Wet Hot American Summer creators on the movie, prequel, and another sequel
You can thank your lucky stars that after a 14-year wait, you’re about to receive more Wet Hot American Summer, but remember to send a thank-you note David Wain and Michael Showalter too. The comedy duo, who wrote the much-adored 2001 indie movie about counselors at a Maine camp in ‘81, have been flying the Wet Hot promotional flag for years and now have reassembled the entire adult cast and added fistfuls of new characters for an eight-episode prequel that debuts July 31 on Netflix. You can read about their journey to revive Wet Hot – and all sorts of behind-the-scenes tidbits about what will happen on the first day of camp during that fateful summer – right here. Right now, though, see what else Wain and Showalter told EW about the little indie box office dud that later achieved cult success, their roles in front of the camera, and the prospect of another visit to Camp Firewood in the future.
On filming the Wet Hot movie
WAIN: I knew it was really special. It was a time when there was a boom in independent film, but still, at that point, hundreds and hundreds of features went to Sundance every year, and maybe a half dozen got released, and we knew that we were in that camp—literally. But we knew that we were having fun, and for so many of us, it was the first feature film. It was essentially the first time I had worked with a professional crew. And so it was just a huge adventure, plus the fact that we were all living at the camp, and eating the camp food, and in the cabins, and stuck in the rain—it was a huge bonding experience. Everyone had a blast. We shot for 12 hours a day and partied for 12 hours a night. It was crazy.
SHOWALTER: We were young but confident. We had done The State, we had had the experience of writing and directing ourselves in comedy, and we knew a little bit about what our brand was, and it felt exciting. I grew up loving movies like Animal House and Caddyshack and the Python movies, and all these great ensemble comedies of the 80s, and it was like we were doing that: we were making our classic ensemble comedy.
On their expectations for the movie
WAIN: When we were doing the original movie, we were like, “Most likely this will, at the very least, we hope, come out on some kind of DVD.” Even before we were making it, we were like, “This is this independently financed, tiny, weird movie, led by the star power of Janeane Garofalo as the main anchor. If we just finish this, then people who are hardcore fans of The State will have some way to find it and see it and that’s great.” And we were psyched. And then it got to go to Sundance. That was an unexpected, great thing. Then nobody bought it at Sundance and it sat there on the shelf for months and that was scary. Then it came out. It tanked in the theaters and barely got released. And we were like, “Okay. That’s that.” We were still happy about it, because we made the movie we wanted to make, and some people saw it and it got great feedback… except for the reviews, which were horrible. And then it just started building after that. That was crazy and it never stopped. So, at this point, it felt like something from the past that was out of my hands, like this thing that I was involved with then. Now it’s back in my hands.
On how the cult of Wet Hot grew into something much bigger
SHOWALTER: I do remember every year or so, you’d start to hear about special screenings that were being done at college campuses, or a bar would do a midnight screening of it and people were showing up in costumes. Having grown up as a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that really struck me as a unique and wonderful and unusual thing that people were starting to do that, going to Halloween dressed as characters from the movie. And then it just kind of built from there.
On shooting a prequel a decade and a half later with a cast that was already too old to play teenagers the first time around
WAIN: Obviously it was just a reality of necessity, because of that fact that we’re shooting it 15 years later. But in facing that reality, we realized, “Why not?” And it’s fun. It will just add another layer of absurdity to the proceedings. But to me, the fun of portraying what happens on the first day of camp was a blast and very inspiring to the writing because we’re taking this silly story that we told 15 years ago and building huge origins and unexpected origins to everything that you saw on the last day of camp.
On bringing back all of the adult actors for more than just a cameo
SHOWALTER: Our approach was always to have very much the large ensemble concept of Downton Abbey or something—everybody has a storyline. Some you will see more than others, but not in any significant way. The idea that we’re trying to create is a true ensemble. There are no leads.
On what it was like on set with the reunited cast
WAIN: We’ve been talking about it long enough and we’ve all stayed friends that it feels totally surreal and yet totally normal, like no time has gone by… Working with really good friends who are simultaneously the funniest people in the world – what else could one ask for?
SHOWALTER: It’s like we’ve come full circle. Or some portion of a circle. We’ve all travelled in many directions and done many things and experienced different things, and now were all checking back in, touching back together.
WAIN: Returning to cider house.
SHOWALTER: Exactly. Cider House has always been our North Star.
WAIN: And the North Star.
SHOWALTER: And literally the North Star.
On adding more than 20 new characters to an already-large cast
SHOWALTER: That was the whole game plan going in—to just endlessly build out the world. In a way, sometimes the smaller the part, the more you want to build out their world. Like the Judah Friedlander character from the movie. He’s just in one quick scene, but we get to know quite a bit more about him in the series. We spend quite a bit of time on the can of vegetables. It’s fun to just keep throwing more colorful characters into this crazy universe.
On what to expect from the prequel, all of which takes place on the first day of camp
SHOWALTER: The counselors are there already, and all the new campers are now arriving… They have a famous Broadway director visiting the camp to direct a musical, played by John Slattery. One of the unforeseen things that happens is that they discover that there is toxic waste near the camp, and the existence of the toxic waste threatens the existence of the camp, so that sets in motion a save-the-camp storyline. And meanwhile, we’re finding out that there’s a lot of love relationships. There’s a lot of people meeting people that they’re going to be with – maybe by the end of the summer, like Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black’s characters. We learn some backstory about our different characters from the movie. And we learn a little bit more about the camp across the lake, Camp Tigerclaw – the preppy, rich, snobby camp – and there’s a long-brewing rivalry between the two camps that may or may not build to a confrontation by the end of the series.
