Tom McCarthy explains why he chose a high school wrestling mat as the setting for a morality play about why good men do bad things in Win Win.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
For Tom McCarthy, the writer-director behind quietly smart films like The Station Agent and The Visitor, a suburban high school wrestling mat is the perfect place to for a morality play. His new film Win Win stars Paul Giamatti as a decent, relatively happy, but financially distressed small town lawyer and wrestling coach whose team spends most of their time studying the gymnasium rafters from a prone position. When the troubled grandson of an elderly client shows up after having run away from his drug-addicted mother, things get tricky. The boy is a wayward minor, but he’s also a wrestling prodigy.
In this small, safe world, McCarthy attempts to illuminate and explore the true-to-life plight of fundamentally good people who make bad decisions – a tale he feels has even larger resonance in today’s post-financial meltdown world. Evil villains are not the real or dramatically interesting story – the juicy story is the decent person who makes a wrong ethical turn when the heat is on.
McCarthy, who is also an accomplished actor, spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the unethical choices good people make and his collaborative journey writing Win Win with a longtime friend, lawyer, and fellow high school wrestler.
If you were to put this story in a thematic frame, what for you is the big narrative center here?
It really deals with the choices that, in this case, a fundamentally decent person makes under pressure. Mike Flaherty [Giamatti] is a decent person who makes some bad choices. I’m a big believer that we’re not in the [financial] mess we’re in because there are a lot of really bad people, but because a lot of decent people made some bad choices. Sometimes those choices are even out of character.
So decent people making mistakes is more real and more interesting than the monochromatic evil character?
Photo: © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox
Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win Win.
That’s what interested me about this story. This is where I feel our problems lie. We can’t just regulate everything through the state and federal government. There has to be a sense of personal responsibility to what we know is right, even when times are tough. That’s a big condition we’re all dealing with now. That’s something that makes the movie a bit timely if not accessible to a lot of people.
You’ve said on previous films that, as a writer, you tend to start with character, not narrative. Was that true in this case as well?
I started with this idea of a solid member of a small community, a family man, a man who was very content with his life. He’s a man who’s built the life he wants, he’s just having trouble maintaining it.
He’s loves his wife and the town. His dream is to raise a family in a suburban community. In that way, I was being very careful to not comment too much [on suburban life] or to condescend or sentimentalize it.
That’s such a cinematically and literarily loaded area…
I agree. It’s such a conventional life, but it’s designed that way, for people who aren’t looking for a lot of surprises out there, they’re looking for stability and consistency, specifically in their work and for their families. When that’s interrupted, it can result, hopefully, in some interestingly dramatic and humorous situations.
And your approach here is not to satirize or make a negative commentary on that life?
Look, my friend that I developed the story with, Joe Tiboni, lives there with his wife and his two kids. He’s an attorney, and he loves his life, wouldn’t trade it for anything, wouldn’t trade it for a screenwriting career. It’s where he wants to be. His parents are close. He knows the community. He likes the schools. I can tell you, it certainly isn’t my life, but I really appreciate it at this point, seeing what he has there. It’s admirable.
Tell me about how you worked together developing this story.
I called him. He’s never worked on a script or film in any capacity. I’d been pushing him for years to start writing, and he was beginning to dabble a bit, but he’s a full-time lawyer and has a family. He’s a busy guy, but when I thought about this movie, I thought he was the right guy to turn to [and] I thought it would be fun.
I thought what better way to encourage him to write. Also we shared the experience of high school wrestling, which I knew at that point I wanted to be a part of the film. So on a whim I said, “Why don’t you develop this with me?” And he really jumped at it. He definitely wanted to be a part of something like this.
For the first six months, we just sat around and talked and talked, took a lot of notes, started to work on an outline, and then I would go away and write, and he would go away and work on his law practice. I would call him all the time and ask, “What do you think about this or that?” Then I started showing him pages and getting feedback. It was really a nice relationship. He understood that I had more knowledge about film – look, I’ve been doing this for a while now – but he was a tremendous amount of help. He was living in that world, not to mention the eldercare element of the story, which he’s an expert on. He’s been practicing that for 17 years.
We just really enjoyed each other. In many ways, it brought us together as friends again.
Because you’re finally spending time together again?
Yeah, and while you’re dealing with the story, you talk about everything else in your life too. That’s part of the process. I thought, Hey, if nothing comes of this screenplay, this has been a great experience.