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‘Wet Hot American Summer’: Oral History Details False Starts, Faking Camp Firewood

Creators and co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter, members of ’90s MTV sketch group “The State,” premiered “Wet Hot American Summer” — featuring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Amy Poehler — at Sundance in 2001. The summer-camp satire, set in 1981, floundered in limited release. But word-of-mouth, special screenings and the ever-rising profile of its cast cultivated a rabid fanbase.

Rumors about a sequel and other ways to revisit the source material circulated for years. In May 2014, Variety exclusively confirmed Netflix’s interest in returning to the fictional Camp Firewood. Now, with the July 31 debut of an eight-episode prequel series, the talent and execs recount 15 years of false starts, creative hurdles and scheduling snafus leading to “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.”

Wain (director): It first came out in New York. It grossed seven thousand dollars that weekend and we were like, “That’s not bad!” because it was only in one theater. They were like, “Well, it’s good enough to open in one more city,” and they opened it in L.A. It was good enough to sort of peter around a few cities, but basically no, it all but didn’t come out back then.

Craig Wedren (composer): Teddy Shapiro and I both wrote music for “The State.” When “Wet Hot” rolled around, we were asked to write the score and some songs, and obviously we were thrilled to do so. Teddy and I would look at each other and say, “Are we crazy, or are we working on something historical?” We really thought we were making something extraordinary, if idiotic. When it came out, it was such a resounding thud.

Janeane Garofalo (Beth): The reception was not what any of us had hoped. I don’t think many people saw it at the time.

Joe Lo Truglio (Neil): It was a punch to the gut, for sure.

Michael Showalter and David Wain had long planned a “Wet Hot” reunion. Photo by Damon Caserez for Variety

Wain: It became one of those things where there was a decent chunk of people who saw the movie and hated it with real hostility, and were like, “This is so, so unfunny.” A lot of those same people, when forced by someone to see it a second time, went from hating it to it becoming one of their favorite movies.

Howard Bernstein (original film producer and “FDOC” executive producer): As it developed a cult following over the years, we were approached many, many times, whether it was for a TV show or merchandising or theatrical versions of it, none of which came to fruition.

Wain: We wrote a pilot version of “WHAS” for Fox about 12 years ago. Their idea was, “No one saw this movie, but maybe it’s a good idea for a TV show.” So we wrote the script; it was “Wet Hot,” but it was also a 22-minute Fox sitcom with commercials and nothing Rated R, so it was a little bit odd.

Showalter (Coop): Television was very episodic then, so there would not have been any kind of arc or sort of larger story being told. It was much more “What’s the adventure this week?” The idea wasn’t going to be something where if you didn’t know the movie, you wouldn’t get the show. It was really just a TV show about summer camp.

Wain: In addition, they were like, “We can’t do a show that takes place only during the summer! It’s a network show! It’s all year long!” We’re like, “Well, why not? And why did you order it if you can’t do it?”

Showalter: That was very much a false alarm, I suppose. It really didn’t go anywhere. For me, it’s always just been creatively something I’ve wanted to continue to work on. It really was just a matter of having an opportunity to tell more stories about these characters at camp. I’d always seen this “Wet Hot” group of characters in the vein of “Little Rascals” or Archie’s Gang, that each of them is sort of a different archetype, but there were countless stories to tell about them.

Wain: Michael and I tried to develop a lot of things after “Wet Hot.” We started doing “Stella” together. In the summer of ’05 we shot and aired that show on Comedy Central. Then that didn’t work out, and we started working on other things separately, even though I was in his movie “The Baxter” and he was in my movies “Wanderlust” and “The Ten.”

Wedren: Over the years, of course, “Wet Hot” has mushroomed into this weird, great phenomenon.

Lo Truglio: As the stars of the movie started to break out into huge, successful careers, suddenly it became something bigger than it originally was.

Garofalo: I think [Wain and Showalter’s] hard work and continual support of the movie is what brought it back to life and what gave it its second life on DVD and with live screenings. Every time I would go to one of those things, I remember the crowds were bigger and bigger.

Wain: This movie that we made for very little money – and that basically bombed – little by little it just kept becoming a thing that people talked about and loved and had ownership of and cared about. And we loved it too, so more and more we thought, “We’ve got to do something else again.”

