Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Tom McCarthy

Win 'Em All

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though Tom McCarthy, 45, made his acting debut in Mike Binder's Crossing the Bridge (1992), the nineties gave him very little follow-up work. But in the 2000s things began to happen for him, including parts in movies like Meet the Parents (2000), The Guru (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Syriana (2005), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). However, McCarthy answered his true calling when he was able to write and direct his first film, The Station Agent (2003).

What might have looked like a slight, indie comedy, actually had subtle depth of character in addition to sharp writing, clever casting, and strong performances, and it was a modest success. The same thing happened with McCarthy's second film, The Visitor (2008), which still serves as a model for cross-cultural Hollywood tales. Richard Jenkins earned an Oscar nomination for his lead performance. McCarthy himself earned an Oscar nomination the following year for contributing to the screenplay of Pixar's Up (2009). Now comes McCarthy's third movie, Win Win, which is a good deal messier, but perhaps even deeper than his previous works.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer who makes his meager living helping old folks and coaches high school wrestling in the afternoons. He lives with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and two kids, and goes jogging with his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale). His worries include an old dead tree that may fall on his house, and an old clanky boiler that may blow up all over the basement of his office building. One of Mike's clients is the wealthy Leo (Burt Young), who is beginning to battle dementia. Ignoring the moral implications of his act, Mike decides to become Leo's guardian, collect a much-needed $1500 monthly check, and stick Leo in a rest home. Unfortunately, Leo's grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) turns up. He's a sullen, monosyllabic teen with bleached hair, and it just so happens that he's also a champion wrestler.

Mr. McCarthy stopped by San Francisco for a few days to talk about his new film. I sat down for a quick chat.

Q: How did you go about casting Alex Shaffer?

Tom McCarthy: He auditioned, and he showed up looking and talking like that. We did very little to change him. Strangely enough, he injured his back after we wrapped, and now he's thinking of transitioning into acting.

Q: He broke his back?

TM: He was wrestling with it for a while with it. He told me, 'It was hurting a lot, and I saw a doctor finally.' Most sixteen year-olds I know are like that. All those kids go through that period, where it's just kind of: "hey... what... huh?"

Q: this seems to be a 21st century thing. I don't remember being like that.

TM: I don't either. But I also had parents who were very honest: "look them in the eye!" Which is why were all annoyingly articulate at this point in our lives. We can't wait to speak. My brother's wife said that to me recently, she said, "Do you wake up talking? Because he does, and it's really annoying!"

Q: You've been talking about your friend Joe Tiboni, who is credited with writing the story with you. Can you talk more about him?

TM: He's getting way too much press! I just keep laughing because this guy had no idea what he was getting himself into. He's never had any connection with any of this. And now he's calling me, 'I'm on my way to a Q&A.' It just cracks me up. I say that with much love and affection.

Q: How long have you known him?

TM: I've literally known him since fourth grade. We're best friends. He's one of the only guys I keep in close touch with. He lives in New Jersey. There's no connection between the story of the movie and Joe -- he never illegally put people in nursing homes -- but there are elements in Joe's life.

It started off not that way, and then I started digging and I was like, 'well... he's right here, and he gets me inside these characters in a way.' Me going back to that suburban culture is like me going to a small French town. I've never lived it. I've gone back, I've seen it, but always as a visitor. I've never gotten up every day at six a.m. and taken care of the kids and gone to my job and come home at night, all year long, same thing every day. I've never had that. And he has. So it's important to see that.

Someone was asking me if the Dunkin' Donuts scene is product placement? No... Joe goes to Dunkin' Donuts every morning on what he calls his "triangle of death" -- his house, his Dunkin' Donuts, and his office. They're all about four minutes apart.

Joe was at a Q&A with me in Westchester recently, and it was an older crowd. He went over like gangbusters. He spoke their language. He went into lawyer mode. Afterward, this woman came up to him and asked him to represent her. And I said, 'this is the next movie! How you turn this into your legal practice.'

Q: So how much did Joe contribute to the writing?

TM: He didn't do much writing. I did most of the writing. We would just talk and talk and outline together. I turned one scene over to him, the courtroom scene. And I asked him to write, like a transcript, what Mike would say to the judge. He really hadn't done any writing.

Q: He was your consultant for the legal stuff.

TM: And my consultant for the suburban stuff, and my consultant for the wrestling stuff, even though we wrestled together. He was a great resource. He really was. As a writer I wasn't comfortable asking him to do a pass on the script. As much fun as I was having, I still had to write my movie and make my movie.

Q: I love your dialogue. I saw the movie twice this week.

TM: It's an interesting movie to see twice, because there are a lot of little things that get lost.

Q: There are a lot of little scenes. There was one where Mike and Kyle are out running and Mike says hello to a lady, Betty, across the street, and asks "how's your foot?" It's the kind of thing that other movies would cut out.

TM: We were just talking about that. Someone was asking me about getting the pace right. I like to take my time. We added that scene right near the end. We felt we got back the point where it was tight enough and moving, even though it didn't feel rushed. It was tight enough that we felt we could put a little bit of what we call the "sloppy" back in. You're right... it doesn't mean anything, but it kind of does. There's this sense of... wherever you turn someone is there. That moment [with Betty] wasn't written. She was just there. I started talking to her. "Wanna be in the movie?" "Yes. Can you do that?" "Yes. I can do that." I like the fact that she's just watching, because that's what people do out there. They just stop on their lawns and watch as you walk by.

