Interview: Writer/Director Tom McCarthy of the Adam Sandler Fantasy “The Cobbler”

Posted on March 12, 2015 at 10:00 am

I am a huge fan of writer/director Tom McCarthy (Win Win, “The Station Agent,” The Visitor), and was delighted to get a chance to talk to him about his new film, co-written with Paul Sado, “The Cobbler.”  It is a gentle fantasy starring Adam Sandler as a shoemaker who discovers his father’s old machine for sewing shoes has magical properties.  If he tries on the shoes repaired with that machine, he takes on the appearance of the shoe’s owners.  The film co-stars Dustin Hoffman, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), and Ellen Barkin.  It opens in theaters, and on VOD and iTunes March 13, 2015.

As an actor and as a writer, you have to use your imagination to step into the shoes of different characters all the time.  Is that what inspired this idea?

Probably a little bit. It didn’t dawn on me till later in the making of it.  It was probably as we started to rehearse with the actors that we realized realize it was something actors are very used to doing. Initially it was just the idea that you don’t know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. There was something about that that sounds really compelling. The idea of exploring the interesting world of the Cobbler and the Shoe Repair Man as a way of exploring that idea.

The title, “The Cobbler,” has a fairy tale quality, very different from your earlier films. When you are creating a fantasy film, how do you work out all of the internal rules to keep it consistent and organic?

Paul and I really wrestled with what it meant, what we could do what we couldn’t do. We felt like, okay, there are definite limits to this. We had to keep double-checking to make sure we were not breaking any of our own rules.  We tried to keep it as simple as possible, what exactly Adam was allowed to do and what he wasn’t allowed to do, what he could control and what he couldn’t control. And like all superheroes, we figure his power would increase as he begin to master it as he got better at it.  But there certainly are stages when he is exploring it and having fun with it and in some cases abusing it and then ultimately using it for good.

What made you decide to try fantasy?

You are searching for new things, new things to challenge you at different ways and you are looking to have fun and you are looking to explore. I don’t ever profess to be limited to one particular school of filmmaking or any type of storytelling.  It’s always what sort of tickles me in the moment when I think of something exciting and challenging and “The Cobbler” was all those things for me.

“The Cobbler” was not the movie I was planning on making, I was planning on making “Spotlight,” the movie I am editing now.  Spotlight got pushed back because we couldn’t get it together in time. Paul and I had really been working on “The Cobbler” for a long time. So we just had the idea to just get together and bang ideas around.  Just the energy of collaboration and the synergy that it brings about is just really exciting and cool. Paul and I are old friends and we really connect so it was a good time.

Copyright The Cobbler 2015
Copyright The Cobbler 2015

It is quite a challenge for actors to have to not just play their own character but Adam Sandler’s character as well. 

Sometimes we just have to work on keeping it straight as we were in the moment. And then beyond that, when you have an actor like Dustin, it is really just little tweaks here and there reminding him of maybe what was too much, not enough or too much depending on where he was in the scene. All these people had a pretty good sense of how they were going to approach Adam. They weren’t just trying to mimic him. They were trying to get the essence of what Adam might be in their body. And it was really a little bit of modulation on everybody but not much. It was kind of just making sure that the story held together and that the audience could keep track of who is who at any particular time.

Your cast included some actors who are very trained and experienced and others who were not.  What did you think about as you were casting the film?

I’m always just trying to find what actor I think would best connect with the role.  Some secondary considerations are where the actor comes from and what their work ethic is like and how they approach material ultimately especially in a film like this where you are building an ensemble. But mostly it is who is right and then we work backwards from there. Some people are classically trained and some aren’t trained at all, some are connected, some come from  comedy and stand ups, some came out of rap, so people are coming from all kinds of places.  I think that adds a really nice texture to the movie. I think one thing I’m very proud of with this film is that it really represents New York in a very authentic way. I think it gets the culture, especially the Lower East Side. I think we did a good job of capturing that.

And if you could pick out one pair of size 10 1/2 shoes and be him for a day, who would you pick?

