Director Tom McCarthy Talks WIN WIN, THE MILLION DOLLAR ARM, Working for Pixar & Making UP, More

     April 11, 2011

Paul Giamatti & Tom Shaffer Win Win slice

After three weeks of rave reviews in selected cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Phoenix, Win Win expanded to a host of new cities this weekend.  It paid off with $5,398 per theater, (in the top 5 averages over the past 3 days) and $1.22 million overall.  We’ve spread out our interviews with the film’s Oscar-nominated stars Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and newcomer Alex Shaffer through the platform release because highly praised independent films which actually exceed that hype are rare and deserve all the extended support that sites like the one you’re reading can provide.

That brings us to our fourth installment: an interview with the film’s Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Up).  For a writer, director and actor who is so meticulous about his work on both sides of the camera, he was surprisingly open about his process in all three disciplines.  Hit the jump for the interview’s audio and transcript, including a look inside Pixar, the latest on The Million Dollar Arm, how Patricia Clarkson one-upped him on The Station Agent and his memories of an indie film trailblazer.  Continued after the jump.

win-win-movie-posterWin Win is centered on Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), a small-time attorney and volunteer high school wrestling coach who is metaphorically and, at one point, literally pinned by his own issues.  Early in the film, a local court is about to move his elderly client (Burt Young) to a rest home when Flaherty successfully pleads with the judge to give him custody, instead.  In a scam pulled out of financial desperation, Mike still puts the man in the home and assumes collection of a monthly guardian stipend.  The plan backfires when his client’s grandson runs away from home to live with him.  Without viable alternatives, Flaherty takes the boy in.  The teen and his impressive wrestling ability help Mike and his winless team in countless ways.

More than 25 years before Win Win’s release, McCarthy was on the New Providence High School wrestling squad in New Jersey.  He developed the film with former teammate Joe Tiboni who, like the main character, is an elder law attorney.  They used stories from his legal experiences and their wrestling background, but the story is far from autobiographical.

After high school, McCarthy grappled with his future at Boston College.  As one of five kids in a family that pursued business, he began in the School of Management.  An accounting professor, Robert M. Turner, realized it wasn’t a great fit and urged him to switch majors.  He immediately shifted to Philosophy, but really wanted to act.  McCarthy loved his time with BC’s comedy improv troupe, My Mother’s Fleabag alongside talent like Nancy Walls (who later became a regular on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show where she worked with her husband, Steve Carell).  His work with the group also foretold a future career in production as he discovered the need to create his own artistic opportunities.

Fleabag wanted to stick together after graduation, but with a desire to leave Boston, avoid the high costs of NY and sidestep the thick concentration of improv comedy in Chicago, they settled on Minneapolis.  The group, re-named Every Mother’s Nightmare, split up after about a year and McCarthy pursued more dramatic theater in Chicago before he moved back East.  At age 24, he enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where he became classmates with future Win Win star Paul Giamatti and joined the Yale Cabaret, which had been a creative home to prior grads Henry Winkler (Class of ’70), Meryl Streep (’75), Angela Bassett (’83) and Patricia Clarkson (’85).

He also excelled in school as a writer/director and won a 1995 Fox Fellowship with his classmate Trevor Anthony to write and produce a play.  They premiered a work about P.T. Barnum called The Killing Act in 1995 at the Access Theater in Tribeca with Peter Dinklage as a manic Tom Thumb.  McCarthy was impressed by Dinklage’s performance and intrigued by the way others interacted with the 4’5” actor.  After several years of development, he wrote and directed his first feature film, The Station Agent, specifically suited to Dinklage.  It focused on a loner (Dinklage) who very reluctantly opens up to a unique new group of friends when he inherits an abandoned train depot.  The film was a sleeper hit at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and McCarthy’s screenplay won a slew of honors, including a BAFTA and Independent Spirit Award.

