Saturday, March 5, 2011

Commentary - Win Win & Tom McCarthy Q & A

  Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) has once again written and directed a picture that’s been touted at the festivals; however, his newest film has enough mainstream appeal to be backed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Win Win is the story of an attorney, wrestling coach and most importantly, family man, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) living in a middle class Jersey suburb trying to keep things going in these difficult economic times.  The crux of the film deals with how a small indiscretion can cause considerable consequences in a person’s life and the lives of those around them.
  Mike’s clients mostly consist of senior citizens in need of representation, a job Mike’s done ethically and compassionately for years; so when he partitions the courts for guardianship of his elderly, often senile client, Leo (Burt Young) telling the judge he will personally see to it that Leo will be cared for without having to leave his home, the judge grants the request which comes along with a $1500 a month allotment.  This would all be fine except Mike immediately moves Leo to a nursing home facility, albeit a nice one, telling Leo the judge has ordered him to live there.  Things get further complicated by the arrival of Leo’s, never before seen grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer) and later, estranged daughter, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey).

Although these elements set up the conflict of the story, it’s not really what the movie is about.  McCarthy actually set out to make a movie about competitive wrestling, and that he does.  I’m always amazed how good filmmakers can make me care about something that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever.  I’ve never watched a competitive wrestling match, not even when I was in high school, yet Kyle’s mastery of the sport, what he brings to the other team members, the bond he forms with Mike and Terry (Bobby Cannavle), Mike’s best friend and assistant coach, all make for really good moments.

The other good feeling, but in no way overly sentimental or schmaltzy, moments come from Kyle being taken into Mike’s home life, which includes a no nonsense, actually contented housewife, Jackie (Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone, Jack Goes Boating click for my Q &A w/Amy Ryan) and their two little daughters. Again, this is the heart of the movie, but it’s not overplayed.  Perhaps due in part to the amazing first time acting skills of Alex Shaffer, who's monotone speech and dead pan expression under a mop of shockingly blond hair, keep this movie from becoming a Hallmark special.


Both Tom McCarthy and Alex Shaffer were in town for the preview of this film and treated us to a Q & A. In addition, PFS was invited to a roundtable interview with McCarthy the next day at The Four Season’s Hotel.

Below are excerpts from both interviews:

Q: Where did this story come from?

A: I called one of my oldest friends that I grew up with and wrestled with at Providence High School, and I said “I haven’t seen a good wrestling movie in a long time”. And we both started laughing and talking about our shared experience, but unlike Alex, we were both really mediocre at wrestling. But yeah, from that we just started developing the story together.

Q: Did you worry Kyle’s character wouldn’t be accessible, he’s a very odd kid?

A: Yeah I agree. You mean this one in particular (pointing to Alex). I was very worried about that, but we cast a kid who was immensely like-able in Alex Shaffer here, first film, first job, how about that!

  
Q (to Alex): Was the wrestling training difficult for you?

A: I wrestled before the movie, that’s how I got into it. Tom sent out a cattle call for all wrestlers to come out and audition for the film and that’s how I got the role. (McCarthy): I should point out that two weeks after we cast him he actually won the State Championship in NJ.  And I’d like to take a little credit for that (wink).

Q: (to Alex): How long had you been acting before the cattle call?

A: I never really acted before.  (McCarthy chimes in): That’s not true. (Alex): That’s right; I did do Pirates of Penzance in 6th grade.

(McCarthy): We made the decision early on that there was enough wrestling in the movie that we really needed to cast wrestlers. So we put out the casting call for a specific size, weight class 112 to 125. We saw about 100 wrestlers from the tri-state area, maybe more, that came in and read and read, and we stumbled across Alex and kinda put him through the mill to get the part, but he kept showing up, and did a great job.

Q: (to Alex) Are you planning to pursue a career in acting?

A: Yes. I just got a manager and agent, now I’m just auditioning around.

Q: [Couldn't not discern the exact question, but it dealt with the themes McCarthy explores in his films]

 
A: I guess there is, it does occur in all of my movies. Although this main character is much more involved in his life, as opposed to the other two films where the protagonist is more detached and disconnect to the community. But yeah, I guess I’m always interested in that kind interaction between people, the random events that send people in other directions. I don’t know why, I don’t know…is there a shrink in the house?

Q: What part of your acting background do you bring to directing?

A: Being an actor, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of very good directors and some not so good. As a result you learn a lot; you get a sense of what’s helpful to actors and what’s not in terms of communication and preparation.

It’s why I continue to act, every time I do it I’m working with other actors, writers, directors. When you’re directing a movie you’re so in a cave, so focused on it you can’t really take in other things around you; but with acting you're not as preoccupied you have a little more space.

