Writer, director and screenwriter tells TheWrap: “We have a tendency sometimes to lower the bar a little bit and oversimplify movies”
Tom McCarthy is the rarest of triple threats in Hollywood: a writer, director, and actor who doesn’t write roles for himself.
You probably know McCarthy’s face from mainstream projects such as “Meet the Parents” and “The Wire,” but it’s in indie film that he has really left his mark. McCarthy’s quiet first film, “The Station Agent,” was a bright early moment for “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage, and it was so well received — the screenplay won awards at the BAFTAs, Sundance and the Indie Spirit Awards. The accolades promoted a screening of the movie for Pixar, which led to his collaboration with the studio on the story for “Up,” netting him an Oscar nomination.
Two more critically acclaimed writer-director efforts followed — with special acclaim for 2011’s “Win Win” — and now, his latest project, the screenplay for Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm.” The film stars Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who, in a moment of desperation, heads off to India in an effort to find a cricket player who might be able to throw hard enough to be a Major League pitcher. The movie, directed by Craig Gillespie, is based on a true story, which makes it all the more incredible.
McCarthy spoke to TheWrap about writing “Million Dollar Arm” and several of his other projects.
TheWrap: So Disney gives you a book to adapt: What’s the first move you make, after reading it?
McCarthy: There was no book to adapt, actually. Funny enough, my wife (just) said, “My mom and I saw the paperback the other day.” And I said, “What paperback?” And she said, “I think there’s a paperback that just came out.” There wasn’t any book when I wrote the movie three years ago. I think J.B. put together his thoughts, I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I understand, his name was on it. What they gave me was just some original material, some articles, a breakdown of what this guy had done. Then I sat down with him and a lot of players involved in the movie, different participants in the story and kind of interviewed them and through that, started to put the story together.
Is this the first time you’ve written a nonfiction film, based on a true story?
Occasionally I’ll get studio rewrites and polishes on the side for money, and there was something about this story. I had a little gap in my schedule before we jumped back into my next project — that’s usually when I take writing projects on. It’s a way to make a living and I like working with other people. They came to me with this story and I just loved this story, I just immediately thought it was such an interesting and compelling and fun story that made sense at Disney and I jumped on.
This story jumps around from L.A. to India and moves all around India and back, so did you block it out section by section, to break down the screenplay to digestible bits?
That was one of the most difficult things, was finding how we could condense it to a two-hour movie, or however long it is now. I think what’s really exciting about this movie, it’s structurally kind of inventive, just the fact that we start in L.A., go to India, then go back to L.A. There’s a lot of stories within stories in this particular one.
That was really the difficult thing, trying to crack that, saying, “OK, how do I make this make sense so the audience is with us on this journey?” When he comes back from India, this whole new adventure starts, which is working with these three young men, and it almost becomes a whole new story in some ways. I think threading and integrating that story into the bigger story, and finding the framework to make this barstool story work well as a script, was in many ways the most challenging aspect.
Was there any key that made you realize how to do it?
No, it was writing fat and realizing what mattered most and what didn’t. Look, every section could almost be its own movie. And you never wanted to lose India because it was such an important part of J.B.’s personal journey, and where these men came from. And it was so elemental to the story, and visually and cinematically it was an amazing place to include in the film. We were all determined to do that. I think Craig did a terrific job of even taking the script that we had and really finding what mattered most to the story.
So what did the trip to India do for you specifically?
I had never been there, and to try to write about it seemed ridiculous without having the experience. I just jumped in, I took a trip there and hit all the places, met some of the people, I went to the village where the young men were from, and actually went to their family homes and sat with their families. I had an interpreter with me, who was actually the character Amit was based on, and he showed me around. I traveled to as many places as I could. It’s spectacular and it’s incredibly challenging. I think J.B. will attest to that too — I mean, trying to start a business there, I can’t even imagine. It was important to me to go through the ups and downs of India and really experience that beautiful country and all it has to offer before I could even attempt to write about it.
I rewatched “The Station Agent” last night, and it struck me how quick you get into the action there, and you do the same thing here and in “Win Win” — your inciting incident comes very quickly.
My editor and I are just sort of finishing our fourth film together, and he’s always saying, “Man, we’re always trying to start quicker.” I’m of two camps, I usually don’t rush it, but in terms of starting quickly, it’s always just jumping into character for me. I think I could be accused of being slow to story sometimes. I think with “Million Dollar Arm,” we had no choice, we had to understand who J.B. was, where he was at right in that first scene. He had to come up with this crazy plan, not to mention execute it, we just had a lot of ground to cover. We just had to jump in.
I haven’t seen the finished cut, believe it or not. But even in the rough cut you just see Jon Hamm, I remember him at the read-through of it in LA., he was just so good. He’s so good in the movie — the guy is so incredibly adept, in the simplest way of conveying emotion. In a really no bullshit, straightforward way, he just made this character really come off the page, it was great to see.
You don’t overload on exposition about a character at first, yet they’re very defined right away. What are the essential, minimal pieces of information an audience needs to understand a character?
I think all those performers and actors [Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” and Peter Dinklage in “The Station Agent”], that’s a key element, they’re very good characters, who do their homework and bring their characters to life, so they make our writing and work better. Without that key element, that other stuff doesn’t work so well. That said, audiences are so sophisticated now, they’re so film-savvy and story-savvy in general. I think sometimes we overload stories trying to find exactly who someone is, and in doing so, we almost pigeonhole someone, because you can never define someone by a few key events in their lives. It’s just more trusting that here is a three=dimensional person with good and bad parts, who’s struggling to some degree, in most cases at the top of these films, and now we’re about to deal with that.
