Interview: Writer/director Tom McCarthy on Wall Street, cinematic economy and ‘Win Win’
NEW YORK - There’s something oddly perfect about meeting “Win Win” writer/director Tom McCarthy in a small café in Chinatown with Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background. (Though that would feel slightly less charming when transcribing the interview weeks later.)
Firstly, it is the last sort of place one would imagine either McCarthy’s writing partner, Joe Tiboni, or their central protagonist, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), to turn up. In fact, McCarthy recalls that Tiboni’s daily, cyclical routine consists of his self-described “triangle of death” from home to Dunkin’ Donuts to work and back again.
Secondly, it's difficult to not enjoy the novelty of speaking to the filmmaker about his restrained, deceptively simple suburban life offering with Gershwin’s exultant, experimental ode to urban chaos as a backdrop.
“Win Win” takes place in McCarthy’s home town of New Providence -- a small, North Jersey suburb -- and is loosely based on some of Tiboni’s experiences as an elder law attorney there. The film follows Flaherty, a lawyer and part-time wrestling coach who finds himself at a cross roads, a husband and father and, yes, pillar of the community whose practice is in danger of collapse. An opportunity arises to pocket the guardianship fee as the caretaker of his client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), by defrauding the court and challenges his grounded, ethically sound center. When Leo’s absentee grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a wrestling prodigy of few words, enters the scene, Mike discovers just how tangled a web he has woven.
Childhood friends McCarthy and Tiboni wrestled together in their youth, so when the writer/director initially conceived of the project, he says he approached Tiboni to assist him in the crafting of the tale. The two spent a few weeks breaking down the script in Vancouver while McCarthy was working on Roland Emmerich’s love letter to the truncated last page of the Mayan calendar “2012,” in fact.
McCarthy found that there was a greater risk of losing himself to nostalgia with “Win Win” than some of his previous films, but that the distance that his adult life provided offered a necessary level of objectivity.
“I haven't lived there as an adult,” he says. “Part of the reason that I included Joe in the project (besides that I knew it would be a lot of fun) was because he does live there. His insight into that life is different than mine. We talked a lot about the check that Mike Flaherty got for taking care of Leo, for example. Some people have questioned if $1,500 is enough money to take that kind of risk. For Joe, that dollar amount is the equivalent of a mortgage payment.”
The trajectory of McCarthy’s own life has provided him with a singular perspective. International travel, playing a role in an award-winning television series and receiving an Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay for “Up”) are not on the experiential menu for most people. One of the remarkable things about McCarthy as a filmmaker, however, is his sense of perspective about his unique lens and commitment to maintaining a balanced vision. It was paramount to him that, as much as is realistically possible, he “not impose his eye” in the creation of his latest film. “My fear was that I would comment on this life that we think we know so well: suburban life," he says.
“Win Win” does parallel some larger cultural themes, however. He likens his creative process to a romantic entanglement. There is the initial attraction, a dating period, and finally, commitment. In “Win Win”’s case, the wrestling was the initial hook, but it was when McCarthy realized that he could use the story to draw a comparison to the recession and the conditions that lead to the economic crisis (in this case the questionable decisions made by the banks) that he truly became engaged.
“There's an aesthetic hook and an intellectual hook," he explains. "I think "Win Win" is a really funny movie but there's still something there that I was really interested in exploring which was about good people doing bad things for selfish reasons and why and how to reconcile that. It's a wonderful thing about what we do, you find yourself having very serious conversations about odd things, and I love that.”
The use of an elder law attorney/volunteer wrestling coach as a metaphor for the heavy hitters of Wall Street is indeed in some ways anomalous; but it is also surprisingly beautiful. In my own mind, I may tend to relegate the men and women behind the velvety curtain of American big business to an amorphous mass. I associate the errors that were made, the gross negligence and lies that led to the recession with rampant avarice. Alternatively, I feel as though I understand Mike Flaherty and view his decision as one born of desperation rather than greed.
“I would argue that some people in the banks were making those choices because they over-committed their lifestyles, maybe like Mike did,” McCarthy counters. “And suddenly they had a big house and a couple of kids and were like, ‘It’s not working and I’m going to have to let some things slide.’ I know a lot of those people and they weren't all just like, ‘I’m rich and I’m getting richer!’ I would argue that this guy made a decision to suit his own needs. I don't care that you’re couching that in ‘I have a family' or 'I have a wife.’ That doesn't make doing the wrong thing right. That's just what got you there. It still doesn't excuse you. That was part of it and the other part is that you sympathize with him on some level but I hope not to the point that you forgive him because what he did was pretty bad.
“We wanted to get to what Mike did to Leo and then the idea that when this kid, Kyle, comes in and is adopted by the Flaherty family everyone starts doing well. The kid’s doing well, the parents are doing well, everyone is feeling better and then it all becomes clear that this is built on sand. It's built on a minefield. That's really what I was referring to as my model, how we just look the other way sometimes because everything just seems okay, and that's not right either.”
The analogy becomes quite a fascinating moral conundrum. The film asks, in a sense, whether it's the consequences that make an action immoral or the action itself. “Win Win” isn’t heavy-handed, however. The themes are there but subtly rendered. And McCarthy’s directorial style is notably (and aptly) economic.
“I think sometimes you’re telling a story and you want to grab people,” he muses. “There is the idea to get them in the first act and the first ten pages. And I think there's a great lesson to be learned in that and I believe in it. I don't believe it's the only way of storytelling. I think that can start to feel manipulated and manufactured and as a writer you’re really trying to reach through to something genuine and authentic.”
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