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Sam Rockwell, Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, Liam James, Jim Rash, Toni Collette and Allison Janney

Updated: May 8

Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, Liam James, Jim Rash, Toni Collette and Allison Janney at the New York Press Conference for “The Way Way Back.”

Sam Rockwell, Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, Liam James, Jim Rash, Toni Collette and Allison Janney

Finding the Way Way Back

by Jay S. Jacobs

Summer vacation is always a time of great growth and change. Perhaps this is most true for Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the writers, and directors of the surprisingly funny and soulful new ensemble coming-of-age piece The Way Way Back. Rash and Faxon are probably best known as comic TV actors: Rash plays the crazy dean on the NBC series Community and Faxon starred in last year's short-lived FOX series Ben & Kate.

However, the two have long comic backgrounds and have also been writing together for ten years, even picking up a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2011 for co-writing The Descendants with Alexander Payne. They actually originally wrote The Way Way Back ten years ago. The script quickly became a hot Hollywood property and was quickly placed in production. But then, as so often happens in Hollywood, the business intruded, things changed, and the script was placed in turnaround. However, it was respected and soon joined the infamous Hollywood "Black List": a grouping of the ten best screenplays which were not being made. In a nice piece of symmetry, the script's inclusion on the Black List opened up the opportunity for Rash and Faxon to work with Payne and George Clooney on The Defendants and that film's success (and their Oscar co-win) gave Rash and Faxon the Hollywood pull to not only get their script back into production, but also to get the opportunity to direct the film together.

They quickly signed up a grouping of friends and actors they respected to tell their story of a young boy spending the summer in a Massachusetts beach town with his mother and her jerky new boyfriend, but who discovers himself when he gets a summer job at a nearby water park. Steve Carell played against type as the boyfriend (the film was also shot in the area of Massachusetts that Carell summers with his family), as does Sam Rockwell, who plays the motor-mouthed nice guy who runs the park. Toni Collette (The United States of Tara) plays his mother and Allison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry are the vacation neighbors, while the water park is populated by lovable misfits played by the likes of Maya Rudolph, Rash and Faxon. The kid is played by the relatively unknown Liam James of The Killing and the cute girl next door is AnnaSophia Robb of The Carrie Diaries.

A week before the movie's debut, film stars Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Liam James and writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon had a press conference at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo. We were there in the front row to ask some questions and get you all the answers.

Jim and Nat, can you talk about the cast? Did you have any of these people in mind? Was there an auditioning process?

Nat Faxon: Yeah. A lot of these were our third or fourth choices. (Everyone laughs.)

Jim Rash: Some up here were forced on us...

Nat Faxon: Because of the studio we're working for. No.

Jim Rash: Yeah, it was a dream cast, certainly. I think Allison, [The character of Betty] we wrote with her in mind. (Allison laughs.) Not her as a person, but just something that we knew that she could just [pull off].

Nat Faxon: Sort of a drunken kind of friend of ours...

Jim Rash: Yeah, yeah. Like a tornado of too much.

Nat Faxon: ... that really could embody no filter.

Jim Rash: But, honestly, we did. Just thinking about these people. We were just looking for actors that we admired both as wonderful talent and also good people. With Trent, we wanted to go against type. Steve came to mind because of this innate ability he has that elevated Trent. Past just being something where you're demonizing him, rather making him this true, real human, tragic male character. Steve jumped into that. Against type was certainly paramount. We think in our heads, Sam came to mind. We were like, who just understands what Bill Murray was to us in Meatballs? Sam said it on phone the before we had said anything. So, we knew right away that we were all on the same page.

Nat Faxon: I think all of these incredible people who surrounded us understand and appreciate ensemble-type films. Jim and I come from The Groundlings and a lot of the stuff we do are performing with other people. Writing shows with other people. In that collaborative spirit. I think this movie is the sum of its parts. It takes a certain type of person to understand that and jump in. We’re so incredibly fortunate that all of these people came on this ride with us.

