently about conveying love on screen, working with child actors, and the fine balance between funny and sad.
I cried so many times during the movie. Does it still tug at your heartstrings?
It’s always an emotional experience for me to watch, probably on many different levels that other people don’t experience. I mean, a lot of it is just a lot of pride for the actors. Everybody who’s on that screen, I’ve grown to love as people and to see them perform like that and be reminded of all those experiences we had together is really touching to me. It’s kinda like flipping through a photo album.
Is there a personal back story to it?
Yes. I worked at a place similar to this after I graduated from college, before going to film school, and my experience was pretty similar to that experience of that Nate character, where I was scared out of my mind every day that I went to work for the first three months, and didn’t feel like I had any right to be caretakers to these kids. The weird thing about that job is that the age gap is not very large, and the life experience gap is not very large, and a lot of times the things we we’re telling these kids not to do were lessons we should honestly have been telling ourselves. It’s just a strange working environment, but in the end, it was by far the most rewarding and life-changing experience I ever had.
There was so much palpable love in this film. How challenging is it getting genuine love across on screen?
Genuine love. Wow. I love that word, “palpable” love. These actors were just incredible, and there’s a lot of different forms of love portrayed in the movie, and a lot of what you see on-screen was worked on quite a bit before the cameras were rolling.The relationships that you see on-screen were created off-screen as well. Grace had a huge love for the kids under her care, and Brie Larson also had a huge love for the young actors even when we weren’t rolling the camera.
Child actors carried a heavy load in the film. What was it like working with them? Any different from your creative process with the adult actors?
I’ve worked with kids before, and usually it is quite different. In this case, it was not different at all. If you talked to any of the actors who were more experienced, they will tell you how much these kid actors were forcing them to step up their game. It’s the opposite of what I was expecting. I was expecting to roll a ton of footage on them, and pick out the little pieces. And I was expecting to have to cast kids that were just so much similar to the characters so they can be natural and themselves on camera. But in reality, none of these kids are anything like the characters that are on-screen. And they’re all just crazy, naturally good actors who know how to think. We’d just talk about the character. They’d process that through their incredibly advanced 13 year-old brains and then they’d perform.
You’re very good at handling stories that are a mix of comedy and melancholy drama. Why do you think you’re drawn to that specific tone?
Everything so far that I’ve worked on has a definite personal element to it. I find, at least in my life, that humor is a huge part of tragedy and anytime there’s something extremely dramatic happening, there’s usually something really hilarious happening as well. I love awkward moments. That’s a weird thing about me. I love awkward moments and have personal gratification when things get really awkward. Maybe that has something to do with it, why it comes up in the stuff that I write.
And since we touched on your last feature briefly, can you define the word hipster for me?
I’m not even gonna go there. [Laughs]
That’s usually how it falls.
I just don’t know the answer to that. It’s just a label like any other horrible, ridiculous label. It’s a title we chose for that movie that makes people either hate the movie or like the movie, and either way they usually come and watch it and find out that the movie has nothing to do with that title. [Laughs]
What’s coming up on the horizon?
Probably sleep for a couple more days. I did both these movies back-to-back. I’m excited to have a little bit of time to write again.
Photography: Jason Kim
Styling: Jessica Bobince
Hair: Thanos Samaras at L’Atelier NYC for Marie Robinson Salon using Sisterveronica wigs
Makeup: Robert Greene at See Management using M.A.C.
Nails: Casey Herman at Kate Ryan Inc. for Essie
Model: Hirschy Hirschfelder at Supreme Management
Photographer’s Assistants: Jason Wang and Jordan Zuppa
Retouching: Simon Thistle at Happy Finish
The Wild issue is out now at The Bullet Shop!
