TFF: Australian Tony McNamara on His American Film, Ashby
Playing at Festival
TFF: Australian Tony McNamara onHis American Film, Ashby
(from Sag Harbor Express Online May 1, 2015)
By Danny Peary
One of the most fan-friendly films at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was Ashby, an amiable mix of comedy and drama, the conventional and the quirky, good guys and villains that is set in Virginia but was written and directed by an Aussie, Tony McNamara.
Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff, bound for stardom) tries to keep his spirits up despite having no friends at high school because he is too smart, a lonely single mother (Sarah Silverman) who settles for loser boyfriends, and a father who keeps breaking his promise to fly into town to see him. But his life changes when, despite his fear of being tackled, he joins the football team as a wide receiver; meets the smart and pretty Eloise (Emma Roberts); and, for a school project, spends time with his older next door neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke). Ashby becomes Ed’s tough-love mentor, surrogate father, biggest supporter, and best friend. But he discovers Ashby is dying and was a prolific CIA assassin–and his killing days may not be over. I spoke to Tony McNamara about his unusual film during the festival.
Danny Peary: When you grew up in Australia did you see every movie that played there?
Tony McNamara: No, I grew up in the country and didn’t really see movies much at all. I’m from Kilmore, about an hour or so out of Melbourne, and didn’t really start watching movies until a video shop opened there. I did love the Marx Brothers because they used to play them every Saturday night. Then I moved to the city and started writing plays, and I went to the national film school and did screenwriting there. Then at the same time I was writing plays, I worked on a bunch of TV shows as a writer. [Following that was an adaptation of the award-winning play The Cage Latte Kid, retitled The Rage in Placid Lake.] And then I wrote this script, in Australia.
DP: So in Australia, you have essentially written nonstop.
TM: It’s fun, I never don’t enjoy it. When I’m not directing, I write every day.
DP: Ashby takes place in America and is about a teenager, Ed, who joins his Virginia high school football team. And his older new friend, Ashby, is a CIA assassin. Do you consider this an American movie?
TM: Very much so. I guess it’s a sort of an Australian-American movie, because I am Australian and wrote and directed it, but to me it’s an American movie that I wanted to set here and wanted to be about here. I’ve been working in America on and off for a long time, and I love American football and I’m really interested in the CIA and politics, and all that kind of stuff. So writing and directing this movie just seemed like a fun thing. I wrote the script and away we went.
DP: If video stores still existed and you found your movie in the comedy section, would you leave it there or move it to the drama section?
TM: Good question! But it’s tough to answer. Ashby is a funny drama, I’d say, because it ends up being more dramatic than funny.
DP: When you were writing it, were you thinking, tone, tone, tone, I have to keep it in a certain tone?
TM: Yeah, I think the tone was really the hardest, most important thing because it goes from a certain extreme in comedy, particularly early on, and then gets dark; and then it gets even darker and has less comedy, but I did want it to still be humorous.
DP: There is a lot of humor in the movie but there’s a lot of sadness, too, and the only reason we might think of it as a comedy is that Ed is so cheerful. We really see unhappy stuff over and over again.
TM: Yeah, that’s true. We would talk about how the three main characters, Ed, Ashby, and Eloise, are sort of lost and are looking for something, some kind of human connection. The movie is about how the characters have lost something or someone and try to find someone who will fill this gap for them. Of course, you don’t always find the right version of what you are looking for. I guess it becomes sort of happy for Ed, because he’s finally found things that make him want to go on with in his life, and found the right girl and stuff. But it comes from a sad place.
DP: I know your movie was inspired by Harold and Maude, in which the Ruth Gordon elderly character, Maude, dies, but not before she influences a depressed, suicidal young man, Bud Cort’s Harold, to start living.
TM: Yeah, yeah, it’s very similar. I was a big fan of Harold and Maude. There are a lot of coming-of-age films, but I love the idea of a movie that’s also about facing your death.. That’s probably because I’m in now in my early forties and so I’ve come of age and am in the middle of my life and I’m rapidly facing my death. I was interested in the things you believe in when you’re 18. Ashby believed in a lot of things then and those thing created his life, and he’s trying to hold it all together.
DP: Are you surprised when you’re in America and in Hollywood and realize that people don’t remember Hal Ashby, the director of Harold and Maude and other classics?
TM: I’m very surprised because there’s a real love today of ‘70s filmmaking yet he’s overlooked. He did have a great talent for—and I aspire to be able to do it as well—mixing straight drama with comedy. Harold and Maude has a beautifully emotional ending that’s so uplifting. I like that you can have a film that’s so funny yet still be really moving at the end. But yes, I am a bit disappointed how forgotten he is, so I guess that’s why I called my character Ashby.
