Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I was just about to write that Tom McCarthy first came to fame as an actor, but that's not entirely accurate. Although McCarthy has been acting in smaller parts for TV and film projects for nearly 20 years (I first remember him from the first season of David E. Kelly's "Boston Public"), it was as the director of 2003's THE STATION AGENT where his talents as a writer and director came to light. That modest story of three dedicated loners finding each other struck a chord with its casual but immensely heartfelt storytelling anchored by a star-making turn by then-relative unknown Peter Dinklage.
McCarthy followed that up with THE VISITOR, an even more impressive effort grounded by an Oscar-nominated piece of understated acting by Richard Jenkins, playing yet another loner drawn out by strangers.
Since THE STATION AGENT, McCarthy's star as an actor began to soar with supporting roles in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, ALL THE KING'S MEN, SYRIANA, YEAR OF THE DOG. BABY MAMA, 2012, THE LOVELY BONES, JACK GOES BOATING, FAIR GAME, DUPLICITY, and all three of the MEET THE PARENTS films. Perhaps most memorably, he was one of the key actors on the final season of HBO's "The Wire," playing the Baltimore Sun reporter who makes up facts and quotes when the truth isn't interesting enough for his editors.
His latest film as a writer-director is WIN WIN, starring Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, playing non-loners who take a teenage boy (he's the loner) into their home, partly because of something Giamatti's character does that leaves the kid without a place to live. Once again, McCarthy's work is impressive due to a story decidedly free from villains and other traditional Hollywood plot devices. His films are more free flowing, focusing intently on characters, which makes them far more interesting and more engaging. WIN WIN also has great high school wrestling scenes that capture the dramatic highlights of this very technical sport.
I had a chance to chat with McCarthy recently in Chicago, the morning after we had done a great Q&A after a screening of the film before a full house of very receptive folks. Please enjoy Tom McCarthy…
Tom McCarthy: How’s it going?
Capone: Good. Forgive me if we cover some of the same grounds that we did last night, I tend not to record those.
TM: I don’t blame you.
Capone: I want you to feel like you can say whatever and you’re not like “on the record” or anything.
Capone: Actually, we talked about this with THE VISITOR too, this idea that you tend to focus on these misfit characters. I’m actually more interested in these families that you construct. Although this is the first time you’ve actually had a family, but then there are all of these other outside people that kind of form this support group around this kid.
TM: Yeah, but I think you’re right though. One of the challenges with this, early on when I started thinking of the story, I’m like “Oh this is cool,” because I’m dealing with a guy in the middle of his life, completely involved in his life, where both with Fin [the lead character in THE STATION AGENT] and Walter Vale [the lead character in THE VISITOR], these were characters who were completely disconnected and not involved with their community and their lives, specifically with Walter. I think he wasn’t even involved in his life, he was still living it, but he was kind of a ghost walking through it. I think with Mike Flaherty, I was dealing with a guy who is so involved and passionate. He’s like on the Charlie Sheen drug, you know? [laughs]
He's very happy and content in his life, like we joked a little bit about last night, this is what he wants, and it has been working I think up until probably the last couple of years where suddenly he can’t get back to that bar, because of the financial situation. A lot of people have sort of dropped down, and now they're just scraping to get back up to where they were, and unfortunately a lot of businesses are closing, because they can’t sustain and they’ve built a life around them, whether it’s their house which is actually a pretty life little house, and this that and the property taxes have gone up as the mortgages have gone down.
All of these kinds of problems have occurred to create this financial gap for people. Suddenly, taking that aside for a second, that was really what excited me. And even his extended community--his best friend is around, he’s got the guys he works and coaches with. I think in my mind they got into that situation together, they thought it would be a great job of integrating their business lives and their community lives a little bit more, which is why a lot of times people take on those coaching positions. There’s an ulterior motive to some, not just a love of the sport, but “Hey it will look great for the community.”
So, that is what really excited me, and then you bring a young man in who is maybe coming from a different place, who's searching for a home and on the other end of the spectrum you are dealing with an old man who is trying to hold onto his home and his sense of home and his sense of place. So, you’ve got this generational divide between Kyle and Leo with Mike somewhere in the middle who has all of that. That became really compelling to me, and it’s funny because ultimately the story takes on it’s own life in the humor and the athletics and the family all operates, and then some of those other themes that I’m very fond of don’t always operate as strongly and that’s okay, they are just jumping off points for me.
Capone: Was it a tough convincing Paul Giamatti to take a role that was of a nice, mostly happy guy? Did he want you to inject some stress and angst?