Bob Odenkirk has been writing, producing, directing, and acting in Hollywood for more than two decades. For the stoners and comedy nerds who worshipped his short-lived HBO sketch-comedy showcase, Mr. Show, he and costar David Cross will remain the patron saints of absurdist humor. But its his late-career turn as the oozy lawyer Saul Goodman on AMC’s Breaking Bad that has introduced Odenkirk to an entirely new audience. Next month the show begins its final 8-episode run, and naturally, Odenkirk has been bombarded with questions of the how-will-it-end variety. But before Breaking Bad returns on Aug 11, Odenkirk can be seen on movie screens in the coming-of-age Sundance winner, The Spectacular Now (out this Friday), playing the boss of an adrift, popular high school student (Miles Teller) who falls for the straight-edge girl next door (Shailene Woodley). Odenkirk, who is planning a Mr. Show reunion tour with Cross, has also been at the center of rumors of a Saul Goodman spin-off that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has sort of confirmed. We’ll let Odenkirk himself fill you in on the rest, along with info on his favorite Mr. Show sketches, his cameo in Waiting for Guffman, and his reaction to the actual, literal end of Breaking Bad.
The Spectacular Now has been getting such rave reviews. Do you ever know you’re making something good, or is that something you know only after watching with a finished product?
I’ve changed my tune on this issue. Years ago, I remember hearing people say, “You never know.” And I’ve heard a lot of actors say, when they were making great films, that they just thought they were making a movie, and they were even mislead by the hijinks on the set—when people are on set laughing and feeling great—they thought they were making a great movie and they weren’t. My feeling is the opposite. I feel like the movies I’ve made that weren’t very good, and I’ve made a couple of them, I always felt like there’s something wrong here and I don’t think we’re solving the problem by having a good time shooting it.
I’d say I was 80% sure that this was a really solid piece of acting and writing and storytelling. It is better than I thought it could be. And I think James Ponsoldt deserves tons of credit for that. Miles Teller too obviously, for being the perfect guy to play this character. But James really had, similar to Alexander Payne, just a calm certainty about what he was shooting.
How do you pick the projects you take on?
Here’s the thing. I have so many wonderful friends and I have a certain level of childish delight in being in show business at all, that sometimes I do projects just to make a story, or just to do a fun scene or TV show, because I can’t believe I get to do this at all. I’m not maybe as critical as people think I am—if you look at my resume you’ll see I’m not too harshly critical of everything I do. Maybe I should be more hard on projects or more careful, but I guess I feel like I do projects for many different reasons. A project could be worthwhile just because you get to work with your friends for a few days. There are a few things, not many, very few, that I’ve done because they paid me. And I have kids and they eat food and you have to pay for food.
Can you tell me more about the tour you’re doing with David Cross?
Yeah, it’s gonna be fun. Just between you and me, I think we’re selling out in New York today. Here’s the thing: David is shooting a movie while we’re doing this tour, so we can’t do as extensive of a tour as we want, but we’re going to add second shows in a few cities and we’re going to have a great time and we’re gonna re-meet our fans again and do some funny sketches for them and some standup, including some really special stuff we wrote just for the show. And then we’re hoping to do a reunion tour that’s more of a complete theatrical experience, on par with anything Cirque du Soleil cooks up.
Why did you decide to reunite now?
Well in two years it’ll be the 20th anniversary of starting Mr. Show. Now, it’s to promote the book [HOLLYWOOD SAID NO! Orphaned Film Scripts, Bastard Scenes, and Abandoned Darlings from the Creators of Mr. Show out Sept. 10] and to just get our feet wet. But two years from now will be the big Mr. Show reunion tour.
After all this time, is there a Mr. Show sketch that you love above all the others?
Well without a doubt I think it’s “The Story of Everest”, which also known as “The Thimble Scene”, which is often people’s favorite scene. But I love that sketch of Jay Johnston falling down into the wall of thimbles. I love “The Fad 3”, my brother Phil wrote that. I love “Audition” just like everybody else. I love F.F. Woodycooks. I love “Crime Stick”. I love the whole episode with “Mediocrity” I love that whole episode.
If someone has yet to see Mr. Show, which sketch would you recommend to initiate them into that world?
I don’t know how to start people on the show. The sketches are all pretty different. I think you can have a sketch that can alienate people. People seem to like “Titanica” with the kid in the bed who tried to kill himself.