I think sometimes I’m accused of being a little bit too subtle in my writing, and not setting up these problems for characters and stakes at the beginning, but I don’t know — I’m a big believer in letting that organically unfold as the story moves forward. It’s a process in the first couple drafts: you write fat, and say I don’t need a lot of this stuff, they’re gonna get this. I think that’s part of the edit process, which is the absolute extension of the writing process. A good editor is a good writer, as far as I’m concerned. It’s stripping things away — we don’t need three mentions of this, we only have to say it once and we get it.
So audiences seeing movies for the last 100 years means that they already have an idea of what’s coming, they know the key signals.
Kids start watching earlier and earlier. Kids are now growing up on Pixar movies and those are incredibly sophisticated stories. It’s a story filled with all kinds of advanced themes and topics and cinematic storytelling — let those translate. And I think taking that out of the equation, people in general, if they pay attention, they pick up on things. We have a tendency sometimes to lower the bar a little bit and oversimplify movies. That’s why I’m excited about this movie. Disney was really encouraging in saying let’s try to say a really sophisticated, warm family drama-comedy, and not sort of lower the bar in any way, and I think the movie reflects that. I think everyone did a great job on this.
What were Disney’s instructions? Did the studio want anything specific? They have a certain brand, a consistency.
I have to say, it was one of the most pleasant studio collaborations I’ve had in my career. They came to me with the story, they said go away and write it, I said I’ll probably have to go to India for two or three weeks to do my research, they said great. I did that and we started working on the story. I turned in a first draft, I think we had maybe one discussion with them and the producers about where I was headed with it, the framework and challenges, which they were on board with, and then I just started handing in drafts.
They really have a smart group of people over there who, it seems to me, they’re determined to keep trying to make original, compelling stories that are smart, the kind of movies that are hard to make nowadays. They don’t sit in one particular genre but they’re really great stories. They were just incredibly supportive along the way, and sometimes that’s not always the case, it could be a difficult process when you’re developing something with a studio. But this was, here’s a draft, the notes were helpful, then I got back to work.
Between being in India and professional baseball, there could have been a seedier version of this; it reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode where, since they can’t say “masturbate,” they say things like “master of my domain.”
Honestly, I need to see the movie and actually reflect on that, because it’s funny, I never felt, at least in the writing process, I never felt handicapped in any way. I felt like I was able to write exactly what I needed to write in this story. And there’s always places in storytelling where you can choose to go to the darker, crazier places — if the story reflects that, if it requires that. I don’t think that was necessarily the case. I didn’t think we were writing a lighter story, I think we were writing the story that J.B. conveyed to us, the story we discovered through the research.
I think Alan Horn and Sean Bailey and those guys are really committed to trying to tell sophisticated stories and original stories. I think it’s exciting, I really do. I think it’s Disney trying to step it up in a really exciting way and not feeling like, just because it’s a Disney movie, you have to expect a certain thing. I think this movie reflects that. I think a lot of people can be fully entertained.
You portray J.B. as a bit of an asshole, especially in the beginning. Was he candid about that? Was he OK with that portrayal?
It’s not something I didn’t think about. Look, “asshole,” I don’t know. Selfish guy, consumed and very ambitious? Yes, to some extent. And I think he’d be the first one to say the events in this story changed his life. The travel to India, the experience of having these young men with him to meeting a woman in the process to falling in love, now he’s married with a kid, he’s never been happier. It doesn’t take much to discover that, OK, at some point you were kind of caterwalling around L.A. and having a good time, and I think that’s reflected. I think Hamm really captures that, with some degree of charm and empathy that you can’t quite — there’s a thing he does off the page, you still root for the guy even though you’re not in his camp.
Your leads tend to be either isolated or guys who make some moral compromises, a little unsociable. But they’re not antiheroes, which TV and film do so often now. What’s the difference?
I’m a big believer in the gray area, that there’s not black or white, or good and bad, there’s everything in between. A lot of good people make bad choices and good people make bad choices, quite honestly. I’m working on another project now where maybe one of the worst characters of the story does the most right thing in a lot of ways. I almost can’t reconcile the idea of this guy, and I wanted to ask him, why did you do the right thing, of everyone else out there? We don’t even know what his motivations are. To me, that is where it gets really interesting.
That’s why I rarely have traditional bad guys in my movies, or traditional antagonists in my movies: it’s usually a little tough to pinpoint. I don’t think J.B. is a bad guy, I think he’s like a lot of young men who are struggling to find his place, really ambitious, and their dreams aren’t happening and they’re looking for satisfaction and looking for a lot of these things in a lot of wrong places. Validation is maybe a better word than satisfaction, but both. And I just find that really interesting, and I think, look, this is based on a real story, so I’m basing it on my notes and interviewing this guy and hearing him talk about himself and his life, so some of that was already done for me.
“Million Dollar Arm” is really two fish-out-of-water stories, but we’re always relating to the American. What is the difference between comedy and condescension?
I don’t think it’s condescending. I’ve traveled around the world quite a bit, so I feel like I’m slightly sensitive to that, as are most people at this point. You have to look at it not just as this is two young men from India, because India is an incredibly sophisticated country, in some ways more so than here. These kids were coming from a small town, they were very rural kids, and they just didn’t have a lot of life experience. There’s the scene where he plays with the elevator; these guys told me that the first time they saw an escalator was in L.A. in the airport, and they started to panic and it started to go down, and it became this big scene and it was hilarious, one guy was trying to go back down and it was a panic.
J.B. said it didn’t dawn on me, because India is so sophisticated, Mumbai is incredible, but when you get out into the country, there’s still young men who don’t have that experience. So it’s a fine line, because it’s also how the audience perceives it. All we can do is try to be true to these characters, who these young men were, and it with as much accuracy as we can.