That’s a really good question. I think it would be kind of cool to check out Putin. I want to see what that guy does, walk around the Kremlin and see what is going on in that place. My feeling is Kruten doesn’t have a 10.5, though, I think he is a little guy, he is probably got like an 8 or something.

I liked the way you kept the origin of the magical shoe repair machine a little bit mysterious, even though you had the flashback with the men all speaking Yiddish as they came up with a plan to stop the neighborhood bully.

I didn’t understand a word of the Yiddish when I was filming it but it was really fun to listen to that language. They speak it so beautifully and it was nice to be around for a couple of days. But I think ultimately with that opening sequence , it’s a little nod to Max’s heritage and that period going back to a generation that would have been Jewish immigrants from mostly Eastern Europe who at that time were kind of flowing to the lower East Side and making that their home.  What Paul and I were playing with is this idea that all these sorts of different shop owners and tradesmen were being kind of run out by a slumlord/landlord who is raising rent and forcing them which of course is what we ended up dealing with later in the movie with Ellen Barkin.  Every generation has their own problems and if we would listen to our grandparents we would find out that there a lot of the same problems, just different looks. And so we thought that it is a cool way to see all the tradesmen coming to the cobbler asking for help and sort of setting up the motif. And for me also it was a little nod to a time when being a tradesman was a really respected position in society, as it should be. I think is really wonderful when you have talented craftsmen and tradesmen and I hope we never lose track of that, we don’t become one big mall. It is good to go shopping and deal with one person who fixes your shoes or works on your clothes or does whatever that is they are doing.  It is a nice way to do business.


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Interview: Kate Fowkes on Fantasy and Fairy Tales

Posted on January 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Copyright New Line 2001
Copyright New Line 2001

Ten years ago, would anyone have believed there would be popular fairy-tale-inspired television series both serious (Once Upon a Time, Grimm), and comic/musical (Galavant)? Why do fantasy and fairy tales mean so much to us? I asked one of my favorite people, a specialist in the role that fantasy plays in our lives, for her thoughts. Kate Fowkes is a Professor of Media and Popular Culture in the Nido R. Qubein School of Communication at High Point University.  She holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. from Reed College.  She is the author of The Fantasy Film, and Giving Up the Ghost.  She has also contributed to a number of book anthologies on subjects ranging from film ghosts to Tim Burton movies.  She currently teaches an undergraduate course called “Myth and Media,” in which she and her students examine fantasy and fairy tale movies.

Of course fairy tales and fantasy have been around since stories began, but it seems we are in the midst of a revival of interest in very traditional stories about princesses and princes and quests and magic.  What is it about the enduring themes of these stories that seems so timely now?

This is a tough question to answer. Part of it may be that with our increased instant access to both old and new media (including electronic versions of older print stories), it is simply easier to rely on these old stories and characters as fodder for new movies and remakes. Hollywood has always loved to draw on proven successes both in adapting movies from books and in re-visioning previous movie successes—so this trend is perhaps merely a more exaggerated version of business as usual.

It also doesn’t hurt that visual and special effects, and movie-making technology in general are all better than they’ve ever been. This obviously facilitates the portrayal of fantastical creatures and magical events and makes for a very satisfying and wondrous movie-going experience.

It must be said that the success of “Star Wars” was hugely helpful in showing that fantasy-themed films could work (granted it was also a sci-fi/Western, but its emphasis on the mystical Force, etc. was part of what made the movie popular). In an ironic kind of time-travel way, it was partly the popularity of the “Lord of the Rings” book trilogy (which was originally one book) that paved the way for “Star Wars.” Not only did “Star Wars” make mysticism popular (thus paving the way for LOR eventually—see what I mean about the time loop) but George Lucas drew on the works of Joseph Campbell, who championed the importance of myth, folk-tales, and story-telling. This was all popularized further by screenwriting manuals such as one by Christopher Vogler who drew on Campbell to show how the “hero’s journey” could either be used to describe many Hollywood movies but could also be used as a template for screenwriters as they devised new screenplays.

