David Wain Never Came Home From Camp
"At the time, you think counselors are adults, but they're not."
Today marks the release on Netflix of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, the latest installment of what might be the most epic, meaningful, ridiculous, and definitive camp movie franchise ever. The man behind all the films–or Netflix specials or whatever–is David Wain, who co-wrote and co-directed them with Michael Showalter. When he made the first Wet Hot movie, Wain was a 30-year-old comedian dicking around with a bunch of his friends. Now, sixteen years later, he’s an established director, a father, and a well-respected spotter of talent, having given Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Alyssa Milano their starts.
Fatherly spoke to Wain, who was in the middle of a family vacation, on the eve of Wet Hot‘s release.
Mazel tov on Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. You are the proud father of another camp classic!
Yes, we’re talking about having Congress proclaim it Wet Hot American Summer Day.
If they could do proclaim anything that would definitely be it. But nothing is getting through Congress these days.
They just can’t get anything done. God dammit!
For more than a decade, WHAS has been the definitive camp movie. When you were making it back in 2001, did you have any idea it would resonate so strongly?
Of course not. We were very unsure it would get finished, much less released. Even after we took it Sundance and people laughed, it still didn’t sell. My big goal was that it would play one theater in New York and it would get a review in the New York Times and I would be happy. We definitely did not think it would still be a movie in 2017 people screen every summer and think of as a touchstone as a sense of humor or what camp is all about. It’s only based on two camps. Mine — Camp Modin in Maine — and the one Showalter went to. I’m thrilled people cared about it.
As you revisit the camp in Ten Years Later, how much does the making of WHAS become itself camp?
A lot. Certainly when we made the first movie, shot at Camp Tawanda in Pennsylvania, we were all thirty-ish. Nobody had done anything all that professional. It was the first for us in so many ways. Also, we were all living in the camp in the bunks so it was truly insane. The line between the summer camp and the movie and the making of it was non-existent.
How is that different from this time around?
First of all, we shot this season in Los Angeles, at a ranch in Malibu. We all have kids and we’re all more experienced. It’s more like a reunion of camp less so than being at camp. In that way, the material does in a way mirror the experience.
That’s a similarity, I think, between something like WHAS and the series Party Down!, about a group of out-of-work actors moonlighting as cater waiters. Both this and that feel magical for they combine the conceit of the show with the reality of those making it.
I agree with that. The fact that this really is the family of people who bonded so much and did this special thing together. We are reconnecting with each other on set to do this thing about people reconecting with each other. The nature of our storytelling and humor is self-commenting and self-reflective so there’s a chance to have those little references.
Hold on for a sec…. Could you put some spray on my kids when you get there?
Caught in the act of fathering.
Yeah. I’m on vacation with some friends and five kids, including mine. Last night, we showed them the third episode of this series. I had edited it to be more appropriate. The kids went nuts. They’re only six to nine so I was surprised how much they were into it.
Do your kids go to camp?
Not yet. They go to day camp.
Sleep away is a whole different ball game. Has Wet Hot made you more eager or more hesitant to send them?
I haven’t really made the connection between my actual real life kids. Camp is so different anyway. Part of what I’m memorializing and nostalgic for is the fact that the camp I went to at the time couldn’t have been less organized or more lackadaisical. It was basically a bunch of us sitting around all day, hanging out by the lake and making out with each other.
At 16, I was a junior counselor at Camp Modin. My campers were only a year younger. So if I said, ‘Hey, today we’re going for a big hike!’ and my campers said, ‘We don’t want to!’ I would just say, ‘OK. I’ll go hang out with my friends.’ At the time, you think counselors are adults, but they’re not. Anyway, today it’s so much more professional.
There’s a parallel there too to your own career. It seems like a big challenge is figuring out how to maintain that same improvisational joy and lightness from the earlier days even as your cohort has become more successful and older and the stakes have gotten higher.
It’s about consciously doing exactly that. It’s being aware. I can’t think about how I’ve done this many times and how I’m a veteran director and how I need to do this to make money for my children. I laugh and cry about the fact that the sense of humor and being funny is an intangible and fleeting thing yet I depend on it to feed my family. It’s best not to think about it and just do the work.
As an 18 year old college student, when I first saw the other guys in The State, I saw how much fun they were having and we fun it was to watch it. That became my rudder. If we feel like we’re having fun in an inclusive way with the audience, it’s going to work.
The moment in Wet Hot that really stands out in that regard is Paul Rudd’s tantrum in the dining hall. He just pushes it so far. I crack up every time, especially now that I have a six year old who regularly “Rudds it” when we ask him to clean up.
Paul Rudd is a genius.