Q&A with writer/director Tom McCarthy
Landmark Theatres: First off, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today! Win Win is the third film you’ve both written and directed. How do your story ideas come to you? Did you write all three of them with you in mind to direct?
Tom McCarthy: Yes, I think by the time I really got into the script I knew I was going to direct it. It’s just [the type of] film that I connect with on some level, whether it’s emotionally or intellectually, or a little bit of both. I just feel like I kind of see this movie already and I know how to make it my own. I think that it’s tough to pinpoint but there’s definitely that time where you just throw the switch and say all right, I’m going to do this.
LM: Your stories are very character driven. What kind of challenges do you face when it comes to translating that to the screen? Do you have a unique method for that process?
TM: Trusting my actors quite a bit. Casting plays a big part in that. Really just trusting them to bring their own humanity to each role and to embody that, not try to over manipulate or to over control that. Just to let it be a little bit. I think that trust is central to letting the world evolve beyond my vision a little bit and become something more. I think that’s when it gets exciting.
LM: You talk about trusting your actors and how the casting plays a part in that. How do you go about selecting your cast?
TM: When I’m writing, a lot of times I have a pretty good idea of who I like for the role, and then I get to a point where [I write roles for] some people, like Paul [Giamatti], Amy [Ryan] and Bobby [Cannavale]. Then I have to sit down and start thinking about actors for certain roles. Sometimes it’s meetings, sitting down and talking to them or I might know them. Or just auditioning them to see how they are in the role—see if it if that causes me to rethink them or the role a little bit. I think in each case it’s a little bit of a different process.
LM: Did you find it difficult to make Mike Flaherty’s character likeable both while writing it and directing it? He does resort to some questionable activities, but we very much found ourselves rooting for him.
TM: I think you do that because we’re all adult enough to realize that we all do dumb things. I think we can see just how he acts in everyday life, and how he treats people. He’s a pretty decent person, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes. It doesn’t mean he didn’t screw up here. I mean his wife would be the first to tell you but I think we all see a little bit of ourselves in Mike Flaherty. Good people trying to be good people—sometimes doing a good job and sometimes not.
LM: Ordinary people need extraordinary examples so they can say to themselves “Well, if he can do that, I can surely do this, no excuses.” Several characters in this film are very inspiring and it’s heartbreaking at some points to see them grapple with their setbacks, setbacks we all face. How difficult did you find it to balance those struggles with the victories?
TM: I think I used humor as a real counterbalance to that. There are some serious themes in this film—everything from elder care to abuse to neglect to fraud. I think they are certainly all issues that resonate in society today on some level. The trick was to try to balance that with things that make us laugh. Whether it’s something your kid says or does in the morning or something a buddy says or does, or in this case a young man who comes into their lives and provides a relief from the every day. This young man is probably the most extraordinary of them all just because of his God-given talent as a wrestler. To me that was really compelling. Not just how this kid changes lives, it wasn’t that simple—everything didn’t change—it just exposed some things about their lives which is what I think is interesting.
LM: Your characters are good people, but they’re kind of living like ghosts—meaning they’re sort of sleepwalking through their lives, without really living them. They are introduced to a stranger who basically becomes the catalyst for them to begin living again. Do you find people in general sleepwalk through their lives, or do all people have the means for change within them?
TM: I think a fair amount of people do, but some are lucky enough to have some event that maybe impacts them in some way. Although I have to say that I don’t think Mike is sleepwalking really. I think he’s very involved in his life in many ways—his family, his community, his job, and as a wrestling coach. He’s just slightly detached from it because he’s worrying about one thing, and that’s maintaining that. It’s hard to be fully involved and enjoy something if you’re thinking this really isn’t working. It’s that cloud that hangs over our heads that keeps us from sitting down at lunch with someone and being totally engaged because our mind is really on something else—whether it’s personal, professional, emotional or spiritual. I think he’s probably more engaged by the end of the movie. When we see him in the last scene of the movie and Terry [asks him] how he’s doing and he says pretty good...I think he believes that; I think he’s probably doing better in some ways than he had been in a long time, maybe because he’s being more true to himself in that moment.
LM: This film seems to demonstrate the importance of how family (whether it be blood relative or non-traditional family/friend roles) helps reconnect the people to gain control over their own lives and strengthen their tenuous hold on the real world. Is there a particular event that inspired you to this subject?
TM: No, there wasn’t one. It was a little bit created I think. There was no one event. I think it’s a little bit more of a life experience, how I live my life, the kinds of things that happen in it and how I prepared for this story, talking with Joe [Tiboni, cowriter] about various scenarios that have happened in his profession of elder law—the things that have impacted him. Then kind of slowly but surely taking the pieces and molding them into a story. I think some stories are based on “Wow, this happened and I was compelled to make a movie about it.” That doesn’t happen with me a lot; usually it’s a lot of little experiences that start to add up into more.
LM: So how long as this movie taken you, has this idea been baking for a while?
TM: Seventeen years!
TM: No, [laughs] it was actually quite quick. The first conversation I had with Joe about it was April 2009. I spent the summer kind of thinking about it while I was working on something else. Started working on in August/September of that year, had a first draft by February of 2010, and made it about a year later. We started shooting March 15 of last year.
TM: What’s today?
LM: March 11th.
TM: My gosh, we’re 3 days from a year from the first day of shooting. I’m nervous!
LM: You’ve got a little anniversary coming up! Cheers!
TM: I should have a drink on that day, maybe I should have one today!
LM: You’re an actor, writer and director. How do you feel each one of these roles help you in each arena?
TM: I think they all equally inform each other. It’s all the same process. It just depends on where you’re standing on the set that day. They’re all part of the same thing—it’s storytelling. Good actors are very involved in the storytelling, they’re not just there to say lines: they’re fleshing out the character, they’re bring a lot to the scene. Which is what writers do, it’s what directors do. I think it’s such a collaborative process in any one of those roles. I think when you have the chance to move between them you have a greater understanding of what those roles bring to the process. It’s pretty helpful I think—I recommend it!
LM: So, with trusting your cast and having that experience, was there a lot of improvisation in this movie?
TM: Not too much. Only because the script was pretty solid and we just don’t have the time. I didn’t have the time to say “Try it this way. Try it that way” and these actors are all pretty good. We rehearsed quite a bit and they knew what they were doing. They might have had some ideas and if they did, and we both agreed it was funny, we’d try it. Sometimes Bobby [Cannavale] would get in a couple shots because he was mixing it up, or Burt [Young]. But Paul [Giamatti] was pretty locked down because the character was pretty locked down and we couldn’t vary too much from that. So depending on the character or the person, probably Bobby [Cannavale] and [Jeffrey] Tambor played around the most because they could with their character. And Alex [Shaffer], we never knew what the kid was going to say, he was a live wire [laughs], but otherwise it was pretty true to script.
LM: What was your favorite part about making this film?
TM: I’ve got to say I really enjoyed production, and I don’t always enjoy production because it’s such a battle. Preproduction was a real bear; we just got started late, and everything was hard about it. I had a great team that was working overtime. I felt like we were running a campaign—I’d leave the office at one in the morning and they’d still be there working. I had a very dedicated group of people. But production was a lot of fun. We just had a good crew and it really worked well. It makes a huge difference; it makes my life so much easier.
LM: What’s your next project?
TM: I don’t really have anything yet. I’m going to finish the press tour and then get back to work.
LM: Time to get back to baking?
TM: Time to make the doughnuts! [laughs]