'Wet Hot American Summer' 10th anniversary: David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Joe Lo Truglio remember their days at Camp Firewood
Think it’s impossible to make a comedy for just $1.8 million, get it into theatres, and still wind up with a financial disaster? Think again!!! It is almost exactly 10 years since writer-director David Wain did just that with Wet Hot American Summer, his camp movie spoof which starred co-writer Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni, and Joe Lo Truglio, amongst many others.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the movie’s release — and to celebrate the film’s elevation to cult classic status — Wain, Showalter, and Black are hosting a special Wet Hot event tonight at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. The bad news? The event is sold out. The good? You can read the Camp Firewood reminiscences of Wain, Showalter, and Lo Truglio below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis of Wet Hot American Summer?
DAVID WAIN: I went to camp for many years in Maine at a place called Camp Modin, which was a very laid back, Jewish summer camp. I spent most of the time that I was there, from about age 10 to 16, kind of sitting around making friends and trying to make out with girls. Michael Showalter had had a similar experience at Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires. Around the time that the State [the sketch comedy troupe whose members included Wain, Showalter, Black, and Lo Truglio] was becoming less active as a group, Michael Showalter and I started trying to write some screenplays.
How did you get the money to make it?
We hooked up with this great producer we knew named Howard Bernstein and we just started going to every type of source. Foreign financing companies, independent financiers of all stripes. So many of them were so chancy and questionable in one way or another. We met so many characters, had so many weird coffees and drinks with people.
Over and over and over again were told, “Yes! I am doing it! We’re giving you the money!” And the next day these people would disappear. I remember trying to track someone down to their office in the East Village. The office turned out to be someone’s house there was no one there by that name. But eventually Howard Bernstein was able to put together a package.
What was the casting process like?
There were all the people we knew from the State or people we had worked with over and over again, like [now Late Night with Jimmy Fallon head writer] A.D. Miles. Then there was another category of people like Amy Poehler, who we knew from the New York comedy community, and to some degree, Janeane Garofalo and Paul Rudd. For the other actors we had an audition process with a great casting director, Susie Farris. People like Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper just walked in the door and auditioned. Banks had been kicking around New York and had done commercials and whatnot and Bradley Cooper was just getting out of Actors Studio school. I thought they were awesome and cast them.
Easily the most touching sequence in the film is the sex scene between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black.
Easily. We always thought that conceptually it was funny to have the only actual real sex be between two men. The only actual real relationship in the movie is between two men. When shooting it, though, it was hard for me to watch it. So I kind of set up the shot and then had to kind of look away.
Why was it hard for you to watch?
I was just young and shy. I don’t think I had ever been on a feature film set before, much less producing or directing. I didn’t want to make two straight men, who were probably feeling a little gun shy about having such a graphic sexual scene together, even more uncomfortable by participating in the discomfort.
So you’re ruling out a possible future in gay porn if this whole feature film-directing thing doesn’t work out?
Since then I’ve gotten far far more comfortable.
Was there much in the way of extracurricular shenanigans on set? I mean, you did have a lot of young folks staying together in a remote location with access to alcohol…
No. After the shooting finished for the day, everyone went to sleep.
I don’t believe you.
[Laughs] It was insane. It was a seven-nights-a-week party. The line between being at summer camp and making a movie about it was very gray. The biggest difference was that we were a little older and nobody was going to take our beer away.
You took the film to Sundance but didn’t manage to get a distribution deal while you were there. Was that a big disappointment?
The Sundance experience in general was amazing. There was so much buzz and so much talk and audiences seemed to go nuts for it. Then, in all of the excitement, we were like, “Wait a minute, no one’s even…” Not only did we not get a good offer, we got not even a bite, not even a phone call from even the bottom-feeding distributors. So of course that was horribly disappointing.
Basically, several months after Sundance, USA Films called and were like, “Okay, here’s a completely lowball, ridiculous, insulting, pathetic offer.” We were like, “Okay, we’ll take it!” It opened at the Empire [AMC] cinema in New York on 42nd Street, which has I think 25 screens and we were in number 25. It’s like the little TV room next to the janitor’s office. That was our big premiere. It got got a lot of hostile hateful reviews.
[Laughs] Sorry, I don’t know why I’m laughing.
It is kind of funny. If you look at some of the reviews it got, people took extra care to come up with ways to say how horrible and how offensive this movie was, including Roger Ebert who wrote a whole song about it.
On the other hand, our own Owen Gleiberman gave it at “A” grade.
That was a great review! We actually printed it out and put it into theatres.
Which did you no good whatsoever.
No, it did nothing. It ended up opening in maybe 20 cities across the country. But it never had any theatrical life whatsoever. Then on DVD it slowly but surely had a life and eventually it started having midnight screenings and people started discovering it. The best compliment I get, when people come up to me is they say, “Your movie is how I judge my friends. It’s the litmus test for whether I think someone’s cool or on my vibe.”
There’s an odd list of people who are thanked in the credits. Liev Schreiber?
[Laughs] Well, in the grand tradition of first-time independent filmmakers, you thank everyone who even said “Hello” to you during the process of making the movie. I believe Liev at one time attached himself to the movie in order to help us get financing. Then he couldn’t do it for one reason or another when we got to shooting.
Stephen Colbert is also thanked. Is that a similar story?
