David Wain on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Comedy Features David Wain
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If it feels like you can’t look at the internet without seeing something about Wet Hot American Summer right now, that’s because the new prequel series First Day of Camp came out on Netflix today. The eight episode miniseries is a long, loving return to the gleeful absurdity of the movie, which failed at the box office in 2001 but forged an enduring bond with a devoted fanbase. A big part of the movie’s mystique is how many of its actors went on to become big stars over the last 15 years, including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks. For comedy fans, though, it stands out as the first film from director and co-writer David Wain, the former member of The State who went on to direct Role Models and They Came Together and co-develop Childrens Hospital. We recently talked to Wain about the new series, working with Netflix and Wet Hot American Summer’s amazing cast. And if you want to read our reviews of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, you can find a season overview here and the first of our episodic reviews here.

Paste: How did it wind up on Netflix? And as a series, instead of another movie?

David Wain: We had always thought about doing some kind of follow-up to the film and we were always excited about bringing the group back together. The first thought was to do another feature, but as we started developing this prequel story we realized pretty quickly that we had a lot more characters and material that we wanted to get into than we had time for with a feature film. As we looked around we realized there’s this other new emerging medium, the Netflix show, which is for my money kind of the best of both worlds between movie and TV in almost every way. So we started thinking about it in that way and it’s been a real great experience to do it that way.

Paste: When I was watching it it definitely felt kind of like a movie that was chopped up into episodes, and not a regular TV show. It felt like the first season of Eastbound & Down in that way, where it just seamlessly flows into every episode and if you cut out the credits you could maybe just watch it straight through. When you were writing it were you intentionally structuring it that way?

DW: We were trying to do it so it hopefully works on both levels. We know that people do watch Netflix shows all at once so we wanted to make sure that we weren’t endlessly recapping and make it work as a binge-watch. But we also simultaneously wanted to make it work as something you can watch more traditionally. So we tried to give each episode it’s own internal arc as well as following the on-going story.

Paste: It’s also more of an actual prequel than I expected, giving an actual backstory to various characters and scenarios from the film. Why did you want to head in that direction?

DW: Part of the formula of the first film in a way was to take this silly material more seriously than it warranted, and we’ve kind of continued that in the prequel. Treat these characters as if it was the great story of our time. We also just had a lot of fun working backwards from the original movie and it was really inspirational to connect with these stories that we know have to end.

Paste: I’m assuming none of those backstories were in your head when you wrote the movie.

DW: Not really. It’s a lot of, as they call it, “ret-con.” I would be psyched to see so many of these storylines have their own spin-offs. We really were squeezing in whatever we could and throwing out all these other directions we were excited about just to fit it into four hours.

Paste: You mentioned the idea of taking this silliness very seriously. Did you have any ideas or jokes that were too silly or absurd to make it into the show?

DW: Not really. Obviously when you’re making something like this you’re constantly writing things and cutting them. For every joke that’s in there we wrote 20. It’s just the nature of writing it. But in terms of too silly or too absurd, I don’t think that’s the metric. It’s more just what feels right for that scene. There are always things that we cut out because they seem extraneous or unnecessary or breaking a tone. Sometimes I think there’s a perception that what we do is totally anarchic and non-sequitur and just thrown in anything and there are no rules, but in fact it’s really quite the obvious. It’s very structured. We have a lot of rules and a lot of form that we follow and then we break it very deliberately and specifically at certain moments.

Paste: Have you been paying attention to the reviews of the series yet?

DW: I saw that everyone so far has been very positive. Reviews are something I generally don’t care too much about, but it’s certainly nice to see that the critics are in general, so far, a hell of a lot nicer than when the movie came out.

Paste: How worried are you about that phenomenon where people just seem to immediately hate something that comes back? Like I thought Arrested Development’s fourth season was great, but a lot of people on the internet use it as shorthand for a disappointing return.

DW: It wouldn’t have been helpful to think about it in that way while making the thing. I did just in terms of my own feeling about it creatively and as a fan what I didn’t want to do was retread the movie and make it one of those sequels you see where it’s like, “Remember all this? Here it is again!” But at the same time have satisfying connections and references to the movie. The goal is for it to stand on its own but the better you know the original the more fun you have, like another layer.

Paste: So today, on the verge of the series coming out, how do you feel compared to how you felt right before the movie came out in 2001?

DW: It really couldn’t have been a more different situation. We just had our premiere last night and I was struck by the memory of how when the movie came out there wasn’t so much as a coffee date with anybody, much less a premiere. It couldn’t have been less of an event when that original film was released. My big worry was that it would be playing at one theater in the attic of a 95 plex in Times Square and that it wasn’t even listed in the paper and I was desperate to make sure that anybody would show up. Now there’s just so much anticipation and press and excitement. What’s nice is Netflix is not a heavily ratings-oriented company, talking about the number after this comes out, so there’s no stress. It’s going to come out and people will see it and hopefully they’ll like it and my job is done.

Paste: I’ve read people who’ve made shows for Netflix saying they don’t even know how Netflix quantifies success. Have they given you any inkling?

DW: It’s a really interesting formula which is that we know that based on the technology they have better metrics than anybody as to who exactly is watching and when and for how long on every show. But they also famously don’t share that information with anyone. Having been working with them for a while, I kind of understand and respect that nature of doing it. Their job is to look at their own numbers and decide what they want to do and let the creators and public just not worry about it, which I think is great.

Paste: How did working on Childrens Hospital help you with managing this massive cast?

DW: It was hugely helpful to have seven seasons of experience on Childrens working with a very high profile and busy cast, to learn all of the ins and outs of how to make that work and where to make compromises in order to accommodate such a huge ensemble and get them in when we can. Luckily we were working with pretty much the same entire production team as Childrens Hospital so we were prepared for this even more challenging task of getting this enormous cast in, none of whom were replaceable.

Paste: Who in that cast has grown the most as a performer since the movie?

DW: Probably me. Because I had a little scene in the movie because it was both extraneous and not that great. Everyone was amazing in the film, and I probably was not very good in my little bit. I am not very confident as an actor. And now everybody is better than they were, every single person has grown over the last 14 years and become even more killer at what they do. But they were all great to start out as well.

Paste: Can we expect more Wet Hot American Summer in the future?

DW: We’re certainly open to it. We’ll see how this goes and we’d be very psyched to keep going.

Paste: Would you want to stick with Netflix instead of trying to make another movie at some point?

DW: Yeah, they also talked to me about doing a set of dinner plates. Seems to be an untapped space right now and I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.