The American indie comedy took eight years from script to screen but it's made an immediate splash.
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6 Jun 2013 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2013 - 10:57 AM

The pairing of Toni Collette and Steve Carell in The Way, Way Back has been hailed as a return to the same terrain as their feelgood hit, Little Miss Sunshine, and indeed it is, right down to the kid stealing the show. The considerable comedic talents of Sam Rockwell are in evidence too––he gives “what may be the most winning performance in a career full of charm,” the Hollywood Reporter says, while comedy queen Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids) is totally in her element as his boss at the run-down local water park.

It’s a passion project for the most part

When audiences were in raptures at the film's Sundance premiere Fox Searchlight knew they would get their money's worth. The Rupert Murdoch-owned company bought the film for $10 million, the most money spent for a Sundance film since Searchlight bought Little Miss Sunshine for $10.5 million in 2006.

“It's about a fairly dysfunctional family and I play the divorced mother of a teenage boy and I now have a new boyfriend who is not such a nice person,” Collette explains of her character Pam's onscreen relationship with Carell's Trent in the new film. “I try to make it work because I want it to work, but I'm clearly barking up the wrong tree, especially when Duncan reveals the truth about Trent.”

Duncan, played impressively by Liam James, is a shy, awkward 14-year-old who doesn't have many friends until he meets the renegade Owen (Rockwell), a layabout with a heart of gold who works at a water park where Rudolph is his boss. It's a completely separate part of the movie and a separate part of Duncan's life where he finally can be himself as Rockwell introduces him to his own sunnier, more daredevil side.

“All the actors come from a comedic background and a lot of them improvise, so being on the set was just amazing,” James enthuses.

Still, a lot of the credit for the film's success must go to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of The Descendants (with Alexander Payne) who here co-direct their first feature. Like other independent filmmakers, they had been developing the film for years, with Payne managing to get the go-ahead to direct The Descendants before The Way, Way Back would finally be made.

“We first wrote this about eight years ago and really it's been a long journey,” Rash admits. “Ultimately, the screenplay was what brought us to The Descendants. That became our calling card so we always wanted to get back to it. It's a passion project for the most part. Over the years, we've been adding things and fleshing things out but it's still pretty similar.”

“Jim grew up in North Carolina and I grew up in Boston Massachusetts,” Faxon explains. “It's a personal story so it was important for us that there are a lot of ties to the look and the feel of the East Coast. Summers at water parks seems like a great place to give Duncan an escape because for us growing up it was one of those things where your parents would drop you off, put a 20 in your hand and say, 'See you later'. You just would have an amazing time at those places. No matter what it looked like to anyone else, to you it was this wonderful place.”

Rash, who also maintains a high profile as one of the misfit characters in the NBC college campus comedy series Community, is candid about the personal nature of Duncan's struggle. Early on in the film, Duncan is sitting in the back of an old-fashioned station wagon when Trent callously asks how he rates himself on a scale from 1 to 10. Duncan reluctantly answers 6, though Trent corrects him with only a 3.

“That was inspired by a real event in my life,” recalls Rash, “when I was asked what I thought I was on a scale of from 1 to 10 by my stepfather at the time during a car trip to Michigan. We knew that was a great launch for understanding Duncan's journey.”

Even if Carell in an unusual turn is not the garrulous nice guy in the movie, he was keen to jump on board. “The first five pages of this screenplay were riveting,” he says. “It defined the characters but didn't seem overwritten in revealing too many things about them. Also it was nice to work with Toni again and to get to know her a little better. It was good to shoot back East because that's where my wife and I are from.”

Rash was grateful to Carell for coming on board. “Steve helped us bring the character to life—and it was quite tricky,” he admits. “Trent is really designed as a man who in his life has hit a circle that he can't break out of. There are characters that are always going to change by the end obviously—that's the point of making great stories. But for Trent, what we wanted was a man who could not break out of his own self; his own worst enemy is himself and every time he thinks and sees something he has that's so wonderful in front of him, he ruins it. His treatment of Duncan is based on something that means, 'I'm done with that chapter and I'm ready to move on to just having fun with my friends.' And he can't stop. He says he wants to be better and can't.

“So although for Pam it's about breaking out and not being scared of that next chapter of your life, no matter what's there. That's sort of the design to the story.”

As for Rudolph—who is currently heavily pregnant with her fourth child to director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)—she knows a thing or two about eccentric characters. She has been friends with Faxon and Rash since their time together in the sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings early in her career.

“They're like my family, they're my brothers, they've seen weird parts of my body!" she exclaims. "We've written really stupid sketches together and worn horrible wigs. I was so lucky that there was something for me to do in the movie because I was championing it anyway. Seeing the actors and crew respond to Nat and Jim and the incredible crew that they got together for this was such a clear indication of their incredible talent.”

The Way, Way back screens at th 2013 Sydney Film Festival and is released in cinemas nationwide August 1.Click here for our full coverage of the festival.