In the opening scene of the The Way, Way Back, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s (the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants) dynamite coming-of-age film, Duncan (Liam James, The Killing) is asked by his mother’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) to rate himself on a scale of 1-10 on their way to a beach house. Strucken by the question, Trent steps in and rates the 14-year old boy a ‘3’ and demoralizes him. It’s a humiliating confrontation but it is effective in immediately rooting the audience to Duncan’s much-needed journey out of his shell.
The title refers to the far back seat in old station wagons, the one that seats the passenger so that they look out to oncoming drivers and it’s while sitting there, listening to Trent’s idea of tough love, when Duncan comes face-to-face with his own private hell: he must spend his summer vacation with his newly divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her jerk of a boyfriend while his daughter (Zoe Levin) makes him feel more socially awkward than he already is. Trent’s invasive neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) accelerates the need to escape, and so Duncan ditches them to wander the resort town by himself and that’s where he meets and eventually befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell) who is the manager of the local Water Wizz water park.
Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen, but recently, few have been as special as The Way, Way Back. It’s full of vivid characters, fully-realized people that audiences can endear to, dialogue that sounds natural and situations that are universal. There are several reasons why this film works so well because Rash and Faxon made it so distinctive. That tragically sad opening, was a real experience shared by Rash.
“It comes from a personal place,” Rash told BuzzFocus. “The very first scene of the movie is the exact same experience I had, being in a car and having my stepfather ask me what I thought I was on a scale of 1-10.”
EDITOR’S PICK: Read our review of The Way, Way Back
Rash went on to explain that for both he and Faxon shared the connection to the east coast summer vacation. “That destination stayed the same and year after year we would regroup with the same people who have evolved each year. We can always connect to it. Coming of age films do have that timelessness to it because we all did have a rite of passage, but for us it’s always been about character. The nuances and differences within the characters makes any story, coming of age or whatever unique.”
Some coming of age stories, like fellow indie gem The Kings of Summer, the challenge for some youths to come into their own is affected by their parents. While Collette’s Pam has her own issues, this story pushes Duncan into uncomfortable spaces and with the help of others who are more wiser, he is able to push through those barriers and mature before our eyes. He does so without his mother’s guidance but it’s clear that the bond is still there, there’s just someone else in the way.
“They’re both having a rite of passage,” Rash explained. “They’re both fish out of water. We do have a context of what Pam’s and what Duncan are going through, but the point of view is pretty much Duncan’s observation of his mother’s behavior, of Trent’s behavior, and in order for them to find their way back to each other, we follow Duncan from scene-to-scene in every page, but the most important aspect of a true ensemble is that all of these characters connected via Duncan. These lives are impacting him and he’s impacting them in either minor or major ways. While the water park is our B story and the family is the A story, he’s the thread for both of those.”
Faxon said that both stories had their high points, though the water park in particular was a challenge as it was unpredictably loud and hot, “We didn’t have the budget to shut it down and control the environment. So we were facing obstacles like background or sound we couldn’t control. A lot of the scenes we were shooting there were the light and fun moments so it almost felt okay when you encountered those issues.”
“Both were very different and rewarding for different reasons. Shooting at the water park was an experience, certainly [Laughing]. The house had more of the intimate moments and dramatic scenes. Both places we had such talented actors performing and no matter where we were shooting, we were getting lost in the ability of our cast.”
Water Wizz is where The Way, Way Back starts to become a full story. Amidst all the doom and gloom, who couldn’t have fun at a water park? It’s the vacation away from the vacation, Duncan’s desperate prison break and is enabled when he finds a (girl’s) bike in the garage and sets off looking for something to salvage his situation. The alternative choice is to stick it out for his mother and follow Trent’s overbearing rules. After that opening scene, who cares about a bright pink bike and a banana seat? Besides, mom is having fun.
“No matter what that bike is, he wants to get out of there,” Rash explains. “It is the beginning of the journey because it is taking him to what will be his Oz, which is the water park. The chariot is leading him to something unique and different. Also at that moment he’s also written off his mom. He kicked and screamed and now he’s leaving the house, even though Trent was in his brain saying, get out!”