What do you think about the archetype of playtime as the redemptive factor in Duncan’s coming of age? He actually breaks away from miserable home life through play, the carnival…

Jim Rash: Yes. There are a couple of things that go into this. For me, in the design of what Liam’s character is going through, you have two male roles in his life; you have Trent, who... his idea is to cast him out. In other words, to fend for yourself and go forth and make something of yourself. Get out. Don't be a three. Then you have Sam’s character, Owen, saying the same message but in a much more nurturing way. Come into the fold, put on the shirt, you’re official. In other words, join this playground, which is pretty much how Owen operates in his mind. He is at his best for three months out of the year, in the sense that he’s King while this park is open. It’s an at-play opportunity, in the sense that it becomes Duncan’s Oz. So, because of this place that nurtures all types of people, in order for them to celebrate who they are, which I guess is playful and fun, it is about pushing him to go dance and control this thing. But he is saying it in such a way that he’s officially nurturing that. Making him part of the wonderful experience of these people who just come to this place when the beach is over here. This is very unique, so I guess in that way Owen is offering something completely different, in the way of a celebration.

Nat Faxon: I think we were also trying to achieve it in a cinematic way. We had long conversations with our DP, John Bailey, about how we could make the house feel suffocating and isolating and closed-in, whether that be shooting from a lower angle so you could see the ceiling and feel that claustrophobia that Duncan is feeling at the time. Contrast that visually with what we wanted for the water park: as Jim said, to feel like Oz, that openness. Shooting it with a Steadicam to create movement and excitement. Doing a ton of walk-and-talk moments with Sam. All were part of trying to make it feel colorful and bright and open and fun and playful.

I wanted to ask Liam and Sam [about] the relationship at the heart of the movie – how you guys worked together and if you were pulling pranks on each other the way Duncan was pranked-upon in the movie?

Liam James: We had a lot of fun together. As soon as I arrived at where we were going to be shooting, a couple of days before we started, Sam and Nat and Jim we all sat down together. I was doing this new thing, something I’d never done before, this huge part. They really made me feel comfortable that I could do anything I needed to do for the movie. They just sat me down. The thing that made me the most comfortable was how funny they were, all the jokes they were telling. Wherever I was around them between scenes, I would go to them and just listen and laugh and have a great time. Personally, between me and Sam, one thing that he showed me was, he’s really into boxing and he was showing me some moves. (chuckles) That’s one way we kept loose in between scenes.

Jim Rash: We made them fight. That's how we got them.

Nat Faxon: Some cage-fighting between them. He survived.

Jim Rash: Kid’s got to learn. Got to learn.

Sam Rockwell: I think it was pretty immediate chemistry with me and Liam. We had an immediate understanding of the relationship. It was just so easy, we were just sort of on the same page, all of us. It wasn’t a lot of dialogue. We read it a couple of times. We all knew what it needed to be. It was instinctive, I felt. These guys would guide me, but it was very free feeling on this movie.

For the actresses, I wanted to know how you got into the head and the heart of the character, and whether there was anything in your personal lives or youths that you drew on for these particular women…?

Toni Collette: For me, I start with this wonderful material. It’s always in the script. When it’s so clear and so rich and so complex and enjoyable, I’m not one of those people who draws on previous experiences or anything that blatant. Everyone was so receptive to the material, so open, and it was such a wonderful atmosphere to work within. That did create a really open kind of vibe. It allowed something really relaxed and natural and special to evolve.

Allison Janney: Parties. I can relate to Betty’s fun side because. These gentlemen have seen how I throw down at a party. (Jim and Nat laugh.) I like to dance. I like to have a great time. So that part I was excited about when I first read Betty. But I was also very hooked by the fact that she’s in a lot of pain, self-medicating with alcohol and chatter to cover up what’s underneath. That’s what fascinated me about her. She wasn’t just a one-dimensional, silly character. She’s actually very complicated. It was very exhausting to play her and yet incredibly rewarding. I responded to their writing. It’s brilliant, she’s a brilliant character. But a little Betty goes a long way.