TM: No, no. He read the script and was like, “I really like this. How would I do it?” And you have that moment where you're friends, and we are good friends [the two went to acting school at Yale together], but you still have to talk like business partners for a moment and be like, “I would like you to do this.” “I’d like to do this.” “Great, now where do we go?” “Here’s the one challenge…” “I totally agree.” It was just funny, he was like “I don’t do that.” We just talked about how to do that, and I think what Paul would say if he was here--and we had talked about that--is that it’s sometimes tough to play a character who is content in his life. Now granted he has this anxiety with financial concerns, but he’s dealing with a character and portraying someone, and there is contentment there. There is a sense of “This is where I want to be.” It’s easier to play characters who are very agitated and ravaged with discontent or ravaged with any kind of obstacle or challenge, and Paul gets a lot of those. He gets a lot of these incredible.
Capone: He just had one. [I'm talking about BARNEY'S VERSION.]
TM: Yeah, so this is more dealing with a guy, and that was an interesting challenge. He kept saying that to me during filming, he’s like, “It’s kind of a weird movie, isn’t it? In a really simple way, it’s kind of a weird movie.” I was like “Just don’t overthink it.”
Capone: Only from what he brings to the part, his context, might it be weird. For everyone else it was like, “That was a really nice, sweet, normal movie.”
TM: That’s their job to kind of get in there and feel that, and I think he was.
Capone: In your stories, you seem to like to pull strangers together in these situations, and it’s always awkward in the beginning, and there’s always that sort of dance where they are figuring each other out. Do you typically strike up conversations with complete strangers maybe more than the average person might?
TM: I am very odd. There’s a part of me as a writer and as someone who likes his privacy and also likes time alone to think and just be in my head, but I notice now like my girlfriend has moved in with me the last year and a half, moved into my apartment. She lived in L.A. and she walks around like, “You are like the weird Mayor in this neighborhood. You kind of have a personal relationship with a lot of people.” She was laughing about it like, “I wouldn’t have guess that about you.” I’m like “It’s my community. It’s my neighborhood.” She’s like, “But not everyone does that. It’s New York City.” I was like, “Yeah, I guess it makes my day go by a little quicker sometimes.” So I would be guilty of that and I think ultimately because living in New York for instance, it’s fascinating.
I have this grumpy, grumpy old woman who lives in my building--I have some real nut jobs in my building--and this one woman, the elevator door will open, and she will look at me and go “Oh no!” And the door will shut. I’ll be like, “What the fuck?” [Laughs] “What just happened?” She’s kind of elegant, and sometimes she’s totally nice and she’ll get on like “How are you?” And she’s drunk a lot. She usually a few martini’s in, depending on the time of day. About a year ago, I found out that she’s like a jazz legend, that her husband ran the Village Vanguard, and she took over the Vanguard and had been running the Vanguard for like 30 years. I’m just spacing on her name right now and I saw her, because I saw her on a documentary on IFC. I was sitting there and I’m like “It’s the weird lady from the elevator! Of course that’s what she does!”
Then I went to the Vanguard one night and she was there, being miserable to somebody. This group came in, Japanese tourists, and she just wasn’t having it and didn’t care. She was like “Just get out!” They were like “Huh?” I was like [whispering] “Don’t worry, the next day she’ll be nice.” But I think there is that thing that that I’m always very interested in about that awkwardness and that connect. A lot of times, people will look at my movies and say, “You’re always dealing with people who are really disconnected and lonely.” I’m like, “Not really, I’m dealing with people who ultimately find their own form of connection, and that is interesting to me,” because a lot of times my movies don’t have massive conflict. There’s not this bad guy.
Capone: There’s no villain. You never have villains.
TM: Yeah, so I like to find or create that between characters and find that in a more subtle way that I think happens in our lives more often. We all have our big problems. We all have our villains out there, but more it’s the day to day, like “Fuck, it’s that guy,” or “It’s that thing” or “It’s my editor,” or “It’s my neighbor,” or “It’s my wife,” or “It’s my money problem.” I do think that is inherently dramatic enough to base a story on.
Capone: Let’s talk about the wrestling for a second. At one point did you decide that VISION QUEST was not the end-all statement on high school wrestling?