While there had been some successful fantasy and fairy tale movies prior to 2001 (including “The Princess Bride”), 2001 was nevertheless a watershed year for fantasy and fairy tale movies. With the huge success of both the first LOR movie and the first Harry Potter film, the floodgates were open for movies that adopted or adapted fairy-tale and fantasy elements.

Copyright 2010 Wiley-Blackwell
Copyright 2010 Wiley-Blackwell

(Also see my response to the question below.)

Do stories with fantasy and magic tend to be more popular in some eras more than others?  Does it correlate with particular political or economic challenges?

Many scholars would agree that the rise in popularity of science fiction movies throughout the 50s was at least in part due to the historical moment. The bulk of the films were scary and featured hostile aliens. The films might be said to reflect or mediate anxiety about technology (nuclear bombs), the space age (if we go to outer space, what will we find there?), and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement combined with Cold War paranoia (the alien “others” could represent our fear of all kinds of real-world, human others—from Communists to illegal aliens, to non-white ethnicities.)

Perhaps the same could be said for the historical moment of 2001 which featured not just LOR and Harry Potter in the movies, but which saw the country (and the world) reeling (so to speak) from the 9/11 attacks. What strikes me about this confluence of events is, in part, the complete and utter incomprehensibility of the fall of the twin towers and how we watched the footage over and over again on T.V. Was it really real? Could it really have happened? Because at first, it sure looked like a Hollywood action/disaster movie to a lot of us.

One of the things that J.R.R. Tolkien said about the value of “faery” stories is their ability to provide escape, recovery, consolation and “eucatastrophe.”

According to Tolkien, escape might be seen as a bad thing, but if you’re escaping from something unthinkably bad, it might serve an important cathartic purpose (and to most of us, 9/11 was unthinkably bad). In addition whether or not escape is good or bad will depend very much on the quality of what you’re escaping into.

By recovery, he meant that faery stories help us to rediscover the miraculousness and wonder of the ordinary world.   (—“Re-(dis)-covery?”) If we experienced 9/11 as a heretofore “impossible” scenario, there was also the feeling that maybe the world was not as we thought we knew it.   This is precisely the story told by fairy tales and other fantasies. Nothing is what it seems and impossible things happen all the time (take nothing for granted!). Maybe this type of story serves as a kind of antidote to the horrific feeling of unreality experienced by many people after 9/11. (Just as Gothic horror might be seen as the counterpart or mirror image of upbeat fantasy.)

If 9/11 was a terrible catastrophe, then Tolkien’s consolation and eucatastrophe (catastrophe’s opposite) describe the notion that we can suffer the most terrible defeat and still come out the other side –we can find consolation and even joy because we have faced our worst nightmares and lived to tell the tale, as “Into the Woods” articulates in the final scene. (The forest or woods are here seen as a metaphor for our deepest fears or greatest challenges.) So I might be going out on a limb here (to extend the “woods” metaphor), but I absolutely think that some of these films might operate in the way Tolkien described. (Note: Tolkien had a very specific idea of what qualifies as a “faery” story and if he were here, would disqualify many of the movies discussed here. While I am aware of that, I still think his ideas can be applied to a wide variety of fantasy movies.)
What are some of the ways that our current versions of fairy tales employ twists on the traditions and conventions of fantasy to make them more contemporary?

One way is to call attention to the “unrealistic” nature of the tales, playing up the fact that these are indeed stories and not reality. But at the same time, while many of the new movies cleverly suggest that elements of classic fairy tales are unrealistic and unbelievable, they then go on to fulfill the magical happy endings anyway, albeit often through humorous, self-referential routes. (See, for example, discussion of “Shrek” and “The Princess Bride” below).   The viewer thus gets to critique and examine the old story tropes, but also gets the fairy tale happy ending promised by classic fairy tales.

Another tactic is to examine classic fairy tale events and characters through a contemporary lens. In “Shrek” this happens by inverting gender stereotypes to highlight the disconnect between today’s smart, competent, athletic women and the classically sweet, passive and helpless princess. Other examples include imagining the magic mirror from Snow White as both the “reflection” of a foppish prince’s vanity (usually reserved for female characters), while also turning the mirror’s magical illusions into a parody of a modern dating-game T.V. show. Another humorous example is portraying the three blind mice employing contemporary aids for the blind as they sport dark glasses and find their way about with canes.

