Interview: ‘Win Win’ director Tom McCarthy

As I’ve frequently mentioned, because of my job and because I have young kids, I don’t go to the movies very much anymore. But one of the directors whose films I’ve learned to make an effort to get out of the house to see is Tom McCarthy, the man responsible for “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and, most recently, “Win Win.”

(In terms of this blog’s area of interest, McCarthy also played the fabulist reporter Scott Templeton in the final season of “The Wire” and directed the original version of the “Game of Thrones” pilot, some scenes of which were incorporated into the final cut.)

McCarthy makes small movies in the best sense of the word: intimate character studies of people whose lives seem unexceptional from the outside but who still have the ability to make you laugh, to make you cry and, simply, to make you care.

In the case of “Win Win” (which I wrote about during its theatrical release in the spring), it’s a story that literally started close to home for McCarthy. It’s set in his hometown of New Providence, NJ (though the film was shot on Long Island for budgetary reasons), and it’s inspired in part by his time as a high school wrestler, in part on the life of his friend Joe Tiboni (who got a story credit on the screenplay), who was also a wrestler and lives and works in New Providence as an elder care attorney. Those pieces were shaped into the story of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), attorney by day, wrestling coach by night, and how his sketchy decision to assume responsibility for a wealthy client (Burt Young) in turn leads to him caring for the man’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who helps turn around the woeful wrestling team. (Shaffer in real life was a Jersey high school wrestling champ who had never acted on screen before.)

Part character study, part domestic comedy (with Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife), part underdog sports movie (with Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as assistant coaches), it was one of the best things I saw this year, both in the theater and again when it was released on home video a few months back. So I was glad when an opportunity arose to talk a bit with McCarthy about the town, the film, and all the rest.

We should start with the origin of the movie and where you and your partner decided, “All right, we”re gonna do this.” 

It started out of just a really funny conversation that Joe and I had about high school wrestling, because we were both wrestlers.  And we were chatting on the phone one day and this is when I was still kind of fishing around for my next idea and we had such funny conversation about it.  And later, I said, “Man, there really hasn”t been a movie that”s really dealt with high school wrestling, at least for a long, long time.”  And I think the origin of the story started there.  And then out of that comes the other themes that I was anxious to explore, that I felt like were what Mike was going through and how he dealt with it. 

The wrestling was the beginning of it.  And I’d been spending some time out there and thought, “Well, if we”re gonna do this, why not set it in New Providence?” As a storyteller, that just was interesting to me, like how to see the town that I grew up in and the people that I grew up with.  And of course, Joe lived there.  So it  became this fun game of sort of cherry picking a little bit from Joe”s life in New Providence and what I knew of it and piecing together this story, which, as I said, kind of grew out of that initial impulse. 

“The Station Agent” was also set in New Jersey, but it was a different part.  And I imagine that was much less autobiographical than this.  How did it feel making a fiction film that had so many elements that you knew growing up? 

It really was challenging because I think what we really set out to do with this film was just trying to represent the town of New Providence. That”s why I brought Joe on to kind of work on it with me.  It was Joe”s first screenplay that he”s worked on.  And although he lived in the town, he was married with two little kids; he had the elder law practice in town.  There were certainly some similarities between him and Mike Flaherty. 

But there was this challenge of representing these people without what some directors have done when dealing with the suburbs, where they sensationalized it or condescended to it or sentimentalized it.  We were trying to find a happy balance and deal with people who weren”t stuck in these places we call the suburbs and we see that, hey, you know, this is a nice place to raise a family and it”s a nice place to work. And I see that every day in Joe”s life.  And really trying to capture that and at the same time make it compelling, find the drama in that.  And I know Joe, and everyone has drama in their lives; it”s just how it”s represented. 

So that was a sort of perversely interesting challenge: how do I make this accessible to audiences and exciting for audiences?  And I think we kind of kept coming back to the reality of what that world had to offer us without trying to manipulate it. 

It”s funny you say, “exciting” because I had enjoyed your two other films quite a bit, but this one seemed much more of a crowd pleaser. And the crowd I saw it with was very excited and responding loudly to different beats.  Did it feel like a different kind of tone to you? 

