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TSR Exclusive: 'Win Win' - Interview with writer/director Tom McCarthy

In Win Win, Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach struggling to make ends meet. Things become even more complicated when his client's grandson, Kyle, shows up at his door. I sat down with writer/director Tom McCarthy in a roundtable interview to discuss his film, focusing on what it means to shoot in the suburbs, the direct inspiration that the movie receives, and more. Towards the end of our conversation, I even asked him a couple of questions about his co-writing work for Pixar's Up.

Win Win opens in Chicago on March 25th.

TSR: What do you think as a filmmaker goes into an accurate portrayal of New Jersey?

That’s a good question. I think the trick of it is, especially when you live there, as I grew up there, going back was tricky to see it through fresh eyes, and not take anything for granted. Especially [looking at] a suburb, which was my biggest concern for the film. It’s such a conventional setting. How do you make the cinematic, how do you make that interesting, how do you make that authentic? If you start to go down the road of having a really different approach, like, “Alright, no one’s ever seen it like this,” then it feels really manipulated. It starts to feel like your commenting on it. What we were playing with was how we could authentically approach this story, and take everything at face value. Not condescend, not patronize or sentimentalize, but present these characters who can be compelling enough. I think that actually came from a Q&A I was doing in Santa Barbara with a bunch of writer-directors, and someone asked, “How come there’s not more movies about regular people?” And someone on the panel, I think it was Jim Sheridan, said, “Well, by and large, because they’re boring.” And he said it with his adorable Irish accent. But there was a truth to it. People do want to see their stories, but how do you make those compelling, and make the stakes present for people. And let’s be honest, not a lot of people in the film world live in the suburbs.

I feel like this story could have been told anywhere. I liked how it was sort of personified in the actors. I think Paul Giamatti is really inelegant. He brings a naturalism to this film. Were you conscious of that when you were casting this role?

Absolutely. With Paul, with Amy [Ryan], none of these guys really represent … it’s where casting becomes a delicate issue. You need actors who can drop in that way. And honestly, I feel it’s not a role that Paul has played before. It’s presenting someone who is fundamentally very satisfied, and Paul as an actor will talk about that. It’s one thing when your character is incredibly conflicted, and you feel trapped in the suburbs. How do you represent contentment? It’s dramatically lacking in some way, unless there are other elements to that. In this case, there is an operating external force, which is his financial situation. It’s definitely something we talked about, and how not to make these characters too glossy, but when you hire these actors – Amy is another great example. She’s all about character. And she just had a child, and I think her child was on set. You can just kind of feel that and talking with her and how she was relating differently to the protectiveness quality that this woman has, that she really got that you’re only on the outside when you’re on the inside.

There are those scenes when she’s almost unlikable, like when Cindy comes over and is in a desperate, vulnerable state. Amy Ryan’s character is so transparently judgmental. And I see that in my mother. Classic, Irish Catholic, and it’s like, “Jesus, tone it down.” There is something both awkward about that, and funny.

I was wondering how you dealt with [mixing] very serious subject matter with hysterical laugh-out-loud comedy.

I co-wrote this with a buddy of mine. He’s a guy who has a life very similar to Mike Flaherty’s. He lives in New Providence, married and has kids. An elder law attorney. Like Paul is, he’s a very nice guy, but kind of sincere and straight forward in a way. He has to be. That’s the role he plays in his community. But has a wicked sense of humor, that we laugh a lot together, which is probably why we’re still friends after too many years. He finds so much humor in his life, and he kind of has to. It’s a simple life. Every day he’s working with client after client after client who is facing the bigger decisions in life. Not only things like health, but financial decisions, death, wills, etc. And there’s just so much humor in the stories he would tell me, in his day to day life. And then just spending my time with him, hanging out, I saw a lot of humor in it, in the day to day. How he interacts with his secretaries. His wife is actually his partner, and that relationship is very funny. I think for me, especially after The Visitor, and I’m very proud of that movie, but it was such a delicate and dramatic movie, that I really just wanted to have a bit more fun. I had to watch The Visitor a bunch, because I made it. I just couldn’t watch it anymore. It was like the sensitive child. So I wanted to make the third kid, that’s rough and tumble, and didn’t matter. It’s kind of nice to be toying around with this movie. You kind of feel the difference.

