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Faxon, Rash go 'Way, Way Back' to childhood inspiration

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written movies before, even winning an Oscar for “The Descendants” (along with director Alexander Payne).

They've acted before; Rash is a cast member on “Community,” both appeared on “Reno 911!” and plenty of other projects.

But they've never directed a feature before. Until now. The two wrote, directed and have small roles in “The Way, Way Back,” about a 14-year-old named Duncan going on summer vacation with his mom and her cloddish boyfriend. He lands a job at a water park, where the offbeat manager, played by Sam Rockwell, befriends him.

The movie opened July 19 in Pittsburgh.

Faxon and Rash recently discussed the film and its inspirations, as well as their stint in the Groundlings comedy troupe.

Question: This is a compliment, but even though this is a comedy, you allow it to get pretty ugly. How important was that?

Rash: As far as balancing the comedy and drama type thing, very important. That's where we started with our Groundlings training, which really is character-based. Even though we were in sketches for many years, all of our characters are supposed to be grounded in something that's really true, and pulling from family and friends and co-workers, and why they're the way they are.

I think we both feel that when comedies try to get to the heart at the end, because they didn't really earn it, they're rushing to remind you what makes these people be in love or whatever. So I think we always react to the comedy that puts some drama up front, which is obviously what we did. The complications are pretty much there so that you are rooting for them, but also, within those dramatic moments, you find that humor, whether it's playing Candyland and it goes south, the minutiae, the real moments with families.

Q: Was there any hesitation about putting the dark stuff up front? Like when Liam James, answering Steve Carell's question, says he's a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, and Carell says he's a 3?

Faxon: I don't think so. I think like what Jim said, oftentimes that line between comedy and something dramatic is so thin. When you're sitting in a funeral sometimes you're laughing, because you're thinking back at the memories you might have shared. And then you're also crying at your loss. Sometimes you can sort of fall on either side. You're emotional in general. Sometimes it comes out as laughter, and sometimes it comes out as sadness.

You're immediately rooting for Duncan (James' character). That was the goal right from the start. Let's get people on this guy's side.

Q: Sam Rockwell's character could have been creepy, but isn't.

Faxon: Yeah, and that's the strength of him, really. Certainly, when we were growing up, we thought of Bill Murray from “Meatballs” as that kind of guy, who gets his confidence from his personality. He doesn't have to be this model-y looking guy. He just needs to be confident and a mentor to the right kids. When we were thinking about it, it never felt creepy to us to cast Sam. You need an older guy who had experience, who understands what the winters are like, who understands the choices he makes, so he can impart that sort of wisdom on Duncan. It doesn't make sense if a kid is three years older than Duncan. You just don't buy it. It takes someone like Sam and his talent and ability to pull that off.

Q: Where did this come from? A particularly eventful summer?

Rash: It came from a lot of things. That opening scene actually happened to me. I was 14, and my stepfather had that exact conversation with me in a station wagon on our way to summer vacation, so we pretty much took that verbatim.

Q: Oh man. The numbers and everything?

Rash: Oh yeah. I was the number 3. He asked me 1 to 10, I said 6, he said 3.

The other thing is, we both grew up on the East Coast, so destinations for summer vacations are so in our world. ... It really is a sense of that community, where people reconvene once a year. It's an interesting community to write about, and that's the other big inspiration. Other than our love of water parks.

Faxon: Who doesn't love water parks?

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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