Eight years since his directorial debut The Station Agent debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to raves, actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy is still bouncing between his two professions, although his sophomore effort The Visitor proved his first movie wasn’t a fluke, getting its star Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination.
Win Win is McCarthy’s third movie as writer-director, and it takes a similar “dramedic” approach as the first two, this one starring Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. Financial problems force him to make a couple of bad decisions like taking on the paid guardian role of an elderly client, but when that client’s runaway grandson Kyle (played by newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up, Mike seems to be taking on more than he can chew, until he learns Kyle happens to have been a championship wrestler at his old high school.
Like with McCarthy’s previous films, it may not be immediately obvious from that plot why Win Win is so special, but it has a bigger cast of characters than his previous two films with Amy Ryan playing Mike’s wife, Bobby Cannavale as his best friend, and Jeffrey Tambor. This allows him to play with a lot more outwardly funny moments rather than maintaining the subdued tone he’s done so well previously.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with McCarthy to talk to him about the movie and his transition into one of the more reliable independent filmmakers.
ComingSoon.net: I first saw the movie at Sundance and then again last night at a press screening, and it really played just as well in both environments, and last night, it wasn’t the typical Sundance audience who loves everything. Tom McCarthy: Oh, that’s cool. Yeah, it’s funny, I just went on tour and did like four or five cities–Toronto, Boston, DC and Philly–and it’s great to see it with just real audiences. (Laughs) The reaction was great. I was excited at Sundance, but Sundance is such a clusterf*ck that it’s so much to take in. It was great just to be in a city and just kind of show up and see it with an audience who were just from the community and their response was really exciting.
CS: That kinda leads to a question I was going to ask you later, but do you do any kind of test screening or anything like that with your movies? McCarthy: I normally don’t. I mean, when I’m editing a movie, my editor and I like to do a lot of what we call these sort of “micro-screenings,” which is eight people in the edit room. We do quite a few of those. We did a lot on this because we were looking for clarity on certain storylines, especially Mike and Leo, Mike’s transgression and Leo’s. Then, because we were with Searchlight–this was the first movie I made with a studio–we had to do a test screening in Pasadena at like 14 weeks. That was the first time I’d done one of those and it wasn’t brutal, but it actually went very well.
CS: I can imagine, because with “The Station Agent,” you made that completely independently, took it to Sundance and sold it. McCarthy: Yeah, yeah, outside of that one event, the process wasn’t that different. I gotta credit Searchlight for that. They really allowed me to make exactly the movie we made. They had faith in me. They challenged on some things, like any producer would, or collaborator, but they were very good collaborators.
CS: So this is your return to Jersey, and I think this had more characters than both of your other movies put together. McCarthy: (Laughs) Yeah, I think so, and they talk more.
CS: So first of all, had you always intended to return to Jersey and set another movie there? McCarthy: No, honestly, if you would’ve asked me a few years ago if that was the case, I never would’ve thought that, and especially the town I grew up in and exploring that. Even though we didn’t shoot there, it was set there, and the world was set there. Not something I ever thought about doing, it just presented itself and it sorta made sense in the story, and then it became interesting to me. It became its own challenge. Can you go back and make a movie about the community you grew up in and make it authentically and make it exciting to modern audiences who have a very distinct perception of suburban America? How do you make that fresh and new and make it come alive for them?
CS: Was the wrestling a big part of your youth and your high school years? Were you a very big part of that community? McCarthy: Not a big part. I played three sports, wrestling was one of them, but enough so that it left an indelible mark on me, mostly a painful one. (laughs) It’s a tough sport, and Joe (Tiboni), who developed the story with me, we wrestled on the team together. We had a lotta laughs recalling our wrestling memories.
CS: You have a lot of people in the movie you’ve worked with before. Obviously Bobby is one of them. McCarthy: Yeah.
CS: Amy, you’ve worked with before. McCarthy: Yeah.
CS: Paul, I’m sure you must’ve known. McCarthy: Paul, I’ve known the longest of any of them. We met at Yale like, almost 20 years ago.
CS: So did you end up writing any of these parts specifically for them? McCarthy: I think Bobby and Amy – weirdly, I think I had Paul’s voice in mind without knowing I was writing it for him. So suddenly, as I was finishing and started to think about it, I could really hear his voice very clearly, so that decision was pretty easy.
CS: Did you know he had a wrestling background or a sports background at all? McCarthy: No, I didn’t. I guess it’s funny, we just, Paul and I did the Polar Bear Club together on Coney Island on New Year’s Day. He was swimming, and I was like, “Dude, you’re a pretty good swimmer.” He’s like, “Yeah, I was a swimmer.” I was like, “You are?” He’s like, “Yeah, you didn’t know that?” I was like, “No.” Then it made sense. He’s kinda got a swimmer’s body. He’s got like, those rounded shoulders, so we kind of laughed about that, but beyond that, I didn’t know.
