Jim Rash is currently having a very good year. The Oscar-winning screenwriter (remember his Angelina Jolie-leg impersonation onstage?) is following up his co-directorial debut The Way, Way Back with a new project named The Heart, set to star Kristin Wiig; Community, NBC's fan-favorite metasitcom featuring Rash as Greendale’s socially floundering Dean Craig Pelton, has experienced a critical resurgence thanks to the return of original showrunner Dan Harmon; and his SundanceTV show The Writer's Room, in which Rash talks to the writing staffs responsible for some of TV's best running shows, is about to kick off it's second season starting April 18th. The man is on a roll.
Rolling Stone stole some moments with Rash to talk about his next film, why the writing process fascinates him and why the people deserve a Community movie.
You and your writing partner Nat Faxon have worked together for a while…how does the division of labor work for you guys?
We're not a "separate pages" kind of team. We usually start by working on some of the pages together, then I’ll take what we have and go work on it by myself. He’s shooting a show for FX now [Married, starring Faxon and Judy Greer], so it’s up to me to take up some of the writing to keep us on target. Also, he’s also got three kids and I’m single, so I’m the one with the most private time. But I also think that’s how we work best.
Do you talk about the story before you write? Or do you just hit the ground running?
Not that we haven’t written from a blank page, but I think that we work best by starting with a skeletal idea of something. I'll write up a "spit draft," as opposed to a full draft, that's just a set of themes and vague concepts. Then we'll get together, punch it up and tweak it. That usually works best for us.
The project you’re currently working on — The Heart — has been cast with Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, correct?
Well, we’re hoping to do it with Sam and Allison. I think there’s a little Wes Anderson-ish situation going on with Nat and I, where we feel like we have “a team” now. You pick the players that you love, because you already trust them. We wrote these parts with them in mind, though we’re not looking for them to play the same type of characters that they were in The Way, Way Back — that wouldn’t be interesting for them. They’re also just good people. We would honestly just use the same cast from Back if we had roles for everyone.
What about Kristen Wiig? She's in, yes?
She is. We want to work with Kristen badly because Nat and I were in the Groundlings with her, and we've been talking about collaborating for a while. I think it is a different tone for her. But she's always wanted to try different movies and she's evolving and surprising as an actress.
The movie is slightly inspired by Raising Arizona. It doesn’t quite have the quirk of the Coen brothers' movie; it’s more of an eclectic dramedy with romantic undertones. This movie takes place in a dark world. It’s not a horror film; the darkness is below the surface.
So no stabbings.
Well, I can’t say nobody will be stabbed.
Let’s talk about your show, The Writer’s Room. It's a unique idea, having a TV show devoted to people talking about the TV shows they make.
It’s great. I think they thought that my improv background would be an asset here. For me, one of the most important elements of each episode is that I wanted the discussion to be less of an interview and more of a long-form conversation. I didn’t want to be the guy going, “So I’ve heard….” I wanted to learn more about everyone's process as organically as possible.
How much do you prepare for these chats?
My homework is really just binge-watching. I jot down a few rough questions but really, everybody always end up answering all of my questions within the first couple of answers. So we just take it wherever from there.
Do you tend to focus more on how the showrunners create the stories, or is it more about how they execute the writing?
I think the most important topic for me on that show is about the process itself. It’s about how they come to major choices in their story and how it’s digested. When you’re talking about people like Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan or Beau Willimon, you’re talking to people who are notable and celebrities in their own right. People want to know how their brains work. It’s not just, “I love your show!”
Were there any writers who surprised you with their process or writing habits?
The House of Cards conversation was fascinating; it’s interesting to me that almost the entire staff is made up of playwrights, which is not a usual situation. The way that they attack the script is not the same as a typical television writing staff would, and you can feel that come across on the show. I was interested in how they tackle the beginning-to-end arcs; we talked about starting the season with the dog and then later killing the dog. Beau didn’t want to get specific because people watch it differently; he’s constantly being told to shut up because people are always not caught up. There is an episode where we talk to Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead and the creators of Smallville, where the conversation was very interesting because Smallville was going at a time before social media was a huge thing. It was a different time to deal with networks in that genre, it didn’t have the same support, and they were trying to come up with the origin of Kryptonite.
You'll often get actors coming on to talk about writing as well, like Kerry Washington for the Scandal episode or Shay Mitchell on the Pretty Little Liars visit. Are they ever learning things for the first time on your stage?
I think every actor that comes along ends up learning something that they didn't know. Kerry Washington’s jaw was dropping as Shonda Rimes was talking; they all respect her so much, but there are issues that you are just not aware of when you’re on the other side. There was a really interesting episode with Juliana Margulies, who was there to talk about The Good Wife with the writers. They were talking about a choice that they made in a particular episode, and it was interesting to see her have a forum to talk about her issue with the choice that was made. It didn’t have to do with her character, but it affected the show and it clearly didn’t vibe with her still.
What other show writers would you love to have on the next season?
True Detective, for sure. It was interesting talking to the crew behind American Horror Story, and anthology shows are just fascinating in general. Next season, I would love to get some more comedy on the show.
[Laughs] Listen, I pitch Community every season! It’s always hard to figure out schedule, availability or what’s going to be airing around the time that we air the series it just hasn’t worked out. I’ll make it happen.
You guys have already wrapped Season Five. How did it feel to have Dan [Harmon] back?
I personally feel like the this current season is one of the stronger seasons. I personally think that Dan is back at the top of his game, and [producer] Chris McKenna has been such an asset. Creatively, they are really pushing the boundaries.
There are some great people joining up with the show as well.
Chris Elliott is going to be in the finale, which was very special for me. One of my early TV jobs involved working with Chris, so this is one of those amazing “full circle” moments for me. Plus he's just brilliant. Dan just likes to get interesting people involved.
The future of the show always seems to be in question. What would be you’re feeling if that was the last season?
Seeing the whole Veronica Mars movie scenario play out was very special; I definitely think that if they can do it, we can do it. Of course, in the ideal world we’d like to see a sixth season happen, but look: I have always felt that our show has such a relish for pop culture and big fantasy productions that…it's a show that deserves an epic ending. For there to be a Community movie just seems like an appropriate way for the show to go out. That would be my perfect end.