'Way, Way Back' creators owe it all to the Groundlings

'Way, Way Back' creators owe it all to the Groundlings
Directors-producers Jim Rash, left, and Nat Faxon of the movie "The Way, Way Back." (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Just two days into filming "The Way, Way Back," the delicate balance that first-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash had carefully planned was already crumbling.

Rain had forced them to change the schedule, pushing up the shooting of an indoor scene that was one of the very few in the movie in which both of them also had to act at the same time.


The two knew the moment would come but had hoped to have much more experience directing before having to call the shots while in character. So left with no other options, they made their directing debut in front of the camera.

"We finished the take and there was this deathly long pause with everyone looking around awkwardly and everyone was wondering what was happening," Faxon recalled.

After a pause, Rash picked up the story.

"And that is exactly how you want your set run," Rash said, tongue in cheek. "And we just said, 'Guys, making films is a collaborative effort, so if you see us dropping the ball, pick it up and run with it.'"

However shakily it began, their first attempt at wearing the hats of writers, producers, directors and actors appears to have turned out rather well.

The pair, who won an Oscar in 2012 with Alexander Payne for adapted screenplay for "The Descendants," introduced "The Way, Way Back" at the Sundance Film Festival in January and have received winning reviews since the film's premiere in the U.S. earlier this month. After netting approximately $4.6 million domestically in its first few weeks of limited release, the film is set to expand to between 650 and 750 theaters July 26.

The film, which is inspired by memories of the pair's own childhood summers on the East Coast, tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old boy struggling through vacation with his divorced mother, Pam (Toni Colette), and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), at Trent's beach house. Duncan takes a job at a local water park, where he finds a host of new friends and a new understanding of himself under the tutelage of the manager (Sam Rockwell).

A year after filming on the beaches of Massachusetts, Rash and Faxon were sharing a booth in the back corner of the dining room at the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, chatting and laughing about how they'd met while studying at the Groundings in Los Angeles 15 years before.

"Jim saw me onstage, right?" Faxon said, taunting his friend. "And you were blown away."

Rash played along.

"There was someone behind him who was being hilarious. But I had to look at him in order to see Melissa, and she's great," Rash said. "You know, it was Melissa McCarthy."

Through experiences writing and performing together, the men realized they had similar comedic styles and decided to work together on a few projects outside the Groundlings. One of those was a draft of "The Way, Way Back," but they couldn't get it made until after they'd won the Oscar.

Now they've got three writing projects in the works: a script for a film called "The Birches," an untitled drama pitched to Fox Searchlight Pictures and an untitled action comedy to star another of their one-time Groundlings classmates, Kristen Wiig.

"There is nothing better than working with friends, especially ones who are talented and incredible like Kristen," Rash said. "For us, it's a nice collaboration as far as us writing for her … this will be darker in tone and maybe a little more farcical."

They also have work individually: Rash returns to his role as Dean Pelton on NBC's "Community" for the fall season, while Faxon is acting in a TV movie comedy called "Spy" for ABC, a film called "You Were Once Called Queen City" and an untitled Andrew Gurland project for FX.

Faxon and Rash attribute their blossoming careers to the Groundlings, the acting and improvisation theater and school in Los Angeles whose alumni also include Will Ferrell, Bryan Adams, Lisa Kudrow, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien.

After a post-graduation cross-country journey, Rash, a native of Charlotte, N.C., said he was staying with a college buddy here when another friend suggested he check out the Groundlings.

"I sort of stumbled upon it and just fell in love instantly. It's the same thing as going to college and finding something to shrink college down to a manageable size: That's what Groundlings did for L.A.," Rash said. "It just created what is now this central community of friends and connections and inspirations."

Faxon, who hails from Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., encountered the company when he was spending a semester at Pomona College, escaping winter at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He'd ended up in California after being turned down for a study-abroad puppetry program in Bali.

"I applied and amazingly, did not get in," Faxon said. "I don't know why — maybe because I had no interest in puppetry whatsoever."

Having been in a Groundlings class with McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and Will Forte, among others, the men said it was a heartwarming experience receiving acclaim for their work while seeing their friends doing likewise. Faxon cited his experience at the Academy Awards as an example.

"You're in this crazy, surreal place with all these mega-movie stars and that's something you've always dreamed of being at," Faxon said. "Then you look around and it's all old friends and people you've known for a long time and people you've done shows with for a long time, and there's something very wonderful about that and very emotional, certainly."

In addition to their friends and teachers at the Groundlings, they named Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and "Community" creator Dan Harmon as other comedy heroes.

When Rash paused to consider other inspirational sources, Faxon chimed in, "You can say me."

Without hesitating, Rash responded, "I would say Nat, but then it might be one of those things where, you know, you're just saying that to keep his friendship."

The two said that they also admire Joel and Ethan Coen for the diversity they've displayed as the writers and directors of such films as "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and that they hope they can emulate them.

Faxon and Rash said they're not about to rest on their laurels.

"I've never had the feeling of 'we can just cruise because we're at the top of the mountain,'" Faxon said. "I don't know that you ever feel completely comfortable with where you are. I think you evolve and improve, and I think there's something about being uncomfortable that helps."