Am 21. Juli 2011 ist in den deutschen Kinos Win Win angelaufen, der dritte Spielfilm des Schauspielers, Drehbuchautors und Regisseurs Thomas McCarthy. McCarthys Karriere im Filmbusiness begann vor der Kamera, er hatte Gastauftritte in diversen TV-Serien von Ally McBeal über Boston Public bis zu Law & Order. Zuletzt war er im TV in der letzten Staffel von HBOs monumentaler Stadt-Anatomie The Wire zu sehen, wo er den etwas zu fantasievollen Zeitungsreporter Scott Templeton spielte, der seinen Interview-Partnern gerne erfundene Zitate in den Mund legt. (Derartiges geschieht beim Interview mit McCarthy selbstverständlich nicht.) Auf der Kinoleinwand spielte er unter anderem Rollen in Stephen Gaghans Syriana und Clint Eastwoods Flags of our Fathers.
Thomas McCarthys Regiedebüt Station Agent aus dem Jahr 2003, eine warmherzige, kitschfreie Geschichte über einen sozialen Außenseiter, wurde auf Anhieb ein beachtlicher Erfolg. McCarthy schrieb auch das Drehbuch, wofür er bei den britischen BAFTA-Awards für das beste Original-Drehbuch ausgezeichnet wurde (und sich gegen hochkarätige Konkurrenz wie 21 Grams, Finding Nemo und Lost in Translation durchsetzen konnte). Bei seinem zweiten Film The Visitor (2007) spielte der spätestens seit Six Feet Under bekannte Richard Jenkins die Hauptrolle eines Akademikers in der Sinnkrise, der in seiner New Yorker Wohnung zwei illegale Einwanderer antrifft, sie fortan beherrbergt und sich für ihre Interessen einsetzt. Jenkins wurde für seine Darstellung für den Oscar als bester Hauptdarsteller nominiert, McCarthy selbst von der Writers Guild of America für das beste Original-Drehbuch.
Filmpreise sind eine schöne Sache, aber wenn man sich die Filme von Thomas McCarthy ansieht, kommt man zu dem Schluss, dass sie ihm wahrscheinlich nicht so extrem wichtig sind. Seine Filme haben einen äußerst menschlichen Grundton, interessieren sich sehr für ihre Charaktere, wenig für formale Spielereien. Immer wirft er einen kritischen Blick auf eine Gesellschaft, deren etablierte Mitglieder und grundsätzliche Systematik dazu tendieren, Außenseiter zu vernachlässigen und auszugrenzen. Sie sind unprätentiös, stellen ihre Inszenierung nicht zur Schau. McCarthy als Regisseur bleibt dezent im Hintergrund. Seine Filme zeigen keine Erfolgs-, sondern Krisengeschichten des Durchschnittsmenschen. Ihre Themen sind der psychische Druck, den eine gesellschaftliche Randposition mit sich bringt und die erlösende Kraft, die man in einer Ersatzfamilie finden kann.
NEGATIV traf Thomas McCarthy während des Filmfests München zu einem Gespräch.
How do you like it in Munich, especially the festival?
I just got here yesterday, we arrived late afternoon. I had to do an interview or two and then I took a bike ride and had a nice dinner and went to bed. So I haven’t seen much. We took a nice long walk early this morning, it’s a beautiful city. I was here once, 22 years ago, when I was a student, backpacking through Europe. And I stopped here and had a few blurry nights. I bought a bunch of meat at that meat market over there, with all the little huts. The deli where you buy all the sauages and everything. And then I got on a train and went to Prague. It is a beautiful city, we have friends who live here and have an apartment. They had bikes and gave us a nice long tour riding around. Gorgeous city.
Have you seen any of the films?
No, I’ve seen nothing, that’s sad. We got in last night and all the people that we know here had dinner and then I’ve been in press all day. Which unfortunately is very common for film festivals as a filmmaker, unless you’re going for four of five days. You can have your arrive-day, your press-day and have more time. Which sometimes I’ve done, I’ve done that at Karlovy Vary, in San Sebastian and some festivals in the US, Sundance… I was brought here because of the German Press for Win Win. It is too bad because I was just sitting there in bed this morning reading through the movies and you just realize how many movies you don’t get a chance to see because many of these won’t play beyond the festivals, especially in the United States, which is so disappointing. It’s such a luxury when you can just go from movie to movie.
