In the summer of 2001, a low-budget comedy called Wet Hot American Summer hit theaters. Despite featuring a spate of future stars – including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd – the movie grossed an abysmal $295,000 and was torn to shreds by critics.
But just when it seemed like this parody of summer-camp movies and teen flicks would be forgotten forever, a new generation of filmgoers starting rediscovering it on cable; soon, packed midnight showings started popping up all over the country. "It became a thing where if you were on a date with somebody and they didn’t like Wet Hot, you know it's not gonna go well," says the film's star and co-writer Michael Showalter. Talk of a sequel began percolating over the years, though nothing really came of it.
Then Netflix, which had made a name for itself as producer of original content and a Lazarus for late, beloved TV shows (see Arrested Development), and the conversation changed. "Netflix became a medium that would run thing that weren't quite a TV series, but not quite a feature film," says the movie's director David Wain. "It was the perfect wide canvas for us." The result is Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, an eight-episode prequel featuring the entire original cast (plus a few new marquee-name folks like Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) that will start airing on the streaming service beginning on July 31st.
We spoke to Wain and Showalter separately about how WHAS came back from the dead, how they got a who's-who of A-list movie stars back into their Camp Firewood t-shirts and whether there's more Wet Hot on the way.
What were your expectations for the original movie when it was released back in 2001?
Showalter: I hoped it would be a hit. I hoped it would be like Animal House or Dazed and Confused in that it would be some kind of generational comedy.
What happened? I went back and read many original reviews. It seemed like most critics just didn't get it.
Showalter: My best guess is that they were expecting something more straightforward. The packaging and marketing for it was like, "This is just another one of those big ensemble comedies." What caught them off guard is that it's really a deconstruction of a lot of those kinds of movies. It's very meta and filled with anti-humor, where the joke is there is no joke — but in the next scene there is a joke. It's a very postmodern-ish type movie that a lot of people either didn't get, or they got it and just didn't like it.
But I think it spoke to the sensibility of a younger generation of audience members who understood the vernacular of it in a way that mainstream audience, the critics — and maybe even the people that were distributing and marketing the movie — did not.
At what point did the thought of a Wet Hot sequel or prequel enter your head? It couldn't have seemed very feasible back in 2001 after the movie tanked.
Wain: Even though the movie did tank, I was always happy with it. I felt that even from the earliest days, there was a small, but very loyal group of fans that liked it. Over the next few years it started to have a second life. I don't remember a specific time, but there was always this interesting discussion about doing something else because it was such a fun, rich world for us. With all the great actors, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. It just took all these years to finally come together.
The original plan was to make a second movie. How did that transition into a Netflix series?
Showalter: That really came from the emergence of Netflix. Their creative model really lent itself to what we were thinking, which was to have way more material than we could fit in just one movie. This was more like a miniseries or serialized story, and not an open-ended network TV show that just goes on forever. It was perfect.
Wain: Without Netlix, we might have done this as a feature. Whose to say if that would have been easier or harder to make, but it would have been a different thing.
Did you worry that getting everyone in the cast back would be impossible?
Wain: Yeah. We just weren't sure until we tried. But they were all psyched when we reached out. We talked about this with them in various ways over the years, but we made sure everyone was excited about it before we even reached out to Netflix. Once they said yes, it was this incredible logistical challenge of getting everyone in one place at one time. They've all got real busy careers. It just required us to sit down with ourselves and the first assistant director and just make that puzzle come together.
Did you have to use green screen technology to put two actors into the same scene that weren't available on the same day?
Showalter: Umm…It's not that I don't want to answer that question, but I just don't want people watching the show trying to figure out how certain things got shot. Part of the fun of Wet Hot is how many crazy things are going on. In a way, there's a bit of magic to that. I kind of don't want to give away the trick.
Regardless of how you did it, the whole thing looked pretty seamless to me.
Wain: I'm glad to hear that. When we were shooting it, even though we are using more modern tools than were available 15 years ago, the look and feel and sense of community of the original movie is intact. We hope that people that see it feel the same way.
How long did filming take?
Showalter: About seven weeks.
Where did you film it?
Showalter: A ranch in Malibu. The movie was shot on a summer camp in Pennsylvania called Camp Towanda, but we there so many benefits to shooting this near Los Angeles. The camp was a couple of hours outside of New York City, and you want to be near production stuff. Also, having the actors nearby was also good.
Wain: The ranch in Malibu where we shot is called Calamigos. Our production designer, Ryan Berg from Children's Hospital, worked with his team to beautifully recreate the look of Camp Towanda. He actually got the original plans for those bunks, I think, from the camp. We actually only rebuilt two cabins and then, through the magic filmmaking and digital effects, made it look like many, many more.