10-Year Anniversary Plans Fizzled

As was reported in May, “Rumors of a potential prequel or sequel to the movie sprouted up in 2011 when Wain revealed that he had been in talks to develop such a project. Wain requested that Universal re-release a DVD of ‘Wet Hot,’ which would include special features for the movie’s then-10th anniversary, but the request was denied. In a Q&A he said, ‘I told them we would be willing to do a new prequel teaser short for it and new interviews and new material but they were like, ‘No, nobody buys it. Nobody cares.’”

Wedren: There have been whispers and inklings for the past five or six years. There was talk of a Broadway musical and there was talk of a sequel feature film, and then there was talk of a prequel feature film.

Wain: We had some events, specifically the big one in Brooklyn that Marianne [Ways] put together for the 10th anniversary. A lot of the cast came back and did that. That was another catalyst.

Marianne Ways (event producer): We did a packed screening at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan on July 21, 2011 followed by a Q&A with David Wain and Michael Showalter. Right before the Q&A they were talking about “Oh yeah, it would be really funny if we did another “Wet Hot” movie because we’re all older and fatter, and it would make the joke that much funnier.”

We did the tenth anniversary event at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with A.D. Miles, David, Michael and Michael, Gabriel Millman who played Keith in the movie, Jake Fogelnest, Zak Orth, Chris Meloni ended up having to cancel, Jon Benjamin, Judah Friedlander, Ken Marino, Marisa Ryan, Janeane Garofalo, and we had videos from Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Samm Levine did an audio recording of him doing radio voiceover from camp. We had a house band playing songs from the movie as interstitials throughout the show — the audience was definitely singing along — and an interactive arts and crafts corner as you came in; you could make a 20-sided die necklace and friendship bracelets. There was a “Gournal,” a composition book, where the audience could sign in. We also had a sweater-fondling contest. There were definitely people in costumes. It sold out in minutes.

Wain: Also at the San Francisco Sketchfest we did this live radio show with the help of the “Thrilling Adventure Hour” people. We did a reading of the original script, radio-play style.

David Owen (SF Sketchfest cofounder): It was at the Marines’ Memorial Theater in downtown San Francisco. It sold out instantly… Once Paul Rudd was in, Michael Ian Black and Amy Poehler and Molly Shannon, Chris Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, they all hopped on board. We realized we were going to have all these great actors and comedians that were going to be in town doing other events at Sketchfest, so we said, “Let’s just have them be understudies.” We asked David Cross if he wanted to pay the David Hyde Pierce part, and Busy Philips played the Janeane Garofalo part. Gillian Jacobs from “Community” played the Elizabeth Banks part. Bobcat Goldthwait played the can of vegetables. Backstage right before the show, he was on his hands and knees making a fake can of vegetables mask to wear on his head.

Showalter: The whole project definitely got some momentum at that time, where we actually sat down and started talking about what the sequel or prequel or whatever story would actually be. We started breaking some stories out at that point.

Peter Principato (executive producer): They had done some things at the SF Sketchfest and started talking to members of the cast, and everybody was getting excited about it. As they started developing what that movie would be, they realized they had more material than could fit into an hour and a half, two-hour movie.

Wain: About three years ago we started making the movie “They Came Together,” which was in some ways a reunion of people we worked with both behind and in front of the camera on “WHAS.” In thinking about that, we started getting more serious in thinking about our “Wet Hot” prequel. We started developing the feature film version of it, and we started to realize simultaneously that the story we were trying to tell was getting too epic to fit into a film.

Showalter: We generated a lot of material around the movie idea, and what was happening very simultaneously was the emergence of Netflix. There was a decision to switch gears away from a movie and into a television idea instead. But very much predicated on Netflix being interested in doing it. If Netflix wanted to do it as a series, that would be the best-case scenario.

Wain: Of course we’re dealing with a very large cast, and many, many of them are the busiest people in Hollywood. Our tactic was first we made sure everyone was psyched about it – which they were – before we even pitched it to Netflix.

Lo Truglio: Maybe a year and a half or so ago, I asked if it was a full cast thing, and they said yes. My fear was that everyone, because of schedule or otherwise, wouldn’t going to be able to do it. I felt really strongly, as I’m sure David and Michael did, that that was necessary for this prequel to really land.

