Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash talk ‘The Way, Way Back’

Writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose behind-the-scenes credits include “The Descendants” and collective on-screen credits include “Beerfest” and “Community,” recently spoke with “Breakthrough Entertainment” about their new coming-of-age dramedy “The Way, Way Back.”

In “The Way, Way Back,” which opens Friday, July 12 exclusively at Harkins Camelview 5, Liam James plays a teenager who gets a job at a water park and gains some much-needed self-confidence under the guidance of happy-go-lucky water park employee (Sam Rockwell) who approaches life from a fresh new perspective.

Question: Tell me about the inception of this project. In particular, how did you come to direct it?

Nat Faxon: We wrote this about 8 years ago. Shawn Levy was going to direct it and Fox Searchlight was the studio behind it. We came out of the gate pretty quickly. We were casting, we were very exciting and everything was moving very quickly. But not unlike many Hollywood movie tales, it fell apart due to schedules and logistics. Then it went through a few other phases of different studios and directors being on board. We ended up getting it back into our hands a couple of years ago and we decided to direct it ourselves. Having lived with it for so long and wanting the opportunity to see our vision from start to finish really motivated us to be a bit bullish and try to do it on our own.

Question: You won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Descendants.” Was your experience working on that film at all helpful in preparing you for this project?

Jim Rash: I think it was helpful in a lot of ways. I think that, as a writer, you want your script to be ready when you shoot. We had 8 years and, while the core story remained the same, there was an evolution of honing scenes, cutting stuff out, tweaking characters and looking for restraint. We looked for those moments that you can pull back, take some of the wording out and let actions speak louder. I think that adapting [“The Descendants’”] novel, which is all about scaling back and digging deep into the book to find what you need and pull out what you don’t need, was very helpful for us. And Alexander [Payne] has obviously made a career out of making these movies that have small moments that say so much with so little. I think that we took that to heart. We had a lot of stuff like that in [our screenplay for “The Way, Way Back”], but when we started shooting it we realized that we were on a budget and some of our scenes were going to have to be all in one shot. So we did a number of one-shot scenes and, to the benefit of both the movie and our vision, it allowed us to be like we were eavesdropping on these moments.

Question: Speaking of moments, Sam Rockwell has quite a few in this film and arguably steals the show as Owen. How did you come to the decision to cast him?

Nat Faxon: As we were writing it, we had the template of Bill Murray from “Meatballs” in mind. And when we decided to direct it, we thought about who could fit that role now. Sam came to mind almost immediately. He is a very warm and affectionate caring guy and has the ability to be very charismatic and full of life – all of which are qualities that Owen embodies. He brought so much of his personality to the role and elevated it in such a way that it felt exactly right from the very beginning.

Question: On the opposite end of the spectrum is Steve Carell. His performance is excellent but he plays an uncharacteristically unlikeable guy. How did you know that he was right for the role of Trent?

Jim Rash: We wanted to go against type with Trent. Steve came to mind pretty early as someone who has an innate likability, which is a component that we needed to try and have the understanding of why Pam has got blinders on and finds him attractive. What draws her to him is that he cares for her and is affectionate with his friends. He is fun and sociable and all of those things that make him more of this rounded, conflicted, tragic male character. He is this guy who can proclaim that he wants this family and needs to be better but has no follow-through. There is a self-awareness of his faults there and Steve sort of embraced the complexities of and the dangers of being this character. Because we are always wanting our characters to have this arc where they’ll have this moment of evolution and see the errors of their ways. But this is not a character that is meant to do that. That makes him very real. There are people who we all know in our lives that are sort of just stuck in their habits.

Question: A lot about this movie feels real, though. Did either of you draw from any of your own experiences? And what was your essential intention for your protagonist Duncan?

Jim Rash: That first scene of the movie is autobiographical in a sense that, when I was 14 years old, my stepfather had that exact conversation with me while we were in a station wagon on our way to our summer vacation. It was important to us to write Duncan to be an observer we wanted him to be more than just this quirky character who has got this special talent that has not yet been tapped. He really is this introvert who is sort of lost and needs some guidance. His parents are both sort of out of his life in a way and we wanted him to be this sponge of all of the people around him. We wanted him to literally start sitting up straight and gaining this confidence.

Question: Finally, if viewers were to come away from this movie with one idea or theme, what do you hope that might be?

Jim Rash: To me, an ensemble is about taking care of all of these characters because they are all serving a purpose. Duncan is obviously the center of this story but he is affecting all of these people’s lives and I feel like this truly a rite of passage for a numerous amount of characters. To me, it is a movie where everyone can connect to the idea of characters in flux going into that next chapter – whether they choose to or not. It is based on the connections you have with people who you might know for only one summer at a time or see only once a year. Whether or not these characters will be in each other’s lives after this moment, their relationship had an impact on each other. So I think that it is really about the connections we make, the interactions we have, the power of chance meetings and the power of being someone’s support – whether you will be in their life forever or not.

Nat Faxon: Ideally, there is a connection for people who watch this movie. If they are young, they will hopefully see the hope in this situation that everything will work out just fine for this kid. And if they are older and looking back, they will hopefully remember that moment and – whether it was good or bad – how much they grew from it.

Joseph J. Airdo

Joseph J. Airdo is a film critic, producer and on-air personality for Breakthrough Entertainment, a talk radio show airing 10-11 a.m. Saturdays on KPHX 1480 AM and that shines a spotlight on the practical perspectives of the topics and themes explored in movies. He has a pet duck named Frozen who is as opinionated about movies as he is. E-mail him at

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