Q&A with Tom McCarthy

The writer-director talks writing his 'Win Win' original screenplay and more

Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win” represents what has become his signature directing style: a thoughtful character study with plenty of laughs built into the conflict. McCarthy recently spoke by phone with Variety’s Christy Grosz about writing the original screenplay and how his work as an actor informs his directing.

Grosz: When an idea sparks, is it usually a character that starts the creative process for you or is it a situation?

McCarthy: If it’s not a character, then a character is quick on the heels to follow. For instance, with “Win Win,” Joe and I had this initial casual conversation about high-school wrestling and our experiences and that sparked it. Soon after, I started locking in on this small-town lawyer or even small-town businessman — because that is really what Mike Flaherty is — and how those people are coping now and who those people are. When I was writing, there was so much talk about the middle class, especially in politics, and I was doing a lot of research. (I thought), who is this middle class and what are they going through? Wrestling we understood and we knew it would be there when we needed it, but I think finding these characters started to unlock the movie for us

CG: And why high-school wrestling?

TM: Doesn’t that question answer itself? I guess I would ask you, “Why not high school wrestling?” I would say literally it was because we were having such a good time talking about it, and I hadn’t seen it very often (onscreen). I do think at first it was just that. There is always that thing where you have an idea and it is just a fun idea. Then, as we started to flesh out the character shortly thereafter, the idea (was) this man grappling with his own sense of ethics. Then, further to that, there is something about wrestling where it’s just a weird sport. They have their own code; they have their own world they move in. They are kind of a little bit of a bastard sport. They are not a marquee sport like maybe football and basketball and baseball. There is something about that that seemed appropriate.

CG: You have a long resume as an actor, but when you started directing, was being able to direct from your own writing the tipping point for you?

TM: At this point, it is incredibly helpful, and I mean that sincerely. It really allows me into the film as a director. By the time I have really worked through a script, I can feel the script and see the film. Not that there is not a lot of discovery on that path from screenplay to film, but I feel very connected to the material and to the journey of these characters and their world. I doubt I will write all my movies. Even if I took a script from another writer, I would probably do a director’s pass on it. That is an important tool for directors who write to kind of get in the script and own it a little bit. (But) I like the idea of collaborating with other writers. In “Win Win,” I collaborated with Joe (Tiboni), a first-time writer who was incredibly impactful on the script. Joe is one of my oldest friends, so we had that shared experience of the town of New Providence, where the movie is set. Joe (is also) an elder law attorney like Mike Flaherty, so there was a lot to draw on in his personal experiences. I decided to do this with him because he has got a great way of articulating and understanding the world.

CG: Do you prefer to rehearse before shooting?

TM: I usually try to do about two weeks of rehearsal, depending on an actor’s availability and just how the work moves along. We spent a lot of time (on “Win Win”) just focused on table reading. It’s really about digging a little bit deeper and getting the actors’ input, maybe even tailoring the script to those actors. Some actors are uneasy with rehearsal on films for whatever reason, but my experience so far is we have all actually enjoyed that part of the process because there is not a lot of pressure. When you are on set, you kind of have to get it and move on. There is a chance to ask questions and feel it out and make mistakes.

CG: Does your experience as an actor help you as a director?

TM: Any experience that pertains to the process of filmmaking is helpful. I know what it’s like to be in the actors’ position. I have worked with a lot of very talented directors, and maybe not so talented, and I have experiences on both sides so I come to it with a little bit more understanding. I take a lot of pride and enjoyment in that part of the process. Casting and then rehearsing and then directing actors is something I really enjoy.

CG: You’ve worked with a few of the cast members of “Win Win” before. Did the casting come out of already-established relationships?

TM: It was a bit of a mixed bag. With Paul (Giamatti) and Amy (Ryan) and Bobby (Cannavale), I just had them in mind. I am friends with all of them, so that was just me handing them a script and asking them if they wanted to do it. I was aware of Melanie (Lynsky’s) work but I didn’t know her. (She) actually put herself on tape for the role and sent it to us, which was great. Everybody else — Margo Martindale and Jeffrey Tambor — I was really just meeting with a lot of these wonderful actors and having a conversation. With Alex (Shaffer) it was a much more traditional kind of casting process where you have to really cast a wide net.

CG: Did you write the script with those actors in mind or did that come later?

TM: Amy definitely and Bobby, too. But with (the Mike Flaherty character) my clarity on the page kept sort of vacillating or oscillating or whatever-lating. I was trying to find who this guy was. Until I know that I can’t really cast it. When I finished it and sat down with some actors and finally talked to Paul about it, (I realized I had) been hearing his voice the whole time. As soon as he read it, that was that.