Q&A: Win Win

Writer and director Tom McCarthy shares his thoughts on Minneapolis, working with new talent, and what he likes (and doesn’t like) about the movie business.

Mike Flaherty is a good guy in a not-so-good situation. When faced with a financial crisis, Mike—a balding, likable, middle-aged elder-care attorney by day and high-school wrestling coach by night—chooses to forgo ethics in favor of making ends meet. Chances are good he’ll get away with it, too, until the grandson of his recently acquired elderly ward shows up unexpectedly. At first, Kyle seems like just another complication in Mike’s already stressful life. But all that changes after Kyle practices with Mike’s team one night. Not only is he good, he very well may be the best. Could life really be cutting Mike a break for once? Or is this simply the calm before the inevitable storm? With its solid cast (including Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and Burt Young, and promising new-comers Alex Shaffer and David Thompson), hilarious-yet-serious dialogue, and creative plot, Win Win is as true a champion as any film can be.

Minnesota Monthly sat down with writer and director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) to talk about writing, acting, and what he thinks of Minneapolis.

You left the East Coast to live in Minneapolis for two-and-a-half years after college: Why?

It’s funny, everyone always asks, “What were you thinking? You were already on the East Coast.” It was a random, young decision. I came here and had a blast. We were able to reinvent ourselves, be who we wanted to be. No one knew us, there was no family around, and I think that was really important. There comes a point when you’re trying to figure out who you are, and if you have people around who know you, it’s tough to do because they’re always telling you who you are. It’s just like when you’re trying to write a good screenplay: sometimes you need to go lock yourself away while you’re writing and then share it later. That’s kind of what Minnesota was: I locked myself away out here.

You’ve said your inspiration for Mike Flaherty came largely from your friend, Joe. How similar are the two?

I use the word cherry pick because there are elements in his (Joe’s) life that are similar to Mike—his car looks like that, his home looks like that, his job is that. But as Joe constantly points out, there are differences. Like he doesn’t put people in nursing homes against their will and his business is actually thriving. But yeah, it was great to have a three-dimensional character walking around that I could rip off of a little bit.

How did the film’s plot transform into this intimate, detailed dramedy from your initial concept of a blockbuster comedy about high-school wrestling?

I guess I started thinking more about Mike’s life and tried to figure out what would bring this kid into his world. Some of it is tough to recall. You’re constantly collecting all these pieces when you’re brainstorming for the movie, and there comes a point when you’re making really fast decisions and thinking most of those details won’t stick—well, a lot of them do. And then you build from there. I don’t think I could ever rebuild the process. That would be like taking something apart and trying to put it back together again: It just doesn’t work.

Tell me more about Alex Shaffer, the high-school wrestler with no acting experience you found to play Kyle.

I felt solid that I found this kid’s voice. The big question was would it work on the screen—would it be engaging and humorous and honest and real? And it was. With his weird little ways, Alex just locked in on the role.

Did the acting come naturally for him?

No, we really pushed him hard. We did a lot of takes, rehearsed him like crazy, put him in acting classes—I was really on top of him. Paul and Amy? That was effortless. Bob (Cannavale), Jeff, Burt, and Melanie (Lynskey)—those guys are pros. You can see why they’re so good. Alex took a lot of work, but the good part was he was up for it and he delivered. That’s all that matters.

Stemler’s character is hilarious. How did he come into the picture?

You know, it’s funny because there are so many facets to this movie: there’s the married couple, there’s the kid, there’s the wrestling, there are the legal problems with Leo. And I feel like recently, Stemler’s gotten lost in the shuffle. But he’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. That scene where he wins (well, he actually loses)? When we played that at Sundance, the crowd just went berserk—I mean, they went crazy. That’s when I was like, “Alright, we legitimately might have a classic sports scene about losing on our hands.” He (David Thompson) just had the right energy—he’s a super sweet kid and a great actor.

You’ve been on both sides of the game: acting and directing. What’s your favorite part and least favorite part of each?

My least favorite thing about acting is waiting around for a job—the lack of control. My favorite part is just doing it—working with good actors and directors, being on set. The best part of directing is the collaboration with so many different people. I really like working with the actors, my production team, the costumer, the camera crew, everyone. My least favorite thing about directing is the business side of it.

Want more? Head to the website for trailers, interviews, clips, and photos. Also, be sure to see Win Win when it opens in Twin Cities theaters April 1, 2011.