The last scene of Tom McCarthy’s new movie Win Win is now one of my favorite last-scenes-in-a-movie of all time. There’s no spoiler alert – I won’t give anything away here or in the q&a where I ask Tom about it. It’s just really poignant, simple, and humbling and it keeps lingering around my mind more than a week after screening the film that The Wall Street Journal says is “Elegantly directed, expertly acted, laugh-out-loud funny” and Rolling Stone calls “…just about perfect.”
Tom has written and directed two other critically-beloved feature films: The Station Agent and The Visitor. He also co-wrote Disney/Pixar’s Up, and has numerous credits in front of the camera with roles in nearly 40 films and television series including Little Fockers, Fair Game, and a recurring role in The Wire. See a listing of them all here.
His roots in improv comedy (at Boston College) come across readily in-person as Tom’s quick-wit and lively personality make him instantly likeable…you want to have a beer with him. It’s no wonder he can write and direct such relatable, endearing characters, and Win Win definitely brings it in this area.
To bring the Win Win characters to life, Tom tapped seasoned actors such as Paul Giamatti (Tom’s classmate from Yale Drama School), and mixed in a truly novice actor by casting Alex Shaffer. In real life, Alex is a New Jersey state champion wrestler who Tom found at an open casting call, which probably explains why Alex’s character is so believable as he delivers lines in perfect “teenager.” The result is great authentic acting and characters that have a special kind of familiarity. (see Alex’s actual NJ state championship-winning wrestling match at the film’s website)
Win Win’s theme of redemption and second chances has universal appeal, as does the story about facing, and trying to fix, a challenging situation. With his third feature film, Tom once again delivers compelling storytelling in a beautiful, entertaining, thought-provoking film. (see the plot summary and trailer after the q&a)
What’s your process — how long does it take to write a film?
Roughly 3-6 months to choose and develop an idea, followed by writing a script, and then re-writing for a year to a year and a half. After I’m done with that, I go out and get funding.
As a writer, how do you get into the heads of all your characters?
I do a lot of research. I spend time around the characters I write about, whether with a different ethnic community or, in this case, wrestlers and coaches. Even hanging around the home of my friend, Joe Tiboni, an elder law attorney in New Jersey (who also has a story credit on Win Win), is research because that is not my life: I’ve never gone to the same job from one year to the next and I don’t have a family. For me to write about that would be writing from a distance and to get excited about it I had to jump into it and live it.
Do you tend to write with your actors in mind?
I know Amy (Ryan) and Bobby (Canavale) and I did have them in mind as I wrote their characters in Win Win. For the role Paul (Giamatti) played, I wasn’t initially exactly sure what direction I would take that character in so I didn’t write this specifically for Paul, but he turned out to be the perfect actor for the role. Often I do rewrites with an actor in mind.
Mike Flaherty, the character that Paul Giamatti plays, could have come across as really abhorrent, but he doesn’t…could any other actor could have pulled that off?
I don’t know because Paul can embody a lot of things simultaneously, which ultimately is very human. We talked about giving Mike a vulnerable quality so you root for him because he’s flawed, but he still has his act together.
Alex Shaffer, who plays the teen wrestler in Win Win, was really good and you found him at an open casting call. Does he have a future?
I hope so. The reason I would bet on him is because acting is hard work and he jumped into it, but there’s something also very sweet and open about him and as an actor having a sweet and vulnerable quality really works. It will be fun to track him and see what he does.
The last scene in Win Win is so powerful — it really stayed with me and it solidifies your theme of redemption and second chances.
I think that’s true, it is really a redemption. I think it has a lot to do with realigning our perceptions and our goals…who we are and what we think we deserve. We’re proud and sometimes realigning our lives can be a painful process.
And that ending might not have worked a few years ago, before the financial crisis.
That’s right. This film doesn’t look back, though – it’s about where we’re heading. It’s about how we perceive the decisions we make in the face of what lies ahead. The future is going to be tricky and we’re going to make some tough calls and hopefully we always keep in mind what’s most important and who we are. We can’t throw out who we are because we’re scared of something…we have to cling to what we ethically believe in as we move forward.
You are an actor, writer and director – if you had to write the ultimate part for yourself what would it be?
Honestly, I don’t know and that’s why I haven’t done that. It’s a really tough thing to do, to analyze yourself. I tried it once, but it felt too indulgent and there were too many other things I wanted write about. Also I’m not a personality actor like Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood – I don’t think I have that or I can’t see it yet. Maybe in 20 years I’ll know what that is. If I knew that now, maybe I would write something for myself.
Acting, directing and writing: is there one you favor or that comes easiest?
No. They’re all challenging and I enjoy them all. I like going from one to the other, it keeps it fresh. Many times when I’m writing I can take acting jobs, but when I’m directing, it’s all I can do. And when I’m acting, I can also learn about directing because I’m watching other directors.
Were you raised in a creative home?
I think I come from a home of very good storytellers. Everyone in our family can hold a room and tell a story, but they didn’t necessarily choose creative paths for their professions.
I would put into a time capsule: My movies
My favorite place is: Paris
When I have a creative block I: Go to bookstore and read random things, look at titles, wade through material and get inspiration
My favorite mantra is: Keep on Truckin’ — meaning keep working and don’t get caught up in all the other stuff like a reputation…just get back to work and keep working
Win Win Plot Summary:
Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star athlete through some questionable business dealings while trying to support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday, the boy’s mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything. (Written by Fox Searchlight Pictures)