Up-Tom-and-8-yr-old-RussellAcross the country at Pixar Animation Studios, Monsters Inc. director Pete Docter, a big fan of The Station Agent, was struggling with the plot of his new film about a lonely 78-year-old retired balloon salesman who sets off on a wild adventure after his wife dies.  The character’s main companions were a flightless bird and a talking dog but Docter feared children wouldn’t relate to a protagonist who is so much older than them.  Pixar’s team referenced The Station Agent as they worked out the structure for their project and even had McCarthy screen his film and talk about it with them.  When his co-director Bob Peterson took a break to work on Ratatouille, Docter called McCarthy seeking recommendations for writers when Tom asked, “How about me?”  Having expertly woven eccentric supporting characters (played by Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and Bobby Cannavale) in The Station Agent around a lead (Dinklage) who, like Up’s Carl Fredericksen, is fully committed to isolation, McCarthy was on familiar ground.  He came on board for 3-4 months and suggested a child (who became the film’s 8-year-old boy scout Russell) should tag along because it would allow an emotional entry point for the audience and force Carl out of his comfort zone.  Additionally, as they fleshed out Fredricksen’s legal problems for the early scenes of Up, McCarthy called his buddy who specialized in elder law and would become his Win Win co-writer, Joe Tiboni.  McCarthy’s contributions were a huge hit and so was the film.  Up drew in more than $731 million of worldwide box office, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and landed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, for him, Docter and Peterson.

McCarthy found a work ethic similar to his own at the studio, with the extreme attention to detail.  Four years passed between each of his three directorial efforts.  However, as an illustration of Pixar’s lengthy production process, when McCarthy finished his writing assignment, he wrote, directed and released his next film, The Visitor, two years before Up’s 2009 world premiere at Cannes.

the-visitor-movie-image-richard-jenkins-slice-01The Visitor focuses on a lonely college professor (played by Richard Jenkins) who returns to New York City for a conference and finds his rarely used apartment is inhabited by a young couple of illegal immigrants through a surreptitious sublet.  The three work through the situation, before the plot takes a surprising turn.  The film debuted to critical acclaim at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals.  Plenty of honors followed; McCarthy won an Indie Spirit Award for Best Director, while Jenkins received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

It should be noted that McCarthy’s career behind the camera didn’t come because of a lack of work in front of it.  He has worked steadily on stage, television and film since his graduation from Yale.  He was on Broadway in the 2002 Tony-nominated revival of Noises Off and joined the casts of buzz-worthy shows like Boston Public and The Wire.  The 45-year-old also landed roles in indie films (Year Of The Dog and Mammoth) and a variety of high-profile genre pictures ranging from: comedy (Meet The Parents and Baby Mama) to action (2012), thriller (Syriana) and historical drama (Good Night, and Good Luck and Flags of Our Fathers).

We started our conversation about his latest effort as a writer/director, Win Win, with talk of that acting work.  The film won over audiences at its Sundance premiere and is one of the year’s best-reviewed films partially due to its subtlety.  We wondered about the times when he’s found himself on set, as an actor, with a script that is over-written.  You can click here for the audio, which we highly recommend, as always or read on for the transcript.

Win Win-Tom McCarthy on set

Collider: Part of the beauty of the film is its subtlety.  How often are you in films where you think, “Oh my God, if (the writer) had just pulled this back…”

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, it’s a good question.  I think actors do have pretty good instincts about that. First of all, as an actor, a lot of times, when I’m IN a scene, you’re trying not to over-think it.  You’re just trying to really be in the moment and commit to it, because if you start to do that, you just sabotage yourself.  So, I don’t do that a lot.  That doesn’t mean when I’m reading the script, I’m not like, “Huh.  I wonder how this is gonna work and you know, I’ve had the good fortune of working with some really good directors, lately [Doug Liman, Oscar winner Peter Jackson and Oscar nominees Paul Weitz and Tony Gilroy] and I try not to second-guess them.  You know, I try to think, “Well, they certainly had a vision for this and, you know, you’re always pleasantly surprised, you know, when you’re working on something.  You’re like, “Is this gonna work? And then it does and you’re like, “Wow!  Look what they did.”  Because I only saw my piece of it, you know, and I think, that certainly as a director, I understand, there’s a lot more to see.  But, that said, sometimes you’re in a scene and you feel that and it’s really just as simple (as asking the writer), “Should I say that?  Don’t we know that, kind of?”  And, you know, (a) good writer reacts like, “Yeah, you might be right.  Let’s hear it.  What do you think?  I think we get it (without the dialogue).  We can play it.  Great.  Let’s fix it.”

