There’s nothing like Academy Award recognition to help screenwriters nudge over the top their follow-up Little Project That Could. So it went for Manchester-by-the-Sea native Nat Faxon (star of the gone-too-soon sitcom “Ben and Kate”) and writing partner Jim Rash (a.k.a. Dean Pelton of TV’s “Community”). It was hardly coincidence that right around the time the duo and Alexander Payne grabbed the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “The Descendants,” things started to come together for their directing debut, “The Way, Way Back.” After years of false starts, Faxon and Rash finally got to make their thoughtful indie comedy — and nabbed a near-record $9.75 million distribution deal at Sundance, to boot.
In the locally shot movie, which opens Friday, Liam James (AMC’s “The Killing”) plays Duncan, an introverted teen on a Massachusetts summer vacation with his divorced mom (Toni Collette) and her pompous new boyfriend (Steve Carell). Fortunately, Duncan finds a much-needed pal in subversive Owen (Sam Rockwell), manager of East Wareham’s Water Wizz water park. (The directors are among the gang at the “Meatballs”-inspired hangout.)
The Globe caught up with Faxon and Rash just after their recent return visit to Water Wizz for some down-the-waterslide film promos.
Q. Nat, I lifeguarded at the pool in Manchester back when you were a kid. I heard you were working on something about a water park, and immediately thought, “Oh, no —”
Faxon: — that this was a way of working out the pain I experienced. Right, right. (Laughs.)
Q. Where did the two of you come up with the idea for the movie?
Rash: There were two ideas that we had at the very beginning. One was the scene that starts the movie, which is pretty much exactly the conversation I had as a 14-year-old with my stepfather at the time. We would drive from North Carolina up to Michigan in the summer, and he asked me once where I thought I was on a scale from 1 to 10. I said 6, thinking that was above average without being too cocky. And he said 3. We thought that story was a great way to set real stakes for Liam’s character. And then water parks was the other piece of it, just our fondness for going to them here on the East Coast.
Faxon: Water Country, Whalom Park, I can sing all the songs. [Launching into an old jingle:] “Whalom Park, for a whale of a time. . . . Water Country! Water Country!”
Q. You two first met and started writing together while you were doing improv with the Groundlings out in Los Angeles.
Rash: Yeah, we first met in ’98, when we were in the Sunday Company, which is like the farm team for the Groundlings. Then we got voted into the main company. We started writing sketches, and then TV, and then we moved on to “The Way, Way Back.” We found that we had an easy time writing together, at least with sketches, so we said, “Why don’t we see if we can write a few more pages?”
Q. How long ago was that?
Faxon: It’s been a long road. We wrote the script back in 2005, and for a little while [“Night at the Museum” director] Shawn Levy was supposed to direct it. And then our window shrunk in terms of his schedule with “Night at the Museum 2,” and it fell apart. Then we were going to make it with other directors. And then a couple of years ago we got the script back in our hands, and with the momentum of “The Descendants,” we decided to try to put it together ourselves.
Q. In all that time that the script was kicking around, did you still feel confident about it?
Rash: Well, for the first few years, I think it became a calling card, certainly. It got us in the door to meet for other projects, which is how we got to take a stab at “The Descendants.”
‘We thought, “We’ll do some fun, eclectic characters in a water park,” and then as we were writing, this coming-of-age story started to have equal footing. We were surprised, too.’
Faxon: But there is something odd that happens in Hollywood when a script has been around for a long time and hasn’t been made. There’s almost this tainted sense to it: “Oooh, we loved ‘The Way, Way Back’ — but what about this dinosaur movie we’ve got for you?”
Q. Given your comedy background, were people who initially read the script surprised by how much heart it has?
Rash: I remember our managers being surprised. But even we thought, “We’ll do some fun, eclectic characters in a water park,” and then as we were writing, this coming-of-age story started to have equal footing. We were surprised, too.
Faxon: Yeah, there probably was a perception, “Two guys from the Groundlings? Big, broad comedy.” But at the root of it, the training you get in the Groundlings all centers on character development and writing what you know — family members and co-workers and the specificities and eccentricities they embody.
Q. Did you get any resistance about casting Steve Carell as such a jerk?
Faxon: A nice thing about making this movie independently is that we didn’t have people telling us who we could cast. It was exciting to think about Steve playing against type. This isn’t a character who has this big awakening and comes out a different person at the end. I think Steve saw that and had the courage to jump in and tackle it, whereas some people want that change, they want that arc to play.
Q. How was directing for the first time? Did you divide the workload at all, or were you together for everything on the set?
Faxon: Yeah, together for everything, holding each other’s hand. (Laughs.)
Rash: Just connected like one giant doll of stress. No, you know, we had been working together long enough, and knew this screenplay so well, that any stress was really about things outside of our control: weather, the time constraints of shooting with a kid when he’s on every single page. . . . One thing we’d do was confer with each other and then just have one of us go over and chat with the actors, so that we wouldn’t inundate them with two horrible voices. Either my nasally one or —
Faxon: You could say mine is nasally too. How about “a chorus of nasal”?
Q. Nat, did the bustle of finishing and promoting the movie help soften the blow of “Ben and Kate” being canceled?
Faxon: Actually, I found out the show was getting pulled as I was flying back from Sundance for the movie. So it was like [elated]: “All right!” [Despondent:] “Oh, no!” It was sad news, but network TV is a hard racket. As Jim knows from “Community.”
Q. What else is coming up?
Faxon: We’re writing an action comedy for Kristen Wiig, who’s an old Groundlings friend. Something a little bigger and darker for us. And we’re writing another movie with Alexander Payne and the team from “The Descendants,” another family dysfunction story pulling from our own lives.
Q. Speaking of which, I can’t let you go without finding out — is Duncan’s familymobile with the rear-facing back seat just handy for metaphorical-title purposes, or personal material?
Faxon: My neighbors had the way, way back seat, and it was always something special to get to ride in it. You know, that ill-conceived seat where you’re facing oncoming traffic with no seatbelts — yes!
Rash: You get to see the danger coming before anybody else! But there’s also a weird independence to it. You’re facing the opposite way, and somehow it feels like you’re in this sound bubble where no one can hear.
Q. Except for moments like in that first scene, I guess.
Rash: I do look back and think about those times that someone says something to you when you’re at that age. But you just sort of assess it, and then find a way to move forward.
Faxon: And then you wait, and wait, and then you write a movie about it.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.