TSR: There’s a theme of unofficial surrogacy in your films. I was wondering how you feel the concept of being a father figure is reflected upon being a filmmaker?

It’s funny, I’ve never made that parallel, to be quite honest, and I think there is something to that. There’s something to our lifestyle in general. There’s a reason I live in New York City, and not Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, you are in your car all of the time, and you go to your house, and you go to see your friends, and it is very social. But in New York, you’re constantly running into people. I get in the elevator, and the old lady wants to talk to me, or this guy or that guy. It’s much more integrated in a way. Anyone who spends time in those cities realizes it. I think there is something about that in the film community. You come together on these projects, and you work very intensely with people, and then they go away. Like my editor. We’re basically married for nine months, with all of the trappings of a marriage. Great times, horrible times, fights, everything. The things that come out of our mouth in the editing room, if you could tape them to a wall, you wouldn’t believe it. Like, “You really don’t care, do you!” And he got angry during the sound mix, and he said, “You just need to focus up, man, focus up!” And it was just like a line from the movie. There is something about the transient quality of people coming in and out of your life. Like this family [in the movie] will change again. Kyle will go off to school, etc.

Someone asked me about the future of these characters. I get that a lot with my films. And I think there is something to that quality, which has always been a part of my life. I’ve never had a consistent job, I’ve never lived in the same place for very long, I’ve lived here, Minneapolis, L.A, New York. And [then there are] people who are more consistent. Like my friend Joe. Like Mike Flaherty. Who has been married for eighteen years. I haven’t done anything for eighteen years. And there’s such consistency in his life. We would go down to Atlantic City to watch the state championships of wrestling, last year. We just went down for a night. And the next morning, he said, “Ah, it’s gonna be good to be home.” And I was like, “We’ve been gone like eighteen hours.” But he said, “Yeah, but you’re gonna sleep in your own bed, tonight. It’s gonna be nice like?” It’s like this is so different – I sleep in my own bed one-hundred nights a year. I’m always moving around. I think that quality was something that was interesting again, in terms of exploring the movie. So it does become a bit meta.

How important was it to you maintain this very accessible story about a family, but have it be undercut with the financial struggle that the middle class characters fit squarely into?

It was. That was a challenge right through editing. Someone asked me [in the Q&A last night], “Did you know the laughs would be this funny, that they would be this big?” That’s what you hope for. I don’t think there’s a lot of surprises, but like “Why are you laughing?” But there’s some delicate scenes, like when Mike and Alex are wrestling on the front lawn, and Terry is coaching. That scene was like “How far can we take this but maintain the stakes of this moment?” It’s funny, I do a lot of what we call “precision screenings,” where I’ll invite eight to nine people. I try to get people in there who know nothing about it. This one friend of mine brought his mother. Eighty-two. Really sharp. Grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. She was talking about that sequence, and said, “That didn’t happen to me, but growing up in the suburbs, those situations happen a lot, and they’re so surreal, and funny, and dramatic, all at the same time, and no one is going to believe them if I tell someone.” I thought that was exactly what we were going for. There are these moments of balance where the stakes are very high.

The audience has a place to invest. My big problem with comedies, generally, especially in this country, everyone is so concerned with making people laugh. Which is great, I think there are some amazing comedy writers out there. But inevitably, it comes to the end of the movie, and then they’re like, “Now I want to make them feel.” But you can’t do that, because you haven’t made us think or feel the whole movie. You made us laugh, but don’t expect us to feel. Don’t change the music. I think the great comedy writers through time have a way of doing both.

The very last scene in the movie was very subtly stirring.

I can show you ten articles that Joe and I have stumbled upon in the last year writing the movie of people taking alternative jobs. People with high-end jobs going a couple towns away. Different things that are just kind of heart-breaking, that swallowing of pride. At my age, I know guys that have gone back to catering. It’s tough in your twenties, in your early thirties, etc., that kind of work can take your soul away. Especially if you’re a writer or an actor, who wants to do something else.