Like the Steve McQueen story of when he slashed a full page of dialogue and went, “I can do that with a ‘yeah.’”

McCarthy:  (Laughs) Yeah.  Exactly.  And sometimes that’s true.  And unfortunately, sometimes you have directors or writers who are like, (panicked) “No, no.  I’ve really thought about that and it’s really good and…”  And (as actors) we’re like, “Yeah, we know.  Everything you’re saying makes sense, but this is the next stage of development.” And, look, I, as a writer-director, I sort of have a policy.  I’m like, “Commit to what’s there and then we’ll know (if it works).”  I think the problem is, sometimes, actors want to skip that stage and just say, “Well, I know.”  Well, then there’s no discovery here.  You know, so let’s commit and let’s try it and if not, we’ll try something else.  And that is about process and, and that, for me, all comes back to trust.  You know, if you have the trust of your actors, you know you’re on the same page of good, open communication with them, you can achieve a lot more.  When that starts to break down?  (When) there’s a lack of trust or a lack of communication, that’s when things can get a little bit wonky on set.

Yeah.  Is that something that you’ve come to over time?  Because a lot of writer-directors are so protective of their dialogue,  I know (The) Station Agent was such a collaborative process with [the film’s star] Peter [Dinklage] years before you even started (filming).

Paul Giamatti & Tom Shaffer Win WinMcCarthy: I think it is, but I think (I) came to it before as an actor and doing a lot of independent films with first-time writer-directors and they were just so, like “Yeah, that’s good, that’s good.  Here’s how (you should do it).”  It’s like when you’re having a discussion and, and you’re making a point.  Someone’s like “Right.  Right.  Right.  Well, let me just say, let me just s-…”  And you’re just like, “Ok, but you DIDN’T even let in what I said.  There’s no WAY you could’ve because I haven’t finished my point and you’re coming in.”  It’s still a lesson I had to learn.  I remember (working) with (Oscar nominee Patricia) Clarkson on The Station Agent and there was a moment.  It was actually not dialogue, but it was an action: she picks up her purse and walks quickly to the door.  Patty did it and, like, sauntered.  (McCarthy quickly looks down at stage directions on his pantomimed screenplay in hand and mutters) “That’s not a ‘quickly,’ that’s really…” but it was so deliberate and right and I realized she was playing it like, (recalling it with a laugh) “Oh, I’m gonna re-gain my composure.”  It’s like a drunk person not playing drunk.  It was genius and I was like, (looking back at the pantomimed screenplay, he begrudgingly mutters) “That’s pretty good.  That’s better than what I wrote.  I’m gonna change that for the production script” but I didn’t have that in me.  I wasn’t gonna be like, “Wow! That’s great.”  I was like, “Huh.” And I had to trust it and I asked her about it and she (responded) “Let’s go with it.”  It was the right move.  You know? And, so, I think, sometimes, there is that, hopefully, that sense of discovery.  Now, you don’t always have the time for that and I think good actors commit and I was fortunate with these actors that they did that, and then there were times where we just found things.  Sometimes, just being on location dictates that.

Yeah.  You (have) worked in so many different (capacities on set from actor to writer to director on) so many different kinds of films.  I mean, 2012.  You don’t really get a bigger film than 2012.

McCarthy: No bigger film.

(Yet) your three features [The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win] are-

McCarthy: (Deadpan)  Epic.  Pretty big, right?  (Laughs)

Well, they’re big in emotion, but they’re very personal stories.

McCarthy: Yeah.

Win Win-Tom McCarthy laughing with Giamatti and ShafferWould you ever branch out, in terms of doing a big screen epic like (2012, a) huge blockbuster?