Yeah.  I traveled with the movie for six weeks when we were distributing the movie and I was going all over the place doing press and I spoke with a lot of different audiences, as you always do.  And it was really fun to see it play with so many different types of audiences.  And for some reason this movie definitely seemed to have that reach.  And I think because film in general I wanted to have a little bit more fun with it.  I think after “The Visitor,” which I was very proud of, but it”s a very different kind of movie, I wanted to loosen up and enjoy this a little bit more.  There are stakes and everything, but I think it”s – I don”t know how to say it.  It”s an enjoyable experience for most audiences.  And I think that”s what we were shooting for. 

Sometimes there is this stereotype about indie film that they can”t be pleasurable in this way. And obviously a lot of them are, but this one felt really like it popped. The reaction to the Bon Jovi montage, for instance, was huge.

Yeah, it is an interesting stereotype though, there are people out there who will still tell you, “Oh, it can”t be a serious film if it’s exploring this kind of world in this way and it’s just kind of fun.” But I don”t believe that, you know.  That”s never been my concern.  My concern is to tell people the story that I”m interested in and tell it in the best way possible.  And growing up in this world, and just spending time with Joe and spending time out in New Providence, we laughed a lot – not just in creating the story, but in examining our lives and examining his life and talking about it.  And even in what he does every day, working with the elderly, he”s like, “You have to have a sense of humor when you”re doing this or you”ll go crazy.”  You have to be able to laugh at it, and sometimes it”s hard because you”re really dealing literally with some life and death stakes and some very, you know, difficult end of life choices.  And I think the way to remedy that is to realize this is all a part of our human experience and there are going to be hard times and there are going to be some very trying times. 

Are you a fan of sports movies in general? 

I am.  Inevitably I”ll get really sucked into them, you know.  And even the really cliché ones, they still get you; there”s a reason they work.  And I think that is something else I was excited about kind of exploring that genre, through a slightly different lens and flying into it at points and then resisting some of those temptations at other points of the screenplay and ultimately in the film.  I think ultimately that”s why with Alex, I was insistent on finding a real high school wrestler, and I think his performance is so good that people – most people whatever I do a Q&A about the film, they’re all shocked to hear that he wasn”t an actor, that this was the very first thing he”d ever done.  But he was a star athlete; he was the star wrestler, in particular.  That”s the only sport he plays is wrestling. 

I can”t stand when, even when you have a very good actor in the role, and they’ve got to cut away and cut around and all these ways of making it look like the guy is a good athlete.  I think what the advantage we have with “Win Win,” and what we always set out to do is kind of sit back and film it almost like a sporting event to some extent.  Just show as if you were actually at the match or the meet. 

How long did it take you to get that performance out of him?  How much work did you have to do before the film got going? 

There”s a lot of work, and you know, a lot of it was with me, a lot of it – here”s this great acting coach, Jackie Brogan, who”s an old long-time collaborator of mine both on the script stage and then with some actors.  And Jackie started working with him right off the bat.  As soon as we were auditioning him I suggested he go work with her.  When you”re working with a complete unknown quantity like that – Alex, he”s got an incredible work acumen.  That”s the only way he became such a good athlete is to have that incredible drive.  And the kid put in the hours and put in the time and got a certain self-assuredness about him. 

So it was definitely a challenge, but it was actually quite enjoyable once we got rolling.  He really started to step up and I think the other actors did a great job of making him feel confident and ready and just continue to play with him. I think Paul and Amy and Bobby, specifically, just were terrific about that.  But we could tell when we hit our stride: yeah he gets it, he”s doing what he needs to do. 

Because it”s not easy to make your screen debut and be doing scenes with Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. 

Yeah, but the movie is very subtle, right.  And I think it”s easy to overlook that, much like it”s easy to overlook Paul and Amy”s performance in the movie. I think they”re two extraordinary performances, but they”re incredibly measured, incredibly subtle and incredibly realistic.  They just, they are those people.  Those are two great performances.  I”ve never seen Paul do anything like it where he”s a well-adjusted, nice guy.  He”s just a happy family man who”s trying to figure it out.  Paul and I joke about that all the time.  He”s like, “I”m used to playing much more seedy characters than this.”  That”s really how he”s made his reputation.  So it was fun to kind of do that and go down that – and you know, take that journey with him.

But it was funny watching Alex, just watching these guys and picking up – it was like a playground, you know, and that”s how you learn on the playground: you hang with the slightly older, more experienced kids and you imitate it.  And he started to do that and it was fun to watch. 

