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Wet Hot American Summer: David Wain

The Filmmaker and Wet Hot Co-Creator On Bringing Back a Cult Classic

Jul 27, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Multi-talented director David Wain got his start in the early 1990s as a member of the now-legendary sketch comedy group, The State. In the years that followed their self-titled show’s four-season run on MTV, Wain and fellow The State member Michael Showalter developed a film script inspired by experiences they each had attending Jewish sleepaway camps while growing up. That screenplay went on to become Wain’s feature-length directorial debut, Wet Hot American Summer. Set at the fictional Camp Firewood in 1981, the film starred many of the pair’s colleagues from The State, as well as early film appearances from future big names such as Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Amy Poehler. Wet Hot American Summer gathered a cult following in the years since its 2001 release, and Wain went on to direct four more films—The Ten, Role Models, Wanderlust, and They Came Together—many of which featured appearances from his Wet Hot cast.

Nearly 15 years after making the original cult classic, Wain and Showalter have re-teamed for a follow-up—a prequel, actually—titled Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The eight-episode Netflix series—which takes place several weeks before the events seen in the film—features not only the movie’s full, original cast, but a ridiculously stacked roster of newcomers that includes Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Chris Pine, and many other famous faces.

Wain directed, co-wrote, and produced the new series, and also appears in it as an alluring Israeli camp counselor named Yaron. In the following interview, Wain talks to Under the Radar about returning to the world of Wet Hot, the challenges of directing such a large cast, and just how First Day of Camp came to be. (All this week we are posting interviews with diifferent members of the Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp cast. All the interviews will be linked to here. Also pick up our next print issue for a separate in-depth article on the show.)

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You’ve been talking about doing more Wet Hot l in interviews going back at least as far as the film’s 10th anniversary. Were there a lot of starts and stops getting to this point, where Netflix picked it up?

David Wain: No. Interestingly the stops and starts were only internal before that point. Michael and I were just busy working on other things. But once we really committed ourselves to sit down and make it happen, it was really a relatively quick thing.

We’d realized that the Netflix medium was perfect for the story we were trying to tell. We basically went to Netflix and presented our idea, having already asked the cast if they were willing to do it. From that point forward, it was fairly quick. They said yes. We had to figure out the logistics, which took a while.… But, once we’d decided we wanted to do it, took it to Netflix, and figured it all out—it took a fair amount of time, but it was a straight-forward moving train all the way until finishing it.

I know you had originally planned to make another Wet Hot feature film, but the humor really lends itself well to an episode format. Was Netflix what gave you the idea to re-think it as a series?

It was definitely Netflix. It never really occurred to us—or was it appealing to us—to do it as a TV show. We realized as we were writing the feature script that there was way more that we wanted to include than we could possibly fit in an hour and a half. There were just so many characters that we wanted to have and storylines that we were excited about. We started to feel like the story that was emerging would have to be butchered in order to make it into a feature.

At that same time, we saw this new thing, which was a Netflix show. It’s not quite a TV show, because it gives viewers the option to watch it all together, if they want. It just felt like exactly what we wanted to do.

The cast you’ve pulled together is incredible. Not just your original ensemble—so many of them went on to big things—but the newcomers you’re welcoming to the series. You’ve worked with most of them before on other projects over the last 15 years. Here’s a chicken-or-the-egg-style question for you: were new roles written for each of these actors as they joined the cast, or were these all parts you had to fill by flipping later by thinking back on who might be good for each part?

The latter. That’s generally our practice: we write a character, then we look around our community—or not—to fill the role. I can’t think of an example of an exception to that. Pretty much, we write the character for what the story needs, then we find a great person to play it.

What were some of the specific challenges presented to you when trying to herd such a huge cast?

I think the answer is sort of the question. It’s exactly that: there were so many different people who had so many different schedules and were at so many different places in the world. Knowing that it wasn’t a long, huge-budget shoot, we had to figure out a way—come Hell or high water—to get everybody to be there at the time their material needed to be shot. Luckily, it’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing for seven seasons now on Childrens Hospital. Over time, I’ve learned to have no fear, knowing that we’ll figure it out and make it work. If we know this actor can come in for three hours on this day, and that actor can come in for two hours on that day, we can mix and match and make it work. I know that we have the experience and wherewithal to create a totally seamless piece, regardless of who is actually there when.