McCarthy: Look, I, I would never say never to anything, because it’s all about where you are in the time and what you’re connecting to.  If suddenly, I thought, “Oh my G-d.  I totally have an in on this movie (to make it emotionally accessible) or I have a connection to it or I have an idea or a vision for it, then yeah.  But I think it has to be something that you connect with.  Otherwise, it’s just doing it to be a big, blockbuster director.  You work with Roland Emmerich (2012) once and you know these are the movies he loves to make.  His enthusiasm and his passion for those projects is limitless.  He loves doing it and he’s very good at it.  He really understands that genre of movie and you sense it when you’re working with him.  You know, like, I’m in good hands.  He knows what he’s doing.  It’s all about challenges.  Once you get to the place where you’re like, “Oh, I can generate my own work,” there (are) not a lot of people who can do that.  I think when you’re in that position, it’s gotta be about, “What’s the challenge here?  What’s exciting about this?”


McCarthy: “How do I not get bored?”  And I’ve talked to like, colleagues of mine, other directors who are like, I’m kind of bored with this type of storytelling.  I don’t know how to shake it up” and that’s not just, “Oh, I need to shake it up to shake it up.”  It’s, “Find that, that passion I had in the 1st movie, the 2nd movie, the 3rd movie.  How do I do that?  How do I, you know, re-connect to the material in that way.”  So, I think that’s really interesting, actually.

How much of your process changed in working on Up because I know you were credited with-

McCarthy: Yeah.

bringing the kid (Russell) in, because before that, it was a,-

McCarthy: (Smiling) Just this old-

-a very different story.

Win Win- McCarthy in full CAST shotMcCarthy: -old boring man.  Yeah, you know, I think Up was a great example because for people who make such big movies, you meet (the creative teams at Pixar) and they’re all just like, little tinkerers.  They don’t work in an epic scale.  They work, like, in (tiny), they’re so specific and they’re all about story, they’re all about development.

Well, that’s actually why I ask you about doing a blockbuster because Up really is a very intimate, personal story-

McCarthy: Right.

-that if made as a live action independent film,-

McCarthy: You’re right.

-could very well be, you know, (The) Station Agent, could very well be-

McCarthy: Right.

-an assembled family, you know, and, and yes, I know you brought that to it, in terms of the assembled family, but-

McCarthy: But how many big blockbusters do you see like that?  And I think that’s what makes them such a utopian place to develop those types of stories is that they foster it.  They demand it.  They’re like, (banging on the table in front him to emphasize the point) “Why?  How?  Go deeper!  Challenge it.  Go deeper!  You don’t hear that from a lot of studio execs making live action epics.  They’re like, “I don’t care.  Make it bigger.  That’s all I care about” or- Pixar, the reason their movies make a lot of money, are blockbusters, but are also SO critically acclaimed is because they HAVE that attention to detail.  They care.  (John) Lasseter is their guy!  I mean, think about that!  It’s like; John Lasseter is your studio head.  Ok, big advantage!  You know?  Like, you’re starting there!  When you’re pitching a movie, you’re pitching it to Lasseter!  And he’ll ask you a question like, “Yeah?  HOW do they land on a cloud?  Explain THAT to me!”  And you’re like, “Ok.  All right.  Well?  Here’s how they do it. “ And he’s like, “Hmmm.”  Being there, you’re like, “Aw, THIS is inspiring, ‘cause all they’re doing is challenging each other to tell the BEST story they can.  They’re NOT challenging themselves to make a blockbuster.  And to push the limits of what they’ve done before and, and you can’t help but feel that when you’re there.  And it feels so obvious but it’s so hard to replicate.  I mean, there’s a reason they are the most successful movie studio ever.

Do you have enough of a technical skill now with illustration to [direct] something like that?

McCarthy: (Laughs) Negative.  No.  No.  I understand the process a little bit more, but they’re all different, varying degrees.  You know like, Pete Docter [Director of Up, Monsters, Inc. & the upcoming Monsters, Inc 2] happens to be an amazing animator.  He came up through the ranks of anim-, and [Wall-E director Andrew] Stanton is more story, you know?


Stanton’s more of a pure writer.


McCarthy: Docter’s not and they all have their different strengths in that kind of collective, in those top 3 or 4 or 5 guys at Pixar.  Do I understand the process a lot more?  Yeah.  Would I be interested in jumping back in? Yeah, if it was with the right team again, you know, and Pete (Docter) and I have, kind of, bandied about ideas.  We’ve just both been busy on our own thing and-

Would they be a sequel to Up?

