In 2001, David Wain teamed up with his fellow Stella and The State alum Michael Showalter to write a loving yet irreverent ode to their summer camp experiences, which Wain directed. Wet Hot American Summer failed to make much of an impact at first (and still stands only at 32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). But the movie eventually became a beloved cult comedy (scoring the number-one spot on our list of best comedies since 2000), and many then-unknowns in the young cast—Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black—quickly went on to stardom.
Based on that ever-increasing momentum, the Wet Hot crew hooked up with Netflix to offer the prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp in 2015, followed by the sequel, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, which debuted on Netflix last week. Series director and co-writer Wain—who also plays the characters of Yaron and Bill Clinton in the new series—took a few minutes to talk to the The A.V. Club about the series’ origins, its multitude of pop culture references, the difficulty of juggling such a large cast and crew, and what kind of spin-off series could be in store for our favorite Wet Hot campers.
The A.V. Club: What’s the process like for sketching out something like this, with the combination of the camp with the giant government conspiracy?
David Wain: Basically Michael Showalter and I sat with our producer, Jon Stern, and brainstormed the very broad strokes of what the whole season would be about and what the premise was, the time period, what’s happening in it. Then there was a writers’ room that convened just for a few weeks with different people coming and going—everything was working around people’s schedules, even in the writers’ room—where we fleshed out the stories and brainstormed and mixed and matched and pieced the whole thing together. We had to have the whole script ready to go on day one because we were shooting different parts of each episode each day to accommodate the different actors’ schedules.
AVC: With so many talented and funny people in the cast, is there much improvisation and ad-libbing?
DW: So the basic storyline of it had to be pretty in place, plus we were all shooting pretty fast. But for sure, of course, especially with the kind of actors we have, will offer input and will do improv or add ideas of their own into it. But the basic scripting of it happens before we get there.
I know that Michael Black pops in some things, or I’m thinking of when in the first episode Ken Marino is talking to Joe Lo Truglio on the street in New York bent over—“funky chunky monkey”—I think that was improv. And little things that Joe did with Ken, and I think the whole thing with “24-7-369-gina.” And of course things get added and spruced up in post-production to find the humor—we’re always looking for new ways to find strange humor.
AVC: In the writers’ room, how do you come up with the pop culture references to add, like, “Let’s add the St. Elmo’s Fire love story,” or “Let’s do The Bad News Bears, but just not play the championship game”?
DW: I’m glad you’re noticing all this stuff. A lot of that stuff is just little bonuses for people who get them. It usually first comes organically out of the story, but then we see an opportunity, like, “Let’s do All The President’s Men here.” And sometimes the reference is something we know no one’s heard of, but we don’t care. We did a whole movie called They Came Together that’s inspired by a movie called Crossing Delancey that isn’t really something people know that well.
What Michael and I think of as a classic genre staples—and then when we research it we realize it only happened in one movie or two movies—but we also don’t care. We really just love the larger era of the ’90s, trying to find things that reminded us of the ’90s. And we don’t even necessarily look at these things, but just remembering—something like Reality Bites, and taking from movies like St. Elmo’s Fire, and of course Indian Summer is a big one.
AVC: Like how Paul Rudd’s Andy basically looks exactly like Matt Dillon’s character in Singles.
DW: And the setup of Elizabeth Banks’ character Lindsay is right out of The China Syndrome.
AVC: A lot of the set pieces are really impressive, like the weird King Of Camp tournament that just appears out of nowhere.
DW: There’s a lot of camp traditions that appeared out of nowhere this time. Like the totem pole and the spirit of Camp Firewood, and all the chants that they do. And of course the King Of Camp in our budget and schedule was really hard, and I was fighting with the team a lot—“No, we have to do this!” We had all these background extras and vehicles and props and fire that we only used for one shot. It was a nutty shoot, and we did it in about three hours.
AVC: How did the series come into being in the first place? More than a decade after the first movie, it seems to be more popular than ever.
DW: Ever since the movie came out and we did the movie, we had so much fun and loved each other and wanted to do more of it, someday, somehow. And we talked about it for years and years and years. It felt like a good idea.
