Surveying economic woes with “Win Win”

By Drew Hunt

As a guy who’s worn many hats in his career, Tom McCarthy can seemingly do it all. He’s appeared as an actor in films and television shows like “Syriana,” and HBO’s “The Wire”; directed his own films, including 2008’s “The Visitor”; and co-wrote Pixar’s 2009 comedy “Up.” For his latest directorial effort, the family comedy-drama “Win Win,” McCarthy returned to his home town of New Province, New Jersey to explore some familiar themes. The Chronicle got the chance to sit down with him and talk about collaborating on the script with his long-time friend, the film’s casting process and the problems caused by the country’s current economic crisis.

The Chronicle: You shot and set the film in the town you grew up in. Was it important for you to make the film feel authentic?

Tom McCarthy: Going back was a tricky thing because you’re trying to see it with fresh eyes and not take anything for granted. But I had not lived there in 20 years. I think the trick is going back, because my biggest concern about this film is it is such a conventional setting. How do you make it cinematic? How do you make it interesting? The problem with that is if you start to say, “OK, we’re going to have a really different approach. We’re going to approach a suburb like no one’s ever seen it,” it starts to feel very manipulative. I think what we were playing with was, “Can we authentically approach this story and take everything at face value? Not sensationalize or sentimentalize. Just present these characters. Can it be compelling enough?” Let’s be honest, in the film world not a lot of people live in the suburbs.

The Chronicle: You co-wrote this film with a buddy of yours, Joe Tiboni. How did he help with the process?

TM: [He’s] a guy who has a life very similar to [the main character], Mike Flaherty. He lives in New Province, New Jersey, married with two little kids and he’s an elder law attorney. And like the character, he’s a nice guy but also very sincere and straightforward, because he has to be. That’s the role he plays in his community. Every day he’s working with client after client who’s facing far bigger decisions in life. But he has this wicked sense of humor. He finds so much humor in his life. He’ll be sitting there with a 98-year-old person and they’ll be like, “No, I really want this to be a more long-term investment,” and he’s like, “Well…how much longer do you expect to be around?” There’s just so much humor in the stories he’d tell me.

The Chronicle: Do you feel like his experiences gelled well with your style? Your films tend to have themes of transience and movement in them, where as this one is much more domestic.

TM: I live in New York City. I get in the elevator and some old lady wants to talk to me, or this guy or that guy. It’s just much more integrated. I think there’s something about that in [my work]. People come together for these projects and you work very intensely with them, and then they go away. Like my editor—we’re basically married for nine months, and with all the trappings of a marriage: great times, horrible times, fights—everything. The things that come out of our mouths in the editing room, if you were to write them down and paste them on the wall, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like, “You really just don’t care, do you?” [laughs]. So there is something about that transient quality of people coming in and out of your life. It’s always been a part of my life. I’ve never had a consistent job. I’ve never lived in the same place for very long. I’ve lived in Chicago, I lived in Minneapolis, L.A., New York—all these different places. Some people have a little more consistency, like [Tiboni]. He inspired Mike Flaherty. [Tiboni] is a guy who’s been married 18 years—I haven’t ever done anything for 18 years. He has such consistency in his life. But I think that quality is something I was interested in exploring in terms of this movie.

The Chronicle: Was it important to cast more naturalistic actors for the film? What was that process like?

TM: Casting is a very delicate issue. I feel like this is a role [Giamatti’s] never played before. It’s presenting somebody who’s fundamentally very satisfied, and Paul, as an actor, will talk about that and say that’s a challenge. It’s one thing when your character is incredibly conflicted and you feel trapped in the suburbs. But how do you represent contentment? It’s dramatically lacking in some way unless there are other elements. In this case there is an operating external force, which is the financial situation. But it’s definitely something we talked a lot about: how not to make these characters too glossy. Amy [Ryan] is a great example. She’s just about character, nothing else.

The Chronicle: Yeah, she completely embodies the motherly mentality in this film.

TM: Yeah. And you know what’s funny, she had just had a child. This was her first job back. That was kind of great. You could kind of feel that in talking about scenes with her, how she was relating a little bit differently and understanding that den mother quality that [her character] has.

The Chronicle: You mention the financial strain. It plays a pretty prominent role in the film. Did you consider it important to make it a key issue for the film?

TM: I could show you ten articles that Joe and I stumbled upon in the last year writing the movie of people taking alternative jobs—people with high-end jobs, going a couple towns away to a different job. The scenarios you read are heartbreaking. But it’s about swallowing your pride and dealing with your ego and accepting the reality of where we’re at. Even at my age, I know guys who have gone back to catering and doing things that make you go, “Ugh. That’s tough.” It’s tough in yours 20s, it’s tough in your early 30s, you get into your 40s and that kind of work can just take your soul away, especially if you’re someone who wants to be doing something else.