I spotted your face in Waiting for Guffman, standing in line for an audition in a full on vampire costume. How did that come to be?
Obviously, I got cut out of that movie, and I think justifiably so. Chris Guest wanted me to play the local pastor who auditions for the show. That’s all he told me. The only limitation was I could only sing that one song. It was an opera song, and I really don’t know opera that well, but it was the only song they could get the rights to. So that’s all he told me. I’ll tell you what my big joke was, and I say that laden with sarcasm. The way I played the pastor as saying things like, “It’s not fair for me to audition. I’m not going to audition. I perform every week. My services are very showy and very entertaining. I put on some pretty entertaining sermons.” And he talks about sermons that he’s given where he had flash pots and stuff, and so he’s pumping himself up saying what a great performer he is and how he’s not going to audition, because it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the people in the community. Then he does show up to the audition in full opera make up. I know I looked like a vampire but that’s full opera make up that you’d see in Amadeus, and he belts out this opera song. It was a little cute but not that funny, and they didn’t have a lot of room for extraneous kooky characters, because their main characters were so involving. I felt very lucky. I wish I’d gotten in the movie.
What was your reaction when you discovered how Breaking Bad would end?
I do not know how the show ends. I did not read the last script and a half on purpose. I only read my part. I didn’t read it because I want to watch it just like you. I’m a fan of the show and I don’t want to know what happens. I will tell you this: It’s an awesome final eight episodes, and things get wrapped up unlike other of these dramatic shows where a lot of stuff’s left hanging. I think Vince Gilligan really goes right at the throat of all the main conflicts and themes and subject matters of this show. But something happens in that last episode that’s going to blow my mind and yours. I can’t picture what happens based on what came before it. I’m sure it’s going to be just astounding. The whole last eight are crazy. You’ve never seen a TV show just kind of hit the wall and smash into a million pieces like this thing does. Every character goes spinning out.
What was it like when they yelled cut on your last scene as Saul?
Well it was more emotional than I thought it would be. I’ve always felt like a guest there and very lucky to be a part of this great project that was started and brought to a level of excellence by other people, and I just got to come in for dessert and skip the vegetables that they all ate.
The show allows me to show a whole new side to my abilities as an actor, and that is so hard to achieve in Hollywood. Usually in Hollywood, whatever you’ve done, you’re allowed to do that again, but you’re not allowed to do anything else. You can do it all the rest of your life, but as far as doing anything else, no fucking way. So Vince [Gilligan], he gave me the job because of Mr. Show. He saw something in some of the Mr. Show scenes that I did that made him believe that I could bring the intensity and commitment that I brought to Saul Goodman, but I’ve always felt secretly that as much as I’ve loved sketch comedy and as much as I’ve loved doing it and writing it, that as an actor that kind of dramatically under-pinned world is really the best place for me as an actor, because I have a bit of a complicated energy on screen that doesn’t lend itself as easily to sketch comedy. Sketch comedy is good for people whose performance energy is kind of simple to understand and enjoy, and I don’t have that and I know it. The only reason I’ve done so much sketch comedy is because I love writing it and being in it, but I’ve always felt like if anybody ever noticed, and I guess Vince did, that a story that’s more dramatic could allow me to have more impact and fit in better as a performer.
Tell me about the spin-off project—is it any realer now?
Vince Gilligan is a serious guy about everything he does. So when he says it—and he did when we were just at Comic Con—he told fans you know, “I’m envisioning the Saul Goodman show.” And I heard him say that. He’s not fucking around. He doesn’t say that just to have something to say. On the other hand, as far as official movement on it, there hasn’t been any. So it’s in a little bit of a limbo space now, but I think it has a shot. I think it has a chance. It’s all up to Vince. The thing that’s been the most surprising to me—the internet is where negative comments flourish. It’s a place for everyone to vent their spite and jealousy and the meanest smallest part of themselves, but I’ve been shocked when I’ve read any article on the Saul Goodman spin-off and how many people say, “That sounds like something fun.”
