Interview: Writer/Director Tom McCarthy on Making ‘Win Win’ Realistic and Why Writing is a Bitch

By  · Published on April 7th, 2011

Tom McCarthy is a man that needs no introduction. The man’s face has been in Little Fockers, 2012, and The Lovely Bones. We all know him. We’ve all seen him in this or that. All kidding aside about those so-so films in his filmography, McCarthy is not only a strong actor, but the director behind some of the most dramatically subdued and compelling films of the past few years. The Station Agent, The Visitor, and his latest film, Win Win, are perfect companions to each other.

The three films share similar thematics and devices, but Win Win is the first film of his to delve into modern suburbia. Unlike many mean-spirited explorations of that lifestyle, McCarthy never pokes fun or goes for easy satirization. There’s a consistent realism and grounding to Win Win. Whenever the film feels like it’s about to take a turn towards being trite or sappy, McCarthy pulls away and adds a spin.

Here’s what writer/director Tom McCarthy had to say writing subtlety, revisiting themes and, of course, we start off by discussing the possibility of a graphic novelization of The Visitor

To begin with the obvious question, how did you land the gig of hosting the Your Highness panel at New York Comic-Con?

[Laughs] Yeah, I was really surprised when someone got up and said they liked The Visitor, which made me think, “What? What’s this guy doing here? Throw that man out!” David [Gordon Green] is just an old, good friend of mine. I was spending sometime in Belfast and he was there with Danny [McBride], [James] Franco, and those guys. I don’t know how that happened. I think someone saw me moderate a previous panel and thought it went really well, so they just asked me.

I was hoping you were there to announce an edgy comic book version of The Visitor

[Laughs] The dark series of Walter Vale! That’s not in the works yet, man. Funny enough, I have been approached several times, and seriously approached, to consider a musical for Broadway. Never say never.

Would you be interested doing the musical for it?

I personally wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think I have an attitude for it being that I’m quite unmusical. If someone had a really good idea for it and if it could be interesting, then I’m always up for trying new stuff.

Jumping into Win Win, which I’m guessing is a little different from Your Highness?

I would say it’s a little bit different from Your Highness [Laughs].

Thanks for clearing that up. With the film, it seems like one of the few suburban lifestyle films in quite some time that doesn’t satirize that way of life. Was it important to you to avoid satirization?

It was very important. It was a top priority. I’d add to that with not patronizing, being condescending, sentimentalizing, or trivializing. All those things we were trying to avoid. We talked a lot about that at every stage of production from costume design to production design to, obviously, the script stage and performance. I think the beginning of it was the script, which is where it always starts. I think, quite honestly, it’s why I included my good friend Joe Tiboni, who had never actually written a screenplay or been involved in anything like this. He’s an attorney who lives in New Providence, is married, and has two little girls. There are definitely similarities between him and Mike Flaherty. That said, it stops there.

I felt like spending time with Joe, his family, at his job, and in the town we both grew up in would allow me to connect with the material and the character, in a way that felt fresh and honest. I think we constantly talked about trying to be authentic about it. I’ve known Joe since I was in the fourth grade and he’s one of my oldest friends, but we have very different lives and very different approaches to our lives. At this stage of my life, I have a real respect for the life he’s chosen and built for himself. I get why he’s happy in that town and what he loves about it. I think that was the jumping off point.

I think it’s also the easy way out as a writer [to satirize], as opposed to trusting the character and the story with finding something deeper and more interesting. At the end of the day, I knew one way or another I was going to end up with some pretty good actors on this film, which is a reassuring feeling as your approaching production.

There was a lot of joy in creating this, and I don’t say that lightly. I mean, writing is a bitch and you hate doing it. You gotta get in there everyday, though. Joe and I had a blast talking about it, and that kept the process very light. We drew a lot from our relationship and our interactions, which certainly informed the film. I also watched Joe and his wife, Jane, and I’d draw from that for Mike and Jackie. There’s a little bit of his wife in Jackie. That’s just a writer doing research with getting to see what he knows and what he sees.

What makes writing a bitch?

Sometimes writing is grueling. You go into work by yourself and you sit in your office all day. It’s not easy; it’s hard work. If you’re committed, you have to put in the hours. I’m a big believer in that. You cant just say something isn’t working and head home. I’m going to sit at the desk for another two hours and get something out. When you finish a draft, you think you’ve nailed it. When you read it, you realize the problems and have to go back. The next draft, you hand it out to a couple of people and get good notes, then you have to go back in. You feel like you’re swimming laps in a pool, and I’ve always hated swimming. Again, I love what I do, but it can be a bit grueling times.

Are there certain types of scenes that just create a roadblock?

