Interview: Win Win Director Tom McCarthy

by | Mar 25th, 2011 | 1:58PM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as Mike, a small-town lawyer, high school wrestling coach (of a losing team), and all-around decent, loving family guy (married to Amy Ryan). But when financial times get tough, Mike engages in a small scam involving an elderly client, Leo (Burt Young from the Rocky movies). Things get even more complicated when Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (impressive newcomer Alex Shaffer) arrives on Mike’s doorstep, fleeing a broken home. But Kyle turns out to be a champion wrestler–a “win win” situation for Mike that naturally hits a few snags.

Co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, Win Win is easily my favorite film of the year so far–funny, touching, and full of honestly drawn characters, the film is a constant source of sweet delights and surprises.

While you may recognize McCarthy’s face from his acting roles in Meet the Parents, 2012, Fair Game, and the fifth season of The Wire, in the past decade he’s carved out a highly respected niche as a writer-director of thoughtful, emotionally rich films, including The Station Agent, and The Visitor (which earned Richard Jenkins a Best Actor nomination). McCarthy also did story work on Up, helping flesh out the relationship between elderly Carl and Wilderness Explorer Scout Russell. In fact, most of McCarthy’s films, including Win Win, deal with realistic connections and relationships that form despite the reluctance of his characters.

I sat down with McCarthy in Chicago a month ago to talk about Win Win, which expands today into more theaters across the nation.

One of the things I really like about Win Win was how naturally the narrative unfolds–I really had no idea where the plot was going, but loved every bit of it. How did the story come about?

Tom McCarthy: The initial seed was a funny conversation about wrestling between me and my friend and collaborator, Joe Taboni. We both wrestled together in New Providence High School, and we were just cracking up remembering it. He said, “You should make a movie about this–these stories are just too good.” Plus I liked the idea of a small-town lawyer and an ethical and moral infraction by a relatively decent guy, and how we reconcile those things. I was very interested in exploring that, but in a way that had some humor and some heart.

You’re building a reputation as a very character- and actor-focused writer-director. When you wrote the Win Win characters, did you have these actors in mind?

McCarthy: Yeah, I certainly did. I had Paul Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale and Amy Ryan in mind pretty early. I wanted Paul, depending on which way the character of Mike went as I was writing. Paul is obviously a ridiculously talented and facile actor, and I’ve known him for a long time–we went to Yale together 20 years ago.

How did you find Alex Shaffer for Kyle? He gives such an impressive performance–somewhat withdrawn and monotone on the surface, but so much going on underneath.

McCarthy: We did a casting call for young guys who were also wrestlers, and Alex is actually a state-championship high school wrestler in New Jersey. The character of Kyle and Alex’s performance just feels real to every 15- and 16-year-old I know–most of my friends’ kids, or nieces and nephews, at that age, they just kind of shut it down. That was a gamble for the film because how do you this sort of deadpan, slightly disconnected approach without making the character boring or inaccessible? That was our challenge, and it really relied on us finding the right kid.

Not to give anything away, but I was so pleasantly surprised by what a good kid Kyle turns out to be. The cliche expectation is he’ll be some sort of juvenile delinquent from a broken home.

McCarthy: I think some of that comes down to motivation. We’re all products of our own personal motivation, and in the film some of Kyle’s instinct to toe the line, do the right thing and be respectful is because he’s a survivor. It’s not just that he’s unnecessarily decent or moral, but he realizes if he plays by the rules he can succeed and survive in this new community. It’s a code he probably learned through sports.

Win Win feels like a departure from your other films in terms of tone, pace, and story, but they share some of the same themes about how people accidentally connect in life.

McCarthy: I feel like they all fit together. The Station Agent, The Visitor and now Win Win is probably a trilogy of films about men in different situations at different ages. I think the tone of Win Win hearkens back more to The Station Agent. That film also had a nice balance of drama and humor, and the stakes were real, but there were a lot of laughs in that movie. I find a similar response to Win Win from audiences.

Hopefully with each film you grow a little bit, but I wanted more in this movie, I wanted the world of the film to be a bit more full. I was dealing with a man who was very connected to his life to his family and to his community. Mike is very happy with all of that, so there wasn’t a deep longing or sadness or disconnect, as with Finn [Peter Dinklage] in The Station Agent and Walter [Richard Perkins] in The Visitor. The problem for Mike in Win Win is there’s something preventing him from maintaining that happiness.

Unlike Walter or Finn, Mike feels more functional, like he’s driving forward.

McCarthy: Absolutely, and right off the bat there’s more momentum and pace to Win Win. I was being a little looser with this film too–I was letting it roll a bit more.

Win Win is now playing in select theaters across the country.

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