TM: First of all, I’m still not convinced of that [laughs]. Although, my happiest moment with this movie so far was… Alex said to me after seeing the movie I was like “So what did you think?” He’s like “It’s cool man.” It was like, nothing [laughs]. Then like a half hour later, we went to get something to eat, and he said “Oh dude, the wrestling, totally legit. That’s wrestling, finally.” I was like “What about VISION QUEST?” “No waym dude, that is so lame. Those moves aren’t real, and he’s not hitting him.” This is coming from a great wrestler and just being really honest about it, it was like my father telling me I’ve made it. I was like [Fake crying] “Thank you.”
Man, we had a lot of fun with that, even talking about it; I loved talking about it. I love the world. I loved researching it. Joe [Tiboni, credited with McCarthy on a story credit for WIN WIN] and I got so ridiculously into it, like we trailed three or four teams. We went down to the states. By the time we got down to the states, we knew everybody and I think people were ultimately like “Who are these guys?” because we were just around a lot and getting to know the wrestlers personally and getting to understand that, but man there was just something about it. That was one of the things that really I thought “Man, if we can do this and be authentic about it.”
When you go to those matches, there’s 15 people in the audience, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t afford extras. For the first time, I actually had money were I could get 100 extras if I needed it. The first time I took Paul to New Providence to see a match, he was like, “This is hilarious, there’s like 20 people,” and you would hear everything, because it’s not loud, it’s not a big cheering sport. It’s not a marquee sport. Coaches would be like “Alright man, keep working. Good things will come.” Paul and I would have these moments, and there was something about that that felt really authentic. Just sort of sitting there, you see we laid back with the camera, I didn’t shoot and cut it like action. I really kind of wanted to sit back like we were just watching it and you can’t even really see what these kids are doing like getting hand control or wrist control, kind of flopping around a little bit.
Now, when Alex gets going, his character gets going, then it gets kind of fun, because when you do see a kid wrestle that’s that good, it’s just cool, especially early in the season, because he’s wrestling kids and there’s a huge disparity in talent, so they'll try shit. They'll try throws. They’ll try takedowns. Once they get deeper into the season, especially into the states, wrestling gets less exciting, because all of the kids are getting pretty good, and you can’t risk a move, because the counter to that--you will pay the price, so you start becoming more conservative as a wrestler.
Capone: Why did you want it to be wrestling? What was the deciding factor?
TM: One, I just hadn’t seen it. I mean VISION QUEST, not many people have seen that movie. We all have and kids who like sports movies like Alex have, but a lot of people haven’t seen that movie or really remember it. Plus VISION QUEST was what 1985? 1984? Right?
Capone: 1985, right? It had a good soundtrack, I remember that.
TM: You have to go back and watch it. It’s a hilarious example of overusing a good thing. That one song they use…
Capone: Not the Madonna song?
TM: No, but that’s hilarious too. She’s in the movie.
Capone: I remember that. She’s in the club.
TM: Yeah, singing “Crazy For You.” It’s funny, I was in Boston and I had dinner with like 20 of my cousins, who are all just jockheads and one of my cousins is like “You mean “Lunatic Fringe” [by Red Rider]? The hilarious thing is, they obviously got full rights for it, because they just use it constantly, like Modine will come home and like run in the house and open the fridge, and they're like “Lunatic Fringe!” “It’s not a “Lunatic Fringe” moment; save it for the badass.”
Capone: You always have these relative unknown or completely unknown actors in your film side by side with the more recognizable folks. What do you like about the dynamic that that creates?
TM: It’s all about the balance of casting, and with this I feel like I was taking some chances just in terms of like Burt Young and even Margo[ [Martindale], who I love, but I wanted to make sure that Margo didn’t pop that much. What I find is that people who love movies know her, because they appreciate great actors, but not a lot of people could place her, like my brother wouldn’t place her necessarily. I’m always trying to find that balance, especially in really trying to create an ordinary world.
That’s why I though Amy and Paul, … I was making a $10 million dollar movie; I know it’s not much by movie standards, but it’s the most money I’ve ever had, and I’m selling this movie to Fox Searchlight and I’m using Paul Giamatti who is a national treasure, but still doesn’t bankroll movies, because you have look like Matt Damon, and there are very few actors who do. So, I was trying to get actors that would still be of interest, and it was like pushing the limit of a great actor who can still hide. I think Amy and Paul weirdly can still hide. They can still get in there and disappear and let an audience forget, and there’s some stars that can’t do that, who can get money who are just beyond that now, we know too much about them and their lives.