With all stories, people have their own opinions. It’s great to hear after a film how people respond to things. “He wouldn’t do that,” or as someone said to me recently, “That young man wouldn’t throw that match.” And I was like, “Uh, really?” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “He cares too much about wrestling.” Well funny enough, Joe sends me an email. And he said, “Well I guess the man is wrong. There’s a kid, who we followed who was finals in the regional, and he lost the match, but he was still in the qualifying top two. But he went to go shake the kid’s hand and spit in his face and headbutted him.” You just want to sit the kid down and say, “Something’s going on. You know when you headbutted this kid that you were gonna get kicked out.”

There’s that scene where Alex decides to give Paul Giamatti’s character a second chance. Did you have originally scripted dialogue for that scene? That silence is so powerful.

We never did. In fact, one time Kyle said “Thanks,” and he kind of mutters it, and it’s odd. Alex is such a weird kid. He doesn’t use silverware properly. And he’s like, [in Alex’s voice], “I’m not good at silverware dude. I tried to tell you that.” And you’re like, “What do you mean you’re not good with silverware?” But yeah, [on the specific scene] there comes a part where there’s just nothing left to say. And you just got to be there in that moment. And just being there in that moment says it all.

TSR: According to IMDb, Up was your co-writing credit. What did you learn from the co-writing process, and what did you contribute to the story?

That is close to true. I’ve done studio scripts with friends, things I’ve written that have never gotten made, like a pilot for Showtime. I’ve had some experience. I also co-wrote some plays at Yale with a classmate. Up was the first full on professional collaboration. Russell, that little kid was my contribution. Pete [Docter] approached me and he had Carl and these images, the house floating away, but we didn’t really have much of a story beyond that. We got it to that, and wove back the relationship with Ellie and tied in Russell and his mom, and what the backstory was, that relationship. Pretty much, that relationship remained pretty consistent to what you see in the movie. A lot of these scenes, like they’re sitting on the log with the house floating above them, we changed the location. We had a whole different concept for the second half of the movie. It’s kind of interesting about animation, because you can change anything like that [snaps fingers]. But a lot of what remains in terms of characters and relationship remain constant. Scenes verbatim can just move in really fantastical ways. It’s kind of a great lesson in movies in general, it’s never about the size or scope. It ultimately always comes down to those key relationships and those characters. And that’s what makes Pixar so great. You have no sense that you’re working on a huge movie. They’re so intimate and they’re so connected with story that it’s all they’re concerned about. Everyone else is thinking, “Oh this visual or that visual.” And I see it because now I get pitched all the time by other animation studios for stories and doing this, that, and the other thing. Sometimes I just look at the stories and I’m like, “You don’t have the foundation here. It’s a cool idea, that’s gonna look really cool. And it’s going to be silly and funny.” But they don’t have the heart. And what Pixar does, and what Pete did so beautifully in that movie, is that it has so heart.

TSR: It’s a great film.

Yeah, it’s hard not to cry in that movie.

TSR: Did you cry when you first saw it?

I didn’t, because I wrote it, but when I got to the premiere at Pixar, my girlfriend was bawling. She didn’t know.

TSR: Did you help write the first ten minutes?

We all kind of layered in, but the idea of [Ellie] being able to not have a child, I was like, “Can we do this?” And they were like, “I think so. We’re going to figure out a way. It’s animation!”

What’s your screenwriting process like?

For my stuff I spend a lot of time, once I lock in an idea, I spend a lot of time living with that idea, and talking about it before I write anything. Once I feel like I have a whole file full of bits and pieces, then I set to kind of write it down and try the story. But with this, Joe and I probably spent six months to a year, walking and talking. I didn’t have to take notes. When you tell a story a few times, it starts to become real to you. And I’m the same way with screenplays. And I feel like if I can tell you a story and it’d be entertaining, but then I can probably write it. It might take a while.

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