 Q: [Again, couldn't hear the exact question dealing with budget and distribution]

A: I had a little bit more money than I did the last one, every movie it bumps up a little bit. This is the first film I’ve made with a studio which is Fox Searchlight and we’re very pleased to be in business with them, it really allowed us to make the film we wanted, they were good collaborators; they do a heck of a job, especially with distribution. But in terms of distribution, it always really just comes down to audiences, right?  If you walk out of a movie and go tell someone at work or the coffee shop, hey I saw this movie and I liked it, that’s important. It’s the reason we’re traveling city to city and doing press and Q & A’s, just to get it out there.

Q: I’m a huge fan of Paul Giamatti, does he collaborate on set?

A: I’ve know Paul for 20 years, we went to school together a long time ago, and have been trying to work together for a long time. For such a talented guy, with such a huge resume, he makes it look very easy and he keeps it so light on set that it doesn’t feel like work, but he’s very focused. He’s a quiet leader in that way.

Q:(Tom to Alex) How was it for you working with him?

Alex: It was pretty cool. Paul’s a sweet dude. He’s a lot of fun, before I went into the movie, knowing he’s a serious actor and all, I thought he was going to be kinda dull, but he’s actually a lot funnier and fun than I thought.

(audience laughter)

Q: (mine): I realize your intention was to make this story and this family as natural and subtle as possible, not to over write it or over dramatize it.  And I feel this was done beautifully, however, while you were writing it, did you ever worry the audience might feel that Mike’s actions with regards to Leo, weren’t that bad? That it wasn’t enough of a dilemma?

A: Yeah. It was one of the biggest things we wrestled with! It was one of the biggest problems – how bad can we make Mike? When people would read the script, they’d say, I don’t think he’s doing anything that wrong. And we’d think what do we have to do tie Leo up in the attic and feed him every other Sunday? We kept saying how bad do we have to make the deed? And I was less interested in making it overtly bad, because then it gets to a point where it would start to feel out of character, cause then this dude’s a scum bag.

Mike is a lawyer that’s sworn to protect and serve his client who is one of the two most vulnerable members of society (old people and children) whose rights are most at risk. He betrayed that man. I ran this by other elder law attorneys. They said, are you kidding me! You’d lose your whole practice.

One misstep starts to get really complicated. The stakes could always be more extreme, but the idea with this type of story telling is to hopefully make the audience aware that for the people in the story the stakes are really, really high.

Q: Do you love Bon Jovi? (Reference to Jackie’s tattoo in the film)

A: It just felt right, He’s got a very specific fan base and a rather large one I may add, and the energy of the song (Have a Nice Day) was right for that world and particularly for what I knew I was going to try to create in terms of that montage.

We called Jon and said we can’t pay you 1 /100 hundredth of what you should have for the song and he said name your price; we did and he said fine. So incredibly generous, you don’t see that everyday. A lot of those big bands that you think would feel they have enough money, they don’t even get on the phone unless you have half million dollars for their song. It’s crazy, it’s sad actually, I’ll go that far.

Q: I noticed all of your films involve surrogate families in some way. Is this something you are aware of before you write them and what connection does it have to your life?


A: I don’t over intellectualize the process when I start. I’m not very reflective as a filmmaker in that sense. I don’t say, what am I building here and how do I want to build the next thing?

It’s more just what grabs me in that moment that makes me what to sit down at the computer and explore a story or a character… it’s tough for me to deny that theme is there in my work, but I don’t know the answers to why that appeals to me. I don’t know if it’s something I read as a kid or something I’m lacking or searching for, someday I’ll figure it out.

Q: Another theme that seems to run through your films is an outsider coming into a new community and then branded a freak by most of the community until we find out the real freak in the situation is the main character. Is that how you feel as an actor becoming comfortable as a director?

A: (laughs) Um.. ah.. if I were to associate with that at all, and it might be a bit of a stretch,  it’s feeling like ah… maybe not being prepared enough. You know, I think we all feel like this, we feel like fakes a lot of the time.

You find yourself where everyone needs an answer to something and I don’t always have it. But being confident enough to acknowledge that, and know it’s process; and that you don’t always have to have the answer, is a big part of learning about the process.

The last question dealt with “the last great high school wrestling movie” Vision Quest and talk went on and on about pinning scenes… at this point, being in a room full of testosterone got kinda boring for me and I faded out…

Win Win opens in Philadelphia April 1st.

Other members of the press included: Eric Bressler, Cinadelphia, Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity, Kurt Osenlund, ICON Magazine, Nathan Lerner, Montgomery Newspapers, Steve Cinemadork.com, Herb, Movie Fanfare.com and Drexel University Triangle