On a Simple Yarn: Film Studies Lecturer Interviews Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy

By Matthew Sorrento, a film studies lecturer at Rutgers University–Camden

Director Tom McCarthy on the set of "The Cobbler." Photo provided by RLJE/Image Entertainment.

Director Tom McCarthy on the set of “The Cobbler.” Photo provided by RLJE/Image Entertainment.

Thomas McCarthy makes movies about the common man yearning for something greater. Featuring a “lost soul” with a new world awaiting him, his works are a lot like fables. His stories are informed by Shakespearean comedy, in which characters abandon the ordinary world for a special (often “green”) realm where social mores and prejudices can be shed to find the truth. Modifying this boilerplate (frequently mentioned in screenwriting how-to books and seminars) McCarthy fashions contemporary fables of wise men who are lost – and usually morally compromised – looking for inspiration (Richard Jenkins’ Oscar nominated role in 2007’s The Visitor) and/or adventure (Paul Giamatti’s broke lawyer/high school wrestling coach in the sports dramedy Win Win, 2011).

His new movie (McCarthy prefers this term over “film”) The Cobbler features a loner in present-day Manhattan; with the title job, he’s connected to an older time and way of life. News of the movie’s release came when I learned that James Spinelli, a cobbler in my hometown of Haddonfield, NJ since the 1940s (he began the job as a child in 1930s Camden), announced his retirement. Just like Spinelli’s ties to local and greater history, McCarthy’s cobbler – played by an impressive Adam Sandler shedding his comic persona – spans a greater human experience. McCarthy uses a cobbler to inspect the adage of “walking in another man’s shoes” with little of the phrase’s cliché. In his first fantasy, New Jersey native McCarthy has his central role take on new identities by wearing the shoes he repairs with a special stitching machine. If the premise reminds you of the fad of body switching pics in the 1980s, the connection will drop once the film begins.

McCarthy took time out to discuss his latest movie, its connection to his earlier works, and how it’s a new step in his career.

How does a story idea begin for you?

Every script is unique in some way. I’m always shopping around, looking for something that gets my attention. From idea to script to screen is a long road. For this idea, there was something that was weirdly original. I started thinking about walking in another man’s shoes, and what that exactly means. And I built it out from there. At the time, I lived above a cobbler shop. I brought another writer in with me, and we started sharing ideas until we had something substantial.

A lot of your films have a fable element to them, while this one is a pure fable. Was coming to this film a natural move for you?

I think you are right. This film does remind me of The Station Agent and The Visitor in ways. This one really embraced [being a fable] once we knew where the script was going. A lot of times when you are writing a story, you don’t know where it’s heading yet. That’s kind of the fun. And this one really kept developing as we worked on it. When we got to the end, we were really embracing the fable aspect of it. And that’s why the movie starts as it does [Sandler’s character yearning for more] and where we end up.

It seems as if your films are about an everyman who finds a greater experience. Do you think that your being from New Jersey inspires that approach? We seem to have it all, and yet we are not New York, or Philly….

In some ways, most of us are everyman, in Jersey and elsewhere, and are ordinary folk. There is that one percent that we are obsessed with and talk about all the time, but for a lot of us, it’s all about getting up and going to work, doing your job, and trying to figure out what else there is in life. For me, I am interested in the world of the ordinary a lot of the time. I think people relate to the stories because a lot of us are the same, no matter what we do for a living.

Is casting an especially important part of the filmmaking process for you?

Casting is everything, really. If you get the casting right, you’re in good shape. At first, you have to begin with what you think is a strong script, and then you have to find the right actors.

This [project] all started with Adam. I felt that if I had Adam, I knew that this movie would work, and that Adam would really connect with the material. And he did really connect with his character, Max Simkin, for many reasons, which was great. Once we had him on board, we were really rolling.

It’s great to see him in a humble role, since people think of him as cocky and arrogant – his screen persona, anyway.

Yeah, it’s funny – I just met Adam doing this, and he actually is a ridiculously humble guy. He’s incredibly grounded, and just a kind, generous guy. And not just as a person, which he is, but also in his work. He’s very collaborative. It was a really great experience. I didn’t know what to expect – you never do, really, when you work with a guy of his stature. He was really engaged and hardworking, from the beginning. He had no problem going to the simple world of his character’s life – a real pleasure to collaborate with.

When you directed the actors to play him – when Max takes on their likeness – were the actors working off his example?

We were all in a room together for rehearsal. We would work on all the scenes, and I would work on all the transitions scenes and the overlaps [when Max takes on a new likeness]. In some cases I would have Adam read [the other actors’ lines] and then have the other actor read the lines, just to get a sense of rhythm, so we could develop some continuity in the performances. But I didn’t want to over-rehearse that. I didn’t feel like they should mimic him too much. There is something about [Adam] that a lot of them tied into, and most of the time they found it on their own. In many cases, I didn’t even ask. It was a fun conceit to play with.

It’s a treat to see Method Man in a humble role!

That guy is good! He is so fun to watch, when shooting and in the movie. He presents so many different things in this movie – he’s scary, he’s real, he’s broad, he’s funny, he’s Adam [when the latter character takes on the former’s likeness]. He really moves around with ease. When we screened the movie [at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival], the audience really ate it up.

This film is very episodic, and your other films aren’t. They are straight forward, as far as the plot goes. Was it a treat to go into a looser form?

Absolutely – it’s the reason why I did the movie. I didn’t have to be so precious with the story, and I could play a bit with tone and genre – see how far we could push it while keeping it in the same movie and on the same story. It was hard work; we all worked hard to keep this story on track. It veers off in different directions, and hopefully they are directions you anticipate.

And this turns out to be your first crime film! Not to spoil too much, but it goes into gangster territory.

[Laughs] Yeah, it was cool to have real bad guys and guns for a change! What’s great about this movie is that we have these little mini sequences when we go off to other areas. Then, somewhere near the end of the movie, when Max gets “involved,” we have a fun caper/gangster sequence. It was a fun territory to play around in, like the others.

Matthew Sorrento teaches film studies at Rutgers University-Camden, where he is currently helping to develop a film studies concentration in the department of English. He is Interview Editor of Film International, where he regularly contributes, and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). Sorrento directs the Reel East Film Festival, which will have its second installment at Oaklyn’s Ritz Theatre in August, 2015.

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