In The Way, Way Back young actor Liam James plays Duncan, an adolescent boy who experiences angst when his single mother (Toni Collette) begins to get serious with a shady boyfriend (Steve Carell). While on a summer vacation to the boyfriend's house, Duncan finds solstice in a water park run by free-spirit Owen (Sam Rockwell), and gains acceptance and wisdom while becoming an employee at this unexpected summer job. The film is written and directed by the duo of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, who also appear as supporting characters in the film. Faxon & Rash earned an Oscar for co-writing The Descendants with Alexander Payne back in 2011, and both have active acting jobs on TV. Faxon (who appears in various Broken Lizard movies like Beerfest) plays Ben on "Ben & Kate," and Rash might be most recognized as the dean on "Community." This is the first feature either of them have directed.
I sat down with Faxon & Rash for a roundtable interview in which we discussed how they get into the minds of teenagers, shooting at a water park, Sam Rockwell's love for dance, and more.
The Way, Way Back opens in Chicago on July 5.
Working with teenagers and writing for them inevitably requires you to reflect upon your own experience as a teenager. What would you change the most about your teenage years?
Jim Rash: For me, I don't know if this is a universal thought, but if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't stress as much over things that don't seem now so important.
Nat Faxon: Do you stress?
Rash: No, not at all [laughing]. But that's part of growing up I think.
Faxon: I think I would strive to have a little more individuality when I was a teenager. I did in certain aspects in my life, and then in other things I sort of conformed. I think I created more of an identity early on, as opposed to just sort flowing the way I was supposed to flow with the masses.
Rash: ... with the masses.
Faxon: Like I said, certain things I did, certain things I didn't.
Rash: No, it sounds like you pretty much only wanted to be popular and wanted to follow the crowd. There was no time when you wanted to be an individual, even now.
Faxon: Well, people naturally want to follow me. Now, I'm the leader.
How did you go about writing teenagers despite having grown out of that life era?
Rash: It's connecting with what you remember. At the core we all understand pain and what hurts us and how we feel. When you're that age, everything comes out as anger. So he comes from an angry place. It's not just tears, but allowing him to vent. I think for any kid, it is finding what doesn't speak down to them. We're all still growing and evolving, but children are not developed yet, or maybe they have experienced something they can't process. Adults go into their own transitions. [In this film], you have two male figures with different messages. Trent is saying don't stick around, meaning get out. And Owen says the exact same thing, but it is "come in." It's nature and it's nurture that anyone else can tap into, but that's the design of what Duncan sees.
Faxon: I think kids too are smart; they are very smart. I think writing that so it is probably more adult than you think, that they have mature thoughts then writing it so that it is general. Thinking about it in a more intellectual way, the film was better because that is the way kids are, they are constantly thinking.
Why did you decide to cast a relatively unknown actor as lead teen Duncan?
Rash: I think we always knew that Duncan would be a discovery, and would feel fresh. And we're getting to know him as he is stuck in a world he doesn't know, so I think we lucked out, because that is also the challenge, going into auditions. We didn't have as much time as we wanted.
Faxon: He just innately had the qualities. First off, physically he just felt very right. The concaveness of his chest, the slumped shoulders, the paleness, the shuffle. If this guy could say anything close to how we imagine it, then we've got the right kid.
Rash: But there's always this glimmer, that you see from what kids become, or can become. He got to know us, and he really bonded with Sam. You could see this, just the way he would talk about ARS, he had a big crush on her, and she is older than him like in the movie, which works by design. But watching him, and his friends came to visit over the 4th, and it was just funny to see that you're a different person because your friends are there.
In terms of Rockwell's character Owen, did you write this character to be the type of guardian angel you wish you had when you were Duncan's age?
Rash: I think in a way, yeah. Thinking about Owen, we think about Meatballs, or for us our Bill Murray, or who was our Bill Murray. Someone so likable and so full of charm, and he is in real life very social and very warm. All those things you hope someone has whether hey are a teacher, or it's someone working at a water park or a camp, serving that purpose as someone who can be outside your own life and give you that type of wisdom. Based on that, I think we would all love to have that person.
