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FILTER 47: The Councilor of Camp: David Wain, Director

By Jessica Jardine on March 28, 2012


FILTER 47: The Councilor of Camp: David Wain, Director

Whether or not you self-identify as a comedy fan, writer-director-actor David Wain has very likely infiltrated your radar with his work as part of the ’90s sketch group The State, as a member of the three-man troupe Stella (also featuring fellow Staters Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter) or through his numerous TV, web and feature-film forays. Though it was only made just over a decade ago, his film Wet Hot American Summer has already become a celebrated classic, lumped alongside This Is Spinal Tap or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For those who haven’t seen the goofball summer-camp flick, there’s a reason the film is stuffed to the gills with future stars like Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper.

Since meeting the other 10 members of The State as an undergraduate at NYU, Wain’s trajectory has taken him from the beloved The State MTV sketch show to MADtv to the unfortunately short-lived Stella on Comedy Central. More recently he’s balanced work as writer-director on the Adult Swim show Children’s Hospital with his own web series Wainy Days and feature films like Role Models and The Ten. His newest directorial effort, Wanderlust, has him teaming up with his longtime collaborator, writer-actor and State-alum Ken Marino, on their second screenplay. In the film, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play a fast-paced New York City couple that escape the rat race and inadvertently stumble into a bizarre commune in the Georgia foothills known as Elysium. You can be sure the film features familiar faces like Joe Lo Truglio and Kerri Kenney from The State as well as recent additions to the growing gang, like Justin Theroux and even Alan Alda.

And, sure, Wanderlust might be the movie most known for the fact that it’s where Aniston and Theroux fell in love and began their tabloid romance, but there is also a circle that will be cheering for the mini-Stella reunion that briefly takes place, too. Wain took a break from the set of Children’s Hospital to talk to FILTER about his new film, as well as his longstanding love of Woody Allen, Steve Martin and being able to reference dorm humor on-set.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

How did you and Ken Marino come upon the idea of Wanderlust?

Well, Ken and I had a good experience with our last movie that we did together, The Ten. [At that time,] our lives had gotten busier with kids and work and such, so we decided to lock ourselves in a room for a week without a break and go from no idea to a first draft, working 12 hours a day. We forced ourselves to do that. It’s kind of a system we’ve come up with. This time, we did that and were thinking about the kind of movie that would be fun to make and that would be of interest to us in terms of characters and comedy.

Wanderlust feels like it exists in a very similar, camp-like world as Wet Hot American Summer, even down to the ragtag band of misfits and the taking of the truck into town.

That’s not so coincidental. [Laughs.] I love that kind of thing. It’s not the reality of my life. I’ve always enjoyed the communal living that I’ve had in my generic suburban life, which is summer camp or visiting a kibbutz in Israel or even working on a film set where you have everybody stuck together. I just thought about exploring what it would be like for a couple like myself and my wife if our lives were upended and we just went out on a fantasy wish-fulfillment adventure of going to a place like Elysium.

There’s also, of course, the fact that lots of the faces in the films are so familiar because they’re original members of The State and have been in so many of your projects. Is there something specific you need to do to hold onto collaborators?

In my case, I kind of feel like, “Why would you not?” I was very lucky in that I met this group of people when I was 19 years old, in college, and I thought, “Wow, these people are incredibly talented, funny and great.” And as it turned out, they really, actually were. As our careers have got on, we’ve all continued to work together because we keep coming back to each other. The people who share our common sensibility and that we like to work with the most are each other, so the group has just kind of grown and morphed. To be on the set of Wanderlust and talking through a scene with Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney in the language that we’ve talked about comedy in for 25 years is just wonderful.

That idea of speaking the same comedic language must essentially just aid things so much when working creatively together.

Without question. We’ll be like, “This is kind of like that sketch we did at the dorm,” and so on.

Do you think that can be intimidating for outsiders who come to work on a film or TV project you’re all involved in?

I think they tend to have fun because they see that this is a fun group that loves each other and has a head start, instead of coming in on something where nobody knows each other and everyone has to ramp from 0 to 60. Especially when you’re shooting a movie; because it’s not like a TV show where you have time to let things develop over time. On day one, you maybe have to shoot the last scene or some scene in the middle and have to get it right.

Are you surprised by the long-term connection fans have made with Wet Hot American Summer and the way it’s become a real touchstone for comedy?

It certainly was not an expectation or an intention for it to become that but, yes, over 10 years we have become aware that it has become this touchstone, as you say. Or, the greatest compliment I get is that people tell me that it’s their litmus test for [finding] people they trust. And I find that to be like, wow. It’s definitely a special time in my life and I just can’t believe people still watch it on a regular basis and I couldn’t ask for more.

What makes you laugh and inspires you the most?