There’s that delicate balance of keeping the authenticity of that world. Now if it’s a more glamorous world, sometimes it doesn’t matter as much. You can make DUPLICITY, and go make it with Julia [Roberts] and Clive [Owen], because that’s exactly what you want to see. You want to see the glamour. [Writer-director] Tony [Gilroy] was playing with that style, but with something like this, if I suddenly had someone “too big,” you would be like “Huh, I don’t know if I buy that.” Then with fleshing out the cast, even like with Burt [Young], I realize a lot of people didn’t recognize Burt. Our generation does, but somebody younger didn’t at first and then they are like “Oh yeah.” That was really interesting to me, because they're just seeing a kick-ass actor in a great performance.
With Alex I had no choice, I had to go get an unknown. It was kind of like with THE VISITOR with the character of Tarek, Haaz Sleiman. How many 23-year-old Arab actors are their out there that are names? None, so I knew I was going to be finding that and so I needed a kid who looked tough and had a specific style that could be soft. So, I think with that it is that delicate balance with my movies about trying to keep the world consistent and I think that’s what directors are always going for, a pallet that tonally feels really solid. That’s why I always worry about appearing in your own movies or stunt casting a little bit. In some movies it doesn’t matter, but in the right movie I think it can really throw it off.
Capone: You’re right and someone like Alex wouldn’t bring any baggage to his part, so whatever you write for him, that’s the sum total of his baggage.
TM: Exactly, yeah.
Capone: Are you still doing script polish work and things like that?
TM: Yeah, I do that occasionally. To be honest, it’s a way of making money, and I love movies like this, but I don’t get rich making these movies. And even now, I’m on a press junket for six or seven weeks. That’s a lot of my time that I don’t ultimately get paid for, and you factor that into my salary and my salary goes down to the dollar per minute, so I do other jobs. Sometimes, acting is that. Sometimes, I’ll take an acting job, because it’s a really good paycheck and I think it will be fun, but I like writing and I feel like with whether it’s doing a polish on a script or…I’m doing an original right now for Disney, but it’s based on a true story. So, the foundation is there, the structure is there almost inherent in the story. I kind of like it, because I can do it when I want and I feel like I’m usually making a product better or giving someone a pretty good product and sometimes not being attached to direct it, like with this, they offered it [to me to direct], and I was like “Well, let me see how it turns out and let’s see how we work together,” almost like dating.
Capone: What's the name of the film?
TM: The one for Disney, MILLION DOLLAR ARM it’s called, and it’s based on a true story about a sports agent who goes to India and sets up a contest called “The Million Dollar Arm” to try to find pitchers in India.
Capone: I would have guess pitchers with that title.
TM: It’s a really cool story and it’s funny that it happens to be a sports theme, which I don’t think I’ll make a career of. They sent me the treatment, and I’m like “Oh yeah, the story is there. You’ve just got to go in an have some fun with it.” I like doing that, because I’m writing that as I’m doing this and I did some in the earlier part of the year and now I’m kind of working on it.
Capone: So you don’t know if you will direct it, or you probably won't?
TM: Right now, I’m not. I said, “Let’s plan on me not directing it,” which frees me up in a way. Sometimes, if I’m directing, I fixate on things, because I know visually what I want or where I’m going with it. In this, I’m just writing it to try to find the story and when I’m done with the script I said, “Let’s have another conversation.” “You might collaborate with me for six months and be like “We don’t want this guys anywhere near our project.”
Or you might have a really strong case, or I might have fallen in love with the project, so the idea is I always just say, “You are hiring me as a writer, that’s it.” I think the bonus is you do get a guy who has directed movies. Some writers I think would really benefit from staying more involved in the process, because I think some writers write, and they are just like “He screwed up my movie,” and it’s like “Well, you haven’t been through it with the actors and cinematographers.”
When you’ve been through the process a few times, you just learn tricks that then re-inform your screenplay process. It makes sense, right? I think more writers that can stay involved--and quite honestly unfortunately they are just not given the opportunity--I did that a lot with Joe on this and I hope Joe continues to write; he has his own career. To set, to casting, I’d bring him in on rehearsals and in the editing and let him see cuts, listen to talkback and share notes with him, just because I think you learn a lot and you need to do that, otherwise as a writer I think you can become really like… If you’ve done 10 great screenplays, then maybe you don’t need to anymore, but there’s too much like, “There it is. Don’t fuck it up.” There’s a process there I think.
Capone: You had a writing credit, or a story credit on UP?
TM: I had story credit.
Capone: How did you get involved with that?
