Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
July 2, 2013
More than a year later, Nat Faxon hasn’t fully processed winning an Academy Award.
“It still feels surreal and dreamlike,” says the former “Ben and Kate” star, whose work with Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on “Community”) and Alexander Payne on “The Descendants” earned them a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. “You can’t believe it happened. Did that really happen?”
The terrific “The Way, Way Back,” Faxon and Rash’s latest co-writing effort and first as co-director, is even better. Opening Friday, the film chronicles a teenager’s (Liam James) eventful summer as he works at a water park with a lax manager (Sam Rockwell), befriends an independent young girl (AnnaSophia Robb) and laments his mom’s (Toni Collette) rude new boyfriend (Steve Carell).
If that seems like the same kind of family dysfunction-related material in “The Descendants,” know that the filmmaking pair (who met at the Groundlings theater in L.A.) wrote “The Way, Way Back” about eight years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day. At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Rash, 42, and Faxon, 38, talked about the rules of water parks and when little moments blow up into big ones. They also played an improv game, which you can watch above.
You went to RL for lunch. What did you order?
Nat Faxon: We kept it simple.
Jim Rash: We had the exact same thing. [We’re] best friends.
NF: We did. We had mussels, soups and salads.
JR: It sounds like we had plural, but we had one soup and one salad. We had tomato bisque, and we had an arugula salad.
Did you awkwardly say your orders at the same time?
JR: No, I ordered, and then he just said, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Because I make good choices.
NF: It pretty much speaks for our relationship … Jim decides and I say, “That’s right, we’ll do what Jim said.”
JR: It’s a great marriage.
The film’s opening scene, in which a kid’s mom’s boyfriend asks him what he is on a scale of 1 to 10 and says he’s a 3, really happened to you, Jim. Does it feel therapeutic to have shared this with the world?
JR: Yeah! Way before this, we developed a TV show in 2005 and we shot the pilot for it. It didn’t go anywhere, but it was about adoption and I was adopted. So it was about sharing stuff, and I think we always connect with stuff we know … Whenever we’re not connecting to something, whenever we have writers’ block, it’s probably because we’re not passionate or [don’t] understand what’s at the core of what’s happening, and I think that’s because we can’t connect with it.
Have you ever met someone who doesn’t like water parks, and what does that say about them?
NF: That they hate fun.
NF: Or that they’re a germaphobe. [Laughs.]
JR: They are a germaphobe because I’m a bit of one, so shooting at Water Wizz sometimes was a challenge for me. Not because it wasn’t clean but because it’s a lot of people sharing bathrooms.
NF: You’ve never seen someone get so high up on their tippy-toes when walking around.
Care to demonstrate, Jim?
JR: Well, if I had my shoes on you’d just see my toes curl in the back and just walk like big nubs. We shot at a place in South Shore, Boston. It was a good, family-run water park, which reminded us more of what we probably went to [as kids]. Now it’s more connected to theme parks; they’re more corporate or tied to something bigger. While they’re all great and have these amazing new rides, this has good rides but it was the old school. [I remembered] getting the mats and going down these quite simple tube rides.
What are some important water park do’s and don’ts you remember from growing up? Or rules you violated?
JR: Everyone ran.
NF: Going to the bathroom barefoot. [Laughs.]
JR: Was that a rule?
NF: That’s just a self-imposed rule.
JR: Oh my God. I would adhere to that now.
NF: I did not as a child. Now I would be a little bit more skeptical of going into those bathrooms without shoes on. [Laughs.]
JR: Heeby jeebies. No running.
NF: No running. There are rules. You can’t curl up your mat and go down on your stomach because you will go super fast.
How many times did you do that?
NF: A lot!
JR: You also always wanted to try to go right after someone and they would space you apart. Now it’s more intense. As I remember it was like, “And go,” but sometimes they’re watching so they can see you go almost to the bottom before they release someone else.
There’s a big scene in the film that happens while playing “Candy Land.” Why does that game help reveal people’s true selves?
JR: That minutia is always to us very interesting. ... These simple moments are sometimes where the most dramatic or most weighty moments happen for people. It’s not these grand, blow-out fights that are so orchestrated but rather something that caught them off-guard.