On what it was like for Showalter to slip back into character as tragic nice guy, Coop
SHOWALTER: Very strange. And I certainly don’t look anything like Coop, like I did [during the movie]. I was very skinny. It took me a couple scenes before I remembered what Coop was like. So much of the acting that I’ve done since I played Coop is I’ve played myself. In Stella or in Michael & Michael Have Issues, the character I play is Michael Showalter. And Coop is definitely not Michael Showalter. And whenever Michael [Ian] Black is there – and David too – we fall into just playing ourselves. The very first couple of scenes I did as Coop, I was more in my Stella thing. But then as I started doing some scenes with Donna [Lake Bell], who plays Coop’s love interest in the series, I started to remember what is going on internally with this character, and it clicked at that point.
On what to expect from Coop this time around
SHOWALTER: He’s just an extraordinarily sweet guy. But he’s also very very deluded, especially with women. He has another tragic, sort of unrequited love situation. He’s a hopeless romantic and every relationship he’s in, he’s thinking big picture and these girls are like, “I’m a teenager.” But he’s very chivalrous in that way.
On Wain, who directs the prequel, also stepping in front of the camera to play a character named Yaron
WAIN: Lake Bell plays Donna—the girlfriend of Coop—who just got back from Israel. I play an Israeli soccer counselor who poses a threat to Coop’s relationship with Donna. [He] is there on a program where Israeli counselors can come to the United States and travel for a year or six months as long as they work for two months at a summer camp…. We seriously thought at first that we would cast some gorgeous dark actor to play Yaron, but I was just doing a silly accent at the table read and some people wanted me to just do it.
SHOWALTER: It’s a total mismatch and Coop is completely out of his league… Yaron is older than Coop and wiser and more worldly.
On how the events of the prequel were designed to connect the dots from those in the movie (which takes place on the last day of camp)
SHOWALTER: If you are very versed on the movie, you will recognize a 100 million connective moments where we say, “So this is what that was!” But you could also poke a million holes in it, too. And this is the first day of camp; the movie was the last day of camp. There’s 60 days in between. And every day at Camp Firewood is huge, insane. That is the premise that is starting to unfold, that every single day at Camp Firewood, everyone falls in love and everyone breaks up and the world almost ends. And this is no different: On the first day of camp, the very existence of human kind is threatened. There are all sorts of hearts being broken.
On whether they were nervous about tarnishing the legacy of the movie with a bad sequel
WAIN: It’s an obvious thing – you make a sequel that sucks and you’re tainting the memory and the reputation and the feeling of the original. And I certainly was aware of that idea, but I also thought the excitement of doing it and the truth that there was so much more to do overrode my fears…. But throughout the whole process, from the earliest conception all the way to the editing, it was crucial to Michael and me to follow our gut and ride that line between being faithful to what it was without ever just retreading it or imitating it. And so what is a motif that’s fun to revisit versus what’s just copying the same joke, or doing a lesser version of what we’ve done in the movie? It was really important to me that this new one was its own thing, but also have the connective tissue to the original world of the movie. We weren’t trying to have the same brain that we had when we were 15 years younger ourselves.
On introducing weird, unexpected origin stories for the characters
WAIN: To varying degrees, we knew that we wanted to have fun rewriting the origins, separate from what was obvious or what you might expect them to be for a lot of the characters… And also taking tiny little things that were random one-offs in the movie. For example, Gail, the arts and crafts counselor, says in passing [that she had seperated from someone named Jonas]. We took that as a seed and then built this whole new character of Jonas and now we learn all about what that’s all about…. We’re setting up this world that’s very different, in some ways, than the world on the last day of camp. By the end of the first day of camp, though, most of what is in place on the last day of camp is in place. Every situation in the movie that has an antecedent is addressed, pretty much to a character, in the prequel.
On logistics of trying to shoot with a large cast with limited time, and having to be crafty to make it look like actors had shot a scene together
SHOWALTER: When you have a big cast—and we have a huge cast, 60-some odd speaking roles—that’s going to be a scheduling nightmare. It was very challenging, but not that much more or less challenging than anything else I’ve ever done… We always knew going in that it was going to require smoke and mirrors to get it done, just because everyone is so successful and busy.
WAIN: There’s nobody in the movie, without any exception, that feels like they just walked in and did a cameo. Everyone plays the role that we intended.
On recreating the set on a ranch in Malibu instead of shooting again at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania
WAIN: The camp in Pennsylvania was under three feet of snow so that was one reason why it would have been very difficult. We obviously priced out having the snow plows there every single day and the big space heaters in the dead of January and February in Pennsylvania, but we figured it probably wouldn’t be the best idea. (laughs) I think many of the cast have migrated West since the original movie. And Michael and I have as well. So it just made sense.
On the ‘80s musicscape
WAIN: We brought back our composer, Craig Wedren, who did the original soundtrack in collaboration with Teddy Shapiro. But he, in addition to building upon and expanding his original score from the movie, created this entire double-album worth of incredible 80s-esque songs that would have been huge hits if they had been released then. And they’re really cool. There’s a lot of rewards there for anyone who’s watching this and is paying attention to the music.
On the possibility of more Wet Hot down the road
SHOWALTER: My personal feeling about these characters and this world is that it has kind of a comic book quality to it, where there is always another story to tell. I’ve always felt like there is no shortage of fun stories we could tell about these characters. And if that translates into more seasons, then sure, that’d be great. I often think of them as Archie and his gang or the Peanuts or something like that. It’s this crazy, fun group of kids and all of them are archetypal, yet in their own way, and I would love to keep telling stories about them, for sure.
WAIN: I’m surprised there hasn’t been way more stuff about summer camp over the years, because it is such a beautiful, forming part of life. I feel like it’s a place that’s naturally heightened every day, and naturally condensed with drama and teenage hormones, so it’s just naturally cinematic, for me. So I could see continuing to go back — and, of course, with this cast.