A Chat with Writer/Director Tom McCarthy
WIN WIN Interview With Writer/Director Tom McCarthy
Interview Conducted by Neil Lumbard
Tom McCarthy is a bit of an indie favorite film-maker who burst onto the film-making scene with the hugely critically acclaimed film The Station Agent in 2003. Prior to making his own stories, he worked as an actor. This is something that he largely continues today. He has been in such films as 2012, The Lovely Bones, and Fair Game. He even has a recurring role in each of the 'Meet the Parents' films, and was a primary player during the final season of HBO's The Wire. A story credit for Pixar's UP is even a part of his resume. WIN WIN is his third feature film.
To find out more about Tom McCarthy and WIN WIN, please visit: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/winwin/
DVDTalk’s questions are presented in bold and Tom McCarthy’s responses are the portions not bolded.
DVDTalk: Hi Tom. How are you doing today?
Tom McCarthy: Great!
I’m a huge fan.
Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
How did you come up with the concept behind WIN WIN and how did your ideas for the film formulate?
It was about April 2009. I started kicking around this idea of making a movie that would deal with high school lefthand and I thought it would be kind of funny.
Was the story something that came naturally to you as you worked on the script or did you spend a lot of time planning?
Yeah, no… it kind of eeked out. It was like, I started with the wrestling, and started spending a lot of time out in New Croft and that is where the film is set. Spent time with my buddies, actually talked to a law attorney – John and his wife a little bit [Ed. Note: Sorry – Not sure who he is referring to], just talking through the plot about how this wrestling coach was having financial troubles and would come into contact with a wrestler and what that would mean. You know, we just kind of piece by piece started putting the movie together. It took about 6 months of kind of talking about it and outlining before we got a sense of what we wanted to write.
When you were writing the film did you have to go through a lot of revisions or drafts?
Yeah, I usually get a first draft out as quickly as possible. In this case it took like 3 to 4 months for the first draft. And then I really stared to spend about another year to year and a half rewriting and refining the script.
Do you do a lot of takes or do you try to limit that by working with the actors in rehearsal? What is your process like for that?
I like to do rehearsals before production. That way I get as many of the questions answered as possible. Address any problems and come up with any new ideas. When we are on set we don’t have the luxury of a lot of time so I will always start with a fresh rehearsal in the morning which is with the actors. Then we’ll show the crew and just start filming. Every day it can kind of make or break your day. You know, every day it’s a kind of a challenge to not fall behind the production schedule.
In the process of making your films (The Station Agent, The Visitor, and WIN WIN) would you say that your film-making process has changed in any way between those experiences?
It hasn’t changed a whole heck of a lot. I’ve gotten better at it, I think and I understand the process a lot more than I did, well, certainly during the first film. Sometimes it would feel like you’re just surviving. But you start to refine and develop a style. And that’s everything from how you want your pre-production run, to how you want the production run, to how you want to work with your actors and crew. Being an actor too, I’m always picking up things that I liked from other directors and I try to implement that into my style. It’s evolving. It’s evolving, hopefully, and getting better.
I think your always showing your style as evolving in a great way. So what was the most difficult scene for you to film with WIN WIN?
Um… I would say one of the hardest scenes to film was at night where Alex has to attack melony, to attack his mom. It’s just an emotional scene. It’s a tough scene on Alex. It’s a tough scene on Melony. Those kind of scenes are pretty violent. We were all crammed in a crummy little motel on Long island and it was a late night. it was near the end of the shoot. I think everyone was pretty fried that day. I just remember that being, for all the fun we had on set while making the film, and man we had a lot of fun making this movie, that was a tough scene.
Was there a favorite moment you had in the film -- a favorite pivotal scene for you – one you would say is the most important or one that was a favorite scene for some reason?
Um, No... I mean, look... It depends on an aspect of the film that your talking about. If you talk about the sports team I think that Stemler (Ed. Note: a character in the film played by David Thompson) moment is pretty great. That always makes me laugh. And I can see that kid get up and start running. I loved the score there. I think the composer Lyle Workman gave a great piece there, so that is one scene that always makes me smile.
That reminds me of another thing I was curious about – you are always working with a different composer on each film, but with each film you have a great score. How do you approach working with composers and would you want to work with a composer on multiple films in the future?