TM: You know, they invited me out like I’m going out there in a week to screen WIN WIN, and they invited me out to screen THE STATION AGENT, and I screened it, and they just really connected with it and you can understand why that movie would connect with Pixar I think, and Pete Docter and I had lunch afterwards and just had a great chat, and it was just that.
I loved his movie, and he liked STATION AGENT a lot. and two weeks later he flew out to New York and pitched me this idea. So I went out there. and Bob Peterson who got the co-writing credit with him was on another project and they worked together on MONSTERS INC., and I went out and did the first couple of drafts of UP and kind of brought Russell into the mix. He hadn’t existed yet and kind of just worked with them and stayed in touch with them throughout, but ultimately… To give you an idea, when I left there. I was there for four months and did drafts, like I said I went back one time, but when I left I conceived, wrote, directed, distributed, and put to bed THE VISITOR.
And UP came out the next year. Just that process, the animation process, that two years where they are like “Alright, the script is pretty solid, let’s get to animating,” and that story keeps developing, because the artwork ends up driving some of the story. That’s how long that takes. I would call Pete and I’m like “How are you doing?” “Oh, we are feeling it. We are 210 weeks out!” I’m like “I don’t even know what that…” That’s like saying a “gagillion” to me. I don’t even know what that means, and he starts laughing, but then you go there and you just see a wall calendar like the size of a wall and you are like “Oh, wow, they really have a system here…”
Capone: I was actually just up at Pixar at Thanksgiving. I’ve interviewed so many of the directors that work there, and they'd always invite me and I’m just never out there, but I went out there for Thanksgiving and I finally said, “Hey, were you guys serious?”
TM: Pete's a super guy. I’m really excited. He actually just emailed me like “Can my kids come to this movie?” I was like “Yeah, there’s bad language, but I think it’s a great movie for kids if they don’t mind that.”
Capone: We talked last night about how you develop these characters and their traits and maybe some backstory before you ever put them in an actual plot. In my mind, you have this stable of characters that you might just pull from and each of them has a few qualities.
TM: There probably are examples where they are someone I've been thinking about, and a lot of times there is. There’s a little bit a of a process for me of just… It feels like a bin. I don’t actually have a bin, but of trying to work towards an idea. I’m like throwing ideas, and some things stay in the bin and some things fall through, and then you kind of shake it, and you're like, “This idea of a guy struggling now and a good guy doing a bad thing and wrestling…” It just starts to come together. People always ask “What was the first idea, and how did it develop?” That’s a really tough thing to track sometimes, because it’s not always as premeditated of a process.
Capone: It’s like you are panning for gold.
TM: It kind of is, and you're like “What sticks?” There are things that will stick for a long time, but then you’ll lose, or you lose it, and I’m like, “That’s still good,” and I’ll come back to it. And that trait or that thing will go with another character, and that’s really fun, because then weirdly it starts to make sense, and you're like “Oh wow that totally tracks,” because it’s not just luck or a coincidence. It’s coming from something organic, something that’s part of the beginnings. Sometimes writing, as painful as it can be a lot of the time, it’s just really exciting. You're just sitting there, and you're like, “Oh, that’s cool.” When you have those moments, you're just like, “That’s why I love doing this.” It doesn’t happen enough, but when it does, it’s cool I think.
Capone: Do you have any more acting parts lined up at this point?
TM: There were like one or two movies I was dying to do, and I just didn’t, because I’ve learned now that when I over schedule my life, I make everything miserable, but it’s cool because people are like, “Wow, you're in this thing, and you’ve got this thing.” That’s a cool thing, but I’ve found that making it wasn’t enjoyable. I almost did a film or two this summer. I had to pass on a couple of things, but I think I'm done with [the Disney project].
Capone: All we have right now is LITTLE FOCKERS to remember you by, so yeah, you’ve got to get back in front of the camera soon.
TM: [laughs] A memorable, memorable movie. Oh God, what a Frankenstein that thing was. Holy shit, and that’s a lot of smart people working on that movie.
Capone: Maybe a few too many at this point.
TM: That was just weird. I don’t know how much you know about that, they did this whole thing with Dustin Hoffman, where they shot the movie,and it was done, and then they decided to put him in. It was done for a year, and they went back and shot seven scenes and inserted him.
Capone: Wow, I didn’t know that. I don’t track the FOCKER movies as closely as some of the other ones, believe it or not.
TM: I only know it because they're all of my friends and we're like, “You’re reshooting? Why?”
Capone: Alright, well good to see you again.
TM: Great to see you man, and thanks again for last night. I appreciate your help. It was a good group.
-- Capone email@example.com
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