DP: Your characters have bad expectations because they’ve had so many things go wrong and so many people let them down. For instance, Ed, whose father always disappoints him, thinks, Oh, here’s another bad thing that’s happening to me, and just accepts it. And his mother thinks lousy lovers are the best she can do. Were you conscious that your characters are so used to being mistreated that it is what they expect?
TM: Not really. I think all characters in drama are, to a degree, always trying to fix their problems. I guess they feel positive in that way, but still a lot of things go wrong for them in their lives.
DP: Is Ed’s character a bit of you as a kid?
TM: Probably, I think so. In the school scenes–the classroom scenes, the football scenes–in particular. Ed’s teacher who’s kind of funny to the kids is very much based on someone who was like a bad mentor figure to me. He didn’t care to be a mentor, but through the force of his intelligence and his rudeness to all his students, he made me think about the world in a different way. I kind of put him in this movie because he was someone who made me think I could be more than I had thought.
DP: Does Ed realizes that his mentor Ashby can help him get out of his funk and move forward in life?
TM: Ed thinks he can, especially in the middle of the movie. He thinks he’s found a surrogate dad and a mentor, someone to listen to him and give him the masculine lessons he needs. Later in the movie, there’s a sweetening to their friendship. Ashby’s not the perfect mentor, but you don’t get the perfect mentor but get what everyone is–someone who is complicated and sort of good and sort of not so good, you know? That’s why Ed ends up believing, through Ashby, that he has to find what he believes in. He also must come to terms with what Ashby did in his life. That will allow him to arrive to his own place.
DP: The priest tells Ashby, “In your heart, you think you’re a good man.” I am sure that’s an important line in your movie, and I think he can honestly say, yes.
TM: Yeah, I think so. This was a big thing to Mickey. Ashby was so important to him as a character who had done good but wasn’t sure he was a good man. Suddenly Ashby wondered, “Maybe I didn’t do good, maybe my life was wrong.” It’s interesting, that idea. There are periods in your life when you believe something, but then you turn around and go, “Huh? It was wrong what was driving me the whole time.” Not that I’m saying that he’s wrong or right.
DP: Ashby tells the priest Edmund Burke’s famous line: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
TM: I thought it was interesting that Ashby says it. He’s struggling at that point, but he assumes everything he has done was for good. But to me it’s a more complicated idea because of who “good men” are.
DP: The scene with Ashby and the priest is one of several sharply-written two-character scenes in the movie. Did your decision to write many two-character scenes come from writing for the stage?
TM: I don’t know! But I did a lot of TV, in which there are a lot of two-character scenes. There was the suggestion of melding all the characters together and having more scenes with all of them, but I was really conscious about keeping Ed’s world apart from the other characters’. He takes what he has with Ashby back to Eloise and his mom. The various characters cross paths slightly, but for the most part Ed is always going from one character to another. He doesn’t have a whole unit around him, everything is sort of separated.
DP: Ed’s mother, played by Sarah Silverman, is a peripheral character, but if she isn’t the caring mother that she is, Ed would really be fucked up, right?
TM: Yeah, totally. Sarah is so great because she brings this strength and this humor to the part. You don’t doubt that her character loves her son, but you also understand she’s like everybody else in the movie and is seeking something that she thinks will make her happy. She wants another husband even though the last one was a dick. She wants some love.
DP: Did you cast Nat Wolff and Emma Roberts, who are both really nice people, together because they are close friends?
TM: I didn’t know they knew each other at that point. When I cast Emma as Eloise, she emailed me and said, “We’re buddies.” They’ve known each other since they were nine, and they act like brother and sister on the set. They’re such lovely kids and so talented.
DP: Did you audition Nat or did you know about him already?
TM: We had auditions, but I’d seen him in a few things and knew I wanted him. Nat’s a really great actor and so funny and charming. We first had a Skype meeting, because I was in Sydney and he was in Montana, and we just got on really well and then he came to L.A. and did an audition. As soon as I saw him, I thought, “That’s Ed.” He and I went to Mickey’s house to see what their chemistry would be. But I was already sure it was going to be him.
DP: Ashby is Mickey Rourke’s best role since The Wrestler. Did you always see him in the part?
TM: To be honest. I thought Ashby should be older and Mickey was probably too young for the part. Then Mickey read the script and really liked it, so we met and hung out and talked a lot and I could tell he understood all of it. He understood the character and the Catholic thing. And he understood what his own life means to Ashby, whether he screwed it up or not. And that Ashby’s getting older, the age thing. was interesting to him. I really liked the idea of Ed going next door expecting to meet a nice old neighbor for school, and instead it’s someone being played by Mickey Rourke. So it was cute.
DP: What does bringing Ashby to the Tribeca Film Festival mean to you?
TM: It’s exciting as hell. I love New York, and to have a film play here is really great. Also Nat lives here, so it’s good to see him and hang out.