Nat Faxon and Jim Rash on The Wisdom That Fueled ‘The Way, Way Back’

By  · Published on July 4th, 2013

The past few years have been good to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Both of them have built solid acting careers out of memorable roles. Rash is Community’s Dean Pelton and Faxon, of course, was the pretentious college kid who couldn’t shut up about his vampire novel in Orange County. But beyond acting, the duo found the spotlight in a major way in 2012. Rash and Faxon, along with Alexander Payne, won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for The Descendants.

They probably could’ve moved on to write some fat paycheck gigs after that, but they used the golden moment to breathe new life into a passion project of their own, The Way, Way Back— the story of a young man (Liam James) on a hellish summer vacation who finally finds a place to fit in at a local waterpark.

This is a project you’ve worked on for almost 8 years. What kept the script from getting traction?

Rash: I think we initially wrote it in 2005, which was us giving it to our managers. In 2007 we got on The Black List for it, which is that list of unproduced stuff. At one point we went through this whole period where Shawn Levy was going to direct it. I don’t know what year that was, but it was when Night at the Museum 2 was happening faster than he thought, so he had to step away. Then we went through a change with Searchlight. We were first at Searchlight, but then went to Mandate.

When the economy turned, it was hard making these small movies. We kept having these momentum moments, but then they’d get stalled by things beyond our control. We decided to take a step back, knowing we had to take a break from it.

We had a chance to make it when Mandate got taken over by Lionsgate. They had a small group of people they would’ve approved of as far as actors, but they just didn’t feel right. We needed to reconsider it when the script could be free of the hands that had been on it. Two or three years ago we started all over again with a new producer that went grass roots with it, which led us here.

When you decided not to make it at Lionsgate, it seems like you were accepting the risk of it never being made at all.

Rash: Yeah, we could make it now with that type idea or step away. We chose to do the movie right rather than rushing to just make a movie. We had already gone through years of up and downs it didn’t make sense to rush into it.

During that time, The Way, Way Back opened doors for us as far as writing in town. It got us into the door with Alexander Payne and his producing partner, Jim Burke, which is how we came to The Descendants. We were working on that film and another rewrite during that time, so we were still working on other things.

This is your first time as directors, and I know that The Help director Tate Taylor gave you some advise. What was it?

Faxon: He said we’ll never be asked more questions in our lives.

Rash: And you’re the only ones who have the answer, unfortunately.

Faxon: He said do your best to limit the choices people bring you to three things. If someone comes to you, like, “Which ones do you want of these?”

Rash: “Bring me your top three.”

Faxon: It’s to try to limit the overwhelming sense of choosing every little detail.

If you could both go back a year or two ago, what advice would you give yourselves?

Rash: In a weird way, I would try, to the best of our ability, to take in the moment of what’s happening. Speaking for myself, you get swept up in the stress. It’s this wonderful experience, but you’re shooting a small budget movie in a limited amount of time. We also have a young actor on every page of the script, which shrinks your time. You always want to take those moments to reset and take in the achievement. Regardless of the stress, we had a fun set. All of our actors were so understanding, knew each other in so may ways, and some had worked together. For me, I would say take those moments to breath and know it’ll all be okay [Laughs].

Faxon: I think I would say to surround yourself with people you trust and people that are likeminded that you can delegate to. What can help alleviate some of that anxiety and stress is knowing you have people that have your back, from your DP, production designer, to the AD. That lifts some of the stress off your shoulders.

How did your performance background inform what you were doing as directors?

Faxon: We try to allow the actors to have room to trust their instincts, not overnote them, or over-manage the situation. If there were small tweaks or adjustments that could help, we’d try to offer those. We try to limit our involvement in a way, so we’re not getting in their way.

Obviously it’s a scene by scene basis, since some need more attention than others. Some scenes are loose, fun, and easy. We’re also blessed with incredible talents who were making great choices everytime, so there’s a comfort there.

Rash: As actors, the one thing we knew we could offer as first-time directors was understanding the characters, this world, and the understanding of who they are. It was more about us having open-conversations between takes with Steve [Carell] and Toni [Collette], who enjoy discussing character, the intention of a scene, what they want, and what they’re going to do.

I think those are the bullet points of trying to keep things simple and direct. As actors, we appreciate that more than, “Here’s how we heard it in our head.” We want that trust. I think when you have that open dialogue there’s a trust and you’re creating the story together.

Faxon: And trying to keep the mood and atmosphere light and fun.

Rash: I would do a lot of improv to keep them entertained.

Faxon: Which, oddly enough, was a distraction.

Rash: Well, I think some people appreciated it! You know, [pause] I did great work.

Faxon: There’s nothing better than one-man improv…

[Laughs] Do you recall some of the scenes that required more attention?

Rash: The hardest one is the intense one. The climactic scene in the backyard, but only because we had all the actors at play, a lot of stories starting to overlap, and, for us, night was from nine to midnight. The sun finally went down and we were working with young actors, so we had to shoot that scene in two nights.

It was the perfect balance between intent and, as to what Nat spoke to, keeping the joyfulness of it. That particular scene happened to be shot the night when that whole area parties. The whole town was circling us, and being very supportive. The actors enjoyed it because it was like they were doing a play for them. There was a combination of us being more hands-on and the support of a community.

One dramatic scene that you always expect from a movie like this is where the fatherly figure, Owen (Sam Rockwell), tells the kid off. There’s no, “I’m not your father, kid,” kind of moment. Was there ever a discussion over having a scene like that, though?

Rash: We did discuss that, actually. At some stage we discussed showing a little color or imperfection to Owen, but I think it was more important he be just this mentor to this kid. We tried to show that dimension in his stunted growth or development, which Maya Rudolph’s character brings to light.

While he is this charming and charismatic guy, he does have some warts that are revealed. Nobody is completely perfect. I thought it was more important to show those imperfections in a different way than his relationship with Duncan.

Rash: And he’s very open about himself. He says, “Don’t be me. Go with the winners. I’m stuck here painting houses because this place is shutdown.” I think he reveals in that moment that Duncan should aspire to be something greater than him.

Faxon: The glimpse we get of him when it rains was another example of where we try to show those little pieces of him.

I think Owen really embodies that older guy who makes you feel so cool as kid.

Rash: Yeah.

Faxon: Yeah, definitely. I had an older cousin who very much played that role for me in my youth. He was very vital to my development. Jim?

Rash: No, I was a latchkey kid who was left to defend for myself.

Faxon: I’m sort of Jim’s Owen, I guess?

Rash: It’s not going well. I get no words of wisdom.

The Way, Way Back opens in theaters on July 5th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.