Finally, many of the newer fairy tales take advantage of the long format of feature length films (not to mention the long format of T.V. serials like “Once Upon a Time”) to explore and expand upon traditional two-dimensional characters. Much as the stage musical “Wicked” does, some of these newer movies provide satisfying backstories and motivations for otherwise simplistic characters, especially villains.

Do children today who see movies like “Tangled,” “Into the Woods,” “Shrek,” “The Princess Bride” and the new show “Galavant” understand fairy tales and Mother Goose well enough to appreciate the meta-humor?

Younger children probably don’t get much of the meta-humor but most of the “revisionist” fairy tales work on multiple levels so that all ages can find something to like.  Just as the T.V. show, “The Simpsons” succeeded in part because of its dense layers of funny intertextual references, these films use their intertextuality so that viewers can access the story and its humor in many different ways.

In addition, many of the revisionist fairy tale movies also embed mention of fairy tale conventions into the story so that even if viewers didn’t know the conventions in advance, they could still appreciate the jokes.  For example, in “Shrek”, the movie opens with a short story-book intro that summarizes the standard “rescue the princess” trope. Shrek reacts to this tradition by scoffing: “like that’s ever gonna happen!” And when Shrek does end up rescuing Fiona, she is indignant that he doesn’t fit the stereotypical prince or act out the usual “script.” This happens also in “The Princess Bride” where the little boy is read a story by his grandfather and is frequently indignant that the story is not going the way it’s supposed to. “Into the Woods” also features such moments and occasionally provides a fairy tale style of voice over narration to call attention to the relationship between character and events to classic fairy tales..  All of these movies use the “frame” of storytelling (“Once Upon a Time,” etc.). And “Into the Woods” ends with an emphasis on the importance of storytelling in general, thus completing the self-referential circle.

Is there a way to teach children about classic fairy tales without giving them messages we feel that we have outgrown about the roles of women?  Are there other traditional themes that are hard for us to accept today?

I think that’s exactly what many of these new movies are trying to do, although sometimes with mixed success. Expanding the notion of “true love” beyond a romantic heterosexual idea (as in “Frozen” and “Malificent”) and providing strong, capable female characters is one way both to change the “script” in the real world as well as to make the stories more acceptable and relevant to today’s audience.

But I am still disappointed in some of the films. “Star Dust” does nothing to change the pernicious idea that older women are ugly, evil and jealous of younger women. “Enchanted” sends its heroine out on a shopping spree in a makeover reminiscent of “Pretty Woman” (which is itself a pernicious live-action, contemporary “Cinderella” story), and even “Into the Woods” kills a married female character for kissing a married prince while the prince gets off easy by quipping that, afterall, he’s “charming” not “sincere.” And in another “joke,” the Cinderella character (the prince’s newly estranged wife) opines that she actually enjoys housecleaning. !!! Really??? And then the movie has the gall to drive home the point that we should pay attention to the stories we tell.   Can you say “irony??”

Copyright Dreamworks 2004
Copyright Dreamworks 2004

Even “Shrek” (delightfully funny as it is), doesn’t fully overcome gender and racial stereotypes. In her ogre state, Fiona is hardly hideous (I think she’s quite pleasant) and Donkey perpetuates a long line of comic, subservient black, male characters.

Many of the new versions of fantasy stories interweave characters from different fables into one narrative.  What is the appeal and impact of that kind of story-telling?

Whereas a movie like “Enchanted” has fun combining the “real world” with the animated fairy tale world by imagining what would happen if these two worlds intersected, “Shrek” and “Into the Woods” belabor the fact that these characters from different tales actually do all belong to the same magical universe. What’s interesting is that some scholars see fairy tale characters less as characters or people and more as narrative functions. When you recognize that the characters all belong to same type of magical universe it can be a fun game to see how they might interact with each other if you mixed and matched them.

