I’ve long taught screenwriting courses – first in a classroom and now online – through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program Recently, I’ve specialized in teaching students how to rewrite their existing screenplays. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. As working screenwriters know all too well, talent and a good idea are not enough. It takes perspiration as well as inspiration to turn good scripts into great ones.
A case in point is a small coming-of-age film that’s arriving in theatres now. The Way, Way Back attracted attention in 2007, when it appeared on a so-called “Black List” of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. The central premise was appealing, if somewhat familiar: fourteen-year-old Duncan, stuck in a beach-house with his mother and her obnoxious new squeeze, finds an unexpected sense of self-worth when he makes friends with the manager of a seedy water park. In 2007, co-authors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were best known as TV actors, specializing in sketch humor and sitcom wackiness. Then they shared an Oscar for adapting The Descendants to the screen, and their stock rose to the point that they were able to launch a modest but star-studded production of The Way, Way Back, with themselves as co-directors. (They also gave themselves fat – and very funny – cameos as weird water park employees.)
Now Faxon and Rash’s little movie, having sparked a bidding war at Sundance, is being slowly rolled out for general audiences. In hyping The Way, Way Back as “a new comedy from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno,” Fox Searchlight is clearly appealing to those among us who love modestly-budgeted indies with sunny outcomes. The ads also play up the presence of such reliable names as Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Maya Rudoph among the cast of characters.
Many critics have been charmed. In the L.A. Times, reviewer Betsy Sharkey began by heaping praise on the Faxon-Rash script, whose “dialogue remains too pure, too quirky, too conversational to have been tampered with by studio execs or nervous backers—so a shout-out to all the folks who kept their notes to themselves.” Her implication is that the original screenplay was so perfect that development execs simply needed to stay out of the way. But I know better. I recently served as guest moderator at a Hollywood gathering called Storyboard, at which aspiring screenwriters assess scripts before they make it to the big screen. When we discussed a draft of The Way, Way Back, its merits were easy to see. But so were its flaws. Character relationships didn’t always make sense. Young Duncan’s crucial connection with his step-father (the Carrell role) was puzzling because we didn’t know how long they had been part of a blended family, nor what had happened to Duncan’s biological dad. There were also issues involving the script’s tone. Did it mean to be raunchy, or sweet? How was the audience to feel about a climactic scene in which our hero gets drunk and a very young neighbor is comically revealed as a pot-head?
I’m happy to report that somewhere along the line, Faxon and Rash obviously did some rewriting. Carrell was turned from Mom’s second husband into a boyfriend with marriage on his mind, which in context makes perfect sense out of the script’s summer beach vacation. We know what happened to Duncan’s father, and hence understand this kid’s sense of loss. The sex, booze, and dope elements of the story are toned down, and we’re left with a satisfying little story, just right for a midsummer night at the movies.