By now, the term ‘mumblecore’ is widely seen as a dated and derided way to describe a type of filmmaking that emerged in the early aughts known for its improvised life grumblings, low production values, and non-professional acting talent. One of those films was Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (the term was coined by his sound mixer, Eric Masunaga). But Bujalski, along with fellow mumblecore “members”—Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, and the Duplass brothers among them—have distanced themselves from the term both professionally and in interviews. Bujalski’s latest film, Computer Chess, which opened yesterday, is set at a 1980 Californian computer chess tournament, and strings together vignettes surrounding a weekend of computer programmers and their chess algorithms, each competing for the top spot. But Bujalski has always trafficked in human theater, and this film is no different. The starkly contrasting scenes of a hippie discovery group exploring themselves in the same space at night are particularly hilarious and telling of more universal themes at work. “There is a certain kind of weird pleasure that goes along with a whole profession talking about technology you don’t understand that I tried to capture in the movie,” he says. Peculiarity and deep-cutting insights are of course, where he flourishes, and our conversation was full of much the same. Read on for more on the director’s love of true originality, creating for the sake of creating, and playing the money game.
Were you well aware of the computer chess world? The film gets pretty technical.
It does. I tried to cast people who had as much legit technical background as possible, so there are real guys in the cast who can say these things a lot better than I could even write it. Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Professor Schoesser, he’s a computer science professor at the University of Chicago and James Carver who plays a British programmer, he’s the real deal too. It couldn’t all come from my head, not even a tiny fraction of it.
Why did you choose a hippie encounter group as the foil for computer chess participants?
As Dave’s character says in the movie, we’re all kind of seekers here. I think that even though their pursuits might seem radically different, I think ultimately they are strangely on their own versions of a quest. I don’t think you set about building an artificial intelligence without on some level trying to solve the mystery of organic intelligence, of your own intelligence. I think you kind of build that computer brain on some level to try get to know your own brain better. In some way, the encounter group folks are taking a very different route, but to a similar goal.
How authentically did you make the movie? Did you Mad Men it and not allow anything that wouldn’t have been around that year?
Well we certainly didn’t have Mad Men’s budget, but we did our best. I’m sure anyone who wanted to be a hardcore stickler could find plenty of anachronisms in there, if you’re looking for them. My feeling was that period pieces are never really truly about recreating the past and certainly I think that’s true of Mad Men. I think Mad Men, as much as they do a beautiful job with costumes and set, it doesn’t feel that much about the ’60s. To me it’s a very, very contemporary show. It’s about today. Whether you’re looking into the past or looking into the future, it’s a convenient metaphor for today. So I wasn’t so much worried about doing a perfect job of bringing back the past as I was just trying to open up that wormhole between the past and the present.
You prefer a very stripped down aesthetic that highlights idiosyncrasies quite well. Why do you think you love them so much?
[Laughs] Because I’m idiosyncratic, I guess. I think you’ve more or less boiled down my quote unquote career. That’s what I’m always seeking, even when I’m doing my more conventional looking movie. I’m interested in the oddities in the parts that make you stop and cock your head and wonder what you saw.
What do you think about the nickname “The Godfather of Mumblecore?” Is it going on your tombstone?
Probably, but I won’t be the one carving it.
Even after years of critical acclaim, you didn’t have a film show at Sundance until this past year. Obviously, there is an aspect of recognition necessary in the film world. Was that something that bothered you?
No, not at all. I was happy to be there this year, certainly, but I don’t know, all that stuff I’m kind of trying to train myself to care about it because I am not getting any younger, and certainly I have a wife and a house and child now, so I have plenty of reasons to want to play the status game and the money game and all those games, but none of them have ever been intuitive to me.
Do you think you’ll ever try your hand at more commercial films?
Oh, sure. Lord knows if there’s any chance of me doing this sustainably, I would have to at some point. But I don’t know, there’s the desire to make a living and be a responsible citizen and just that desire to do something and make something. Certainly Computer Chess came from that place.
What was the last bigger-budget project you pursued?
