After eight years on the shelf, The Way, Way Back, Jim Rash’s new coming-of-age film, is delighting critics and audiences.
Author Justin Goldman
Jim Rash’s new film, The Way, Way Back, is winning over audiences with its smart screenplay and all-star cast. It’s already earned rave reviews and a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival—so it might surprise fans of the film to know that Hollywood producers weren’t initially all that excited about it.
Rash, best known for playing Dean Pelton on the acclaimed NBC comedy “Community,” wrote the screenplay for The Way, Way Back with his partner, Nat Faxon (of “Ben and Kate”), eight years ago. The script spent years making its way across producers’ desks. Shawn Levy, best known for the Night at the Museum movies, almost directed it a few years ago, but scheduling didn’t work out. Eventually, it found its way to Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways, Election and About Schmidt. Payne didn’t elect to produce the script, but he liked the writing so much that he asked Rash and Faxon to adapt a then–little known novel called The Descendants.…
“When we took The Descendants job, we knew it was a wonderful book,” Rash says. “But then Alexander got [more] involved, and then George Clooney got involved, and it turned into this big thing.”
That “big thing” included 2012 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Payne) and Best Actor (Clooney), as well as a win for Best Adapted Screenplay (Rash and Faxon shared the award with Payne).
It was the success of The Descendants that helped make it possible for Rash and Faxon to finally make The Way, Way Back, which they not only wrote together, but also co-directed.
A coming-of-age story, The Way, Way Back opens with an incredibly uncomfortable scene: Trent (Steve Carell), looks in the rearview mirror of his station wagon at his girlfriend’s 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James) and asks him to rate himself as a person on a scale of one-to-ten. After a long pause, Duncan gives himself the rating most modest people would: “six.” Trent replies that he sees Duncan as more of “a three.” It seems unbelievable that an adult would say that to a kid, right? Wrong.
“The very first scene is pretty much verbatim an exchange I had when I was 14,” Rash says. “For me, it was my stepfather; in the movie, it’s the mom’s boyfriend.”
In addition to that moment, The Way, Way Back also grew out of happier adolescent memories Rash and Faxon had of summers spent in small beach towns on the East Coast.
In the film, Duncan is forced to spend his summer vacation with his recently divorced mother (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend, the aforementioned Trent. Duncan ends up befriending a free-spirited water park manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell, in brilliant form), who gives him a job that helps him begin to discover a more confident side of himself.
It’s a familiar set-up, but one that Rash and Faxon keep fresh by emphasizing a timeless quality—it’s set in the present day, but has the feel of a nostalgic 1980s period piece. And it doesn’t hurt that the film has a star-studded cast: In addition to Carell, Rockwell, Collette and James, it also stars Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph and AnnaSophia Robb.
If there’s a team that’s well-suited to managing a cast like that, it’s Rash and Faxon; Rash, after all, is part of a similarly talented ensemble cast on “Community,” and both came up with the Groundlings, the famous Los Angeles improv comedy troupe that Rash refers to as his “graduate school.” Of course, the process wasn’t always easy.
“It was stressful, that first time being partners [directing],” Rash says. “But we’ve known each other for 15 years, and because we come from an improv background, we sort of operate as one.”
The directors drew a notable performance out of Carell, who plays a petulant jerk, very much off-type for an actor who usually plays the good guy (see: The 40-Year-Old Virgin).
“We did want to go against type with Trent,” Rash says, “and we thought Steve would be great as someone who can make you feel the whole character, the tragic male figure who’s his own worst enemy.”
In large part because it took so long to turn the screenplay into a film, Rash finds the The Way, Way Back’s positive reception more gratifying than his Oscar win.
“Sundance was a culmination of an eight-year thing,” he says. “No one had seen the movie except for 20 people. Our cast hadn’t even seen it. And I didn’t think the standing ovation was a big deal—I thought that’s what people there did. But then we were told that that wasn’t always the case.”
Not that Rash has had much time to bask in the film’s success. He’s back to working on “Community”—he talked with Play the day before filming was to start on the show’s fifth season—and he says the role of Dean Pelton is what he’s most recognized for, thanks to the show’s dedicated fanbase.
“It’s a small but mighty and rabid group,” he says. “When Nat was on ‘Ben and Kate,’ it was funny to see the differences [in who would come up to us]—they’re different demographics. Nat likes to keep score.”
Rash appreciates that fan support, both because he acknowledges it’s probably kept the show on the air, and because it takes strange, artistic forms.
“It’s a fanbase that does artwork and sends you wonderful drawings and such,” he says. “We owe a lot to them.”
Aside from “Community,” Rash is also hosting “The Writers’ Room,” a Sundance Channel show on which he interviews the writing crews of TV’s most creative shows, including “New Girl” and “Breaking Bad.” He and Faxon are also working on two screenplays: One’s a comedy for Fox Searchlight that’s in a similar vein as The Way, Way Back; the other’s an action comedy they’re writing for Kristen Wiig, another Groundlings alum.
“We’re back in writing mode,” Rash says. “It’s still hard, but I love the process—so it’s kind of a love-hate thing.”