To delight in the success of others is a most gratifying feeling. Not only does it silence the exhausting assertion that all men are self-interested, but it celebrates the idea that success for the few is, in its harmonious echoes, success for all.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, after winding through years of unsatisfying rambles, have found success – and it means success for all of us. The collaborators’ film, The Way Way Back, opens in select cities this weekend, but for a long time, it seemed like it never would.
In sitting down with Faxon and Rash, their excitement, even through an exhaustive promotional tour, is palpable. Faxon and Rash wrote the screenplay for The Way Way Back over eight years ago, and since then, have witnessed promise after promise from studios fall, waves of anticipation crashed, punctuated with grains of supporting roles in film and TV while The Way Way Back faded along the horizon.
Now, after the chance to not only make, but direct, produce, and appear in The Way Way Back, Faxon and Rash are ecstatic to share what began as a dream shared by two young friends.
“It’s certainly incredibly rewarding to get to this point,” explains Faxon. While The Way Way Back has screened only to audiences at Sundance thus far, Faxon contends that the festival reaction was reward enough itself; The Way Way Back received a standing ovation.
“You are terrified and anxious about how it’s going to play…and then it was very warmly received. [Sundance] was just the exhale that we had, [an] exhale of eight years of trying to do this.”
Those eight years of love and of allegiance to The Way Way Back color the film with rich plot and characterization. The universal story follows Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen-year-old maladroit who travels with his mother (a raw Toni Collette) to the beach house of her selfish boyfriend, played by Steve Carell, who is surprisingly easy to hate. To escape the loneliness in his own family, Duncan finds true friendship in his secret job at WaterWizz, a waterpark run by Owen, a relentless charisma crafted by actor Sam Rockwell.
The Way Way Back, the union of Faxon and Rash’s own prepubescent summers, languished for years. But even as the two diverged towards other pursuits – Rash most recognizably to be the eccentric Dean Pelton on Community – the duo never forgot The Way Way Back. Because of its humility and truth, they knew The Way Way Back would mean something to all those who had ever been fourteen.
“We talked a lot about nostalgia and the theme of timelessness in all facets of this movie,” explains Faxon. “We did try to make it feel as identifiable and relatable and universal as we could so that older generations could look back and remember that summer that was their rite of passage…and also to younger kids who are maybe going through this.”
Those familiar with Faxon and Rash may scoff at their story of Sisyphean struggle because the two arguably have seen the top of the mountain. In 2011, Faxon and Rash won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants, the poignant film starring George Clooney as a rich Hawaiian landowner desperate to reconnect with his children.
Despite this success, it is important to note that Faxon and Rash only garnered the opportunity to adapt The Descendants because of the promise of their own story, The Way Way Back, which studios applauded – and then set back aside. But after their Oscar win, it seemed their longtime dream to create The Way Way Back, could, just maybe, come true.
“The Descendants was very helpful to us in the sense that it allowed us to at least have people engage in a conversation again about The Way Way Back,” explains Rash. “It had been so many years – and things that sit on the shelf for a while tend to have a stigmatism towards them…[The Descendants] didn’t greenlight this, but it certainly allowed us to say, “Can you at least listen to us for a second?”’
While the completion of The Way Way Back is satisfying to Faxon and Rash as individuals, it is more gratifying because it is testament to the strength of Faxon/Rash team.
Faxon and Rash do go way, way back – fifteen years – when the two youngsters began their careers with The Groundlings, the LA improv comedy troupe that launched many comedians like Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig. Rash believes that the tenants of improv not only prepared the duo for careers in comedy, but forever intertwined the two friends as collaborators because of the delicate rapport needed to create comedy as a team.
“The tenants of improv, which include listening and give-and-take, and trying to collaborate and build something together…work when you’re writing and directing,” explains Faxon.
“It’s key to check our egos at the door when you’re directing and co-directing,” adds Rash.
Perhaps the success of Rash and Faxon is so satisfying because The Way Way Back is the completion of a dream that two friends imagined nearly a decade ago. Despite being locked in the same promotional tour bus together for the past month, the two seem so pleased to be sitting next to each other, so happy in each other’s company. It’s the realization of the young fantasy that we’ve all concocted, dreams designed on beach towels laid side-by-side, discussions for hours and hours while fingers dance through the nearby sand, drawing roadmaps to adulthood dreams, which, for many of us, never come true.
“Especially to do this with somebody else and to be able to share that experience together… it’s an incredible feeling…because really what’s on screen is what we set out to do. We didn’t make any sacrifices. We didn’t have to cut any corners or change anything because somebody else wanted us to. We put out exactly what we wanted to,” exclaims Faxon.
One can succeed and celebrate vicariously through Faxon and Rash because they have persevered to complete something that we all have begun: a childhood dream with one’s best friend.
And it is because of this nostalgia that The Way Way Back itself succeeds and celebrates. The film suggests that we all tint our adolescence with sepia because of a reverence for the preordinance of that time, that our paths crossed purposefully with certain individuals – that it could not have happened another way.
“To me, a true ensemble is really about a bunch of people who have connected to each other and are giving each other something in the right moment…[The Way Way Back] is about a group of people who are in each other’s lives at the right time,” concludes Rash.
In essence, Rash argues that the poignancy with which we view our adolescence develops because we believe we encountered special people in our lives for a reason. Just as Duncan meets Owen. Just as Faxon met Rash. Just as we met our best friends.
And because of this shared belief in our own predestination – reality or delusion – we can all celebrate The Way Way Back, Faxon and Rash, and our own pasts, together.