Principato: I had just been a part of setting up “Arrested Development” at Netflix as a new series, and found the atmosphere at Netflix to be creatively inviting. And the people at Netflix were fans of the material… We set a meeting with Ted [Sarandos, chief content officer] and Cindy [Holland].

Cindy Holland (Netflix VP of original content): David Wain came to us well over a year ago and was really passionate about making a prequel to “WHAS.” Ted and I were both fans of that film and we had it on the service. We started talking about how to make it a reality both in terms of getting the cast back together — which David said he could do and was determined to do — and to get it done so we could then launch this summer.

David and Michael definitely had the idea of what they wanted to do in terms of making it a prequel — having it set on the first day of camp as opposed to the film, which was set on the last day of camp — and the conceit of the actors now being older than they were when they made the film. Everyone really responded to that idea.

Wedren: This is one of those projects that went from zero to 100 in ten seconds. It was always, “When it happens, we’ll do it.”

Holland: Once we got the deal done, it was very quick. They’re incredibly fast writers; all the episodes were written in advance so we could take advantage of the logistics and cross-board all the episodes and be able to get everybody into the show.

Jake Fogelnest (writer): September, August of last year I got a call from my agent. She said, “They are going to do “WHAS” on Netflix as a prequel. I’m going to submit you as a writer, but you know Michael and David pretty well; you’re in the movie. You should reach out.” (I’m in the movie for two seconds. I get kicked out of camp early because I videotaped myself jerking off in Beth’s office. That was my feature-film debut.) I emailed David right away: “Hey, I know you could hire anyone in the world to write on this thing; I just want to throw my hat in the ring.” David emailed me back in literally two minutes: “This is great; I’ll check everything out.” And then I got a call to meet with Showalter. To go from Michael Showalter reading the very first sketches I wrote when I was 17 years old to now being a grown-up and being considered to write on the TV show, that was very meaningful to me. And then I got a call that they wanted to hire me.

Michael and David’s source material of years and years of adapting this for television, for Fox and then the 115 pages of a film version of it; they had so much to work with when we got started. In a very, very short amount of time we crafted the story of these eight episodes and then wrote essentially first drafts of scripts within a couple weeks.

Showalter: We had Anthony King, Krister Johnson, Christina Lee, Lauren Caltagirone, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, Jake Fogelnest, Dan Klein, Joe DeRosa, and Rachel Axler. We had different writers focus on different storylines, and then taking that Frankenstein Monster and sticking them all together. And from there we started the process of shaping them as episodes. Every episode is self-contained and I think stands alone, but there’s a definite story being told over the course of the eight episodes.

Fogelnest: I left Funny Or Die in October, started at “WHAS.” The first thing that happened was I got an email from Michael and David saying, “We’re going to do a prank. When you come in on Thursday, we’re going to tell the writing staff that at the end of the week, one of you will be fired. And we’ve decided that it’s going to be you that’s been fired. So we’re going to make this announcement, then come in, like, an hour late on Monday.” When they made the announcement, half the writers room said, “This is bullshit!” and the other half of the writers room got very panicked and nervous. For about ten minutes, the air in the room changed. Michael and David immediately picked up on this and immediately said, “No one’s going to be fired!” They bailed out of the prank so quickly. After everyone’s laughing, I said, “So do I still come in an hour late on Monday?”

The 2001 film and 2015 series were produced under vastly different circumstances. Fortunately for fans, the most vital similarities remain.

Wain: The whole thing was produced by our friend Jon Stern, whose company Abominable Pictures does “Childrens Hospital,” [which Wain exec produces] so it was quite a few of the same crew and the same production infrastructure.

Jonathan Stern (“FDOC” executive producer): Unlike putting together a team from absolute scratch, it was people we’d been working with, a very comfortable group.

Wedren: I was in Hawaii with my family looking forward to vacation — Christmas, New Year’s — and ended up having to write a ton of “Wet Hot” stuff because suddenly they were going to be shooting.

Wain: For the original movie, a lot of us – myself included – it was our first time on any feature-film set, or any professional set, really. We were really just kids in a crazy summer-camp candy shop. We all were living out there in the woods in Pennsylvania, sleeping in the camp bunks. We shot the original movie in Camp Towanda in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It was three hours from New York City, so it was too far to drive back. It was basically shoot all day, party all night, six nights a week.