I don’t know if I could ever contribute it to one scene. Inevitably, if I get an urge to crack a scene, I’ll spend five-hours on cracking a two page scene. I’ll incorporate the information I need and find the heart of it, and that’s always fun for me. It’s like when you have a puzzle in your hand. For me, [the difficult part] is when I’m more stuck on a section of the movie where it feels flat, expositional, or uninspired. You just stare at it with not knowing where to start. Sometimes you have little to-do’s and big to-do’s. You can rip off five of the little ones easily, but the big to-do’s are the difficult ones. You just have into dive in.

Sentimentality is something, as you said, you try to avoid. Can you talk about the process of finding that tone in both the script stage and with the performances?

I think a piece of writing comes down to good directing as much as the script. I think in one director’s hands, something could be very sentimental. In the hand of another director, it won’t be at all. It’s really about tone. I think the most important thing is capturing that tone. Language sometimes can be a big indicator. I’m pretty relentless when it comes to rewriting, and I think a lot of that is just scaling it down. I also rely on the people around me. I hand my script out to a small circle, who I encourage to be really open. When working with actors, good actors just know. If they don’t let you know outright something isn’t working, they’ll let you know by confusing a line, misspeaking a line, or dropping a line [Laughs]. It’s just paying attention along the way.

What about with editing and music?

I have some ideas about music going in, but some directors have music fully early on. I let a composer come in and interpret. I try to give as few notes as possible. At first, I want them to bring what they’ll bring to a project, like how I would with a cinematographer or a production designer. Editing is a world to itself. That’s a whole other stage, which again, can be quite grueling and exhausting. It sneaks up on you. You’re spending eight or nine hours in a room with two-minutes of material, and I feel exhausted afterwards. It’s long distance running.

Do you think about genre conventions while writing? Do you try to avoid them, especially when writing in familiar territory?

Well, I think what you said early was quite honestly my chief concern, which is: as soon as you set in a movie in the suburbs, you’re in a conventional world. By virtue, the suburbs are conventional. It’s set up that way. We don’t live in the suburbs to explore; you live in New York for that. If you want to be challenged or inspired, you go to cities or the great wilderness. With suburbs, you’re looking for comfort and a conventional lifestyle. Immediately going there you think, “Alright, I know where the story is set. How can I do it without being too manipulative or too sensational? How can I do it in a way that still surprises you?”

Well, the only way I could think to do it is through character and honest, old-fashioned storytelling. That was a challenge. Very early on, I was concerned whether or not a guy like yourself would sit down and watch it. What would be engaging for you? I think a big part of that goes back to performance and story.

Character-wise, the central dynamic in Win Win is very similar to your other work. You have two very unconventional characters connecting with one another. What is it about that idea that interests you?

Well, it’s just like Alex [Shaffer] and I [Laughs]. We’ve been traveling around for five days just hanging out. It’s just him and I going from city to city. It’s pretty funny. I thought I’d be spending time with Paul [Giamatti], but Paul is tied up right now. I think I’ve always been fascinated by that: the randomness of the connections people share, and how it impacts their lives. I think if you’re a person who’s curious and like to put it out there, then that’s what you feed off. I always have.

There are also very symbolic hobbies that your characters have. With wrestling with Win Win, trains in The Station Agent, and so on. Is that intentional?

Yeah, totally. It probably is [Laughs]. It’s funny, because it’s not like I set out intellectually to do that. It starts with going to a drum circle in New York, and seeing how cool it is. Likewise with this, it was just Joe and I thinking how hilarious it would be to make a film about wrestling and laughing about it on the phone for an hour. It starts to work in the story, and then after a couple of months, you realize it’s a pretty good metaphor for the film.

Mike is grappling with his own sense of morality and sense of ethics. Joe said to me how it reminded him of the Old Testament with how Jacob wrestled the angel. You then realize it’s kind of an angel thing with Kyle. He just drops into their lives. At first, he’s a pain in the ass. Ultimately, he brings redemption. This kid shows up with Gabriel-like blonde hair and you think, “That’s weird.” Some people pick up on it, and some people don’t. That’s definitely a puzzle for me piecing things together. I just find that fascinating.

Even for side characters, like Terry, they get redemption. I cant recall, but does he mention his ex-wife towards the end?

[Pauses] No. In fact, when you see him walking towards the bar at the end, he checks a girl out [Laughs]. For me, that’s Terry being back in the game! He’s putting himself back out there again.

[Spoiler Alert]

A bit like that makes the title pretty ironic. Most characters, even Cindy, end with a “win.”

Yeah, there’s an irony to that title. The reason we’re in the place that we are with this country is that we all want to believe in those “Win Win” scenarios. All these kinds of things we allow ourselves to believe. I think “Win Win” keeps redefining itself in the film, depending on where you’re at in the story and whose eyes you’re seeing it through. By the end, Mike is doing what’s right, but he’s working his ass off and probably spending less time at the house. Kyle is better off, but his mother walked away from him. That’s going to leave a mark. And yeah, Cindy has got the money, but the person she loves the most doesn’t want to be with her. There’s that bittersweet thing that plays into Win Win a bit.

Win Win is now in theaters.

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