At the Movies

The Way, Way Back
Co-Written and Co-Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
In an unfortunate twist of fate, and after weeks of cardboard cutouts and posters in local multiplexes, “The Way, Way Back” is finally opening in Sacramento on such a crowded weekend for new releases that it seems to have fallen from most schedules. As a result, it’s opening at the Tower Theatre and at the Century, Roseville – but it’s worth checking out, even if it’s a little further from your home than the closest theater.

It tells the story of Duncan, a lonely 14-year-old who’s dragged along as his mother spends the summer with her boyfriend and his daughter at their summer home. It’s about as far removed from the big budget monster and superhero movies as one can get, fitting into the quiet quality world of summer films like “The Kings of Summer” and this week’s “Girl Most Likely.” This is counter-programming for people who enjoy stories about people who seem real, perhaps reminiscent of friends or family members, and trips to the movies that don’t require 3D glasses or earplugs.

Duncan’s mother Pam is played by Toni Collette and her boyfriend Trent is played by Steve Carrell in an uncharacteristically unpleasant role. In the opening scene, trapped in “the way, way back” of a Buick station wagon while the two women sleep, Duncan is grilled by Trent, who asks him how he would score himself on a scale of 1-10. After initially dodging the question, he reluctantly and sheepishly says that he’s a six, whereupon Trent shoots him down and tells him he’s a three.

It’s one of the most brutal put downs on film, in its blunt delivery, and it’s one that co-writer/director Jim Rash pulled from personal experience, telling a Sacramento audience at a recent Q&A (that I had the privilege of moderating) that he had to answer that same question from his step father on a similar trip as a teenager. The following day, in an interview at Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel, I asked whether the circumstances had been quite the same – were the others in the car (in real life, his mother and sister) asleep and was the question equally blunt.

Jim: “My Mom was in the car and when she first read the script, you know she loved it, but she did say “The worst part was that I was awake for this” – so we clearly made Pam asleep.” And at the start of the movie, that makes sense as Pam needs to be unaware of what is going on between Duncan and Trent. Rash also wasn’t quite so far back in the car. “No I think was right behind him – but the thing we discussed was the rear view mirror. I was looking at him in the rear view mirror – so that part was taken from that.”
This led to a brief discussion of the prevalence of older American wagons with third row seats.

Tony: “Do you think there’s any lingering effect on the generations who watched the world go by backwards – do you think they all pick the seats that face the wrong way on the train?”
(Jim and Nat both laugh.)

Jim: “It’s possible. The advantages are that if you’re somebody who likes to be alone, or get away, there’s some kind of nice solitude. The only moment that does make them odd is that moment when you stop and somebody stares at you and you stare at them – and we play that up in the movie.”

Tony: “You said last night that there’s a danger issue that you see danger coming towards you – but there’s also a security in that everything you see has already happened. How would I have reacted to that? – Well it’s too late now.”

Jim: “There’s so many things wrong – I don’t even know where the momentum would take you or which way you’d go!” (laughs)

In the film, Duncan first “meets” another major character in that odd moment Rash described, facing backwards at a stop sign. Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, is the manager of a local water slide park and ultimately takes Duncan under his wing. It’s a pivotal character – the seasoned and seasonal king of the water park who seems, to the relatively sheltered Duncan, to know so much but who also has so much to accept himself about growing up and taking responsibility for his life.

The script for “The Way, Way Back” was known to be on an industry list of good, unpublished screenplays, when Faxon and Rash, and filmmaker Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “Election”), won the best adapted screenplay Academy Award for writing “The Descendants.” From that point on, the film found itself on a suddenly increased pace, facing multiple decisions about financing and the production in general.

Tony: “Was there a point in that process when the goal had been to make this a full on period piece?”

Nat: “In a very, very early draft it had been set in the 80’s. But then we realized that there was an expense to that and it raised your budget. But more importantly we always wanted this to feel timeless and to connect to any era and generation. So we decided, I think smartly, against doing it in 80’s and it really didn’t affect the script that much, at all – just a few references we had to take out. But other than that it didn’t really affect the movie.”

Tony: “There’s still a period feel – the little pink bike with tassles – and Duncan gets a job without anybody asking him for a W4 and an I9 form!”
(They both laugh.)

Nat: “Yeah. We talked about that nostalgic feeling right from the get go. We talked about that with every department head involved with the movie. … Our costume designer Ann Roth, in terms of what people we wearing … the beach houses that never really age: you know you close them up at Labor Day and open them up at Memorial Day and they are exactly the way you left them. And with music, the music that Trent listens to is probably on the same 10 CD’s that have been in there for over 10 years. That things don’t really evolve – much like his character in a way.”