It’s so funny because I’m finding that the things that make me laugh the most and the things that directly inspire me are almost two different lists. But certainly, growing up, Woody Allen and Steve Martin were my two big, big tent poles of worship. I just ingested everything I could get my hands on from both those guys. I couldn’t get enough, over and over and over.

When did you feel like writing and performing comedy was really what you were drawn towards?

It was a while before I ever put a label or words to it, but I’d been doing it since I was very small. I was always performing for my family. When I was 10 years old, it was 1980 and that’s when 1 out of every 100 people had a Betamax in their house. I had a video camera when I was 12 that weighed 200 pounds that had to be carried on your shoulder but I was running around with my friends and making little skits on video. And I don’t really think I ever stopped doing that; I just kept gradually growing the budgets. [Laughs.] It really was like that. I don’t feel like there were any huge shifts in my career even starting at age 10. They were just gradual evolutions.

How would you advise someone looking to carve out a similar path to yours?

Well, what’s interesting is that the landscape is so different than it was 10 years ago, with the nature of the Internet. There’s so much more of a genuine meritocracy involved. If you can make something that really is worth seeing, getting it to be in front of the eyeballs of millions of people is very easy. And the fact that the means of production are so accessible and inexpensive; anyone can get their hands on a camera and decent sound and actually shoot something worth watching if they have the creative juice behind that. So, to that end, I would say that the only way to do that is to do it. The only way to write is to write and the only way to learn to make movies is to make movies. And now that it’s so easy to do that I just have to step up my game because I feel like everybody can make movies now [laughs].

Do you imagine that if The State were coming up now, you all would be making videos for and the like?

I’m sure we would have. We were making these little segments that are very similar to YouTube videos on You Wrote It, You Watch It on MTV when we were 22. I’m sure that’s what that would’ve been if it was now.

Between Wainy Days and Children’s Hospital, does it feel like networks like IFC and Cartoon Network are taking bolder chances with the kind of programming they’re willing to try?

Oh yeah. The implosion of this standard network model is great news for anyone who wants to experiment with different forms because a lot of places are like, “Shit, we’ll try anything!” There is no science to it and everyone tries to put a science to it because people are spending so much money on it. But with movies and TV, no one really knows the formula or else we’d all do it. So you just have to convince people, “Let’s try this!” It’s so much more fun to do that than to try to convince people, “This is just like that network did last year. Let’s replicate that.” People do that and have success but, ugh, what a bore.

Get a Room, You Two!

Dave and I have been working together since we were college roommates, and then we were in The State together. That was kind of our schooling in how to write together and how to write in general. So, I think there’s quite a shorthand. And, you know, Dave has a unique sensibility and a sense of humor that is really special. I recognize that and try to infuse my sensibility into his sensibility. It seems to work really well. We get along really well and we make each other laugh, and I think that we help each other in that sense. He’s such a funny guy and sometimes he has such absurd takes on things or he’ll kind of spin off into another universe. I encourage that at times, but then also pull us back to reality and say, “OK, let’s ground that somehow.” We have a nice dynamic, I think.

You have to find somebody that you want to be in a room with and that you have a good time with. It’s like a marriage of some sort. You have to work and push through the petty things to stay focused on the creative things. You have to work with someone that you care about and you love, so you know you can push past that stuff. I feel very lucky that I have that with Dave. We love and respect each other personally and creatively so we know that there’s no ego. We just want to create the funniest thing. For us, it’s simply about, “OK, if I make my partner laugh, then that’s what we’ll put in the script.” That’s been the case even when we were doing The State. We weren’t trying to make something funny for other people, necessarily. We were just trying to make each other laugh and we felt like if we made each other laugh, then it was funny. That’s all we could do.

I think Dave always had an idea of writing something about a commune. He’s a very busy guy, he’s always spinning like eight or nine plates at one time, so I think he has a fantasy in the back of his head of escaping and finding a place where you relax and not worry about any of those things. That’s maybe why he and [co-writer Michael] Showalter wrote Wet Hot. [Summer camp] was a simpler time; it was a fun time. And now that we’re adults and we have kids and we have a lot of responsibility, you look at a place like that slightly differently or more longingly.

David has always been a selfless director but a director with a very specific point of view, which I think is a great combination. He makes the final decision on what he thinks works for a David Wain piece and I think it’s super impressive because he’s able to not say, “No, we’re not doing that.” He’s able to listen to an enormous amount of input—and a lot of great ideas can come from that—in a very gracious way but then he has the wherewithal to filter it through, you know, Wain-o. [Laughs.] So it always comes out the other end in his signature kind of voice. He’s a super-smart guy who likes to do both petty and childish, silly humor and that’s a great combination. Clearly, Woody Allen is a big influence on him. I think that Dave has his own style, but it embraces that kind of approach to comedy, which is that you can be heady and you can be silly at the same time as long as you know what you’re doing. F