Even the most hardened critics are fans of someone.
One of my favorites is writer/director Tom McCarthy. He came up my pick as 2003's best film The Station Agent and the also excellent The Visitor.
Now McCarthy's new film Win Win is one of my early favorite to be 2011's best picture.
How much do I enjoy the movie? I've seen it three times already and wouldn't be opposed to seeing it three more times.
McCarthy's movies are character driven. They are the most three-dimensional of anyone writing today. Not surprisingly, this conversation with McCarthy focused on the character of his characters.
I had the opportunity to spend few minutes with newcomer Alex Schaffer, who blew my mind as the film's boy wrestler -- Alex.
The film opens in Tri-Cities at Carmike on Friday.
Gary Wolcott: I am a big fan of your work. The Station Agent was my pick as the best picture of 2003. I've seen it a half-a-dozen times and turned countless people onto it and they have loved it as much as me. It had great characters. Win Win is the same. So far, it's my favorite movie of the year. I've seen it three times. I could see it three more times.
Where do you come up with your characters?
Tom McCarthy: It's rare that I start with a character and say, "Oh, no one has ever seen this character." It's just trying to get inside the head of the character and be as specific as I can with them. Then I find ways to connect the audience to the character.
I also write with some actors in mind, and I have a good sense of imagining the uniqueness they will bring to those roles as I'm flushing things out. That's a lock. Then you have this whole canvas you're working with and you're not creating it all, you're sourcing it.
GW: So you had Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale in mind when you wrote Win Win?
TM: Yes. They were in my mind as I was writing.
GW: Win Win is hard to peg. It's not a drama, but it's not really a comedy either. Same with The Station Agent and to a certain extent your film The Visitor.
TM: The people at Searchlight told me the movie was funnier than they when they read it on the page. I heard the same thing about The Station Agent. It really wasn't just a tortured, pretentious look at a dwarf's life.
I think the reason the films are funnier than some think is because I leave space for the comedy. I leave space for the character's humanity. I know what they're going to bring, and what is going to happen when I put Paul and Amy in an argument about something.
GW: Your characters work because they're real people and have all the dimensions that real people have. I love these people. I love the characters in Win Win and in The Station Agent. I want to know what happens to their lives after the credits roll. I want to get to know them better. Creating characters that interesting is a skill other writers and directors don't have that you do. Why?
TM: I did two interviews recently in two different cities where the interviewers told me, "I dreamed about your characters last night." It was the weirdest thing. As a writer/director, that's the best it gets. It is what you want. You want to leave the audience wondering how the characters handle things after the end of the movie.
I get accused of not having much happening early in my movies. But in that first 10 minutes I don't need to inject much story. I just want the audience to slow down and get to know the characters. If you do that successfully and the actors pull it off, then you're really going to be invested in these guys once the story gets rolling.
I don't have to win the audience over later on.
GW: Why do I fall in love with your characters and I don't with the characters in most movies?
TM: I can't tell you. It's probably a question someone else — maybe you — will have to answer for me. It must be how I approach the character. There is a sensibility in my writing, I guess. This is a comment that I get a lot. And nothing makes me happier. But it's not a question I can answer.
I think it's where I start. That's what I consider to be the strength of the characters. The development of the characters is obviously something I spend a lot of time thinking about. That and the execution. I'm glad to know all that work is paying off at some level.
GW: You excel at creating chemistry between your characters. These people connect. They really seem to like each other. They're almost like family. Is it because of the casting?
TM: It is a bit of a combination. I am very careful about selecting actors. It's not selecting the best actor for the role, it's selecting the right actor. How do they approach the work? How do they work?
Paul (Giamatti) and Amy (Ryan) had never worked together. Here you have two actors at the top of their game and there was instantly a lot of trust and respect on both sides. They just kind of kicked back and connected. They didn't have to have long discussions about the history of their characters and their marriage. It was just there.
Their characters had a good partnership. Not perfect, but a really solid one. They were very much in love and committed. To sit back and watch that play out was just fun. It's like watching great athletes.