Two years ago, we’d been trying to get together a more conventional, more expensive, presumably more commercial kind of movie and we just kind of ran into a brick wall of financing, and it became clear that we weren’t going to shoot it that year. I’d still like to make that movie someday, but when it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen in 2011, we really turned on a dime and I pulled this eight page treatment our of my drawer and said, “Okay let’s go shoot this right now.” And I think that’s probably always my way—I will try and try to do things responsibly, and when those don’t work out, at some point, I get frustrated enough that I have to go do something exciting and crazy and financially disastrous.
Computer Chess is now in theaters. For more on the film see here.
During sitdowns at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one reporter asked director Lucy Walker how she had found her most recent film subject—former snowboarding superstar Kevin Pearce—adding, “You’re not exactly known as a sports documentarian.” For the next 90 seconds Walker smoothly analyzed the humanistic nature of documentaries, the worth of good filmmaking and pointless categorizations, without ever venturing into a “how dare you”-toned rant, though, quite frankly, she could have. In her time as a documentarian, Lucy Walker has made some of the last decade’s most striking films. And before certain eyes glaze over at the use of such superlatives, here are the facts: in 2006 she simultaneously climbed Mount Everest and filmed her second doc, Blindsight, capturing Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to conquer the mountain, while he attempted to bring six blind students to similar heights. Four years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Waste Land, which followed Brazilian dump workers as they recreated massive art masterpieces with garbage, alongside contemporary artist Vik Muniz. She was the only female director nominated that year. She DJs, too, calls Moby a friend, and probably could have been a lot of things, but after winning a Fulbright to study film at NYU, she met Barbara Kopple, one of the world’s preeminent documentarians, and here we are.
On Monday, her ninth film, The Crash Reel, premieres on HBO. The documentary begins a few weeks before Pearce’s Olympic debut, shaping an understanding of the snowboarder in just a few minutes—enormously resolved and humble, a zen human beast that has mastered his life and sport. Then, with painful real-time footage, Pearce crashes headfirst while attempting a new trick, suffering a traumatic brain injury that leaves him in a coma, temporarily paralyzed. Thanks to its steroidal components, the natural drama of the film holds a grip on par with a good Hollywood blockbuster—the career-ending injury framed in the world of action sports, the family forced to rebuild, and an athlete’s ingrained inability to let go of a dream. After a heavy weekend spent weighing the reality of it all, we got Walker on the phone to discuss her penchant for difficult stories and her acclaimed, accidental career.
How tolling was it for you, making this film?
It was emotionally, a rollercoaster. When I made The Crash Reel, I wanted people to take that emotional ride that Kevin and his family have been on and really experience it. Of course, the story is extremely uplifting, I’m pleased to say. We’re so ecstatic that the story ended up being so inspiring without being sappy. It’s deeply positive. At the same time, there were long stretches in there when I was very worried about Kevin, and I thought, “My god, I may be making a film about an amazing young man who’s killing himself.”
At what stage of the story did you come in?
I didn’t meet him until after the accident. When I met Kevin, I was completely struck by him. He was incredibly charismatic even though, at that stage, his hair was shorn; he couldn’t stay awake for very long; he kept reintroducing himself to me because he couldn’t remember; his eyes were looking in different directions and he was clearly just injured very recently. Initially, I thought, “Gosh what a sad story about an Olympic hopeful who had fallen to earth, crashed, and is now suffering from this traumatic brain injury.” And then I realized that this story wasn’t over. It was about to get very interesting because here was a remarkable young man and he wasn’t going to stay where he was. He was going to move forward and I wanted to know what he was going to do next. I didn’t know what that was going to be, but I saw that he was determined to get back to the top of his sport. And yet, I heard from the doctors that if he got on a snowboard and hit his head again, he would die.
That’s a heavy knot to untie—
It seemed like an impossible choice. He was this very young man and I really related to him, because I think we all have those situations in life where our first dream is taken from us and then we have to decide do we dig deep? Do we give up? Do we fly off? Do we spiral? What do we spiral into? It seemed like I didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was so charismatic, I wanted to find out.
Your interview with Shaun White had some golden content. It’s a pretty serious get considering the competition and backstory between him and Kevin. He had to know he wouldn’t be painted in the most positive light.