No. Colbert, I remember participated in a reading we had, so we could hear it out loud and help with the writing process.
Marie-Louise Parker and Billy Crudup?
Same story as Liev.
Who on earth would they have played?
I don’t even remember. Crudup is an old friend from NYU.
What do you think of the movie now?
I’m teased by my friends for being a big fan of my own work. But I do really like seeing that purity of vision, which is just not really practical in the bigger budget movies that I’ve done. I love it, I really do.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there ever any question of pitching Wet Hot American Summer to a major studio?
MICHAEL SHOWALTER: I don’t think so. I don’t think a major studio would have bought it, sensibility-wise. Just the fact that you guys are writing an article about it 10 years later is mind-boggling. We took the movie to Sundance and it flopped. You could have heard a pin drop in the audience when we screened it.
Really? David Wain said the audiences loved it.
Well, the screenings can’t have gone that well, otherwise someone would have bought it. I didn’t think they went well. I vividly remember the big screening, the one that all the buyers were at. It was a packed house and my recollection is that there were a lot of awkward silences.
It is an odd movie.
Very, very. But we were not aware of how weird what we were doing was. I think we thought we were making Animal House. I don’t think we anticipated on any level the backlash. Obviously the people who love the movie are the only people that really matter. But there were reviews of the movie that were passionately hateful. It seems like a weird response to elicit from just a little comedy. It did anger me because obviously we had put our heart and soul into it and it is disheartening to know that something that you could work on for years could be dismissed that quickly by someone.
Does it surprise that you so many of the cast gone on to much greater success and fame?
No. Really, no. Amy Poehler was one of the funniest women I’ve ever seen. Bradley Cooper immediately caught my attention. We saw a lot of actors for that role and Bradley stood out. It’s interesting when you see people auditioning and you get 20 guys and they’re all really good looking and they can all act and they can all do comedy. How does one person stand out above those people? But he did. He really stood out. He was charming. He had a certain quality. He had charisma. It’s an X factor. It’s a total X factor. But someone like Bradley is special. Elizabeth Banks, same thing. She was really funny, incredibly beautiful. But also what they have is an intelligence about them and a depth. It’s just something you see right away.
Elizabeth Banks told me that she wore a wonderbra and the tightest t-shirt she could find to her audition.
I can confirm that she looked very good in her audition.
Did you see that the New York Times recently described Wet Hot as “the alt-comedy ur-text.”
It’s all just so flattering. But we certainly weren’t thinking in those terms when we made the film. I don’t want to be totally self-deprecating. We pushed ourselves to do things that felt fresh and original. But we certainly were not trying to make any intellectual statements about comedy. As far as we were concerned, we were just writing stupid jokes.
David Wain told me that you have been discussing a sequel.
That is correct.
Can you say any more about that?
Only that I really hope it happens. I’m really personally excited and have been all along for the idea of a sequel, or a prequel. Or maybe a prequel-sequel. The first ever movie that is both a prequel and a sequel. Although David pointed out that that’s Godfather Part II.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you remember about the shoot?
JOE LO TRUGLIO: In every respect of the word, we were at camp. And when you’re at camp, you like to have fun and drink and party and stay up all night. So that did happen. I remember a lot of mud. I remember putting boards down to walk on the grass, because we were walking over puddles for most of the shoot. I remember the owner of the camp did not want any gum anywhere on the camp, in the grass, under the tables. So I remember chewing gum was a no-no. These are all very small details…
But together they make for a compelling tapestry!
Yeah. [Laughs] I remember A.D. Miles’ improvisational street rap in the infirmary, which is where a few of the cast were staying. A.D. Miles rapping was certainly a highlight. He is the whitest man on earth.
Was it incredibly disappointing when it bombed at the box office?
Yeah. We were hoping that kind of alternative sense of humor would catch on in a more mainstream way. I was anyway. David was doing a Q&A recently where he said that he was just happy that he made the film he wanted to make and that you have to kind of detach yourself once it’s done, which I agree with. But I know, for me, I was really hoping that it would be what would put everyone on the map. Which it did, but only later.
When did you become aware that a cult was springing up around the film?
I would say maybe two or three years after it came out on DVD. It appeared to be getting that college audience. People in their dorms were getting high and watching it.
What do you think about doing a sequel? Amy Poehler told me she might not be up for making a second film because she didn’t think anyone’s marriages would survive the experience.
That’s funny. Relationships are tough anyway when you’re shooting on location. But for a movie like this, with so much debauchery, it would really be put to the test. But people could come out stronger. Or Mormons, depending.
Did you go to the gallery exhibition of Wet Hot-inspired artwork?
Yeah. This was an incredibly humbling thing to see. This was at Gallery 1988 in Venice. I had to buy a couple of pieces of myself. I felt stranger, but I was so flattered someone would do it. I also bought an alphabet, supposedly for a child’s room. For most of the letters, they had the corresponding characters. And for D, of course, they had “D— cream.” I had to grab that in the event we ever have children. That’s certainly something you want over a crib.
Anyone unaware of the importance of “D— cream” to David Wain’s movie debut should feel free to check out the funny, but extremely foulmouthed, footage below of Christoper Meloni and A.D Miles:
Read more interviews on Wet Hot American Summer:
Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan star in the Emmy-winning comedy. You want to go to there.