Player's Coach

Tom McCarthy discusses Win Win, his latest character-driven genre-juggler

Apr 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Stories about real people dealing with real situations are an endangered species in a contemporary American moviemaking landscape dominated by lowest-common-denominator teen-oriented fare and creativity-deficient sequels, remakes and the like.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy is doing his best to fight against this development.

A Yale-trained actor, McCarthy turned to filmmaking in part because the types of movies he wanted to see and be a part of — genre-defying, character-driven pieces that also touch on larger themes — weren't being made. His directorial debut, The Station Agent, which centers on a dwarf who seeks solitude in an abandoned New Jersey train station, grabbed a number of justified accolades at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and signaled the arrival of a filmmaker who valued offbeat comedy as much as he did in telling unique stories about people struggling to create surrogate families.

McCarthy's perceptive and unexpectedly affecting 2007 follow-up, The Visitor, hinges on the unlikely bond between an illegal immigrant and a lonely economics professor (beautifully played by Richard Jenkins).

Now comes Win Win, the genre-juggling story of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a middling attorney in suburban New Jersey who volunteers as a high school wrestling coach when not doing his best to support his wife (Amy Ryan), young daughter and best friend (a hilarious Bobby Cannavale). Flaherty's world is altered when a gifted wrestler (acting newcomer Alex Shaffer) appears seemingly out of nowhere — an unlikely turn of events that leads to complex questions about the sometimes ethically dubious ways in which we make excuses for our choices in life and how they impact those around us.

(Read tt stern-enzi's review of Win Win here.)

CityBeat recently phoned McCarthy, himself a former high school wrestler, to discuss a film that stands apart from the fare currently residing in American movie houses — Win Win is funny, emotional and culturally perceptive without ever straining to be any of those things.

CityBeat: You do a nice job of juggling genres in Win Win —it's not just a sports comedy, nor is it just a family drama. How did you approach the story as a writer?

Tom McCarthy: As a writer and ultimately as a filmmaker — but first as a writer — you’re just looking for a story that kind of grabs your interest. There was something about the wrestling that made me laugh. There was something kind of badass about it, too. When I jumped back into wrestling and watching matches, I was like, “These kids are tough.” As a guy who likes sports, there was something about that that appealed to me.

But I knew early on I didn’t want to make just a sports movie. I didn’t want to go straight-up genre like that, so I started thinking about some other ideas I had kicking around in my head, and one of these things was just that some people have made some bad choices over the last five or 10 years and have put us all in a pretty bad situation. Many of them are legitimately kind of good people — good members of families, good members of communities. What happens when they make bad choices, and how do we reconcile that? That was really interesting to me.

CB: It’s curious that you often look at broad cultural issues through the prism of everyday characters. Why are you interested in telling these stories through a more intimate, smaller-scale setting as opposed to a broader, larger-scale one?

TM: In this case I was trying to take a very personal look at what was a bigger problem in society, which is people making bad choices and trying to pass them off, trying to get away with something and what does that all mean. There’s was an effort to do a Main Street story line of what was maybe a Wall Street and beyond problem. Look, I guess there’s an element to my films — so far; I don’t think that will always be the case —where I do like looking at things a little bit more intimately. That’s probably just digging character.

I’m not always sure what people mean by a bigger story — a more expensive movie, a genre movie or something? But sometimes when you go that route you don’t get a chance to delve into character as much, and that’s something I hope to always do. I think I’m still learning how to do it. I’ve made three movies, so maybe I’m just taking small bites until I really know what I’m doing (laughs), which makes sense. You don’t get that many shots to make movies. When you do them, you want to do them well. There is an element of that. I’m not just being humble when I say I’m still figuring it out. It’s a crazy process, man, and there’s a lot to learn.

CB: Your films also often deal with characters who are trying to create these kinds of surrogate families. Why are you so interested in delving into that theme?

TM: I think there’s something to that observation. Whether it’s families or communities, I do think there is something interesting about people randomly coming into other people’s lives and having an impact, good or bad. In some cases it’s both; I think in this case it’s both. I think there’s something compelling in that. Maybe it’s just a basic tenet of storytelling that I like and appeals to me. I have to say that I had a very good family growing up, so I don’t think that’s an issue (laughs).

CB: I’m curious at what point in the writing do you say to yourself, “Am I going to be able to get this distributed?” How do you balance what interests you with the realities of the marketplace, especially in the current risk-averse climate?

TM: Dude, I’m writing about high school wrestling — of course I’m going to get it distributed (laughs). You know how many studios were banging on my door when they found out this is the subject matter of my new movie?

Yeah, of course I ask that. But my biggest concern is and should be, “Is it good?” I’m always saying to myself at the start, “Is this good, is it a compelling story?” And I was really concerned with this one because it’s set in such a conventional world. I was like, “How do you make this really compelling for an audience who thinks they’ve seen this; how do you challenge them?” I thought that was really interesting and really kind of perversely challenging in a way: How am going to make this in a way that grabs and audience and sucks them in and makes them want to sit there for two hours and watch this movie?

CB: You’re obviously in a little bit of a different situation than if you were a less-established filmmaker who a) wouldn’t have been able to get financing as easily or b) wouldn’t have been able to get the cast you got.

TM: The truth is that even with this cast — and Paul (Giamatti) will be the first to tell you — it’s tough to raise the kind of money we need to make this movie with Paul and Amy (Ryan). They’re very realistic about their careers, and it has nothing to do with their talents — I think everybody would firmly agree that they’re two of the better actors working today — but it’s a money game for investors, and sometimes names, even for much lesser actors, mean more. It’s a little bit dispiriting, but we all know the reality of that. So I still had to contend with some things. It wasn’t all a cakewalk.

CB: After seeing the film, I had no idea that Alex (Shaffer) had not acted before. I’m curious how mixing him in with these very seasoned actors impacted the film.

TM: Look, the kid stepped up, right? As you said, you didn’t know him. I’ve had so many people say to me, “What else have I seen him in?” He was working with some really talented actors who have a lot of work experience and have worked with all types. At the end of day, Alex is just a fun kid to work with. He’s a fun, sweet, confident — but not in a cocky way — kid, and I think they just really enjoyed working with him. Early on we were like, “This kid is on to something; the kid is like locked into this thing.” Any actor, director, filmmaker — it’s fun to watch when you see someone connecting with the movie, and you could see this kid connecting with this movie.

CB: How do you think your background as an actor has influenced your work as a filmmaker and in working with the actors?

TM: Obviously I’ve had a lot of experience working with directors, and I’ve taken the good and the bad away, right? There are some things directors do well, and there are some things they don’t. I’ve had the luxury of learning from that. Just like a “player’s coach” —you hear that used in sports. Players respect that because here’s a guy who’s walked in my shoes; he knows what it’s like to be on the spot. Actors realize that I know what that’s like. It’s a lot of pressure in a weird way, and you’re in a very vulnerable position. Look, it’s a great job and we’re lucking to do it, but all those things still exist and that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I think some directors do at times. And, man, I just love working with actors.

WIN WIN opens April 8 at Kenwood Theatre. Read tt stern-enzi's review, find show times and see the trailer here.)