Showalter: Sleeping in bunks, freezing cold, raining, starving to death, all that stuff. And we were all there, all the time. The entire cast, if they weren’t shooting, they were hanging out, doing what younger people do when they hang out.

Lo Truglio: It was all our first movie, in terms of the people in “The State.” It was like, “Wow, we’re getting away with this!”

Wain: This shoot was not quite like that. We shot at the Calamigos Ranch, sometimes known as “The Biggest Loser” Ranch. It’s basically a ranch that is for weddings and shoots of things like reality shows. We took selected corners of it that were not fancy and recreated some of Camp Firewood. We were still in touch with the camp back in Pennsylvania, so we were able to get original plans from the original bunks and photos to recreate those buildings. We built two camp cabins and faked a bunch more with a combination of visual effects and facades and other little tricks. A camp is basically grass and cabins, so we just worked hard with the lenses and look and feel. We shot in January and February of this year, so we had challenges involving a limited amount of light every day. Pretty much every interior shot, if it’s day, we actually shot it at night.

Lo Truglio: Honestly I didn’t think it was going to happen. With all the careers that are in the stratosphere now. Just scheduling-wise, it was going to be impossible to make it work.

Garofalo: Good luck getting Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, these people who are never not working, some on the East Coast. So there’s a lot of green screen that Michael and David had to work with, where you’re pretending to talk to Paul Rudd or something. And I think with Bradley Cooper, they had him for one day.

Lo Truglio: Lots of matte shots and green screens and such.

Showalter: We wanted to write it in a way that would lend itself to peoples’ busy schedules. That had to do with the storylines being somewhat separate from each other, though they’re all in the same world. We needed Joe and Ken to be together and we needed Amy and Bradley to be together, but we didn’t need Joe and Ken and Amy and Bradley to all be together.

Wain: We cross-boarded the whole thing like a movie. We didn’t shoot the episodes in any order at all. We broke it all down into individual scenes, and then just shot whatever scene we could shoot each day.

Lo Truglio: I was shooting in the first/second week of February. It was like shifts: “You’ve got the late shift? I’ve got the morning shift!” We were rotating in and out.

Wain: I think per page, we actually had to go faster shooting the series than we did the original movie.

Stern: Usually with episodic TV you shoot an episode, then that director goes home, another director comes in, you shoot the next episode, and so on. In the case of “Wet Hot,” we treated it like a four-hour movie, as opposed to eight individual, half-hour episodes. But that also made us able to look at the season not so episodically and as one big story, both in the writing and the shooting, and very much in the editing of it. David being the sole director, too, made that possible on a logistical level.

Wedren: Then it was just full-on three months ago with the score and 25 or 30 songs. A lot of the score that we wrote for the original “Wet Hot” movie are used in the series, included “Higher and Higher,” this bizarre combination of Michael McDonald and “Eye of the Tiger” and “Edge of Seventeen” and Christopher Cross. My team, Pink Ape, is composers Jefferson Friedman, Matt Novak — who’s also the composer on “Children’s Hospital” – a guy named Jherek Bischoff, and we brought in our friends Amy Miles, Mr. Blue and Peter Salett, who were involved in the original movie. So it was very much a family affair. Like all of “Wet Hot.”

Showalter: It felt much more professional and much more organized. We shot the movie on film also, for what it’s worth. There was much less looking at the footage as you go. The monitors are so much more advanced now, and you really know what you’re getting as you’re getting it. On the one hand if felt like a much bigger, more professional shoot, and it was. On the other hand, I feel like just the personalities and that sense of camaraderie really was not much different at all.

Wain: It feels to me like we’re back in that same world even though it’s 15 years later, a different coast, we didn’t shoot at a camp, it’s shot on digital, so many different things.

Showalter: That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, that feeling of, “Wow, we really captured the feeling of the movie!” It really feels like “Wet Hot.”

Principato: The people who are rabid fans of the original are going to be very happy. It really recaptures that vibe.

Rescheduled two weeks from its original July 17 release to finalize international subtitling and dubbing, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” begins streaming July 31.

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