CS: When you started writing this what was the very first idea that got you going? Was it just about wanting to do something in this town? McCarthy: No, really it started with a joke, Joe and I laughing about wrestling and me saying sort of off the cuff like, “God, you never see a really good high school wrestling story anymore except ‘Vision Quest.’ Wouldn’t that be funny?” He’s like, “That would be hilarious because you could do this and that.” I was like, “Yeah, I need to do this.” After about an hour I was like, “We should just do this.” He’s like, “What do you mean?” I was like, “Well, if I have a good idea, I can make a movie out of it.” (Laughs) He was like, “All right.” It literally started that simply, and then we started discussing it. I wasn’t convinced I was going to make this story, but as the script got further and further along, I really started to fall in love with it.
CS: How long after “The Visitor” was that? McCarthy: We had the idea when I was doing the press for “The Visitor,” so it was on the tail end of that.
CS: I was wondering about how much time after you finish a movie and put it to bed, you start thinking about “What am I going to do for my next movie?” McCarthy: I think I always kind of am. It’s never like, “I’m done with that, now that.” You always overlap. More, it’s a question of when ideas really start to congeal, when they really start to make sense. That hadn’t happened yet. Even this was a slow process. I was like, “This is funny. This is good.” Then, I started to really dig into the story and the characters, and I thought, kind of like I said, it started to win me over.
CS: You have a lot of great characters and you actually give them all pretty decent arcs. Was that something hard to balance out as you were writing? McCarthy: That is. I mean, that’s the hardest work. You get kind of the scope of the story, and a lot of the times I’ll sort of get the map of the story, and then I’ll kind of get in there. I’m a pretty intense re-writer. I’m a big believer in taking the time to do that. Sometimes you do a whole re-write focusing on one storyline or one character, and try and make sure that there are no stones left unturned, and you’ve mined the scenes and the character for everything that you want.
CS: Are you making a lot of changes while on set once you see the actors playing the roles? Like the Stemler character, he actually has his own little arc and he actually steals the movie in one scene. I was curious whether or not that was something that was figured out in the script stage or it was a character who got more screen time because he was so funny. McCarthy: No, all that stuff has to be figured out well beforehand. We had an idea of Stemler, who he would be. I think once we cast the role, we really started to see that character clearly. But, those moments are always pretty clearly defined in the script.
CS: Also Bobby Cannavale’s character, you’ve worked with him before and you obviously know what he’s able to do as far as improvising and stuff. McCarthy: Yeah, I think we share a similar sense of humor, a similar rhythm. We get along really well. I wrote the character, and then he always brings his own flourish to it. I encourage that with him because I think I understand it and I know when he goes too far or maybe not far enough. Look, the guy’s just a great actor. He’s a really hard worker. He gets it, takes it very seriously and has a lot of fun doing it. Guys like that are a pleasure to work with.
CS: What about Alex? He’s obviously a newcomer and is probably one of the most important roles in the movie. McCarthy: If his character doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work.
CS: Exactly, so how did you go about finding him? McCarthy: The good old-fashioned way, just a big casting call for wrestlers in New Jersey and New York. He just walked in, and to his credit–a lesson to everyone out there–“Take a chance in life. Get out there and do something different,” because he did and it paid off. As soon as he came in, we kind of went, “Ah, he’s interesting.” Then he proved himself. He had to come in and audition seven or eight times. Credit to his parents for supporting him, and driving him in seven or eight times. It was still a gamble, I’m not gonna lie, still a role of the dice because he’d never done it before.
CS: You said he was a wrestler? McCarthy: Yeah, I mean, two weeks after we cast Alex, he won the New Jersey State Championship.
CS: Wow, okay. That’s pretty amazing. McCarthy: The kid’s the real deal. What you see out there is all real.
CS: So what about the other kids? McCarthy: All those kids are very, very good wrestlers. Even like, for instance, the kid who wears the black mask, that kid, I think he finished sixth in the state that year, or something like that.
CS: So you found real guys. McCarthy: We got real guys.
