'Cobbler' Director on Casting Adam Sandler, Transitioning From Acting and What's Next

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'The Cobbler'

"He's just so charming in the movie, and he's so subtle and he's so soulful, but he gets to do all the things that Adam Sandler can do so well," Thomas McCarthy says

Before writing and directing the 2003 Sundance winner The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy was known as an actor, with appearances on shows such as David E. Kelley's Boston Public and films such as Meet the Parents. Of course, The Station Agent, which made Peter Dinklage a star, changed all that, sweeping up awards around the world (including a BAFTA) and launching McCarthy's career as a filmmaker (he made 2007's The Visitor and 2011's Win Win) and screenwriter (he was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing 2009's Up). Now the 48-year-old Summit, N.J., native, who lives in New York City with his wife and 12-month-old daughter, is in Toronto with an Adam Sandler vehicle, The Cobbler, about a shoe repairman who comes across a magical heirloom that allows him to step into the lives of his customers.

How did the concept originate for The Cobbler?

I literally was just in my office and somehow I thought about that concept of "to know someone, you've got to walk a mile in their shoes," and what does that mean? It's been written about and sung about and quoted and repurposed in all kinds of ways. But I thought, "What is there in terms of a story?" I called a friend of mine, Paul Sado, who co-wrote the script with me, and I said, "Hey, I've got this very early beginning of an idea for a movie. It sounds like it could be kind of fun and interesting and magical. Let's start playing around with it."

On paper, The Cobbler seems much more high-concept than your previous movies, unlike your other movies. In fact, it could be a Sandler studio movie.

I don't know about that. I think all my movies have had a little bit of magic in them in their own silly way. And it might sound like that, but I know that as soon as my editor started getting footage and putting it together, he called me and he was like, "You know what, I read the script, I was prepared for this, but it still feels like very much one of our movies." And I think he's right. It's sort of my interpretation of a fairy tale on some level. I haven't even seen it all finished yet. Toronto's going to be the first time anyone sees it, and I'm really excited for  that.

How did Adam Sandler come into the picture?

I was probably halfway into it, doing some research out in Brooklyn, and I kept seeing these people who quite honestly kind of reminded me of Adam in their look and their age and their type. And I thought, "Wow, that would be a really cool piece of casting." I didn't know him at all, and I started asking around, and everything I heard about the guy was stellar. So it just made sense.

Was it hard to convince him to do the movie?

No. It really wasn't. I'd never met Adam, and I reached out to him through a friend, and we just started talking about the movie. That part of it was really easy. And he was just so right for it. I think he's just so charming in the movie, and he's so subtle and he's so soulful, but he gets to do all the things that Adam Sandler can do so well.

How did you land the rest of the cast? You've got some high-profile actors, including Dustin Hoffman.

It was mostly a typical process, thinking about who's the right person, just thinking about really interesting actors. Then of course, Dustin [Hoffman] was the big deal. We kept saying, "You know who would be perfect for this?" and then finally Adam was just like, "Why don't we just call him?" And I was like, "I can't just call him. You can just call him." Then it turns out they happened to have the same agent. So we reached out to Dustin and started having these conversations, and he is every bit as intense and as wonderful as you might imagine.

Was it easier to make than your previous movies?

No. In many ways it was really a complex movie — just in terms of its idea. And we approached all of this with a kind of a lo-fi, low-tech approach. We didn't want to do a big magic CGI thing — it just didn't feel like me, and it didn't feel like the movie. The movie, at its heart, is very much a character story. But there are all these elements and sort of moments you had to account for. So just technically speaking, there was a lot of little pieces to figure out. And we have a lot of locations. I think we have like 110 scenes around New York City. So it was a really tough shoot. We crammed a lot of movie into this movie.

How difficult was it to get financing?

It was quick. We had to put it together very quickly because I had a window when I could do it, because I knew I was going to be in production on another movie this year. I knew I had to be done editing by the spring or summer.


That next movie, Spotlight, about the Catholic Church abuse scandal in Boston, seems like a complete 180 from what you just did.

Yeah, it totally is. It was part of my master plan about two and a half years ago, and I just wanted that experience of directing back-to-back. I do like the idea that these movies are so extremely different. I felt like I needed to shake things up a little bit and try experimenting. Both The Cobbler and Spotlight really feel like they're different than my previous three movies. Ultimately, we all want to make great movies, but it's a craft, and we've got to keep trying and pushing ourselves.

Has your acting informed your directing in any way?

It certainly has informed my writing. I think when you're at your computer, you're constantly wrestling with what sounds right, how would you do it, how would you say it, how would you act it. I love working with actors, I love rehearsal. I love, one, staying out of their way so they can do their best work, and two, just kind of being there to guide it a little bit when they need it.