That might be part of my process that is changing). I would like to start working with composers earlier. Right now I kind of adhere to the “okay, now that the movie is finished -- I need a composer” but sometimes it’s because they need to see the movie and get a sense of your temp score. I would be really excited to start bringing in a composer earlier in the process, to speak to your question. Because I think sometimes composers get the short-shift. It’s not as organic a process for them because they have to turn in a score pretty quickly when the movies done. But, you know, up to this point it’s been a case of taking a look at the movie, (looking at the temp score), thinking about what’s right. I feel like I really wanted a guitar sound because of the wresting, because of that sort of rock anthem music that is associated with it. It felt right from the beginning. There is even a reference to Bon Jovi. Things like that. And he’s just a super great studio musician. I’m interested in the bands he’s played in. What that guy can do with a guitar is kind of insane.
Do you know when you first started to want to begin writing and directing?
Yeah. It actually started pretty late. The early part of my career was just focused on being an actor and trying to kind of make a living, which is the typical thing to do as you probably know, I was so excited when people started taking me seriously as an actor – at least enough to start paying me to do it. And then I thought I was content. But after doing some independent movies I started to get an itch to go back to writing. And halfway through writing the Station Agent I decided I was going to direct it. And that was the beginning, and that was back in my early 30’s so I came to it kind of late compared to a lot of people who know at 19 or 16 that they want to direct movies. I met a kid in Seattle a month ago and he said “I’ve just been directing some films” and I was like “What?! Your 15. You should be hanging upside down somewhere… but I thought that was pretty neat. I have a lot of respect when people find and lock into their passion at that age. I wasn’t that fortunate. I was fishing around for a long time before that happened.
Alright, Well… I’m 21 and I am an aspiring film-maker and I’m also serving right now as a film-critic.
That’s a great way to go man, because you get to have a lot of great conversations. Just don’t rush. That would be my advice to a lot of people. I feel like there are people 10 years younger than me that are like “aaaahhh, If I don’t make my film now I’m going to jump off a cliff!” There’s no rush. The best thing you can do is to just keep gaining experiences for elements in a film, which is life. Sometimes it helps to be a little bit older and to make some mistakes and also do some things right. Ultimately, your going to bring that to your work.
I think it’s safe to say you were always meant to be a film-maker. There are just some people who start their profession a bit later than others and things happen at different points in peoples lives.
I was curious about some of your influences. What films may have inspired your film-making process?
Oh man. You know, it’s like every movie I start by going back and I find some films that were heading towards this one. I do tend to like a lot of European directors and I think my style is a bit indicitative of that (Panning back with the camera and being patient with characters). No matter what the genre focusing on the character development that is crucial to story. For me it sometimes supersedes plot, and maybe to a fault and that is something I’m working on. But you know, with this film, because it’s an American movie one movie I kept coming back to was Breaking Away. You know, I just felt like it had the right tone. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie. You should see it. I haven’t watched it in a long time but It’s a movie that really holds up. It’s just got a great spirit and it did a really nice job of incorporating a sports theme. In that case, it was competitive cycling. With family. And just a wonderful spirit. I felt like It’s funny, because, um… David Thompson, who plays Stenler in WIN WIN reminds me a lot of one of the characters in that movie. A young, shoot, what’s the actors name. The movie was Breaking Away. Oh god, what was that actors name. He’s kind of goofy… oh, Daniel Stern! He reminds me of a young Daniel Stern. Which I had David go watch that movie because I was like “Go check this guy out.” Go check out that movie. If you haven’t seen it you need to watch it. You’ll love it!
I’m going to look it up now.
Great movie. Don’t even like read much about it. Just pop it into your DVD player and enjoy it. It’s a really fun ride.
I feel like that’s the best way to experience movies sometimes. It’s good to have surprises and to just see whatever the film-makers wanted you to see. What they put their efforts into.
Right. It’s the best way to go.
What about the cast of WIN WIN? How did that form?
You know, Paul and Amy and Bobby are friends of mine. I know these guys. They are good friends of mine so I just handed them the script – literally. (laughs) You know, some of the other actors, I knew their work but I didn’t know them so I just had to kind of go TRACK them down, you know. And it wasn’t that hard. The tricky one was finding Alex Shaffer and for that we saw a lot of wrestlers, we called a lot of kids in. That was the tricky one. But we found him and I am very happy with him.
He was excellent in the movie. He gave a great performance.
Last question: Is there any message you wanted audiences to take away from the film as they walk away from the experience of seeing the film?
You know, I try to never tell an audience. I like an audience to just get caught up in a movie. I never like to put a message out there. One thing I was interested in exploring with this film is “what happens when decent people, or seemingly decent people, make bad decisions – bad choices. How do we reconcile that?” And I think that there is a lot of that going on right now and I think it’s something that we need to think about and reflect on, and I thought, THAT to me is a really interesting aspect of it.
Thanks again for the interview. It was an honor just to speak to you.
Yeah, it’s my pleasure man! And good luck with the movie-making. I’m sure I’ll see you someday down the road for sure. Take care.