AnnaSophia Robb: I definitely agree with Toni, it was all sort of the page. I remember my first meeting with Nat and Jim, how we clicked. The chemistry felt so natural and comfortable. Being on set and being in that environment that the characters are in just really got me into the headspace. Being able to spend time with Liam and getting to know each other for the first time. I felt sort of adopted by Allison in a way. Being able to hang out on set was a real privilege for me. I drew everything from the script. It’s nice to see your girl-next-door character be multi-faceted and not just one-dimensional. She’s going through hard things herself.

Summer is often a time of transition, change. Can you guys talk about your most pathetic and maybe your most turbulent summer of change?

Sam Rockwell: I had summers with adults because I was in the theater as a kid. So, I was around bohemian sort of people who were a little maybe crazy and stuff. So, I had some unconventional summers for sure.

AnnaSophia Robb: I had an unconventional summer. I started acting when I was 9, and I think last summer, when we shot this, was probably my most transitional. I had just graduated high school. I was 18, it was my first movie, by myself, so to be able to spend time with an amazing cast and just be with them was so much fun for me. It was kind of scary and a little bit lonely at times, but I’m so excited to see the final product. It reminds me of that time.

Allison Janney: I did a lot of work in theater in Ohio. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and worked with the Kenley Players. I would do backstage crew work, so I got a big eyeful of some colorful people. The Ames Brothers and Kitty Carlisle and the Smothers Brothers. I was working backstage. I guess I must have been 14, 15, 16, somewhere in there. It was an unbelievable world to open to my eyes, professional theater. A lot of stories that I couldn’t tell you, some very funny ones.

Toni Collette: Australia is one big beach; we stick to the perimeter. It’s all very oceanic and salty, just feelings of freedom. Summer is my favorite, favorite time of year. I absolutely come to life and love it. There’s one holiday that I had; it wasn’t planned at all. I had a fight with my parents on Boxing Day, and they went to visit my auntie Betty, in the city. I rang a friend because she was going on a road trip with some girlfriends that she’d met at university. She said, "one of them pulled out, there’s a spare seat in the car, I’m coming to get you." I literally just grabbed a shitload of clothing, shoved it in a duffle bag, grabbed my guitar, ran out, got in the car, didn’t know where I was going. We just drove up the coast. I slept on beaches, got kicked off beaches by rangers. Joined drum circles in Byron Bay, ended up at a folk festival and had the time of my bloody life.

Jim Rash: One of my summers is in there. (chuckles) The very first scene happened to me on the way to our summer vacation. But that’s not really a transformative one. (laughs) I had two particular summers. For some reason, I have these moments in my life. That was my stepfather at the time. And my dad decided I needed development as well and so he sent me on Outward Bound for like three weeks. It’s one of those things whereas a teen, at first, you’re like, ugh, this sucks. Then you sort of really embrace it. Then you come back and you’re telling your high school friends, "You don’t get it. I’ve changed! You don’t understand what happened, guys. I was in the woods and things happened."

Nat Faxon: Did you do the ropes course? That shit is scary.

Jim Rash: Yeah, we would do backpacking, and rock climbing and we’d do a three-day solo [trip]. You have an orange and a bagel and that’s it, and a tarp and four pieces of string. That’s it. And there was a huge thunderstorm. Three days by yourself, you realize, is a lot of time by yourself.

Nat Faxon: Especially for someone like you, Jim, who lives inside your head.

Jim Rash: I was not very entertaining. I remember I tried to write a really short story there. I think I still have it. It was so terrible, you know. That was a summer I remember.