Was there any particular movie you would have liked to see?
[Er denkt kurz nach.] No, because I was really just reading about movies that I hadn’t heard of. So there’s a lot of movies I would like to see, but will be in other markets, some of the bigger movies that are here. But I like reading about the movies that I’ve never heard of and don’t know any of the actors, see the scenario, look at the picture and be like: „I wonder what that‘s about.“ I love doing that in video stores, sometimes picking up films that I’ve never seen or heard of. Sometimes when I’m stuck when I’m writing I‘ll just wander into a video store and do that. It’s harder now to find movies I‘ve never heard of. Especially if they’re in a video store. There’s not many left in New York, I don’t know if there’s a lot here, but New York has lost a lot of its great, old video stores because the market has changed so much. There used to be the great ones you could go in and the people who work there knew everything about movies. It’s like bookstores. There’s only a handful of good bookstores in New York where the people actually read a lot of books. You can go in and say: „Hey I am looking for…“ and they can literally say: I’ve read this or heard about this. Video stores now, you go in and… it changed.
How important are festivals like this or other festivals for smaller films and independent films?
Really important. Even though we’ve had a distributor and I didn’t come here seeking distribution, the people who make their way to festivals, whether it’s a city they live in or travel to go to it, they’re the people who seek movies out and they are the people who determine taste in a lot of ways and start word of mouth. Even with this movie of mine that had a distributor behind it, we rely so much on word of mouth because we can’t afford to spend a lot of money. Paul [Giamatti]’s a big name but he’s not a „star“, so if you don’t have a lot of stars in your movie the studio’s not going to spend a lot of money advertising. They did a good job with our movie in the United States, but still you really rely on people talking about it and that always starts with film lovers. Everyone likes movies, but by that I mean people who read about movies, who blog about movies, who e-mail about movies, who are really eager to see and talk about new films. Those are the important people, I think. And they’re just great audiences. They’re just excited and supportive. Festivals are a really nice place to go to because you get audiences that are open, they don’t go there to be like: [Er gibt grummelige Laute von sich] „I could do that.“ Mostly you get people that are just like: Alright, let’s go, what do you got? That’s exciting. You can feel that in the audience.
How difficult is it to realize a film like Win Win if you don’t have a star or maybe a well known actor like Paul Giamatti?
Even with Paul it’s hard, because the studio will still be like: Oh well, you know… Paul will be the first to tell you he‘s not gonna attract huge investments. There are very few actors who can really do that. When you sit down with the studio people and look at the list, it’s incredibly… it’s very depressing. And a lot of the names on it, you’re like: „I don’t want to work with those guys…“ They’re not good actors necessarily, just command huge sums at the box office, huge numbers. But they’re not going to be able to act in a movie like this. But even to tell stories like this, that are a little more subtle, that are not genre-specific, that have both drama and comedy – it is a difficult time to do that. For me maybe right now it’s a little bit easier, I’m in a little bit of a unique spot, fortunately, where I’ve been able to tell the stories that I wanted to tell and haven’t had to think too much about big box office or other stuff.
Did you write the screenplay for Win Win with Paul Giamatti as the lead character in mind?
I always had him in mind, but I had two or three actors in mind, which is a little bit unusual for me. The only reason was because I thought: Either I‘ll have someone like Paul or I‘ll have someone who is a little more of a classic leading man that maybe was on in years now, that had started to fade a bit but that you could see at one point was a real jock. That was another take on the character. But ultimately I felt like it was just good to have a guy who felt like a good, solid guy who was never a great athlete but was… just solid. A solid member of the community.
You wrote the story together with Joe Tiboni. Can you describe the process of developing the story? What was the initial idea?
