Oscar-winning Charlotte native plunges into directing with ‘The Way Way Back’

Jim Rash’s life changed – though he wouldn’t realize that for 20 years – during his 14th summer, on a car trip from Charlotte to a vacation on Lake Michigan.

His stepfather, who was driving, casually asked Jim where the boy ranked himself on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Ummmm … a six,” Jim hesitantly replied.

“I see you more like a three,” came the reply. “Because you don’t take advantage of your opportunities.”

Well, the Charlotte native has remedied that problem.

He stars on the NBC-TV comedy “Community,” as the sexually indefinable dean of a community college. He shared an adapted screenplay Oscar with Nat Faxon and director Alexander Payne, his co-writers on “The Descendants,” in 2012.

And Rash and Faxon emerge this month as first-time directors of “The Way Way Back,” the script that caught Payne’s eye and sat on Hollywood’s infamous Black List for years. (That’s a resting place for screenplays everyone admires but nobody wants to shoot.) Their film opened in New York and Los Angeles July 5 and in smaller cities – Charlotte included – on Friday.

It begins with the painful chat Rash had 28 summers ago. Liam James plays 14-year-old Duncan; Steve Carell plays the insensitive guy dating Duncan’s mom. The kid gets a part-time job at a Massachusetts water park and embarks on a voyage of mild romance and satisfying self-discovery.

The happy hyphenates

Faxon and Rash (to echo the screen billing) get joint credit as writers, directors and executive producers, and they have small supporting roles: Faxon plays an easygoing employee at Water Wizz, Rash a cranky and aquaphobic colleague.

“This script has been around for eight years,” said Rash during a whirlwind round of phone interviews done with Faxon. “When we finally got it back into our hands three years ago, we sat down with (producer) Kevin Walsh and strategized about how we could make this independently, with us as the directors. So we were pretty hands-on.”

Hands-on, yes. Powerful, no. Rash said last year he hoped to shoot “Way Back” in Wilmington to support the economy of his native state. But it ended up being filmed in eastern Massachusetts. What happened?

“I’m from Massachusetts, we had a coin flip, and I won,” quipped Faxon.

“When we wrote it, we set it in North Carolina,” said Rash. “But the deciding factor was Steve Carell, the last person to come aboard.

“He wrote us saying he loved the script, but spending summers with his family in Marshfield (30 miles southeast of Boston) was his priority. We said, ‘What if we shoot in your backyard?’ So Marshfield became a sort of home for us. We lucked out and had easy location scouting, because that water park is nearby.”

Rash and good luck have tangoed on and off since he graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1994. He started getting acting gigs in Los Angeles the next year: He made his TV debut in “Cybill” in 1995, telling star Cybill Shepherd her car had been towed.

A partnership begins

He met Faxon about 15 years ago in the Sunday Company, the triple-A team of The Groundlings. The improv comedy troupe that launched Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig seemed a natural home – Rash still directs and teaches there at times – and the pair clicked.

“Up (onstage) ran this small bespectacled man with a receding hairline. I sized him up, wondering if this wiry little guy had the chops,” Faxon recalled last year. “The improv started, and he just started killing it.

“He had an unmatched commitment level that left the rest of us doubled over with laughter and jealousy … I thought, ‘You’d better latch on to this guy, if you want to go anywhere.’ Luckily, our senses of humor meshed well, as did our drives and ambitions.”

You might think winning an Academy Award would put those drives into overdrive. Not so, said Rash:

“Maybe someone opens their ears a minute longer. But it’s difficult to get a movie going, no matter what accolades you win.”

Potential producers and directors suggested they beef up a supporting role for a female character to help with teen marketing or shoot in Los Angeles, faking it to look like the East Coast. They resolutely declined.

Meanwhile, the Directors Guild of America didn’t want to credit them as co-directors: “Unless you’re siblings or married, you’re supposed to have a body of work proving you’re of one vision,” Rash explained. So they directed outside the union – and in less than four weeks, including two early days when rain stalled the already abbreviated shoot.

Faxon: “The bond company came around and asked, ‘How are you going to make that up? Otherwise, we’ll have to shut you down.’ ”

Rash: “We suddenly had high voices that sounded like we were panicking – that’s always endearing – and said, ‘We’re OK here!’ ”

Attractive opposites

They’re a filmmaking equivalent of The Odd Couple. Faxon is 38, married with kids, not prone to be “neurotic and brilliant,” as he called his pal. Rash is single, childless and sends OCD signals. Yet they agree that they rarely disagree.

“We lived with the script so long that the only times we had tough discussions (as directors) were when we dealt with things out of our control: time or weather or logistical nightmares,” said Faxon. “You’re running on high emotions and anxiety, so two brains are better than one. If one of us felt strongly about something, the other stepped aside.”

And if discussion failed? “Then we wrestled.”

“Yeah,” said Rash. “I had bulked up, so I could take him down pretty easily.”

The film recently had an 88 percent approval rating at the metacritic website Rotten Tomatoes. This enthusiastic reception makes them hope they’ll get to direct their next two scripts, one they’re not ready to describe yet and one that’s a gritty action comedy in the “Raising Arizona” vein, meant for fellow Groundlings alumnus Wiig.

And like most comedians, they hope to get serious.

“Everything we ever learned was to mine the pain … for character-based studies,” said Rash of his Groundlings experience.

“We wouldn’t ever shy away from going to a deeper part of ourselves. Our lives go from comedy to drama, and we enjoy that ballet between the two.”