Summer is the season of nostalgia and coming of age stories (think Dirty Dancing, The Sandlot, Stand By Me, Adventureland) and the new film The Way, Way Back is a true summertime coming of age story. It’s longtime writing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Academy Award winners for The Descendants!) feature-film directing debut and the cast is phenomenal. Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James), is on a summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Having a rough time fitting in, the introverted Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the gregarious manager of the Water Wizz Water Park. Through his funny, clandestine friendship with Owen, Duncan slowly opens up to and begins to finally find his place in the world all during a summer he will never forget.
The movie reminded me of two of my favorite off-beat comedies: Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. I was beyond excited to interview Rash and Faxon. I adore them. You likely know them best as Ben from Ben & Kate and Dean Pelton from Community. They pop up in this film too, which they wrote, and directed. The movie opens July 5.
Here’s the trailer:
KQED Pop: I really enjoyed the film. I heard people gave it a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and I can see why. It was very heartfelt. For anyone who has not yet seen the movie, tell us a little bit about it.
Jim: The movie is a coming age story about Duncan, played by Liam James. His mother Pam, played by the fantastic Toni Collette, is in the early stages of a questionable relationship with Steve Carell’s character, Trent. Duncan is confronted by Trent who wants Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Trent thinks Duncan is a 3. This basically challenges Duncan to go out and discover the beach community they are going to. Subsequently, Duncan discovers this eclectic water park where he finds acceptance. Sam Rockwell plays the manager and what proceeds is this right-of-passage for Duncan as he comes into this own. Eventually, hopefully, he reconnects with his mom.
KQED Pop: Thematically, the movie is a classic coming-of-age tale and about finding yourself with the backdrop of this “blended” family. You both co-wrote this screenplay. Did you draw upon your own background?
Jim: For sure. I think a lot of it is pulling from experiences that we connect with.
KQED Pop: Are there any autobiographical scenes in the movie?
Jim: Absolutely. The first scene in movie literally happened to me when I was 14-years-old. My stepfather and I had the exact same conversation on our way to our summer vacation to Michigan. Our second year of going he asked me what I thought I was on a scale from 1 to 10. I went with “above average.” Nat thought I was shooting too high. (laughter)
Nat: Still way too high. (laughter)
Jim: My stepfather went with a “3” like Duncan in the movie and we had that same conversation.
KQED Pop: Were you in the back of a station wagon, also?
Jim: Oh yeah. It was in a station wagon.
KQED Pop: Same make and model?
Jim: We might have had a 1970 Buick. This movie isn’t set in 1970. I wasn’t born yet…
Jim: But, one year later I was. Just calm down, Nat. (laughter)
Nat: I was gonna say…
KQED Pop: You are clearly best friends.
Nat: Best friends. Oh yeah.
Jim: We’ve known each other for 15 years. So, yes. I would imagine so.
KQED Pop: Why did you choose a water park as a central location in the movie?
Jim: Nat and I both grew up on the East Coast on the north shore Boston area. We both had a fondness for destination vacations. We both went to Nantucket. Nat can speak more to that. But, just that idea of the same people going to a place and reconnecting every year. That sort of theme was important to the movie, as well as a lot of water parks we would go to. It was just a ripe place for comedy.
KQED Pop: Nat, did you also draw upon your own experiences as a teenager when writing the script?
Nat: Not as specifically as Jim. Certainly, going to a beach location every summer and having those experiences. Nine months out of the year you are in school. Things change, but every summer you always come back to a place where things never seem to change. I certainly experienced that. I had an older cousin that was definitely a mentor to me growing up and I remember the summer where I became less of the boyish cousin and more of the “friend” who was taken along to hang out with his friends and go on surf trips and things like that. Certainly we always try to pull from our own experiences. Even our friends and co-worker’s experiences–delving into what makes them tick and why they are they way they are and the choices they’ve made. I think those things will always influence our writing—whether it be very specifically, like what happened with Jim or just in general.
KQED Pop: Do you have any general examples of how your everyday life has influenced the script?
Nat: Yeah. The scene where Allison Janney is ranting about everything that has happened to her over the year is slightly based on those Christmas letters that you get that are Xeroxed copies that ramble through everything that has happened to that family.
KQED Pop: That nobody really cares about?
Nat: Right. The job promotions and the Little League. We had a good friend who got a really negative letter that talked about all the horrible things that happened. That loosely inspired the scene with Allison. We are always looking for things that we can connect to personally.
KQED Pop: If a young person, like the character Duncan, is out there in the audience watching this film, what do you want he or she to take away from the movie? That life gets better? Like the It Gets Better Campaign, sort of thing. What can they take away from the movie? That life won’t always be as hard as adolescence?
Jim: For sure. I think coming of age and rite of passage has this sense of hope. It’s institutionally in this tale. Most of time we look back and have a fond memory of whatever our rite of passage was, whether it’s dramatic or just an inspirational night which unleashed this personality trait that was so deeply hidden within us. I hope that young adults walk away making this connection.
KQED Pop: Pam, Duncan’s mom, also seems to be having her own life crisis.
Jim: Right. Toni Collette’s character is going through a rite-of-passage, too. Everyone in the movie is in transition. In a sense, they are going to that “next chapter.” That moment where they need to make a change or a move to evolve.
KQED Pop: Tell me more about young Duncan.
Jim: For someone watching Duncan, it’s the idea that there are going to be people in your life that might provide hurdles and difficult times. There are also going to be people to nurture and to help you on your way. Both of them are going to serve purposes that you may not understand right away, but you are probably going to understand in context much later down the road. The important thing is to hear loud and clear the voices that are nurturing you and hear what the people are saying that’s hard to hear, too. Just acknowledge what they are saying and then you make that choice of how that will impact you. We need to be open and understanding when someone criticizes you, but you don’t necessarily need to be around that person.
KQED Pop: You both also co-wrote the Academy-Award winning screenplay for The Descendents. So, you’ve worked with George Clooney. And, now you’ve worked with Steve Carell. Some people may wonder. George. Steve. Who is hotter in person? Who is the “sexier leading man?”
Nat and Jim: (Laughter)
Jim: That’s exactly what goes through our brain when we first met them. I don’t know which one is hotter. That’s a difficult toss-up.
Nat: It’s kind of like the “Ginger and Mary Ann” debate. Don’t you think?
KQED Pop: Yeah, I see that.
Jim: They are both equal. It depends on your taste.
Nat: Exactly. It depends on your taste. If you want the nice, next-door neighbor type, you are probably more into Carell. If you want the dreamy, model then maybe you are into Clooney.
KQED Pop: Do you both have that same problem?
Nat: Oh yeah. A lot of people ask the same question of Jim and I. (laughter) Whose the bigger eye candy?
KQED Pop: Who usually wins?
Jim: I lose a lot.
Nat: Jim! Jim!
Jim: Ah, well thank you.
KQED Pop: You are in beautiful San Francisco. Have you been here before?
Jim: Oh yes. Many times. Both of us love it. I have friends here.
KQED Pop: Are you going to do anything fun while visiting?
Jim: No, we are going to be swept away to Sacramento to promote the new movie.
KQED Pop: Have fun. Sacramento is not quite as charming as San Francisco.
Jim: No, no. (laughter)
KQED Pop: Thank you so much, guys. It has been a pleasure and good luck with the new movie.