Duncan’s afternoon ride lands him at Water Wizz and for the first time in the film, someone who shows some care and interest in him. The film suddenly turns into a modern day version of Meatballs as Rockwell doing his own version of Bill Murray. But Owen isn’t the only help for Duncan. Betty is no doubt a beautiful hot mess, but her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) is old enough to know better and ignore her mother. She serves as something more than a love interest for Duncan. She’s been through a divorce much longer than Duncan and we can see that she’s learned much earlier than most that her own individual tastes and interests driver her, not those of her friends. There’s a confidence about her and willingness on her part to be patient with Duncan.
“She shares a connection with Duncan,” Faxon said. “They are going through similar experiences in terms of their parents splitting up and obviously there’s baggage that comes with that, probably worry from their parents about losing their kid to the other spouse or whatever certain alliances are there. Susanna is wise beyond her years as a result of all of those experiences.”
“Finding her own individuality and those moments are helping her shape who she is becoming and wants to impart some of that wisdom onto Duncan with a wonderful analogy about Ghost Crabs. This is a spring break for adults kind of place. She’s obviously a very instrumental person for Duncan and his journey and I feel she’s offering him a quite a bit in terms of guidance and allegiance.”
It took nearly eight years to bring the film to the big screen, after it had come close to going into production a handful of times, only to have something trip it up. Yet despite all the time it sat on the shelf, it remained largely unchanged once it got traction again after the actors (most recently Rash on Community, Faxon on Ben and Kate) got notoriety as writers with The Descendants. When it looked like there would be interest again in The Way, Way Back, Rash and Faxon had the opportunity to direct for the first time and they successfully did that together too, except for the rare occasion when they were in front of the camera at the same time, playing two of Owen’s Water Wizz employees. The new venture gave the pair a new appreciation for the collaborative process of filmmaking, especially in a low budget film.
“As being actors and writers before being directors, you have an understanding,” Faxon said. “But I don’t think you have fully have an appreciation for every single component that goes into it. Every single stage there are so many crucial elements that you overlook or take advantage as an actor. You do your thing and you just see the finished product, but you don’t necessarily see the sound department pulling dialogue or fading it in a sound design fashion that enhances the movie in a such a way that creates another layer that you hadn’t thought of. So there’s a new appreciation to every single piece of making a movie, from the pre-production to production and post-production.”
“There’s nothing more powerful than watching when it gets tough on set and watching your crew rise to that occasion,” Rash shared. “You absolutely realize that we’re making a small movie here. We’re all working long hours for not a lot and it’s just for the passion of making a movie. That’s a lesson you can get reminded of over and over again. At times you think this is frustrating and then you realize what it takes to push past that frustration and make a movie.”
When asked if they were going to continue creating these small-scaled, personal stories, Rash said that it doesn’t necessarily have to come from them directly or be so true that it’s ripped from the headlines of the news. With adapting The Descendants, they shared a fondness for Kaui Hart Hemming’s writing, they felt connected to the story, appreciated and understood who Matt King was. Regardless of whatever the story may be, if they’re both passionate about a project, then they’re going to let that lead the way.
Now it’s not rare that one person act, write, and direct, but to show great skill in all arenas is something that is unique and to decide where to lean towards could be a challenge moving forward. Faxon believes as long as they’re constantly evolving, never getting too complacent with any one aspect of the industry, they’ll be happy. Rash thinks they can do it all.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be matched up at all times. It’s always been important to us. We started as actors and we want to continue that. We became writers and became writing partners and we want to continue that. As for directing, this was our first foray so hopefully we’ll continue [Laughs] – it’s all about evolution and get better in each one of those things and learn more from other people–
“And become action stars,” Faxon interrupted. “Probably all of that and become action stars.” [Laughs] Rash summed it up, “Action star is I guess the highest you can go.”
Take note kids, all of this from someone who was rated a three.
The Way, Way Back opens wide this weekend at a theater near you.