We first thought about it as a movie that took place in the wintertime at a New Year’s gathering at Coop’s house and that’s where we developed some of the storylines that wound up in First Day Of Camp. And then as we were putting all the characters in and trying to realize the scope, the canvas of it, we just had too much to fit into a regular comedy feature film.
And we just thought, “Wow, look what Netflix is doing,” like this is kind of the perfect genre, because it’s somewhere between a movie and a series. And the way we produce it is more like a movie, with one script, it’s like a three-and-a-half-hour movie. So when we realized that Netflix would be perfect, we decided to pitch it to Netflix and if they said yes, we’d do it and if they said no, we’d forget it. So we did exactly that, and I went in with an iPad and “here are all these stars” and probably an A.V. Club piece about how this is part of the cult canon. And they ran the numbers and said, “Okay, here’s a tiny budget, give it a shot.”
AVC: Who knew that everybody in that first cast would wind up being so famous? It was so much lightning in a bottle.
DW: Yeah. I would like to say that I’m a genius on figuring all that out…
AVC: Yeah, you might be.
DW: But there was so much luck, too—that Elizabeth Banks would walk in off the street and Bradley Cooper, who was still in school, would walk in off the street and audition for this, and so many others. It really was an amazing gathering.
AVC: Paul Rudd told Entertainment Weekly he’s not sure he got paid for the first movie.
DW: Yeah, he got paid. [Laughs.]
AVC: Since that first cast is so strong, how do you figure out who to add? Like, we need Jon Hamm as an assassin, or Mark Feuerstein and Sarah Burns as these two campers that we’re going to stitch into the original movie?
DW: Again, they generally start first with the story that we’re trying to tell and what’s needed for it and then thinking about casting. Definitely the Mark and Claire characters that we pretended were there the whole time, we wanted to cast actors who may as well have been in the original movie, they just happened not to be. Mark Feuerstein, for example, is a guy that Mike and I have known for 30 years around New York and L.A. and our kids are friends and it’s just a very natural fit. Sarah Burns is also someone I’ve worked with before and have known for many, many years.
We want people who are going to fit into that world. Adam Scott, another similar situation. Along with more X-factor types like Jai Courtney, who none of us had ever met, and hadn’t really done anything close to this type of comedy before. But we just had an inkling that he might fit in with the ensemble, and we love what he did. And Alyssa Milano, just mixing it up like that. It’s something we learned on Wet Hot American Summer the movie, when we cast Christopher Meloni, who at the time was known for much more dramatic TV stuff—doing that insane performance and mixing it with a sort of stable of sketch people that are our friends seems to be a good combination.
AVC: What was filming like? I thought I saw some breath showing in some of the scenes.
DW: I thought you said “breasts showing”! Yes, it was extremely cold. People who are fans know that in the original movie it rained the entire time. This time and last time for Netflix, we shot it not in a summer camp in Pennsylvania but in a ranch in California that’s basically a wedding venue in Malibu. So there’s only, like, two or three angles that we can shoot where you don’t see the modern ranch stuff or the California mountains. There’s a lot of faking. And yes, at night, it was brutally cold, and there are certain scenes where we had to stop in the middle of a take because it was just too brutally cold. But hey, this is an adventure. Better than having a real regular job, right?
AVC: And, more like real summer camp. So what’s next? This can’t be the end— we still don’t know what McKinley had to do at 11! Will there be a 20 Years Later, when Coop and Katie finally get together?
DW: First of all, the next movie is A Futile & Stupid Gesture, which is about National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney, which is going to be a Netflix movie coming out soon. But oh yeah, I think the train will keep going in some form—we have a lot of ideas. I personally am very excited to explore all these other little questions that come up that no one asks, like what McKinley’s doing at 11, and what happened between Rock & Roll World magazine and Channel 5 for Elizabeth Banks and what was that about. What happened to Jordan Peele? What was the next adventure for the Falcon or when did the Falcon meet Gene in Vietnam?
AVC: That’s true, you could create your own Marvel Cinematic Universe.
DW: We’re thinking like that, but maybe in our case, more lucrative. We don’t want to survive—we want to make bank. That’s why we do obscure weird comedies for The A.V. Club.