McCarthy: No.  We’ve never talked about that.  I think Up’s Up.

No, I know, it’s a stand-alone [film], but-

McCarthy: Yeah.  No, we’ve talked about our different new ideas and we have a few.  We just haven’t had time.  We’ve just both been busy.


McCarthy: We’re both on opposite coasts and-

What are some of those ideas that you’ve talked-

McCarthy: Oh, no WAY can I talk about those ideas.  (Both smile & laugh)

Million Dollar ArmSo, [The] Million Dollar Arm.  How far along is that?

[Ed. Note: Disney just signed McCarthy to adapt the true story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein’s quest to find pitching prospects in India.  Spoiler Alerts: He noticed the arm motion of cricket bowlers was similar to baseball pitchers and created a 2008 reality competition called “The Million Dollar Arm” which discovered two prospects, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who had never played baseball.  They underwent intense training to learn the game and were eventually signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The two reportedly learned English through a variety of means, which include rap music, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and American action films. According to the Pirates’ minor league website, Singh is still with the team’s Class-A minor league club State College (PA) Spikes in the New York-Penn League.  Patel was let go by the Pirates’ Rookie Gulf Coast League team last November]

McCarthy: I’m just starting it.  I’ll do a writing job once a year, when I find something that I think is really interesting.  And, you know, it’s a way for me to pay the bills and hopefully, come up with a good script and something about this story I just found really interesting.

(You’re) just 100% writing it (and not directing it)?

McCarthy: Uh, I’m not at, you know, we’ll see how it, how it turns out.  You know, it’s a great way of vetting the people you’re working with, too, is you collaborate in developing the script and then, if they’re interested in me directing it and I’m interested in directing it, then we can have that conversation which we’re still both hoping to, but, you know, my first step is always, let me get the script done and then we can talk.

Mmhmm.  And last question, because the indie film community is so small and so tight-knit.  Gary Winick just passed away [one month shy of his 50th birthday after a 2+ year battle with brain cancer and just two months after his older brother Marc died of a heart attack].  You know, a lot of people will look at (the more commercial films he directed like) 13 Going on 30 (or) Letters To Juliet, but his real impact was on independent film-

McCarthy: Yeah.

with InDigEnt

[Ed. Note: Shortened from “Independent Digital Entertainment,” InDigEnt was the production company he co-founded with indie film vets John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring and Caroline Kaplan. Tadpole, Personal Velocity, Final, Tape, Chelsea Walls and Pieces Of April were among the higher profile projects for the company which earned one Oscar nomination along with 14 nominations and 2 wins at the Indie Spirit Awards for its films and producers. InDigEnt’s business model was just as revolutionary as its films; everyone from production assistants and grips to director and A-list actors got paid the same amount and everyone would share in the profits from the first dollar.]

McCarthy: Yeah.

What are your lasting memories of him?  What do you think his legacy is gonna be?

Win Win- McCarthy on wrestling set with GiamattiMcCarthy:  (Pause) I think what’s interesting about Gary is just what you point out.  Right?  Here’s a guy who is that sort of driving force behind InDigEnt and independent cinema; was such a champion of it.  But, then he went on to do all these other (kinds) of films, including (Charlotte’s) Web and mixing it up and he’s a perfect example of a director who was experimenting and trying different things and you might not understand every choice but he didn’t care.  He was having fun.  Anyone who knew him, knew what a lovely guy he was and you know, I was over at Post Factory the other day.  I had to stop in there, where we edit the movies.  A lot of directors and writers (are) there and editors and there was a lot of talk about Gary and, just like, I hope we can do something to remember him because he was a part of the community and he’ll be missed.  You know?  It’s sad.  Really kind of took the wind out of my sails.  Just sad.

Do you have a specific personal memory?

McCarthy: No.  I just knew him from the community.  He used to live in my neighborhood.  We’d see each other and never worked together.  Saw him last New Year’s Eve at another friend’s house briefly and chatted with him and, you know, he was struggling.  He had been struggling for a while.


McCarthy: What can you say, but he’ll be missed and it’s sad.

Yeah.  Thank you so much.

McCarthy: Yeah, no, pleasure.

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