Interview with Alex Shaffer and Thomas McCarthy about WIN WIN

During SXSW Josh participated in a round table interviews with the cast and director of ground breaking film Win Win (Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and Thomas McCarthy). A Thomas McCarthy Film about suburban family who are facing  financial problems and through a series of events have a young sixteen year old boy enters their lives who happens to be a star athlete.


Q: Was it always your intention, Tom, to cast somebody with no background in Kyle’s role?

A (Tom): Yeah, it was. I think early on I decided I needed a wrestler for that role, not only because I used to wrestle but because I’m sort of a sports nut. I can’t stand when I’m watching movies and I feel like the actor can’t actually play that sport or play it well, especially when that character is supposed to be very good.

Q: It seems to me that this was a feel good film, but whereas most feel good films end with everything coming together, this film ended with Paul’s character having to make a sacrifice. Why did you decide to do that in the writing?

A (Tom): Well, on some level this film is about redemption and however that comes about. It just felt right. For instance, Kyle not winning at the state wrestling tournament felt appropriate with the emotional journey as the protagonist. It felt accurate. Emotionally accurate.

Q: Could you go a little bit over the basic story?

A (Tom): A small town lawyer, Mike Flaherty, in an attempt to ease his financial strain, makes a questionable ethical decision, and takes on the guardianship of an elderly client, and this brings into his life the elderly client’s grandson who’s a runaway from a broken home. Mike is forced to take him in, and there are pros and cons to that situation.

Q: Anytime that you’re doing a film that involves sports, inevitably there can be injuries. Where there any injuries on the set with Alex or with anyone else?

A (Tom): No, these guys are young and tough. If we tried to do it, it’d be a different story, haha. A lot of these guys are quite accomplished wrestlers. They could really go at it, and just have to loosely set up with the camera. That hopefully gave the wrestling some reality.

Q: Alex, speaking of wrestling, was it hard to do some of the more emotional scenes, like the scenes with your mother?

A (Alex): Yeah, it definitely was hard for me, because I’ve never acted before. But I was in great hands, he even set me up with an acting coach.

Q: Were you given direction to play a stoic character? Nothing seems to get to you until your mother shows up in the film; or was it your idea to play the character that way?

A (Alex): I mean I guess that’s how Kyle is, you know? Its not like he goes with everything… but nothing bothers him, that much, except when it comes to Leo and his mother.

Q: So, Alex, are people back at home giving you crap about all this?

A (Alex): Yeah, man, all my friends are teasing me, as a joke. They love it.

Q: Your other films that I’ve seen, it seems like they’re about family, but it seems like they’re about family being created out of totally desperate moments. How did you decide this time around to have sort of a do-good family? Was that risky?

A (Tom): What was more risky to me wasn’t so much dealing with family, that just kind of happened, it was more setting it in that environment, in a conventional suburban American environment. Its not like I’m a champion of the suburbs, but that’s just kind of where the story had to be told, and you had to make that compelling. Especially because I didn’t think what we were setting out to do was to represent that world authentically, originally. I had to make that world something Mike wanted to fight for. I couldn’t shred it, you know. I think its partly because of my age now that I can look back on and represent suburban life fairly, without going after it. I’m now able to see what Mike likes about this world.

Q: The film’s about family and financial hardship; do you think that the recession is a creatively fruitful time to make movies?

A (Tom): I think on a general note, when times are hard people do turn towards movies and other forms of entertainment. Escapism, right? I think there’s a level of escapism with the characters, especially Mike and Terry getting caught up in the sports. But I wanted to have fun with this movie; I wanted to lighten it up. I wanted it to be a little loose, a little sloppy, especially after The Visitor, which was such a delicate movie. I kind of wanted to throw the needle the other way. It was important that it didn’t become too preachy or too solemn. Things are gonna continue to be bad in the recession, but its more about how to recover responsibly and with grace.

(Spoiler Alert ahead)

Q: At the beginning of the movie, Mike says he doesn’t want to be a bartender, but that’s what he ends up doing at the end. Both this film and The Visitor sort of end on a note of disappointment. Is that something you do on purpose or is it where the script took you?

A (Tom): Where it took me. I think it’s realistic, too. A big part of me wanted Kyle to succeed, and to win state, and to have the whole celebration. I think it just felt honest to that world. Not everything ties up at the end and life doesn’t end after a wrestling tournament, whether you win or not. The victory is coming back to the suburbs and watching the kids playing on the lawn, without thinking about it. That’s why people move to the suburbs, for the children. As un-cinematic as it might be, that was the emotional victory of it.