GW: To date you have picked great character actors for your movies. Peter Dinklage for The Station Agent. Richard Jenkins for The Visitor and Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale here. Do actors come banging on your door, wanting to be in your movies? I would.
TM: I have a fair amount of actors approach me. They seem to like the kind of movies I make. They like the space that I give actors.
Paul and I have known each other for over 20 years. We have talked about working together for some time. Amy and I have known each other for 10 or 12 years.
GW: You also came up with the story for Up.
TM: I wrote a couple of drafts and left. The work went on for another year and a half and the second half of the story changed quite a bit. But I did get the story credit. And I did create the relationship between Russell and his wife.
GW: The five-minute montage of their courtship and marriage is one of the most beautiful love stories in the history of movies. It brought tears to the eyes of audiences and even to some jaded critics.
TM: Thank you.
GW: Have you ever thought of doing sequels to films like Win Win or The Station Agent? Hollywood crap gets sequels, but films as good as yours don't. That just doesn't seem right.
TM: I joke about it sometimes. I wouldn't entirely rule it out, but there are just too many other stories to tell and too many other challenges out there.
GW: You made The Station Agent for $500,000. You are proof that you don't need a huge budget to make the best movie of the year. I am such a huge fan. You are a terrific writer and a great director.
Alex Schaffer won the part of Alex. He's a young man with a druggie mom and basically nowhere to call home until adopted by Paul Giamatti's Mike and and Amy Ryan's Jackie.
For a first-time actor, Alex didn't do too badly.
Gary Wolcott: You have never acted before. I didn't know that before I saw the film. You are, however, a real wrestler.
Alex Shaffer: Yes.
GW: Are you a champion like your character Alex?
AS: Yes, and no. Before I made the movie I was doing pretty well. I won state.
GW: Kyle is a deep character, but he doesn't talk a lot. Are you like Kyle?
AS: No. We are very different. We are both disciplined when it comes to wrestling and we're both good at wrestling. In reality I am a loud, obnoxious goofball. Kyle is a straight-forward tough guy. We're much different.
GW: Would you hang out with Kyle?
AS: I like Kyle. But no, we are opposites and very different. I don't think we'd ever get along. He's a nice kid. We wouldn't have problems, but we wouldn't be friends.
GW: Could you beat Kyle in a one-on-one wrestling match?
AS: It would be a pretty good match.
GW: You now find yourself in a motion picture that a lot of people think will be the best picture of the year and that is going to get lots of best-this and best-that award nominations. You've never acted before? How did you get this part?
AS: [Writer/director] Tom McCarthy put out a cattle call in local newspapers for all wrestlers to come and audition for it. A friend told me I should audition. My first reaction was — no. But as I thought about it, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I may never get an opportunity to be in a movie ever again. So I auditioned and after seven or eight tryouts I got the part.
GW: You've never acted and find yourself in a movie with great actors like Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale. Did they help you?
AS: They never really told me what to do. Something like, "Do this, or do that." I learned from watching them. They're fantastic actors. What they did was always make me feel very comfortable. This isn't where I feel most natural, you know, being in a movie, and acting and being on set.
GW: You have great chemistry with them — especially Amy Ryan.
AS: I like to hear that. I love Amy, I love Paul, I love Bobby.
GW: You also had great chemistry with Burt Young, whose fame is from playing Rocky Balboa's brother-in-law and friend Paulie.
AS: I love Burt. He was so much fun to work with. He's a funny guy and you can really tell how much he loves acting.
GW: Are you still in high school?
AS: I'm officially in high school, but I'm taking online classes. I'm really focusing on acting and trying to become the best I can be. I'm taking classes, and I have an acting coach and am trying to become better at it. I want to be better at it before I try my next part.
GW: Who are your favorite actors?
AS: Will Farrell and Paul Rudd.
GW: Had you ever seen Paul Giamatti work before Win Win?
AS: Yes. But I never realized how good of an actor he is. Now I really do. I never realized how good of an actor anybody is or how hard it is to act.
Win Win opens Friday, April 29 at the Carmike 12. Mr. Movie's rating is five stars. This one is not to be missed.