I didn’t realize you didn’t shoot at the same summer camp from the film until one of the cast members mentioned it to me.

The original movie was shot at a summer camp in Pennsylvania. This was shot at a ranch—a ranch that’s, like, a wedding venue—in Malibu.

They did a great job of making it look just like the old Camp Firewood.

Exactly. We built a couple of cabins to match the original movie, and then otherwise just shot creatively in other places around this ranch to make it look like the original Camp Firewood. Our amazing production designer made the interior of the dining hall inside a barn, and then used that same barn to create the camp theater for other scenes.

You mentioned that the Netflix series format gave you more space to work in, but were there still jokes or storylines that you wanted to include, but didn’t make the cut?

Always. That’s part of comedy, is that it’s a volume business. We developed many, many storylines, characters, and jokes that didn’t make it in, whether it was in the writing phase, the shooting, or the editing. Of course there’s always that. For me, sometimes that decision in the editing room feels torturous, and I think, “Oh, I don’t want to cut that out.” But at the end of the day, I almost never miss anything that doesn’t make it in the final cut.

I’m not a huge fan of deleted scenes, even though I don’t avoid releasing them. But most of the time I just like deleted scenes were deleted for a reason that makes sense. They needed to be cut.

I really have to give you and Michael credit for thinking to do a prequel. The way you can explore the characters is way more interesting than a traditional follow-up. It’s going to totally re-shape the way people watch that original movie.

I totally agree with you. I think doing a prequel was so inspiring. It was so fun to work backwards from a very clear two-hour piece that you then have to create the origin for. We had a lot of fun re-thinking who these people are, and redefining them. I think doing a prequel really helped us. Having those lines to color in was a blast.

I had been wondering if your intent had been to play with our pre-established ideas about these characters.

Absolutely. Obviously, the original movie is absurd in many ways. If you break down the chain of events when you watch original movie, it doesn’t make sense anyway. But at the same time, we took great effort to make sure that—at least in some form—everything that happens in these eight episodes does walk the line of continuity with what then happens on the last day of camp, which is what we showed in the movie. I think you’ll see that with every new character that’s in the series, it’s addressed as to why they won’t be there on the last day of camp.

The original movie wasn’t a hit when you first released it, but it now has a big cult following–

Wait a minute. To say it wasn’t a hit is just a matter of perception. It grossed $7,000 that first weekend. That’s not nothing. And all told, it made more than $200,000. That’s a lot of money. [The movie had a budget of over $1 million.]

[Laughs] What, in your opinion, has helped the film pick up more and more fans over the past 15 years?

I think that ultimately it really benefitted from the fact that it was not a big hit. Over time it spread through word of mouth, and people felt a real ownership of it once they discovered it because it wasn’t something that everyone had heard of. It was something that people could introduce to their friends. They could say, “You’ve got to see this crazy movie. You’ve probably never heard of it.” That, I think, helped. I also think the film itself has an odd, different sensibility that was a result of me and Michael being able to make it without anybody telling us not to. [Laughs] We were able to follow our whims.

I think those are two big factors as to why it continues to grow. Those, and of course the cast. As they became more high profile over the years, that probably helped as well.

My last question assumes that you weren’t too irreversibly traumatized by the scheduling and logistical hurdles of this series: if this series does as ridiculously well on Netflix as it looks like it’s going to, would you be open to the idea of more Wet Hot one day?

We had a blast doing this, and I think we’re certainly open to doing more. Right now we’re focused on finishing this, and we’re actually shooting the seventh season of Childrens Hospital right now. At some point, though, of course we’re open to keep going. There’s a million different directions it could go.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp premieres on Netflix on July 31st, 2015.

To read our other Wet Hot American Summer cast Q&As, click here.


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June 29th 2018

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