Ann Roth’s name had come up the evening before also, at the Q&A, as she’s another Academy Award winner on a distinguished production team. (Roth was nominated four times for costume design and won for “The English Patient.”) Faxon and Rash had described with much humor the fun this veteran designer had had, particularly in dressing Allison Janney who is wonderful as Betty, a beachside neighbor of Trent’s who apparently has no boundaries and is almost as loud in her ensembles as she is in her dialog.

It’s a hard film to characterize in some ways, because it’s a film for the Duncans of today, and that age group, but also for the Duncans who sat in those wagons 20-30 years ago, and shared those experiences. If you told somebody the film’s about a teenager, a beach house, a summer, and there’s drinking and hijinks, it might make people think of “Porkies” or “American Pie,” depending on their generation. But this is, in many ways, a very wholesome film. All the bad behavior is from the adults – the kids are really much more grounded than the adults are. It’s almost like the film that a kid who might have read or watched “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” would graduate to.

Jim: “It’s interesting because even when they started thinking of something like the trailer, it’s a difficult film to decide which way is in. Play up the comedy or play up the dramatic stuff – or try to embrace it as a whole. I think for us, just tonally, the allure for us really is that balance of comedy and drama and thinking this is just life – the tonal shift of our day to day. And I think for us, we were thinking of nostalgia – the kind of movies we grew up with and you just don’t see as much – you don’t see the height of where John Hughes was.”

(We paused briefly as we came up with a list of John Hughes films.)

Tony: “But John Hughes’ movies were often romantic or relationship oriented. Duncan here is not a romantic character, he’s just trying to find his footing – he just needs to build his confidence and you feel like great things are going to happen to him after the movie. I just wondered, was this something you saw as a movie for your friends or for your friends’ kids?”

Nat: “I think we hoped that it would appeal to all, but I don’t think we were totally aware of that [question] when we were writing it. I think oftentimes we’ve made missteps when we’ve tried to predict or target an audience, in a way. We developed TV for many years and every time we thought “What’s missing on the air?” or “What haven’t people seen?” or “What’s a different setup we could explore?” we just put our heads up against the wall. Whereas when we just drew on personal experience and characters, and people with flaws who made bad mistakes, things opened up much more for us. I can’t say that when we were in the process of writing this that we were asking ourselves what audience is appropriate for this movie – but I do think we were thinking of it more from our own experiences growing up. It was an easier way to think about it – it wasn’t so much about our friends’ kids and what it’s like growing up today, it was more just pulling from our own lives and our own childhoods.”

Jim: “It is interesting to see, from screening to screening, just the wide variety of young to adult [viewers], female and male, having found something similar that they connected to in the movie. I think it’s that power of the genre – coming of age movies and rights of passage – some people can remember having had that experience while somebody else is perhaps watching it while still going through it.”

This is a good reflection of the Sacramento screening. After a robust Q&A session, the two Oscar winning filmmakers hung around and greeted a long line of audience members, posing for pictures and sharing thoughts about the story. And this after a similar screening in San Francisco the night before and a full day of press interviews in San Francisco that day. Few, if any, audience members had left at the end of the film and the only similarity between those that asked questions and those that stayed for personal encounters was a shared appreciation of the film. They were of all ages, genders, and ethnicities and all had seemingly connected with some aspect of Duncan’s story.

The next day, the interview conversation shifted to recent comments by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas about the state of the industry and the difficulty that Spielberg had, for example, in getting “Lincoln” into theaters rather than onto cable television. And from there to new deals for “super” or “mega” tickets that bundled extras into the movie going experience, and the distribution side of the industry that results in some films being available on demand at home or in hotel rooms at the same time, or even before, they reach theater screens.

Nat: “It’s tough. It does feel like the chasm between big budget films and small budget films keeps widening – in that big budget films keep climbing in numbers and small budget films keep shrinking in numbers. And certainly, if you look back at movies that we grew up with or were fond of, it doesn’t feel that those are made as much, at least at a $20 million budget. I mean we talk about movie like “Broadcast News” that were prevalent when we were kids. And they were adult and intelligent and could sometimes reach all audiences. But I do think it’s challenging to find people who want to make those kinds of movies any more. But, that being said, I do think good stories … the cream will always rise to the top, in a sense. I think good material will hopefully always see the light. It may take eight years like it did for this [“The Way, Way Back”] or “Little Miss Sunshine” [from the same producers] that I think took 10 years. Sometimes it will be a long journey – but they will, I think, eventually get made and be seen, and will remind people why they are made and why they go and see these kinds of movies – and the feelings you get by viewing them.”

So, if you need a reminder of the way films used to be, or of the films that so often fall into the cracks between the big budget movies that soak up all the attention and the limelight, seek out “The Way, Way Back” – whether you’re Duncan or you have ‘Duncans’ of your own. It’s a sweet and meaningful story of a boy trying to find his place in the world and it’s a welcome change from the high volume chases and explosions that will probably bleed through the wall from the theater next door.

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