This type of story-telling also provides the possibility of many new-ish variations on well-loved, easily recognized ideas. And as said before, we know that Hollywood loves to capitalize on familiarity and built-in popularity.
If fairy tales are an attempt to explain the inexplicable and control what seems uncontrollable, does our modern understanding of science make us more or less interested in fantasy than people were centuries ago?

The short answer to that is ….we have a different relationship to fantasy today than people did before the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and now the computer age with more and more immersive technologies like 3-D. and virtual reality (For example, just try to imagine someone centuries ago being shown ANY movie much less a mind blower like “Inception.”)   It would take me too long to tease out all these difference here, although I do discuss at least a piece of that puzzle in my book “The Fantasy Film.” Maybe this one will have to be a separate interview!

Do you have a favorite fairy tale and why?

I don’t have a favorite classic fairy tale unless you consider the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” to be a classic fairy tale (Baum wrote the original book with the idea that it would be a modern-day fairy tale). It’s a nostalgic favorite but it holds up for me still. It’s got everything—scary suspense, whimsy and magic, humor, wonderful characters, great musical numbers, and lots of heartfelt sentiment. The Cowardly Lion still makes me laugh after all these years.

I also love “The Princess Bride.” It was one of the first successful revisionist fairy tales and it’s dramatic, sentimental, clever and funny. What more could you ask for? I regret I didn’t include it in my last book, but I didn’t have complete say over what went in there and I was horribly constrained by space issues.

If I were to include a more traditional fairy-tale movie here it would be Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” because it is so beautiful to look at. And the Beast is gorgeous (which gives you a hint about what’s going on in that story—we were never meant to find the beast to be completely hideous…)

And despite some minor misgivings, I’m a big fan of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2!”

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Posted on July 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

In the grand tradition of Alice, Dorothy, Milo, and the Pevensie children, Coraline enters a portal to a magical world that is both thrilling and terrifying, one that will both enchant her and demand her greatest resources of courage and integrity. And it will teach her that she does being given whatever she wants is not what she thought — that what she thinks she wants may not be what she wants after all.

Coraline (voice of Dakota Fanning) is bored and lonely. She and her parents have just moved into a new home and she does not know anyone. Her mother (voice of Teri Hatcher) and father (voice of John Hodgman, who plays the PC in the Mac commercials) are distracted and busy with work. While they type away furiously on their computers about gardening, they never actually go outside and plant anything. Coraline meets her neighbors, a pair of one-time performers (voices of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), a man training singing mice (voice of Ian McShane), and a boy her age named Wybie (voice of Robert Bailey Jr.), to whom she takes an immediate dislike.

She explores her surroundings and finds a mysterious locked door. Her mother tells her since the house was converted to make apartments it only opens onto a brick wall. But when she tries it herself, it opens into a tube-shaped corridor that leads to a place very like but also very unlike her own home and neighborhood. Everything is brighter and more colorful. The mother and father tell her that they are her Other parents. They sound just like her real parents and they look like them, too, except that they are utterly devoted and attentive and generous, and except for their eyes, which are sewn-on black buttons.

The Other world is enchanting for a while, with all kinds of diversions and performances. Many, like the Other parents, echo the places and characters from home. But then it begins to feel too synthetic and a little creepy. When the Other mother asks her sweetly to replace her eyes with buttons, Coraline goes home. But home is not the same. Something has happened and she will have to return to the Other place for an adventure that will require all of her courage, perseverance, and some growing up, too.

Coraline must follow the storyline and grow disenchanted with the Other place but we have the luxury of reveling in it. The creepier it gets, the more mesmerizing the visuals, ravishingly grotesque and dazzlingly inventive when the Other Mother suddenly elongates, her cheekbones sticking out like flying buttresses and her arms and legs getting spider-y. This is the first stereoscopic 3D film made in the painstakingly meticulous stop-motion system in which no more than 2-4 seconds can be completed each day because every frame requires as many as a thousand tiny adjustments. The 3D effect is all-encompassing and utterly entrancing as we feel as though we are inside the Other world as its uneasy false cheeriness slides away and we discover what is really going on. Like her parents, Coraline has been separated from authenticity of experience, in her case because she is a child. But the journey to the Other world shows her that she has what she needs to become more fully herself and to find a more vivid and vibrant life in the place she once thought of as drab and uninvolving.