CS: I think one of the big things in this movie that might not be expected of you is the Jon Bon Jovi song, which I think is one of the best uses of his music in a movie because it fits so perfectly. McCarthy: That’s what I liked about it. When I decided I was going to use that, both my editor and my cinematographer were like, “Really? With Jon Bon Jovi?” I was like, “Yeah, I mean, it’s right for the world. It’s not my decision. It’s her decision.” It felt like it was inspired by the character, and it wasn’t something as a director I was just dropping in there. It’s funny how seamlessly it sorta fits. A lot of people don’t even pay any attention to it, because ultimately it’s a kick-ass song. Jon killed it in that song, and you hear it and it’s so right for that moment. I think the montage that it accompanies is a little bit more me. There’s not a lot happening in that montage, outside of the tree being felled, but I don’t know. I gotta credit Mary Ramos, my music supervisor. I was describing to her what I was looking for, and then I really loved the idea of Bon Jovi because he’s a New Jersey icon, not to mention a rock star. Yeah, she found that song. I wasn’t as familiar with that.
CS: Not just finding it but convincing him to let you use it, because I don’t think they really give a lot of songs to movies. McCarthy: Those guys are incredibly generous because it’s almost too bad, like a lot of these huge rock bands who won’t ever give their music up because they need to make some and they all have so much money. Jon gave back; you gotta give it up for Jon.
CS: Absolutely. Do you already have any idea of what you want to do next? You’ve been bouncing back and forth between acting and directing, but are you moving more towards making films regularly? McCarthy: I am zeroing in on that a little bit, and it just takes time. Whenever I can act in between, so hopefully this summer and fall I’ll get some acting in. I’ve started to write a couple of things. I’ve got one for hire, and one of my own. That’s normally how I work. So, right now, I’ve just got to promote this movie so that takes a lot of my time and energy. But, when that’s done, back to work.
CS: Do you do a lot of re-writes? McCarthy: Not a lot. If I can find them to do, and I can fit them in a schedule, it’s a nice way to help out a script and to make some money, to be honest. So, I’m able to try to do one a year or so.
CS: I was actually surprised when I read in your bio that you were involved in the story for “Up,” which I never knew before. How did that come about? McCarthy: I went out to Pixar to screen “The Station Agent,” and they really liked it.
CS: It was that long ago? McCarthy: Yeah, and then Pete Docter some time after that reached out to me and said, “I’ve got this story.” Then, we struck a deal and they said, “Do you want to come help develop this story?” I said, “Yeah, who wouldn’t want to go work at Pixar?”
CS: Yeah, I talked to Pete a few times and he mentioned that he had an image and a basic idea but don’t think I remember your name being mentioned. McCarthy: Yeah, I know, I get that a lot with my career. (Laughs) People are like, “I didn’t know you were on ‘The Wire.'” So, it’s always something, but yeah, that was a great opportunity.
CS: I was curious whether Tony Gilroy has been in touch with you to be in the “Bourne” movie yet, since you’re sort of his good luck charm and had small roles in both his other movies. McCarthy: Yeah, I keep telling him, “I’m ready to play the man himself,” but he’s not buying it. I’m like, “Dude, come on.” No, I just ran into Tony in LA, and he’s working away, and really excited about the movie. I didn’t pitch myself. I should.
CS: It’s funny because you do work with a lot of the same filmmakers. As an actor, they always come to call on you. Also, you work with a lot of your friends when you’re directing, so is that hard to direct friends? McCarthy: No, I mean, let’s be honest, when you’re working with good people who are friends who you both respect and admire, it makes the work environment a lot of fun, and any of these guys, I’d work with again in a minute if they called. I haven’t had any bad experiences in that situation.
CS: Also, I saw that you directed an episode of “Game of Thrones,” you were involved in that. McCarthy: Not really. I believe now they had to re-shoot so much that I don’t think much of mine is left. Yeah, they re-cast, and like they always do with pilots, re-cast.
CS: Oh, you did the original pilot for that then? McCarthy: Yeah.
CS: Why did you decide to go in that direction? McCarthy: They asked me, and I had nothing else to do at the time. I was kind of in between things and I said “sure.”
CS: Would you want to direct more TV? McCarthy: No, it was fine, but I don’t really have a great desire to do TV now when I can make movies. (Laughs)
CS: Well, what about directing other people’s scripts? McCarthy: Yeah, if that happens, sure. I don’t intend to write everything I direct, but I think if something came up where I could direct a script that I really loved, I think that’d be really exciting.
CS: I talk to a lot of directors who have written their own scripts, who have decided to focus on directing because it takes so long to write a script and get it financed. Do you feel like you can balance the two, just direct your own things and then also find other scripts to direct as well? McCarthy: Yeah, it’s always a case by case thing with me. Like with Pixar, or whatever this job might be, it’s always gotta be what’s exciting to me. I’m open to trying new things, so I don’t think I have a rigid formula for a career. I’m kind of trying to keep it open-ended.
Win Win opens in select cities on Friday, March 18. Look for our exclusive interview with one of McCarthy’s actors, Amy Ryan, soon.