Nat Faxon: I spent my summers on Nantucket Island. I have so many fond memories of it really. It was a lot of horrible summer jobs there. There’s something very special that we’re certainly inspired by with this movie we tried to instill, in the sense of going to a certain place year after year. So much happens in the time that you’re not there. You’re gone nine months or ten months, at school or jobs or whatever it may be. Then you come back to this place, and you literally open your summer house – people open their summer houses – and nothing has changed. It’s all very much the same. There’s something very comforting and familiar about that. I have a lot of fond memories of growing up like that.

Jim made a reference to Meatballs before. When you and Nat got together, did you think, let’s make a movie kind of like Meatballs meets Adventureland? Sam, I was wondering if you thought of Bill Murray when thinking of how to play your part.

Sam Rockwell: Bill Murray – it’s pretty evident, I think, in the script – I think it’s kind of an homage, a little bit. But there are a lot of prototypes for Owen. Walter Matthau, a little Richard Pryor. There are a bunch of good prototypes for that. The adult who talks to kids as if they’re adults, which is always fun.

Jim Rash: The inspiration is – I don’t know if we sat down and set up Meatballs and that kind of thing, but we started with a love for water parks and our training from the Groundlings, which is so character-based. The water parks seemed to offer [a place] where an eclectic group of people might be. Then the first scene of the movie, in the car, the "one-to-ten" conversation happened to me on the way to our summer vacation in Michigan. We launched with that sort of verbatim, almost autobiographical first scene. Launched that and then we merged those two thoughts in our heads. The water park became the perfect Oz in this story of this kid.

Do you see this movie as your revenge?

Jim Rash: (laughs) It’s cathartic, I don’t know if it’s revenge. Because we obviously...

Nat Faxon: Every movie’s revenge. Take that, mom’s second husband!

Jim Rash: Yeah! In your face! But we elevated the role of Trent to be what we needed for what’s dramatic about the movie. I would not say that my stepfather was that same person, because at the same time, I understand. I didn’t then, at 14, I wasn’t going to process it this way, because [then] you’re probably coming from a place of anger and what the fuck? But the truth is that I understood what his message was to me. Through [Owen] weirdly, what Duncan does that summer is what Trent was alluding to. Duncan reluctantly gets on his bike and leaves the house and stumbles upon this Oz. Trent said, "Get out, make something." There are so many things at the beach to take advantage of. That’s what I was told. We went to Michigan every year, Lake Charleroi, and he was saying to me, "I noticed that last year you hung around the lake house. Why don't you get out? There are so many great people to meet, and explore, and take advantage of things." So regardless of the tact that wasn’t there, it’s still harsh, you realize the powerful connections we have with people in our lives on a daily basis. They may not be in our lives for very long – maybe for a second, maybe for a summer, maybe for a period when they’re married to your mother. But they’re in your life for a reason and they gave you something that you might not understand then, but you understand now. So, it’s really, to me, cathartic, in the sense that I understand why our paths crossed briefly.

Toni, you play a passive character, and Liam, you play a shy character. So how do you play that kind of thing and have a connection with drifting away from us?

Toni Collette: There’s so much going on. You have much more of an explosive experience, I think, because you’re out there reveling in this new world. But from my point of view, I thought, the audience is going to find her so frustrating. She is so passive, so inactive. But then what I loved about it is there’s so much going on. She knows the truth. She’s lying to herself. She’s trying to provide something for her son with the wrong person. There’s a lot of wheels turning without being so much being expressed, for a very long time. I’d like to do a silent movie! I think there’s so much you can express without words, so I kind of enjoyed that.

Liam James: For me, one thing I noticed when I saw the film at Sundance, and again after that, I saw it in my hometown of Vancouver… We shot the film out of [sequence], sort of. So, there was the scene where everybody was talking this transformation, and I was [just] really happy to see how it all came together, because I’d just had to trust Nat and Jim to say that I was doing it right. People were quite pleased, and I was pleased with what happens with Duncan over the summer. I didn’t feel frustrated with Duncan, but it’s almost painful to watch how awkward he is.

This is a question for Allison. That first scene of yours basically tells you everything you need to know about Betty, and I’m wondering – was it a daunting scene for you, or was it fun? How did you approach that?