The initial idea was me calling Joe and I was thinking about wrestling because we used to wrestle together, and I said: Maybe I should write something about high school wrestling. And we spent an hour laughing about how bad we were and how painful it was. And during the conversation I said: „Why don’t you do this with me? Why don’t you develop it with me?“ And he said: „OK, what does that mean?“ And I said: „It just means we talk about the movie all the time. We have to commit to it.“ And he was game. For whatever reason, he just jumped in. He’s a lawyer. He just jumped in and we started spending a lot of time together. I don’t you if you still have friends from you childhood – I don’t have many, Joe’s one of them. But they’re the kind of friends you talk to once a week or once every three weeks or once every three months, you’ll always gonna be good friends. And we were so different. He’s a lawyer, has two kids, lives in the town he grew up in, I was something very different. We and our paths were very different. And now reconnecting and telling this story that was kind of personal and close to him in a way, but was what I do for a living, was really fascinating. It was almost its own story. In there, somewhere, is a story. Because everything about our lives was so different. Our beliefs, politically, religiously, socially, economically… just different. Now you put us together a lot, we’re hanging out and talking every day. That’s weird. It was weird for me, I had moments: „I can’t believe I’m literally talking about „character arc“ with Joe Tiboni, it just is so odd to me.“ But it was really exciting. We would spend all this time talking I would take notes, he would keep notes, than I would go off and write and strucure the screenplay. A lot of it I was guiding in terms of story-structure, it’s nothing that he ever thinks about. But he was great in terms of just like: „What about this, what about that, hey, remember this, remember that.“ And also, he lives a life very similar to Mike Flaherty, very similar. So I was cherry-picking from his life, it was at times like hanging out with my character. He would be walking and have that green ski-jacket on that Mike wears in the movie. I thought he thought we’re gonna cast Matt Damon or someone a little bit more… „Giamatti?!“ „But he’s great, you’ll love him.“ „I know, but I thought… you know… Damon! Or at least Wahlberg! What about Wahlberg?“
No, first time. And it wasn’t a full model and it didn’t begin that way. The idea was never: I’m going to make a movie about Joe. It was all about making a film about wrestling that is set in this town and give this guy a job, we’ll make him… elder law attourney – which is was Joe is. And the reason I did that is because for years Joe would tell me about his job and I was like: „Oh you have to write these stories down because they’re really compelling.“ They were touching and sad and funny and bizarre. Some of the stuff that he did, that happens every day, I couln’t even put in the movie because it would just look like a stupid movie joke. One woman paid him by making a tea-cozy, that thing you put over the tea kettle, out of cat hair. She showed up and gave it to him. And he said: „That’s… oh, what is that?“ [Er imitiert die krächzende Stimme einer älteren Frau:] „I MADE IT OUT OF THE CAT-HAIR!“ And he was like „OH! OH! WHOA, OH!“ So that’s how that moment with the cat made it in. We had to get a reference to a cat in there, but we can’t do the cat-hair-tea-cozy, just too fucking weird. When we started thinking about Mike, I thought: „Maybe we do make him an attourney, maybe that’s how we integrate it.“ And then it just kept building on itself. One day I thought: „What does he drive… nothing too flashy… like a Subaru Outback.“ And he was like: „I drive the Subaru Outback.“ „Oh yeah, sorry. Maybe a Toyota.“ We would have those moments where it started to have a weird parallel, a little bit of a Being-John-Malkovich-quality to it.
Sports in general, no especially wrestling, are very important in the American school system. What do you think about that?
Like all good things in moderation, I think sports are great. Even if you’re not good at them I think they can be fun. Out of moderation, they get a little out of control. Meaning it leads to all kinds of behaviour that’s not healthy. The tendence of sports, in what they represent, I’m a fan of it, it can be really wonderful. If you go on and maybe kids will only focus on that or aren’t prepared for anything else other than college sports, which is so out of control in our country… It’s so big time business, so much corruption, scandal… that’s too bad. But when I drive by a playground and see kid’s play kickball, that’s great.
The director of photography of all of your films was Oliver Bokelberg. The films are quite different in their esthetics. Station Agent is a bit more playful in the camerawork, The Visitor has more stillness and calmness in the pictures. When do you conceive the esthetics of a film, when you’re writing it or later in the process?
I think my script starts to indicate visually what’s happening, hopefully, that’s what a good script does. It starts to pop off the page a little bit. It’s a starting point, a jumping-off point. I’ve known Oli for a long time, he’s from Hamburg originally. I met him acting in a movie he was shooting. He’s a very dear friend of mine as well as a collaborator. We spend a lot of time together talking, just talking, talking through the movie, talking through the script. He reads early drafts. When I first approached him with Station Agent, which is so „Americana“ in a way to me that I was excited by having a German director of photography for it because a lot of my reference points were European. Oli and I shared a similar esthetic in that way. First time I brought him out to where we were shooting Station Agent, everything very wooded and green, he was like – keep in mind, we were two weeks out: „Very green… I think we should shoot in winter.“ I’m like: „No, we can’t… what do you mean, shoot in winter?“ „I can’t see anything but green.“ And we‘re getting into these big fights. „Green is fine!“ „No, it’s boring, it’s all green, who wants to watch green?“ We got in these hilarious fights about it. We still laugh about it… and we still fight. But ultimately he’s someone I trust dearly and someone I collaborated very closely with.
