David Wain is a true believer in the idea that limitations are the mother of invention. That was certainly true of Wet Hot American Summer, Wain’s feature directorial debut, in which it rained nearly every day and featured a cast and crew who were also movie first-timers for the most part. Though Wet Hot got labeled as a box office bomb and was derided by many critics at the time, Wain’s belief in the movie and the comic sensibility he shared with his friends eventually began to pay off.
Little-known actors from the movie like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks became stars. Wain went on to make movies like Role Models and Wanderlust, plus seven seasons of Childrens Hospital. And the franchise itself developed a cult status that not only demanded its own Netflix series in 2016 – First Day of Camp – but a follow-up season that jumped ahead to the early ‘90s with the release of Ten Years Later on Friday.
As a new filmmaker in 2001, Wain was surrounded with barriers and limitations, not to mention the skepticism that follows you when your debut doesn’t go as expected. But now 16 years later – with Ten Years Later – Wain continues to invent and produce new ideas and stories in a world that so many had written off long ago.
Ten Years Later is the first real time jump forward for these characters in the “WetHotiverse.” Did you want the characters to evolve or mature in the decade that passed since we saw them at the end of the movie?
The starting point was just to tell that story as true to life and as real as we could. The setting and the world being: What are kids who went to camp in the ‘80s when they were teens like now in their twenties, living in New York in the ‘90s?
Michael Showalter and I lived in New York in our twenties and were part of a big group of friends that were trying to figure out our lives, so it was a very real place that we were drawing from. In each character’s case, we really thought about where they might actually end up at this point in their lives. Obviously some of them were more broad joke ideas than others. Early on it made sense to us that Paul Rudd’s character would be the least evolved in some ways, still holding onto the height of his life which was probably that summer of ‘81 back in camp, and we built his story from that notion. Then also in the “reunion movie” genre idea that all of them have a piece of the puzzle missing that they can find by attending this reunion. And obviously everything I just said sounds sort of serious, but needless to say, we laced it with the stupidest jokes imaginable.
The first season on Netflix, First Day of Camp, came 15 years after the original movie, which undoubtedly puts a certain kind of pressure on it turning out a certain way for fans. Did you feel a difference in terms of the type or amount of pressure to doing a second season?
When we were approached about doing First Day of Camp, I was very nervous because I was so worried: Should we just leave a classic alone? Are we gonna be retreading something? Are we gonna be trying to recreate something that isn’t true anymore for ourselves? Is it possible to be funny again in that same way, in that same world? Then we did it and tried to make the best decisions along the way, and I was personally very happy with it. So when it came to doing Ten Years Later, all I could do was take comfort in the fact that I really didn’t know if we could pull off the first one, and I didn’t know if we’re gonna pull off another one, but we did it one time, so let’s try it again. Like any TV series, in a way, you always have that fear of going back to the blank page. How much more do we have to say about summer camp? How much more is in this world? But something we found through doing seven seasons of Childrens Hospital is once you sit down and get into it, there’s always more. There’s so much more still.
The movie ends with the characters planning to meet again in ten years, but your initial follow-up was a time-jump back, not forward. Now we get to see the jump forward. Any reason for not doing Ten Years Later as the first season of the series?
I suppose we could have done Ten Years Later first, it just seemed like the challenge and fun of doing the prequel – the absurdity of it all – was very appealing. I think that’s why we ended up doing that. I loved all of the brainstorming about how each of those things that you saw or got hinted at in the movie came to be, as seen in one day on the first day of camp. There were so many limitations in a way that allowed for so much invention and that made it fun. And then, as we did Ten Years Later, there was just as much opportunity for fun exploration of where all these characters went afterwards.
There are a lot of favorite running jokes for fans of the franchise. Do you have any personal favorite, maybe more subtle gags?
There’s a lot of little details in the new series that I’m excited about. As far as jokes, there’s so many. There’s little things that some people don’t notice, like in episode 4 when Jai Courtney’s character runs outside to proclaim his love for Susie, Zak Orth is sitting outside wearing his glasses and looking at his iPhone and when he sees that he’s on camera he puts it away really quickly.
I gotta say that my favorite new character in this season is John Early’s shirt.
It’s quite a shirt. We have a costume designer, Debra McGuire, who is basically the best of the best. I worked with her on Wanderlust and some pilots and New Girl and she’s done all the best stuff. She went to town on all of the clothes this year and I was pretty much blown away. I can’t take credit for what she did, she just nailed everything.
There’s a new trend, thanks to binge-watching habits, of comedies having a narrative where you might not know what’s going on if you don’t watch the episodes in order. How do you use that to your advantage in making a season of Wet Hot?
To me it’s incredibly fortunate. For my money, it’s a perfect medium for exactly this type of thing. I feel so grateful to be in an era where this exists, because the making of it in really almost every way is more like a movie than it is a TV series. We shoot one long script, and it is broken up into episodes that have their own identity, but what’s so nice is that you know there is no such thing as people dropping in and just watching episode 4. You know that they’re gonna start at the beginning. So we don’t feel the need to make it self-contained in that way, nor to have recaps of what happened before. It’s a great way to do a longer story with so many storylines without having to worry about the constraints of television.
Every fan probably has their favorite character that they’d like to see a spin-off for – my pick would probably be Gene.
There’s so many areas to explore. I’d love to know more about almost every character. I’d love to see what happened with Gene and Falcon during Vietnam. I’d love to see what happened with Elizabeth Banks. What happened to Jordan Peele’s character? Name any character and there’s a thousand questions. You could make a whole movie or series about everything we tease or hint at, and maybe we will.
What’s the latest you can share about your next Netflix release, A Futile and Stupid Gesture?
That’s the story of Doug Kenney, the founder of National Lampoon, and it’s turning out amazingly well; Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Emmy Rossum, Matt Walsh. We are just finishing that movie now. It’s a lot of the same team that was working on Wet Hot and so we all kinda stopped A Futile and Stupid Gesture for a little bit to do Wet Hot, but now we’re getting to the final post-production stage of that movie. I don’t know a specific release date, but I imagine it’ll come sometime soon and I can’t wait for people to see it.
Was it surreal to see current comedy friends and heroes playing your comedy heroes of yesteryear?
Very much so. That’s kind of what the movie is – a love letter from this comedy generation to the one that started this whole sensibility, the ones who figured out how to be funny in this particular way at a time when there was no landscape for it to be a part of. It’s a daunting responsibility, and like any biopic – and I’ve never done a biopic or even any non-fictional movie – but with any movie like this, you can’t worry about being a definitive document of something. We tried to give a little taste of what that time and what this guy was all about.
Do you have a favorite moment or fondest memory from the making of the original Wet Hot American Summer?
One night that often comes to mind: As you may know, it rained the entire time we were shooting, but then one night it stopped raining and we had a big ‘80s summer camp dance for ourselves, just for fun. We had a DJ come from New York and everyone let loose and went nuts. We danced all night and went out and sat out on the dock in the pitch black darkness all night long. It was a lot of partying the whole time, then we’d go to sleep and wake up an hour later and start shooting again. Another one that comes to mind is the night when we dropped the Skylab onto camp, which I’m sure today there’s no chance we would’ve done that. We would do that with VFX now, but at the time Mark White, our production designer, spent an enormous amount of time building this full-sized, incredible Skylab prop and then we hoisted it up on a lift of some kind and dropped it on the ground. We all sat there watching that go down and it was just a really triumphant, amazing moment for these young kids all making their first movie.
Photo credit: Saeed Adyani/Netflix