Interview – Tom McCarthy – Win Win

SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains conversations about things in the film “Win Win” that may be considered spoilers. If you would rather see the film first, simply bookmark this page and come back to it after. Thank you.

With his new film Win Win now in theaters, writer/director and actor Tom McCarthy is now on his third film. This time around, Tom has set his story sights on suburban America and the age old sport of Greco-Roman wrestling. The film, like his two previous works The Station Agent and The Visitor, is one part character study, one part genre film, and two parts the world through Tom’s lens. For the press tour for the film, I was given an opportunity to sit down with Tom and discuss the film’s characters and his personal take on the stories he chooses to tell. He is a very well-spoken, intelligent person with a unique voice in film today.

Benjamin Nason: I noticed that each of your films as a very distinct, different setting. Also, the setting is obviously important to each film. How important is that when you set out to initially begin each new story?

Tom McCarthy: This one was really challenging I would say, because when I realized I was going to write about these guys, and this high school, I realized I was setting it in the suburban town I grew up in. That I, like most young people, couldn’t wait to get out of. I spent most of my life kind of running away from it. I had a great upbringing there and everything, but I wanted to explore and do my own thing. So I was coming back to it and that way it felt personal—also challenging. The world is very conventional. It’s this suburban community, there’s nothing sensational about it in any way. So how do we make it operate in this story? How do we make it as specific as possible without commenting on it? That both scared me a little bit and excited me a little bit.

BN: I saw in an interview with Paul Giamatti that his character was in part based on a real person. I was wondering how much of the film, then, is based on real people and events?

TM: Joe Tiboni, who developed the story with me, he lives in New Providence, he’s an elder law attorney, he’s married with two kids. So when Joe and I were developing the story, we were kind of cherry picking from his life. I was doing it as a writer because it allowed me to be really, very specific about it. But that was just a jumping off point. That was just the foundation; now we had to go create Flaherty, and then that was a whole other storyline, a whole world, another thing. But that really was just a jumping off point.

BN: Are you, then, a wrestling fan?

TM: I was. I wrestled in high school, with Joe, on that team, the New Providence Pioneers. I hadn’t paid much attention to it for twenty years, but then we started going back and watching these matches for the movie. We went to the high school we wrestled in, going to their practices. Then we started going to other, different level schools, and we started going to tournaments.

BN: So you spent a lot of time with this?

TM: Yeah, we spent about year and half diving back in. We kind of had to. For me, it’s not just the wrestling, it’s also the people, it’s the world. There’s so much there that you can just take away from. Even with Stemler, when he finally wrestles and the kid comes out with the mask. I was at a match when a kid came out with that mask and I was like, we have Stemler, we have the storyline, okay that’s hilarious.

BN: Yes. That was perfect. I had never heard of or seen anything like that before.

TM: Yeah the kids do it a lot in basketball because you if get elbowed in the nose you have to wear that thing. That’s what it is, that kid obviously had an injury and the only way you can wrestle then is if you put on these masks. They come in white and black. They’re both hilarious.

BN: Black is obviously the way to go.

TM: Yes. I saw a couple of them, and for that scene, when the kid walked out at that match, I just burst out laughing and knew I had to use it.

BN: It made me immediately think of Slapshot, when the goalie changes his mask to that black intimidating mask once the team becomes goons.

TM: Ha! That’s funny.

BN: Let’s talk about Mike; he’s a very morally complex character, I would say. One of the things I found particularly interesting was, in the first half hour or so, it reminded me of when I was a kid and all the things I did not like about parents and adults, about how they made decisions that felt to us as kids at that moment as very selfish and not about us. Considering that, how do you maintain a balance for Mike as a fallible character and yet one that remains likable to an audience, so that they’re cheering for him still by the end of the film?

TM: I didn’t know. The set-up of the guy is, he’s a decent guy. We see him struggling, working, providing, and trying to be present for his family. So there was the foundation of a man involved in his life in all the right ways. Then we discover he’s under a lot of pressure, and some of it is self imposed in some ways. Some of it is based on his situation, realistically, his financial situation. I wanted to sort of challenge the audience in that moment. To sort of snap, and make them say, “Hold it. That’s not supposed to happen. We like him.” And that, I thought, was really compelling. What happens when someone you like does something you don’t? It’s like you have a new friend and you’re really hitting it off and suddenly they say something, and your response is, whoa, I don’t agree with that. It could be something that shocks you. That wakes you up. You have to recognize it. You say, I like this guy, but I don’t like the way he behaves in this moment. Is there room for both? I still struggle with that as an adult. You have friends and people in your life who you believe in and trust, but they do some dumb things. And you have to think, how am I going to approach this? Is that person a bad guy now? Or do I have to allow for this? Allowing is, for me, compelling. How do you reconcile? How do you work through that? I don’t even have the answers yet, because I still wrestle with it. I still grapple with it at some level in my life, with certain people and certain relationships. I think, quite honestly, that we’re all pretty decent people, yet we all have that capacity to do something wrong.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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