Allison Janney: I’m thrilled when I get to do a scene like that. It’s like being in a pinball machine, and I get to be in control of it. I love doing that in my acting. (laughs) I’m not so good at it in real life. I relish getting to take over a scene like that and be the one spinning it all over the place. I can’t get enough of that; I love it. I couldn't wait to do it. It was fun when we got to go all the way through it; then when I had to break it up it became a little harder to do the coverage on it to keep the same energy. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I had to get in a hot bath.

Jim Rash: That was one whole day. The scene was the day. So, in a way, the day was Allison. She was really in control of the pace.

Nat Faxon: Allison really became the day.

Jim Rash: And the day really became Allison.

Nat Faxon: It was really rather exciting.

Jim Rash: Yeah, it's like a short story.

Jim and Nat, this is your first opportunity to direct a film. What was that experience like? And for the actors, what were they like as directors?

Jim Rash: Be careful. Be very careful.

Nat Faxon: Guys, we are up here on the stage, and we can hear you.

Jim Rash: It was stressful for sure, but a wonderful sort of stress. This whole new chapter for us. We’ve been writing parts for a long time. So, we just tried to approach it from a similar place as far as our work relationship and how we would direct together. We knew that we knew this story very well. We’d lived with it for eight years. We just had to trust that to our new foray as directors. Then pull from anything, as actors, that we’d appreciated for directors we had worked with. That was the artillery we’d go in with and feel confident about. All we knew is that things are going to happen. It was going to be learn by doing. Every director that we spoke with and sat down with, either their first or second or third time, was, no matter advice they can give you, it’s all going to be a whole new game when we get out there. But it was a wonderfully complicated, stressful, awesome experience.

Nat Faxon: I would echo those sentiments. You always dream of pursuing something that you love doing. To be able to do this and to work with this caliber of talent, it really was a dream come true. Oftentimes on the set you’re stressed out because you’re asked so many questions and you have so many decisions to make. Yet you’re trying to remind yourself, I’m so lucky to be doing this. To be working with these people. To be surrounded by these actors and this incredible crew all working together to create something. To really fulfill a dream of ours. There’s something really special about that. I think we’re so lucky to be doing what we love to do. We just tried to create a set that was loose and fun and enjoyable, and really reflected that. Whether we accomplished that, we’ll see. I don’t know. What do you guys think? (laughs)

Sam Rockwell: I love working with actor-directors, and these guys are no exception. It’s just a great, loose set. They wrote such a great script; it was kind of a no-brainer. It was just so easy. Also, Maya Rudolph would come in, and they knew her. I felt like she was almost like therapy for you guys, stress relief, right? You guys could do bits. It felt like it would relieve your stress a little in addition to being amazing in the film. They knew each other from the Groundlings. These guys were so great. Because they’re so funny, they would throw me adlibs, and I tried to assimilate them. The "princess collection" thing I think Jim threw me at the last minute. I just started laughing before I said it. They’d throw you zingers and you’d throw them in.

By the end of the first act, I was dying, waiting for a Rockwell vs. Carell backyard barbeque confrontation. I wanted something; I could taste it. It was going to be McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched. I really don’t understand why you didn’t do that!

Sam Rockwell: We did do that. We did. I confront him at the water park. But it’s probably good you’re left wanting more. I think we just get a taste of that and that’s all you need, that little moment there. I think that’s good you want more of that, you know what I mean?

Nat Faxon: I think we’re always trying to use restraint in what we do, both in our writing and our directing. Certainly, working with Alexander [Payne] on The Descendants, that was something we admired about his work. Being able to say more or show more... or say less. Show more by... Oh, God, I fell apart. What is it? Doing more by showing less? I don't know. You know the expression. Less is more. God, that was so easy and yet so hard for me. Maybe it was the shot of tequila that my producer bought me late last night.

Sam Rockwell: Yeah, Kevin...