As I sit with two other student journalists sipping coffee in a conference room in The Four Seasons, Thomas McCarthy sits back and chills out. He speaks like a colleague, or an acquaintance we’re getting to know, clearly pleased with the amazing feedback his latest film is receiving. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
On making the suburbs genuine:
If you start to go down like, “Okay, we’re going to have a really different approach, we’re gonna tell this story like no one has seen,” then it starts to feel very manipulated. It starts to feel like you’re commenting on it. So I think what we were playing with is an authentic way to approach this story. Take everything at face value, not condescend, not patronize, not sensationalize or sentimentalize. Just present these characters: Can it be compelling enough? And I think that came from a Q&A one time. I was doing a Q&A in Santa Barbara one time with a bunch of directors and someone asked, “How come there aren’t more movies about regular people?” And someone on the panel, I think it might have been Jim Sheridan, said, “By and large because they’re boring.” And he said it with his adorable Irish accent so everyone cracked up, but there was a truth to it. People do want to see their own stories, but then, how do you make those compelling and make the stakes present for people? Let’s be honest. In the film world, not a lot of people live in the suburbs.
On Paul Giamatti and suburban contentment:
I feel it’s not a role that Paul has really played before. It’s presenting someone who is fundamentally very satisfied, and Paul as an actor will talk about that. That that’s a challenge. You know, it’s one thing when your character is very conflicted and you feel trapped in the suburbs but it’s like, how do you represent sort of contentment? It is sort of dramatically lacking in some way unless there’s other elements in there.
On Amy Ryan as a mom:
Amy’s another great example, right. She’s just, warts and all, she’s just about character and nothing else. And she just had a child. This was her first job back, and her little child was on set and that was kind of great. You could just kind of feel that in talking about scenes with her, how she was relating a little bit differently and understanding the kind of protectiveness. There are these scenes where she’s almost unlikable. Like when Cindy comes, and she’s in a desperate vulnerable state, comes to their house and she’s so transparently judgmental, and I see that in my mother, sort of Irish Catholic. She thinks no one can see it. She thinks she’s being the gracious host and there’s something both awkward about that and funny.
On newcomer Alex Shaffer:
Alex is such a weird kid. If you watched the scene again, you wouldn’t notice this because you were probably watching the whole frame, this is how he closes, and he does this stuff. Well, first of all he doesn’t use silverware properly. I’m like, “Dude, what are you doing?” and he’s like, “I’m not good at silverware dude, I’ve tried to tell you that.” And you’re like, “What do you mean you’re not good at silverware?” And then he does this with the syrup and then when he’s done, he closes the cap [while the bottle is upside down]. It’s the weirdest thing. And my DP’s like, “Well, that’s how he does it.” It’s like his thing, ya know?”
On his co-writer, Joe Tiboni
He’s a really nice guy, smart, funny, but very sort of sincere and straightforward, you know, because he has to be. That’s the role he plays in his community, but has a wicked sense a of humor. It’s probably why we’re still friends after too many years, and he finds so much humor in his life, and, I mean he kind of has to. It’s this really simple life and every day he’s working with client after client after client who’s facing the bigger decisions in life. You know, not only things like health and dementia, but financial decisions, death wills. All those families holding people together, losing people and you know these stories. You’ll be sitting there with this 98 and she’ll be like, “No, I really want this to be a more long term investment,” and he’s like, “Well, how much longer?” You know? It’s kinda time to wrap this up a little bit.” They don’t perceive it that way, and there’s just so much humor in the storytelling when he would tell me about his day to day life. And then, there’s spending time out there. I saw a lot of humor in it, just in the day to day.
On film community bromance:
In the film community, you get into these projects and you work very intensely with people. Like my editor, we were basically married for nine months and with all the trappings of a marriage: great times, horrible times, fights, snits. The things that would come out of our mouths. If you could take them and paste them on the wall, you wouldn’t believe it. Like, “You really don’t care, do you?” One time he said to me, he was really angry during the sound mixing and he was like, “You just need to focus up, man, focus up.” It was like a line from the movie and I was like, “Seriously, focus up? We’ve been working on this for five years. How much more focused can I get?”
On the issues with American comedy:
My big problems with comedies, especially in this country everyone, is that they’re so concerned with making people laugh, which I think is great. There are some amazing comedy writers out there, but inevitably, it comes to the end of the movie and they’re like, “Alright, now I wanna make them feel.” It’s like, well, you can’t do that because you haven’t had us think or feel the whole movie. You’ve made us laugh and you’ve done it beautifully, but then don’t expect us to feel. Don’t change the music and if you’re not going to set us up for that just don’t worry about it.
On the screenwriting process:
Once I sort of lock in an idea, I just spend a lot of time living with that idea, just talking about it before I write anything. And once I feel like I have a whole file full of bits and pieces, then I start getting bits of story writing. With this, Joe and I spent six months to a year just walking and talking… and it comes to a point where I didn’t even have to take notes because it’s literally telling a story.