Can you think of a time that’s happened to you?
JR: I remember years ago when I was a teen I did the whole bad idea of having a party at my mom and my stepfather’s house while they were out of town. The stupidity of it. And I got caught. Easily.
JR: You always over-clean, which is a problem. I over-cleaned, but I missed key things. I didn’t pick up this rug and realized—people seem like they want to screw you over. Someone had put a bunch of mixed nuts under this thing. There’s no way to explain half this stuff. The weirdest thing was we had one of those basketball … what do you call it?
JR: Basketball rim. Backboard.
NF: A hoop.
JR: A hoop. Yeah, hoops. That’s [not] what my mom called it; that’s why I got thrown off.
NF: It was called what?
JR: Basketball goal. That’s what my mom called it, and I said it at IO [last night] and they started making fun of that I [called it a] basketball goal. Anyway, one of those ones that’s connected to the house, and I didn’t even notice that someone had ripped it down and thrown it into the creek near our house. Anyway, I got past all that stuff. In other words, they were mad at me for a long period of time and then years later, I was probably in college or beyond, having dinner with my mom and my sister at this restaurant near of all places the Grand Canyon … We were taking a road trip, and it was brought up in jest. My sister said, “Remember that time?” And it was as if no time had passed. And this dinner became my mom slamming her hand. She goes, “I’m still upset about that.”
Have you had an experience like that, Nat?
NF: Probably, yes. I certainly think there’s a competitiveness that comes out when you’re playing any board games or a sport or something like your friend in tennis. All of sudden …
Someone throws a racket …
NF: Yeah, somebody throws a racket or a ball. It’s a questionable call whether it was in or out. You get into it, and it’s not really that big of a deal. You can just replay the point or I’ll give you the point or …
NF: Yeah, and then it’s friendship over. That happens to Jim and I all the time.
JR: Our friendship ends on a daily basis. By the hour.
How do you patch it up?
JR: Usually he just buys me a gift. I’m easy.
NF: Usually I just come in, apologize and say he was right the whole time. And now we’re back to the beginning.
I was re-watching “Wet Hot American Summer” last night, one of my favorite movies about summer. I don’t know if you love that, or if you have other favorite summer movies?
NF: I do love that one.
JR: Yes, “Wet Hot American Summer” for sure. “Dazed and Confused” is over summer and so that feels like a fun …
NF: “Meatballs” is a movie that we pulled from for [Sam Rockwell’s] character. We wanted him to be much like Bill Murray. We talked about “Jaws” and “Stand By Me” and classics like that.
JR: “Summer Rental,” John Candy. [Laughs] I’m just trying to remember summer movies!
What’s your favorite part of “Wet Hot American Summer”?
NF: When they go to town is my favorite part. And they become drugged out and they come back and they’re like, “What a great day!”
JR: For me it was [laughs] well there’s two: one is when they do “Godspell” and then everyone boos them. Because it was the best part of the talent show, and then for some reason they just go, “Booo!” like they offended ‘em. But it was when they went to rescue the kids in the river. That looked like still water. And Ken Marino runs in to save them and I forget his name [Ed. Note: It’s Joe Lo Truglio.] but he’s a member of “The State” as well. He stays in the camera [and] he’s like, “He’s doing it, yeah, he’s doing it! Watch out for the … yeah!” And then [Marino and the kids] run up. There was no way to shoot all this action. I just thought it was so funny that this one was just telling us that it was happening and it was OK. [Laughs]
Now that you’ve had two scripts produced, what advice do you have for young writers? Someone just finished a great script; what should they do next?
JR: I think embrace the idea that it could be a long haul and know that. This took eight years to go. And there were so many times when we could have done it sooner, and those opportunities were there and low-hanging fruit, and then we took a step back and go, “Is this going to be the movie that we always envisioned, or are we just doing it because we can?” And it takes a lot to step back.
NF: Be open and collaborative but also be bullish about what you want and what your vision is, and don’t make sacrifices if you feel strongly about them.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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