The choice Paul Giamatti does in film in the very beginning is questionable. But we understand why he does it – because of his economic situation. How does that reflect the economic situation, especially for the middle class in America?
You might understand what he does, but I think understanding why he does it, his motivation, to make money, is one thing. But I don’t think any of us should forgive what he does. Because it’s wrong. It’s self-serving, it’s selfish and quite honestly, it’s illegal. Because his job as a lawyer is to protect the wishes of his client. And he told the judge one thing: I can do that. And then he stuffed the guy in a home… It’s illegal. If that thing went to trial, like it was going to before she struck the deal, he was done. He could have been disbarred. That’s why his wife is so angry. She’s like: You panicked and didn’t talk to me. In that scene in the kitchen between him an Amy, she understands. And that’s his job. They have this agreement, you can tell. You take care of the business, I’ll take care of everything else. But I think it says a lot about where we’re at, which is: The game has changed, the playing-field has been changed. We’re all heading uphill now. Not the upperclass, that was like a glitch for them: „Oh, that’s terrible.“ It’s everybody else that’s going to be feeling it for the next twenty years and unfortunately most people don’t have huge bonuses. It’s sad on so many levels. The older generation who lost all their savings, everything they’ve been all their lives, it’s gone. People are coming to work again. I go to this barber shop, it’s really cool, it’s an old-school barber shop, but it’s run by a lot of hipsters. All these hipsters who really love being barbers, it’s like the art of being a barber is back. And these guys were all young, cool guys but they take it very seriously. Just being in your grandfathers barber shop. I went in there six months ago and there was this older guy, latin cuban I believe, much older. He looked like he would have been in my grandfathers barber shop. He sat down, he’s cutting my hair, the guy to his right is all tattooed up, the guy to his left has shaved hair, so I asked him: „How did you end up here?“ „Good question.“ I said: „What happened?“ „You know, I was a barber in mid-town for fourty years, had my own barber shop, sold it, flew to Miami, market crashed, I lost almost all my retirement, I’m back here, cutting hair.“ And he had the best attitude, so I thought: „Wow, this is a guy, here he is, in this really young environment, still kind of cool.“ And I said: „What is that like?“ „You know, you never know with life.“ These guys are really interesting. „I’m having a good time, but I planned to be in Miami now, where all the Cubans are. They’re just down there with their families…That‘s not so good.“ But that’s really indicative of what the middle class has got to deal with, a lot of people like Mike Flaherty. It’s not just getting ahead anymore. He’s built his life, his house is pretty nice, it’s not extraordinary, but it’s a nice house. He’s got a good business, it’s all pretty good, but he can’t afford that. Why? Property taxes went up, his income went down. Suddenly there’s a gap and that’s the anxiety he’s feeling: „How do I do this? This model that I’ve built, I can’t sustain.“ How do you reconcile? And with Americans it’s really hard – our DNA is not built that way. We’ve been told all the time that we deserve it all and if we work hard we get it all. We literally built our nation on that. And now, when that’s not working… it’s going to be a really interesting time.
So things didn’t get better with Obama? I remember you had hopes that things will get better?
I think things have improved and things will improve, but we have all very different opinions on Obama right now. But you can’t have a patient dieing on a table, bleeding from everywhere, bring in a new doctor and be like: „OK, make him better!“ It’s going to happen, but it’s going to take a long time. And the first two years of him were: Stop the bleeding. So people like me are: Come on, do better on imigration, or: Do better on gay rights… These issues that are really important to us… He’s sort of eeking towards that. But we all have to remember what he inherited, a country broke, in two wars, with nothing, decimated with all these laws and plays and than we lost the congress. We were excited and a lot of us still very much are, but we’re also like: „Shit, what a time to win.“ Timing is everything. Maybe because things were so bad, that is why he won. Problem is, things were so bad, he’s going to spend a lot of his time – like in the movie – getting back to stability. You have to stabilize before you can improve. It’s a hard job. His approach to politics is very restrained. Sometimes you ask yourself: Where’s the man who made these great speeches, we need one right now. But he’s got a second election. I wouldn’t wish that job on anybody.
