News Column

Steve Carell casting a key to making 'Way, Way, Back'

July 14, 2013

YellowBrix

July 14--Nat Faxon and Jim Rash went above and beyond to cast Steve Carell in "The Way, Way Back."

Carell showed interest in playing Trent, in-house antagonist to "Way Back" teenage hero Duncan (Liam James) after co-writers and directors Faxon and Rash sent him the script.

But then Carell passed, because it would be a summer shoot and he spends summers with his family in Marshfield, Mass.

"So we took one more stab and said, 'What if we shoot in Marshfield?' " Rash said. "We told him, 'If we shot there, you can walk to work, and you are around your family at night.' "

Rash and Faxon, screenplay Oscar winners for 2011's "The Descendants," wanted to shoot their film-directing debut "The Way, Way Back" -- opening Friday in Sacramento -- in an East Coast beach town, anyway.

Carell agreed, and cast and crew gathered last summer to film on Massachusetts' South Shore.

Securing the inherently likable Carell was crucial, Faxon said, to ensuring that Trent, new boyfriend to Duncan's mother (Toni Collette) and owner of the beach house where Duncan must spend his summer, would be at least slightly sympathetic.

Otherwise, the audience would not understand what the mother or the beach friends who seek his company see in Trent.

And in the movie, Carell treads a fine line. Though Trent is too watchful and critical of Duncan, he's easy and fun with the mother and with the couple's highly sociable pals.

When Carell came on board, "we lucked out," said Rash, 41, sitting beside Faxon, 37, at Sacramento's Citizen Hotel. Their interview about "The Way, Way Back" is just another collaboration in a string that began when they started writing together as members of Los Angeles' Groundlings improvisational troupe.

Faxon, a veteran TV actor who starred in the short-lived Fox series "Ben and Kate," wears jeans and gives off a sun-and-ski athletic vibe.

Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on NBC's "Community," is more bookish-looking and slightly more sly (Rash famously mocked Angelina Jolie's leg-out pose from earlier in the Academy Awards broadcast while accepting his "Descendants" Oscar alongside Faxon and Alexander Payne, their co-writer and the film's director.)

Fox Searchlight bought "The Way, Way Back" for nearly $10 million after a bidding war at January's Sundance Film Festival. It was shot for less than $5 million, with a stellar cast that includes Sam Rockwell as a water-park manager who becomes Duncan's friend and mentor, and Allison Janney and Amanda Peet as Trent's party-hearty beach neighbors.

The directors were untested but had just won an Oscar and had written, in "Way Back," an irresistible script.

The film's present-day setting is recognizable only from a few moments involving cellphones. Otherwise, it gives off the same nostalgic, mid-to-late-20th-century glow that beach towns and vacation homes -- neither of which get updated often -- frequently do.

The title of "Way, Way Back" alludes to the tiny, back-facing seat of Trent's vintage station wagon. It's where Duncan sits, moping, when we first see him.

The storytelling, containing dramatic as well as comedic beats, is redolent of the 1970s and '80s.

Rockwell's character, Owen, evokes Bill Murray's silly but sage camp counselor in 1979's "Meatballs," and the vacationing adults' constant partying in "Way Back" plays as a milder version of the high jinks in the '70s-set "The Ice Storm."

Forced into an uncomfortable living situation with the hyper-critical Trent, Duncan takes off on a bike and finds Trent's opposite in Owen. A wiseacre who seems a bit too old to work at a water park, Owen as a character distills all that is wonderful about Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), that loose-limbed comic actor with unexpected soul.

"He is very similar to Owen in a lot of ways," Faxon said of Rockwell. "He is very charismatic -- he can be very extroverted and social, but there is also a grounded warmth to him."

Carell and Rockwell are effective in "Way Back" in part due to young actor James' ability to visibly shrink in Carell's presence and bloom in Rockwell's.

James, who plays Detective Linden's son on AMC's "The Killing," brings a slouched, almost painfully realistic awkwardness to Duncan.

"What separated him from a lot of the kids (the directors met about the role) was that he was natural and real," Faxon said.

Rash and Faxon tapped their own youthful vacation experiences -- at a Michigan lake for Rash, Nantucket for Faxon.

A particularly tense Trent-Duncan exchange in "Way Back" comes directly from a conversation Rash had as a teenager with his own stepfather. But his stepfather was a much nicer guy than Trent, Rash said.

Rash and Faxon were less removed from their teens than they are now when they wrote the "Way Back" script eight years ago.

At one point, Fox Searchlight planned to make the film with Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") directing, but Levy's window of availability closed and that project died, Rash said.

The script passed through many hands over the years and earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays.

It led to a first meeting with Payne about adapting "The Descendants" from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, Rash said. Their only previous produced screen work was a failed television pilot.

Their "Descendants" success did not "greenlight ('Way Back') by any means," Rash said. "But it did open the doors again for a conversation" about making the movie.

This round, though, Rash and Faxon would direct. They knew directing would be a "learn-as-you go" process, Rash said, but they brought confidence to the shoot.

"I taught and directed at the Groundlings for many, many years, and I think we are very comfortable speaking with actors because we have done it before, and we have been spoken to by directors," Rash said. "And we surrounded ourselves with experience."

Mark Ricker, production designer on such films as "The Help" and "Julie & Julia," was in charge of the slightly scruffy beach-town look of "Way Back." Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth ("The English Patient") came up with Collette's striking head-scarf-and-linen-pants summer ensembles.

Rash and Faxon's previous relationship with Fox Searchlight, the studio behind "The Descendants," might have helped in "Way Back's" purchase at Sundance. But not by much, Faxon said.

"It was certainly on their radar because of our relationship, but I think they are still discerning," he said.

Tonally, "Way, Way Back" fits in more with Fox Searchlight crowd-pleasers such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" than the more serious "Descendants."

The studio's investment appears a wise one, since "Way Back" took in more than $500,000 when it opened last weekend in 19 theaters.

Their "Descendants" success has opened doors, Faxon and Rash acknowledged. But no acting doors.

"I'm still auditioning," Rash said mock-disconsolately.

They did cast themselves in supporting roles in "Way Back," though, with Faxon playing an arrested-adolescent water-park attendant and Rash the downcast minder of the park's equipment-rental room.

They're in high demand as writers. They now are writing a "small, 'Way, Way Back' dysfunctional-family thing for Fox Searchlight," Rash said, and an action comedy for Kristen Wiig, a friend from the Groundlings.

They appear to have achieved a remarkable amount of success in a few years. But it does not feel that way, Faxon said.

"We have been actors in Los Angeles for a long time and we paid our dues -- this was not an overnight success by any means," Faxon said.

"There is an appreciation for the things that do come your way as a result of that struggle. ... We wrote ('Way Back') eight years ago, and it was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows with it.

"Just to get to the finish line, to be able to direct it ourselves and see the vision from start to finish, is incredibly gratifying."

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