Q: What do you like so much about suburbia?

A (Tom): Nothing, it’s a challenge. What fascinated me was can I set a story here? And it was something personal coming back to the world, trying to see it with fresh eyes.

Q : What was that like?

A (Tom): Tough to quantify, you know. It was trying to see it in detail, trying to make the story as specific as possible and hopefully it would resonate. And people would see it in all parts of the country and parts of the world. I’m very curious to see how this movie does abroad, certainly in Europe. I was excited to travel with this movie and see how people would react to it, I really don’t know how they will. Its one of my favorite parts of the process.

Q: When Alex’s character shows up, it seems like Mike and his whole family are stuck in a rut, but it seems to be the change they all need. At the same time it was a change that Alex needed in his own life too. At what point did you decide that the family elements were going to outweigh the wrestling side of it?

A (Tom): Its an addictive element of the story for a lot of people and it was nice to know we had that in our back pocket, in terms of story and an intellectual level.But I don’t think the family is in a rut and if they are its the happy rut of life. Routine is important to them and I think for Mike all he wants to do is be in that happy rut; he just wants to be able to afford it and he isn’t. I think that’s important. Its not like Kyle comes into their lives and because of his athletic prowess he changes everything. I don’t think he even changes Jackie in that way at all; she eventually finds it cool and cheers him on like any parent might but I think its her emotional connection with this young man.

Q: When it came to casting, did you write the role specifically for them or was it just a happy coincidence?

A (Tom): I wrote the role for Amy, definitely, Bobby I had in mind. Paul I always had in mind but I had not decided and took a look at it and had to evaluate it. Mike’s character could go a couple of different ways and I wanted to step back from it when it was done after a solid draft or two. It was an easy decision because I continually heard Paul’s voice when I was writing it. I had to find Alex and a lot of the other people were just discoveries . My casting process is pretty quick; I don’t spend a lot of time with it.

Q: Alex, talk about the scene where you throw Paul to the ground; how did it work out? And were you scared that something might happen?

A (Alex): No, I remember there was a double, but the double did not do that scene. I remember having that conversation with Paul and Paul was like, “They never let me do it. I want to do it,” and we ended up doing it. I was not nervous I mean Paul is a tough guy. But he did tell us later that he woke up the next day sore.

Q: So Tom what kind of wrestler are you; were you on the A team? B team?

A (Tom): I was trying hard to get on the A team; I was pretty good. I was not as good as Alex, I never made it to state or regionals. But by my senior year I was burnt out and quit. I just realized I was not having fun anymore. But I enjoyed it, the research side of things is fun to do now, the going and watching these matches. But when I heard about Alex, he had a match that weekend and I knew the guy he was wrestling. Its like Shakespeare- once you understand it, it opens up in this beautiful way. Joe and I were dropping stuff all the time to go to these matches.

Q: How did it feel the moment you knew you were going to be in the film?

A (Alex): It was cool, I was a little shocked. It was right after region finals, I just pinned Herberto Katana and ended up wrestling in the state finals. I came home and Tom was on the phone. I picked up and Tom said, “hey you got the part.” And I was like ahh cool, as he told me not to dye my hair purple. Because in one of my auditions I said I was going to dye my hair purple for states.

Tom: Why purple by the way?

A (Alex): Its just really cocky, haha, that’s the best way to put it.

Q: Were the tattoos and dyed hair a way to get into character?

A (Tom): Oddly enough he came to us with that blonde hair. I liked the idea of him doing it because his team did it, and the tattoos because you see a lot of guys tatted and I liked how it said something about where he is coming from. Each tattoo had a meaning.

Q: Alex, did you have any input on how the fights went down? Did you choreograph at all?

A (Alex):Yeah I had some input. We all got together and went over it with the stunt coordinator. We went over what moves would happen.

A (Tom): I wrote it pretty specifically, and I would ask for ideas just like you would for an actor and a script. Just like that really cool throw Alex does were he pins Kenny Randall; that was Alex’s move.

By Josh Davis


About Josh

First and foremost Josh is a wino and an all around dangerous individual. Second, Josh is a political junkie, a wildlife aficionado, and a history enthusiast who aspires to be a raw mix between James Carville, Steve Irwin, Anderson Cooper, Iggy Pop, and a clown car. Most importantly, Josh is high consumer of "fuel," whether it be music, documentaries, or just some fun with friends and some cheap beers, it's all "fuel" and Josh is a very heavy consumer.

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