Your film is located in New Jersey, where you grew up. In which way does the film give a portrait of this region and the people there? Is it a film that could be located anywhere in the United States or is there something specific to it?
Ultimately, my feeling is with this kind of storytelling – how’s it going to play in Germany, Frace, Italy – it’s very curious… But when I go and see a movie that’s very specific about a small German town or takes place in a small Italian town, I love that and I get that on some level. It’s different from me, but at the same time it’s not and I enjoy it. My goal as a storyteller was to be as true to this world as I could, really try to capture it as authentically as possible. And do so in a way which I actually think the Europeans do so better than the Americans, do so without commenting on it – just present it. It might be boring, or loose, or sloppy, or ambiguous, but just present it. Don’t try to sensationalize it or satirize it. We have trouble being sincere in our country sometimes, especially in storytelling. And sincerity doesn’t have to mean sentimental or boring, just honest, authentic. I love when movies can do that well. I find that sometimes movies that do it the best are movies that use it as a setup to then present a genre. I think Spielberg did it really well. There’s a number of other people who can do it really well. Have you seen Spike Jonze’s last movie Where the Wild Things Are? The first six minutes about a kid in the suburbs… the snowstorm… it was so visceral, I was like: „Wow, that is my life, I remember living in a suburb where it snows a lot, everything is quiet and white and you’re playing in a fort…“ It was so real. It was just a jumping-off point to this fantastical story, which was different. But I thought he captured it. Just capture in your look that town, the mentality of, for example, Amy Ryans character, that mother. Very opinionated, but she will change on a dime if you get to her emotionally, but she’s really strong. She’s very untrusting of this young man at first, locking the door and locking him in the basement. That is something my mum would do, she just would do that. But at the same point, if she thinks you’re in trouble, or hurt, than she’s the best person. There are a lot of those elements that I think are very specific to where I grew up.
What is the key as a writer and director to make the characters appear so human? It’s a quality that can be found in all of your films.
I think because… I don’t know. Who knows? I hear that often and I love hearing that because it’s something that I take a lot of pride in. But, that said, I’m not sure I could account for process other than maybe suggesting that a lot of times for me that is my jumping-off spot: Characters. As opposed to: Story. Sometimes I‘ll find the characters and the world and out of that follow the story and allow that story to change depending on who those characters are and what that world is. Many times someone’s like: „Oh, I got this great story. Story about this guy, oh that’s cool, but now I have to figure out who this guy is.“ Sometime’s film is tricky that way if you’re trying to jam someone in there, I need him to act this way, if he’ll do this the story will go there… Good writers can make that happen. I‘ve just been more concerned with creating that world as authentically as possible and that always starts with the characters.
When you started directing movies, did this change the way you approached the acting aspect of filmmaking?
I think so. The opportunity I have as a director is to watch very good actors. Work, their process going in, their approach, their on-set performance and then through editing kind of monitor – this is what he was trying to do that day and this is all he did and look how this plays. You really learn a lot about that. I imagine it’s the same with everything. If you own a restaurant, you better be a waiter. You better do everything once in the restaurant business if you really want to be a good owner, I think. And I feel that way about acting and about directing. The more pieces that you’ve done, the more things leading up to that. Write about movies or be an assistant director or production assistant on a set, go do those jobs, learn.With me, just watching good actors and then monitoring their performance through the editing process, you learn a lot. Sometimes it’s just about being very present. I see especially in the audition process guys, good actors, men and women come in and they try so hard to win the part. I just feel like: Breathe, relax, don’t do anything. Just connect. Just connect to what’s there in the scene. And good actors have a way of just being very, very present. And listening. And it’s so funny because all these things are just like sports where you see the great teams and it comes back to what at the end of the season? Defending, passing – just the basics. Same with acting. I see these great actors, like Richard Jenkins, who’s such a wonderful actor, so versatile, he’s just so present. Does his work, he knows what he’s doing, he’s worked for so long. He’s really just listening and responding and being in the moment. And that takes confidence, it takes experience, and that’s the trick because you can only really get that by doing it. There are those few gifted people who can just… [er schnippt mit den Fingern] they‘re in. Most people have to do a number of films and be around that a lot. You see that in a very good actor. Still makes it hard to do.