PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Way, way back before they were Oscar winners, back when they were honing their skills as members of The Groundlings comedy troupe, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash started writing together.
This was even before Rash’s role as Dean Pelton on NBC’s “Community” or Faxon’s starring turn on the short-lived “Ben and Kate,” and years before they joined director Alexander Payne to co-write 2011′s “The Descendants,” the best-picture nominee that won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay.
Faxon and Rash were just starting out in Hollywood then when they penned their coming-of-age story “The Way, Way Back.” Now, with Academy Awards on their shelves and decades of acting and writing experience behind them, the longtime collaborators are making their directorial debut with that nearly 10-year old screenplay.
“While the Oscar was this wonderful experience and we’re so indebted to have been a part of ‘The Descendants,’ this felt like, well, this was also our baby, in the sense that it started everything,” said the bald, bespectacled Rash, 42, in an interview earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where the independent movie premiered.
“‘The Descendants’ and the success that it had … provided the momentum for this to happen and for us to return to things that are important to us, such as ‘The Way, Way Back,’ the first script we ever wrote,” the ebullient Faxon, 38, added. “It was invigorating in that it pushed us into directing it ourselves and bringing people that we love aboard.”
Opening Friday, the film tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who finds solace (and his own self-worth) at a water park during a forced summer vacation with his mom and her overbearing boyfriend.
The tale, shot at an actual water park in Marshfield, Mass., was inspired by the writers’ own summers spent at water parks as kids and some awkward moments they experienced growing up.
“We certainly pull a lot of stuff from our own lives,” Faxon said. “We’re not afraid to share our pains and our joys.”
Rash and Faxon hand-picked their cast, writing heartfelt letters to their dream stars and inviting old friends to be part of the mix. The result is an ensemble that includes Toni Collette and Steve Carell as the mom and boyfriend, along with Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Sixteen-year-old Liam James of TV’s “The Killing” plays the lead.
It wasn’t just about finding the right people for the parts, Rash said, but assembling a cast that would be supportive of a pair of first-time directors.
“We knew this was going to be a new experience for us and we needed to have that comfort of the shelter of people who are there to do this together and know exactly what we’re there to do: To do a small movie in a very quick amount of time,” he said. “These were all just good-hearted, talented actors, and that made all the difference in the world.”
Though Rash has years of experience directing Groundlings stage shows, the demands of filmmaking presented a whole new challenge — especially when he and Faxon, who both play bit parts in the film, were in the same scenes.
“The first take we did, the scene ended, and we’re both on camera, and there’s nobody to yell, ‘Cut,’” Faxon recalled. “I didn’t know what was happening.”
Janney said the two often took a “good cop-bad cop” approach to directing.
“Nat might say, ‘Allison, I think that take was brilliant.’ Then Jim would come over and say, ‘I think you can do better,’” she said. “But I worship them because they’re so gifted and so funny. I would follow them into the ocean.”
The two writers also had some fun directing each other, Rash said.
“And when I say fun, I mean it was horrible. And when I say horrible, I mean it was a disaster. And I’m still mad about it,” he said.
The two have an easy chemistry when writing — though Faxon characterizes Rash as “the slightly more neurotic one” — and they brought that energy to their directorial debut.
But having acting pasts also created camaraderie and easy shorthand between the new directors and their cast.
“They wrote an amazing script and then let us infuse it with our own stuff, which was really fun,” said Rudolph, who knew Faxon and Rash from their Groundlings days. “What’s neat about the world of sketch comedy and improv that we came out of is that we learned to be part of a group, so they’re the directors and they’re in charge, but they understand how to work as a team.”
“The Way, Way Back’s” premiere at Sundance inspired a heated bidding war before it landed at Fox Searchlight for close to $10 million — an especially sweet ending to the film’s long, long road to release.
Said Faxon: “Just getting in was so exciting.”
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APSandy.