Like most cult comedies, Wet Hot American Summer didn’t make the most auspicious bow in its brief theatrical run—the frequently absurd, occasionally raunchy portrayal of one eventful day at a 1980s summer camp was in the paltry $30,000 range at the box office in 2001. But a number of funny things happened in the years following its release. For one, its cast members—many of whom came up in the New York comedy scene in the mid-’90s and were parts of venerable troupes The State and Upright Citizens Brigade—shaped the face of alternative comedy throughout the ’00s. Meanwhile, cast members Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, and Paul Rudd became bankable movie stars.
Oh, and one more thing: People actually ended up seeing the movie, taking in enough DVD viewings and movie-night screenings (like the one at the Trocadero this Monday, May 16) to absorb the densely packed jokes, throwaway visual gags, and stupid/smart moviemaking meta-commentary laced throughout the script by costar Michael Showalter and director David Wain.
With the movie’s 10th anniversary approaching, The A.V. Club spoke to director David Wain, Ken Marino (a.k.a. Victor), and Joe Lo Truglio, (a.k.a. bespectacled, motorcycle-riding, nurse’s-station-trashing Neil), about keeping certain elements of the film’s plot secret, shooting through a particularly wet and hardly hot time of the year, and which scenes people appear to find funnier the second (or third) time around.
“It’s your job to make sure kids don’t drown!”
The A.V. Club: What was it like working with that many younger actors?
David Wain: A lot of them were local to the area of Pennsylvania that we were shooting in—so not only were they not professional actors, in many cases, they weren’t even really from New York. And their parents were there every day, and we really got to know them well. It was fun. They were very natural and very unaffected in many cases.
Ken Marino: You could also make them do things for you, like get you a turkey sandwich.
DW: That’s not the only thing though—sometimes there were ham and cheese. And I know, one time, Joe wanted a pastrami sandwich, right?
Joe Lo Truglio: I did, and you know, God love ’em, but the kid ended up bringing me a PB&J.
KM: But that’s because he was green. You can’t get kids to do it right every time. And, long story short, Joe Lo Truglio is starring in the movie Paul.
AVC: Were there any hoops you had to jump through with regard to the content of the movie?
DW: We lied. All the time. We had versions of scenes in script that we cut out everything that was happening—so that we could get locations, so that we could get parents to let their kids come by.
KM: The owner of the actual campground didn’t see the real script, right?
DW: We gave him sort of a cleaned-up script. We knew there was no way we were going to get a lot of stuff done in rural Pennsylvania with the script that we had. The location manager made sure not to even put the title of the movie on his business cards, because he knew it would turn people off.
AVC: Did you hear from any of those people afterward?
DW: The owner of the camp and us did not end up on the most friendly terms. [Laughs.] In fact, we did a day of reshooting, and we didn’t go back there. I don’t think he understood what he was getting involved in, and how much shooting an entire feature film on his campground would affect the physical grounds a month before the actual summer started.
“I’m gonna go smear some mud on my ass.”
DW: I think it was a 28-day shoot, and I think it rained 25 days, something like that. And it [was] hard rain every single day, and freezing cold. And then with people walking around with camera carts, it completely obliterated the grounds. We had to put down wooden planks everywhere, but all of the grass turned into mud after a few days.
KM: Even the weed we were smoking turned into mud. Didn’t make any sense.
JLT: If you watch the movie, if you look out some of the windows in the background, you’ll see the rain. [Laughs.] And then they’ll go out, and it won’t be raining. That was the main obstacle, and that was a prime example of David not losing his shit—it was his first movie, and it’s just raining constantly. You have a big cast, you have a lot of schedules and days to schedule, and yet he still was very focused and kept his sense of humor.
“Do you want my flannel?”
AVC: Ken, can we talk about your hair in the movie? That’s a wig, correct?