Faxon: I had a little bit of that when I was growing up. I had an older cousin named Josh, and certainly there were moments where he would bring me along and let me hang out with the older kids, or introduce me to girls, or let me hang out with his buddies and surf in the summer. That inclusiveness and that guidance that we're incorporating into Owen, his character was a combination of what I had, and the Bill Murray type.
You had to let Sam dance ...
Rash: He loves to dance.
Faxon: He did let us know early on, "I love dancing, so ..."
Working in a location as populated as a water park sounds like a crash course in directing, and also in organizing extras. Did you have to shoot in certain parts of the park?
Faxon: We did, and we shot at Water Wizz in Wareham, Massachusetts. It fit the bill perfectly. It was a smaller family run place that didn't feel so small that you didn't want to go there, but didn't feel so huge like a big massive corporate place that lacked a communal sense to it. It was the perfect size. They worked with us, and allowed us to shoot in certain parts of the water park. Literally all those people in the water park were actual patrons who had come to spend the day there. We let them know that they may be seen in the background, and hope you're okay with that.
Rash: We had our smaller group of actual background, or use our PA system and get people over to us for larger scenes.
Faxon: We had our PAs and interns dressed up as Water Wizz employees so that they just looked like they were a part of the park, and could move people in the background. But when we were editing, it's impossible not to say, "And ... there's the person going down Lazy River waving directly into the lens."
Rash: It is inevitable. But we tried to think, "Okay, they're just watching Owen." He is that clever [laughs]. Everyone knows who he is.
This movie has a distinct '80s vibe. You mention the movie "Meatballs" ...
Faxon: We had nostalgia in mind when we wrote this, and were about to shoot this. We were mindful of John Hughes-types movies that we grew up on, and wanted it to feel like. [The Way, Way Back] was originally written for the '80s, and we did want it to feel timeless, to have relatability, and that it wasn't pinpointing a time or era; that it was a universal feeling. So it was something we were certainly aware of, and having watched Alexander Payne in the way he pulls back in scenes and doesn't things to get into saccharine therapy, we were just just trying to allow the audience to figure things out without having to put it right in front of them.
How did you two end up pairing as writers?
We met at Groundlings in Los Angeles back in 1999, 2000. We were in the Sunday company, which is the overlap for the main company and we started writing sketches there. We both got into the main company and continued to write, and found that we were of the same sensibilities and wrote well together. So we wrote some dumb bits there and decided to try our luck at writing a pilot, which we ended up doing at ABC that didn't make it, as the pilot was produced but didn't get on the air. But that sort of started our journey in terms of our writing career. We were born out of a frustration with characters and parts that we were going out for, and so we decided to write parts for the two of us that would be fun to act in. That still is something that we strive to do. it has been a long journey together, and one that really started as friends and then became professional.
Nat, your character is introduced by gawking at girls before they go down the slide. Is a that a pre-emptive gesture to the audience that "We know we're shooting in a water park, there will be girls," etc.?
Faxon: It wasn't, necessarily. It was just something we thought of.
Rash: There is always the person on top who tells [a person] to hold. They really do wait until they see the person at the bottom before they let the next go. It really was a sort of use of power, if anything.
Jim, how did you achieve the gaunt look of your character in the film?
Rash: Extra large t-shirts did me no favors. I said from the beginning, "I want the largest t-shirt you have." I don't look great, that's for sure in the film. When I watch it, it was sort of hard because we were so stressed even though it was a great amazing experience, I feel like I probably wasn't eating. So when I see that party scene, it's like "Good lord, I'm like half dead." It all worked for this guy who hates this place, but loves this place. But I think for both of us, as actors we go through these transitions and people see you as certain things. and you're always ready to prove yourself. And I think for me, it was important to do something as different at least energy wise as I could. Like the dean [from "Community"] and part of that was changing physically.
Faxon: I think it was also putting on 80 instead of 30 sunblock. So right now you might have a little color.