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Bedtime Stories

Posted on April 10, 2009 at 8:00 am

Once upon a time there was a movie studio that thought it could produce a hit with a performer best known for raunchy slacker comedies and a lot of money for special effects. This story does not turn out very happily ever after.

Adam Sandler plays Skeeter, a hotel handyman who dreams of being the manager. His sister Wendy (Courtney Cox) asks him to stay with her children while she interviews for a new job. He tells them a bedtime story which they embellish and the next day some of its most outlandish details start to come true, even a shower of gumballs. As Skeeter competes with the obsequious Kendall (Guy Pearce) who is the boyfriend of the hotel owner, for the position of manager of a fancy new facility, he tries to direct the bedtime stories to help him succeed. Each night’s story — whether about a knight, a cowboy, an outer space adventurer, or a gladiator — influences the next day’s events.

The children in the audience laughed a lot at some of the silly details and schoolyard humor. And they enjoyed figuring out before Skeeter did that it was not the details he added to the story but the children’s ideas that shaped the real-world events. There are some marvelous special effects in the depiction of the stories, too. But anyone over the age of seven is unlikely to be more than mildly entertained by the film because of Sandler’s pudgy, barely-interested performance and a present-day storyline that is lackluster in contrast with the wild adventures of the bedtime sagas. Wendy’s “funny” restrictions on the children’s food and activities and a subplot intended to be suspenseful about whether her school will be torn down are distracting, especially when near the end there is a big waste of time when the film has to step up the pressure by putting children in senseless peril and dragging out the suspense. Keri Russell is radiant as always as Wendy’s friend and Skeeter’s love interest. Her brief appearance in the fantasy stories are as dazzling as the most elaborate special effects. The other characters are never as interesting as the time allotted to them means them to be. British bad boy Russell Brand is completely out of place as Skeeter’s friend and Guy Pearce is fighting at way below his weight class as Skeeter’s nemesis. We would all have done better if the children wrote the story.

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City of Ember

Posted on January 20, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Under the earth’s surface for so long they have forgotten how and why they got there and even that there is another place to be, the citizens of the City of Ember have just about lost their sense of hope, of wonder, of imagination, and adventure. On “assignment day” kids pick their careers out of a hat. The idea of special interest, curiosity, or competence never comes up. And neither does the idea of creating or improving anything. All of the jobs that occupy the time of the citizens of Ember are about maintenance. All of the clothes, all of the infrastructure, everything is made from broken pieces of other things. Decay and breakdown pervade everything. Learning, reading, and creating, are ideas that have just about disappeared.

There is a genial but disengaged mayor (Bill Murray). Everyone seems to accept everything the way it is except for two kids, Lena (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her dotty grandmother and little sister, and Doon (Harry Treadaway). Together, they race to solve the mystery of how their city was created before it becomes uninhabitable.

An almost Junior Great Books version of Brazil, this is a gorgeously imagined and visually sumptuous but still bleak and dystopic vision. In most stories featuring young lead characters, at some point they consult with a wise older person or get help from an adult. But here all of the other characters, the adults and even Lena’s little sister all seem oddly passive and disconnected and the kids are on their own. It does not have the brightness and energy of many films for this age group, and that may take some getting used to for kids used to a lot of flash.

But like a good book, it rewards patience and thoughtful attention. As with Wall∙E, some audience members will complain that this film is a one-sided and thinly-veiled allegory about current controversies or that it promotes rebellion. But that a very superficial mis-reading of the movie’s message, which is about the much more important and much more fundamental importance of independent thinking and not being satisfied with the status quo. In a time where both candidates for President are competing to persuade voters which will be the most effective in bringing change, it is an important reminder that we can all find ways to make things better.

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