Tell me about the decision to have all eight episodes take place on the very first day of camp.
Showalter: The original movie is the last day of camp. The amount of things that happen on a single day of camp is just impossible, and that's the comedic conceit.
Wain: The very first draft of the first movie actually encompassed the whole summer of 1981. There were a couple of things that we had written for that that took place on the first day of camp. But early on, we realized it would be more exciting if everything happened on the last day. Some of the original story lines from the first draft made the show.
Did all your work on Children's Hospital prepare you for this kind of shoot?
Wain: Yes, in a huge way. Children's Hospital was a great boot camp for comedy, especially for learning how daring and flexible we can be with actors' schedules and with other obstacles that hit production, and knowing we can always figure that out.
Is it true Bradley Cooper was only able to work a single day?
How many days did he work?
Showalter: This is sort of what I was saying earlier. It's not that I don't want to talk about that, but I know that as an audience member I don't want to know things like that. Part of what's fun about this is that we have about 16 cast members, all of whom have great roles in the show. It's more fun to just enjoy it than try to dissect how we pulled it off.
Part of the humor is you guys playing teenagers in your 40s. Was there even the slightest attempt to make anyone look younger?
Showalter: No, no. None whatsoever other than being clean-shaved.
Wain: Short of doing CGI treatment on every single shot, there's no real way to make anyone look younger. But that was obviously never even considered. The whole concept for me was just, "Embrace it. It is what it is." And it adds a layer of comedy to it in a way, but in a way it kind of doesn't. I think you're aware of it the first couple of minutes, but then it goes away and you're just into the characters. For me, it's like watching a Shakespeare play. The language seems foreign, but after you get acclimated to it you don't even think about it.
Was your writing process with David similar to the way you wrote the original movie?
Showalter: We actually had a small writing staff on this. We came in one day with a lot of stoylines figured out and a lot of the big turns we had already mapped out, and with a big group of writers we went through a process pretty similar to how all TV shows are written. We generated a lot of material and then other writers took that and molded it, fashioned it and got it to where the voice was unified, where it felt like our voice.
I can't think of a single TV show in history based on a movie that got the whole cast back. It's usually like the Odd Couple or something where they just recast everybody.
Wain: Or like [the Animal House TV show] Delta House. They usually bring back the one minor character who didn't have any work afterwards. In this case, I think part of the special sauce is that it's not a series. It's a Netflix show and that's a slightly different thing. And I think that just the fact that this group of actors have been loyal to the project and to us. I couldn't be more proud.
Do you think a second season is possible?
Wain: Of course. I mean, who knows? Crazily enough, we're still finishing up the first season and promoting it. Michael and I are still involved in shooting the seventh season of Children's Hospital. When the dust settles, we'll think about whether there's more to do on it.
Does the thought of doing another season excite you?
Wain: Sure. I think this world is somehow just endlessly interesting to me. Summer camp was a true defining experience in my own personal life, and so I'm not surprised that their tends to be more places to go there.
I saw a bunch of clips from last year's State Reunion on YouTube. That looked like fun.
Showalter: Totally. It was great. It's always fun to get back together with all of us as a group. We still enjoy working together. We still make each other laugh and all that.
Might there be more State shows in the future? You haven't played New York in at least 20 years.
Wain: Probably not since a majority of the group lives on the West Coast. We're a true family and we love each other. We love doing things together. That show had a lot of new martial that we wrote in just one day. It really was - and always has been - the true, insane challenge of getting 11 people from all areas of the world in one place at the one time. It's really, really hard to do. But the enthusiasm is always there.
Back to Wet Hot, I really think the critics are going to be kinder this time around.
Wain: I don't think it's possible for the critics to be as horrifically hostile as they were the first time around. To be "kinder" isn't saying too much. And that includes your publication, by the way.
Sorry about that. I really do think it's generational. I can't imagine my parents, for example, embracing it like my friends and I do.
Wain: The work I've done with Michael and our associated group of people has often been met with this sort of befuddlement and confusion, which gets expressed in hostility from some critics and some audience members. That's completely fine with me. I understand it's a certain type of humor and if you're not on that wavelength, your reaction is like, "What the fuck is this? Why is anyone laughing?"
I understand that. I remember my father, who was very proud of me and liked the movie a lot, forcing some of his friends, who were in their 70s, to watch Wet Hot American Summer when it first came out. They just stared at the screen in silent befuddlement for an hour and a half. And watching it through that lens I get that if it's not your cup of tea, it's really not your cup of tea.