Q: I didn't mean to imply that it was a useless scene...

TM: No! When Tom and I were at the sound mix, we turned to each other and said, "I can't believe we put this back in." And I said, "I know... I don't want to think about it." I like having that little bit, especially with a movie like this. I kept coming back to sloppy. I felt like this had to feel sloppy. I didn't want their whole lives to be sloppy, because I think Jackie works very hard in the house, and he works hard. Joe's always telling me: "New carpets are in! Amazing! Just did the wood floors! Incredible!" He's always working on it! Such pride in it!

Q: Another thing I love was the boiler in Mike's office. I was getting ready for it to explode, but it didn't! It was just a detail! It was so refreshing!

TM: We thought a lot about that. I wrote some of that in Joe's office. I sat up in the boardroom while he was working downstairs. So that's what I mean in terms of story. I could walk down and be, "how's it going? Boiler's pretty loud, huh?" "Yeah... fucking thing. I just replaced it." "Really?" He brings me down, there's this big empty spot. "That was the old boiler. Thing was a mess." Then: "OK... I'll be back!"

Q: That boiler was a masterpiece of design. Even if you know nothing about boilers, you look at that thing and think, "what is that?"

TM: We were lining up the shot. I had a great grip and a great gaffer... two guys who usually do big movies. And they were both sitting there watching Ollie [cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg] and I talk about it, and finally, they said: "you're not even looking at the boiler. THAT'S the boiler." I'm like, "Dude! I live in New York! You think I ever see my boiler?" But [production designer John] Paino did a great thing. He took the boiler that was there and he built on it. It's got some tubes and wires.... it was very precarious, and it looks like ten years of attachments.

Q: I loved the line about how they got the boiler fixed three months ago and the new repair guy says that the last repair guy's job was crap. That happens all the time.

TM: That just happened with me and my shower pan. There's nothing you can do. Also, for me the thing that was important was the word "scumbag." Doing the right thing and being a "scumbag." Everyone's a scumbag. You hear that word so much, especially in New Jersey. It cracked me up.

Q: Your first two movies are about the meeting of two different worlds... this one isn't quite so obvious, but I think it does fit.

TM: It's funny. When you draw parallels, it's all about the wording of the parallel. It comes down to semantics. I was doing a roundtable and a young man said to me, "I do not understand the parallel between Mike's family life and wrestling. Could you explain that to me?" And at first I said, "I don't know. I don't think there is one." And then I felt bad because I hurt his feelings. And then I said, "What I mean was if you're going to draw a parallel, it's between wrestling and Mike grappling with what's right and wrong." And he was like, "Interesting!"

I do agree that sometimes it's different worlds. All three movies fall under "the family you make" kind of thing, and maybe a little bit about community, and the clans that are formed within communities. There's something very clan-like about Mike, especially with his wife. You're not in until you're in and when you're in, I'm going to protect you with my life. In this movie I was dealing with a man who's very involved in his life. I never had that before. I always have people who are very disconnected, either by choice or without realizing it. With Finn (in The Station Agent), it's by choice, and with Walter (in The Visitor), it just happened. I think with Mike, I think we got a guy who's connected to his family, to his friends, to his community, to his church, to his wrestling. He's probably over-connected. And within that, he's finding it really hard to re-capture what he had.

Q: I didn't question it... like Jeffrey Tambor's character. He's a wrestling coach, even though he has no connection to it at all. It just evolved that way.

TM: So much of that evolved from real life. We followed one guy, who was a psychologist. He set his hours, and then during wrestling season, between 3 and 5, you plan your day. In the scene in the movie where Mike calls for overflow work, he's clearly back at the office after wrestling practice. I'll call Joe on a Saturday or a Sunday, and he's at the office. I'll call him at midnight, and "I'm at the office." He lives five minutes, so he does that all the time. Honestly, I think part of it is his "man cave." Get out of the house with the wife and the two kids. I think we can all relate to that.

Q: Another thing I loved about this is the fact that Mike is a wrestling coach, and here comes Kyle who is this champion wrestler. It's a huge coincidence, but there's one line, from Bobby Cannavale, that ties it altogether: "It's a sign!" That makes it OK.

TM: There's two ways to look at it. It is a sign, and it's OK to take advantage of a good situation, which is the mentality that got us into a lot of trouble. "Come on! It's right there for the taking!" It's like what Mike does with Leo. If Mike doesn't take Leo, the State's going to take him and do the exact same thing and get that money: they're going to move him into Oak Knoll. So it's like, "I'll take it off the table." The problem is that you're not supposed to do that. It gets blurry. And it makes sense that Bobby's character works in a hedge fund. He's very good at making that sell.

I have this whole thing with my money manager. DO you want to put money back into BP. Now's a good time to buy? And I'm like, "I don't think so!" I don't think much about money, and I don't particularly have a lot, but sometimes you look at a situation and it doesn't feel right. It is that simple.

March 9, 2011

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Partial Tom McCarthy Filmography

As Writer/Director:
The Station Agent (2003)
The Visitor (2008)
Up (2009)
Win Win (2011)

As Actor:
Meet the Parents (2000)
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Syriana (2005)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Michael Clayton (2007)
Baby Mama (2008)
The Lovely Bones (2009)
2012 (2009)
Fair Game (2010)
Jack Goes Boating (2010)

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