I think the strength of the film is that Shaun and Kevin are so honest and so emotionally aware and open. I think it’s a fantastic story of sports rivalry and how two guys who were deep down great friends and had known each other since they were seven and eight years old. Kevin was a different sort of athlete from Shaun. Shaun is one of those uniquely talented athletes like a Tiger Woods and a Michael Phelps. He was winning from the get-go, whereas Kevin was the kind of kid that worked his way up. So they had these different paths and suddenly there was this moment when Kevin was beating Shaun.
Understanding that rivalry is the key to understanding how they were driving themselves to such great prowess before the Olympics, because they knew they needed to get these tricks that were so challenging. One of the most dramatic sequences is when Shaun invents the foam pit for the first time that he can snowboard into, and Kevin invents the air bag. It’s the perfect example of “necessity is the mother of invention.” They were both so driven that they were both becoming inventive. You really see how passionate these young men are. It’s something to watch.
How does it feel putting such a great amount of life force into something that may not have immediate repercussions on the world of action sports—its lagging emphasis on health insurance, for one?
The film is a bit of a Rorschach test. People will see different things in it. Some people will see the passion and the snowboarding and the excitement and other people will see the horror and the injury and the cautionary tale. What we tried to do was really tell the story and all the questions the story raises are clearly dramatically played out, but I don’t think we tell people what to think. The sport is beautiful. It’s thrilling. It’s evolving in our lifetime. The creativity of these kids who are making these tricks up season-by-season and teaching themselves and each other—there’s so much camaraderie.
We do have a campaign that we’re running called #loveyourbrain. With that we’re trying to do some sensible interventions. When you make a film, you observe a lot and you have the responsibility to report on your observations. Some of the observations that we were perturbed by was that not enough kids were insured, not enough kids wore helmets, not enough survivors of traumatic brain injury get enough help or have enough support, especially veterans coming back.
How do you pick you stories?
You know, I’m always just looking for whatever is going to make the best film. It’s tough to make a documentary, so I’m always looking for “What is the best possible film I can make here?” And I think with this film I saw the opportunity to make a really crackerjack, exciting, compelling, watchable movie. So if I’m interested, then I feel like I have a good chance of getting other people interested. That’s my best bet.
Why did you settle on documentaries, in the end?
I was lucky. I wasn’t a good actor. I was more shy, so I started directing in school because nobody else was doing that and then I realized it was a fun way to be around these creative people and to have all the fun of putting shows on. I realized I could go to film school and I thought that sounded fun. I managed to get a scholarship—I was very lucky. Then when I was there, I thought would make fiction films, but then one year a fantastic documentary filmmaker came to be a guest teacher, and I was hooked. That was Barbara Kopple, who’s a legend. She taught us everything we needed to know. I feel like there’s a lot of happenstance in how we all find the things we’re passionate about, often it’s a really inspiring teacher that makes a personal connection.
What’s driven you to stick to the medium?
There are so many things I could have pursued. I feel really happy that I randomly wound up making documentaries. I love that I get to meet these incredible people and introduce people in the audience to these remarkable people that they’d never get to meet in their life.
The Crash Reel premieres on HBO Monday, July 15 at 9pm. For more on the film see here.
Last year, Liam James won the lottery. Out of an improbable amount of hopeful adolescent boys, James was picked as the lead for The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s debut feature. A summer vacation spent working alongside Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph, and Toni Collette followed. And now, the 16 year-old actor has ascended to the enviable social status that allows him to call Sam Rockwell a friend. Though conscious of his good fortune, James was neither snobbish nor obnoxious, as this writer would have undoubtedly been, after spending a month working at a Cape Cod water park with the latter. Instead, he was a sweet and true 16 year old—taking our half-joking questions seriously in his thin red tie and button down. Read on for more on James’ lucky turn and having to play the awkwardly stooped teenager in a sea of comedy greats.
I have to say, after watching this movie, I’m a bit envious of your experience. Have you been hearing that a lot?