Now, on the one hand, you”ve got this fun, upbeat underdog sport story where the kid comes to the broken team and help makes them better and all of that.  And then on the other hand, you have sort of the very dark story of how he winds up on the team and the thing that Mike has done, and then the way it gets resolved and the damage that”s been done to Kyle.  How did you manage to tonally balance the two of them? 

That was the trick, you know. That second story line that you”re referring to, about Mike”s indiscretion and coping and decent people making very bad choices and how those come to light – with the wrestling, there was an emotional response I had to wrestling and including that in the film or trying to capture that in a screenplay.  But that second element was something that really intellectually really grabbed me and excited me in exploring this.  And it became how to find that balance.  And I”m a believer that people that make these bad choices, big or small, whether it”s on the level of Madoff or Wall Street or much smaller as in Mike Flaherty.  They”re not necessarily bad, evil people, they”re just people who make some really bad choices and that, to me, is exciting. And I think that”s reflected in the screenplay: that there are descent elements and then not so descent elements.  That feels like a realistic balance. 

Now our job was to try to measure that as best as possible and to try to find that balance.  But there were moments where we went too far with things and we had to pull back or went too dark and too deep and we had to pull back.  And I think that work was right through the editing process, we had to kind of keep measuring that:  How far can we go with this?  Especially when you’ve got guys like Tambor and Cannavale and Paul messing around; it”s just so funny, you can just – you can kind of just lose it.  But I think that”s where Amy Ryan is so great, because she really grounds the movie in such a wonderful way.  Even though she has some very funny moments, she”s really the heart of the movie in a lot of ways. 

So, I guess a lot of it is, we try to knock out as much of it the screenplay as possible.  And then you find more in performance and then you”ve got to deal with that in the edit room. 

Bobby was just so good in “The Station Agent” and popped and was really funny and I was glad to see the two of you collaborating again on this. 

Yeah I started writing this and very early on thought of him and felt like it was just that he could get this character, that he knows these guys.  And we have a really easy connection, Bobby and I do, both on the page and then when we”re working together and you know, he”s great to work with.  He”s always got a great attitude, he works really hard; he made it look easy.

Was there more material with Tambor”s character in the latter part of the film that just got cut? Because it does seem like Vig disappears about two-thirds of the way through. 

Not a lot more.  We had one scene at the end that was shot as an alt, which was when the boiler actually blew, which of course included Jeffrey, but nothing of consequence.  It really just was he”s a guy who”s a part of the world, but not as connected. I don”t think Mike and Vig go hang out and have beers like Terry and Mike do.  So it”s like a guy you see every day or pass in that practice. Joe and I talked a lot about that and we realized in our lives, we had those people that are around a lot, but don”t really play a major role. And when you start to tell a story of these people, you”re like, well they will walk in and out at times. 

I think Vig was there for local color and to flesh out the world a little bit with Mike.  But beyond that, that”s why we were so fortunate to get Jeffery for a role like that.  He just kind of jumped in and had a great time with it. 

Now, we”re not quite there yet, but award season is coming within a couple of months.  What are you thinking about any chances this film might have? 

I don”t think about that too much.  Obviously, we had a great run, both critically and with audiences, we were in theaters for a long time and that kind of thing.  But, fortunately it so beyond my control.  It”s nice to hear nice things about the movie and people talk about it.  I think, you know, we certainly came out much earlier in the year, so I think some of what Fox Searchlight will have to do is refresh people”s memory that it was a movie that stuck around a while, and that people really enjoyed it when it was out. 

Although with “The Visitor,” we had kind of a similar roll out and it worked for us. (Richard Jenkins got a best actor Oscar nomination for that film.)  So it”s really just a matter of refreshing people”s memories about the movie and keeping it in their minds and it”s always difficult this time of year.  There”s so many movies; so many good movies. 

I remember when I first wrote about the film on our site.  There”s some people who are still adjusting to the fact that you”ve gone into directing.  They”re like, “Scott Templeton made a movie?  He must have just made it all up.” 

I know, it”s funny.  People are really in all different versions of my career.  Sometimes people really don”t put the two together and then sometimes they”re trying to measure the two.  It always kind of cracks me up, actually.  But that”s okay; I love being associated with “The Wire.”  That”s a show that I”m very proud to be a part of. 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at