KM: That was a wig, yeah. It was also hair. I went to a couple wig shops in Hollywood, and then I brought Showalter and David options. I had an Allman Brothers-y, long, blond straight hair with brown roots. I had more of a slacker-looking black wig. And I had [the wig chosen for the movie], and without missing a beat, Wain and Showalter were like, “The ’fro, gotta go with the ’fro.”
DW: Ken knew that we didn’t have the budget to do something really good for him, so he picked it out himself. And that’s what it was—everyone pitching in.
JLT: It was a team effort.
KM: And it was a $30 wig.
AVC: What was it about that wig that spoke to you about the character?
KM: It reminded me of the one guy in Meatballs—there’s a white dude in Meatballs, who, I think he’s in the wrestling match at the end. Or something like that. There was a guy with a ’fro, a blonde guy—and I wanted to be that guy.
DW: And Ken ended up wearing the wig over the next year, just to get chicks, to get some trim.
JLT: [Laughs.] He got trim from his perm.
AVC: Did everyone pitch in on wardrobe like that?
DW: We had a costume designer named Jill Kliber who did a lot of trawling through thrift shops for clothes for the era—and that’s where most of it came from. Although certain clothes like, I think, the shirt that Michael [Ian] Black wears in the movie was just a shirt that he wore all the time anyway.
“You’re doing it!”
JLT: There was a lot of choreography to Neil’s scenes that involved physical comedy. That was quite exciting and challenging. [The nurse’s station] scene, and jumping from the raft onto the bank, and getting onto a motorcycle—which I had never been on before—and starting it up, and trying to drive it out. Which, ultimately didn’t work. I think I got onto the bike and didn’t drive out. There are a lot of deleted scenes and bloopers where it just falls.
AVC: Yeah, I wanted to ask how much motorcycle experience you had before the film.
JLT: If there was any way to have anti-experience, that probably would’ve been me. I wasn’t very inclined for any motor vehicles. I rode some go-karts in my time before then, but in terms of mopeds or bikes or scooters, none of that. To which, I think, ultimately fed the scene—it just looks so out of place to jump on a bike and zoom away heroically. Just not going to happen.
“Your craft is a muscle, you need to exercise it! Take a break! Think about what you've done.”
AVC: At the time of the film’s theatrical release, did you have faith that the film would find the “right” audience?
David Wain: The fact that it came out in a theater at all was more than we expected from what we were doing. It was such a tiny movie, and the fact that it got its day in court and that it got reviewed and that some people saw it was kind of exciting for us. It definitely had a tiny release and didn’t make any money, but I certainly did not expect that it would live on over the years the way that it has.
AVC: How many times have you seen the movie since it first came out?
DW: It was my first movie, so when it was in theaters, I would sneak into the Village East in Manhattan like every day—I also didn’t have a job—and so I would go in there every day, pretty much, and check in to see if people were laughing and see how many people were there. Which was usually very few. Since then, I think I’ve seen it from beginning to end only once.
KM: And I’ve never seen it.
AVC: Have you noticed that there are scenes that people laugh at harder than they might have the first time they saw it?
JLT: The scene that I always enjoy people laughing at is the scene with Marguerite [Moreau] and Showalter in the goat pen, giving the shirt back and forth. I always think that’s a really sweet, but really kind of absurd scene. And people seem to like it. That and after they come back from town, and everyone runs in the background and puts their head up against the wall on the side of that building.
KM: Well, I’ve never seen it, so I just assume that’s just the scenes that I’m in.
DW: I feel like that’s the nature of the entire movie. Many, many, many people that I know saw the movie and thought whatever about it, and then saw it again—and that’s when they really loved it.
“Hey, let’s all promise that in 10 years from today, we’ll meet again, and we’ll see what kind of people we’ve blossomed into.”
JLT: There’s been so much talk about David doing something—reuniting everybody somehow. I don’t know if that’s happening, but I know that every now and then that comes up—how we could do some type of sequel or prequel. But when you have Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper and Amy [Poehler] and all these movie stars and gigantic people in it, it’s like … [Laughs.] If everyone made their quote, it would be like a $30-$40 million movie. But who knows—one could always dream, I suppose.