No. You’re the first person who’s actually said that, but I’ve definitely made a point to say that people should be jealous. I was working and I had a summer vacation that was probably better than a lot of people’s. It was the funniest people on earth all coming together and I got to watch it.
And you had Sam Rockwell acting as a father figure—
Yeah. He’s a great friend and a great guy.
What secrets can you tell me about him?
He likes Diet Pepsi, not regular Pepsi. I think he’s a little self-conscious about his weight. I’m just kidding, but he does like Diet Pepsi. And he’s a boxer as well, very technical. He doesn’t boxe, per se, but he loves to practice it.
Did he teach you any of his dance moves?
Not particularly, because, in the movie, I’m not allowed to have dance moves as a good as his, not that any of mine were, because those were all my best moves. But watching him, especially in the party scene that we had together, I was like, “Oh my god.”
What was the audition like for the film?
Well, I put it on tape at first, because I live in Vancouver and after that they asked me to come down and come see them in Los Angeles. It was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had in audition because we were just laughing and having a good time in between takes and then they asked me to come back 45 minutes later and read with Toni Collette, so I was like, [slightly hyperventilating] “Okay, I can do that for you guys.” They gave me some new material and I quickly learned it and I came back in, and Toni was so sweet. Then I said goodbye and they called me about a week later and told me I’d gotten it.
How did it feel making a movie that really showcased your teenage awkwardness?
For me, I thought it was almost a little bit funny that I was playing this character, because off-screen, I was having a blast. In the scenes that Duncan had to be upbeat and happier, I could really let that show through, because I was having such a great time, but other than that, I had to play quite sullen. That’s the funny thing about it—there’s all these big scenes where you have all these amazing actors doing these funny bits and then you have me as that contrast.
Tell me about Nat and Jim’s directing style.
Their style, I don’t know how to describe it. We talked a lot before we started shooting and we read through the script and me, Nat, Jim and Sam would sit down and discuss it more. On set, I would go over to them and I’d let them make jokes in front of me, even though they were probably stressed out. I’d be like, “No, you guys are here to entertain!” I had an amazing time with them. They really got it right, I think.
I know there was hazing in the movie, was there any hazing on set?
There were jokes, not at my expense, but Nat would make fun of me and we’d poke fun at each other, but nobody was calling me a 3 or trying to break me down on set. It was definitely an uplifting mood the whole time.
Who was the funniest person on set?
Honestly, they were all so funny, and especially everyone who had an improv background, but Sam as well is such a funny guy and so is Toni, even though they’re not the ones with improv backgrounds. They definitely had different style jokes, but I can’t—Sam really made me laugh a lot, but that’s not to say that Rob Corddry and Nat and Jim didn’t. Sam just liked to make jokes.
So you’re 17?
I’ll be 17 in a month yes.
Wow. So you’re just 16?
Yeah. I was 15 when we filmed this.
And you were on The Killing for two years before that. You’ve had a decently long career for teen actor. Are you happy with where you’re at?
I’m very happy. The Way, Way Back was a great part to get, but so far, I’ve been working with lots of kind people. I’ve never had a bad experience on set. And the TV shows were just as fun as the movies. I’ve made a lot of great friends over the course of my acting career and I’ve never really wanted to turn away from it. I think I’ve had a good time so far.
When did you start acting?
I was about 10 years old when I started doing some extra work. I loved that atmosphere on set, so I started auditioning and I got Psych almost right after that.
Do you still go to school?
Yeah. I’m in public school there. I just finished the 11th grade.
How do you figure that out?
I’ve been pretty lucky, all the stuff I’ve done was once ever 10 days and The Killing was once ever 2 weeks or so. In 2012, when I did that, I had a tutor on set and that was fine. But I was very happy for The Way, Way Back to be filmed in the summer, because we were on such a tight schedule and there’s so much going on, I don’t think there would have been anyway I’d be able to figure that out with a teacher on set.
What’s up next?
I’m going to be enjoying my summer vacation. I just got off school, so I’m going to keep auditioning and hopefully whatever happens happens.
The Way Way Back premieres July 5. See its trailer below.
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.