David Wain on Bringing 'Wet Hot American Summer's' "Untold Story" to Netflix

"It just felt like, 'Wow, either this is going to be a four-hour movie or we're going to butcher it,' " the co-creator and director tells THR about turning the prequel into a series.
AP Images/Netflix

Summer is halfway over, but it's only just beginning for the counselors and kids at Camp Firewood. Literally. Nearly 15 years after the release of box office bomb-turned-beloved cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, the gang is back together for the new Netflix series, which premieres at midnight on July 31. Instead of jumping 15 years ahead – apropos for the movie's truly unique sense of humor – the series will go back further in time to the first day of camp in 1981.

The show's impressive core cast is back, including Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Christopher Meloni, among many, many others, as are co-creators David Wain and Michael Showalter. Wain, who also directed all eight episodes, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the benefit of doing a prequel, why Netflix was the right home and what's next.

What was it like going back and revisiting this so many years later?

It was a really wonderful and surreal experience. I remember very clearly sitting on the steps of the camp office and shooting that first staff meeting scene that's in the first episode — that happened to be the first day of shooting — and seeing all these people take on these old roles. It was really satisfying and hard to believe. It was almost a spooky, great feeling to watch it go down. And then of course, once we just got into making the series and shooting everyday, and doing the material, I just didn't even think about it. It was exciting, though, every time an old character showed up on a set and the actor turned into their role. It was amazing because unlike a sequel, we made great efforts to make everyone look basically the same even though they're basically 15 years older.

Was that always the plan? How did that come about?

On one level, it's the untold story that we never got to tell because when we were writing the original movie, somewhere during the process of creating that story, we decided cinematically, it would be great to compress everything into one single day, that being the last day of camp. There were some stories and themes and ideas that have to do with the first day of camp that we could not include in the original movie. That might have been part of the impetus. And then just the audacity (laughs) of having this cast — already they were too old to play the parts in the year 2000. Now, they're beyond belief too old and we're just like, "We don't care. Let's do it."

Did you have any of those notes from the film that you were able to look at when you were working on the series?

There are a few things. We actually had the very early draft of the script that took place across the entire summer. So we went back and looked at some of that stuff. Basically we wrote it all new though because it is 15 years later. We actually also went back to our own memories of summer camp again and remembered things that had happened to us and stories that hadn't made it into the first film. And then we also had a really amazing, talented group of writers for a few weeks that came in and brought in their experiences and stories. For the most part, in both projects, we focused more on real things that happened as inspiration and real teenage experiences. Even though there's an element of spoof and movie parody, the emphasis in our own heads is actual teenage life.

The film has a very specific tone and comedic sensibility, so what was it like working with a new group of writers while trying to keep that intact?

What was great was that we had the benefit of having made the film. … In our early career, we had to spend a lot of time saying to people, "It's going to be funny. You just have to trust us," or "Let's see if we can explain to you what we have in mind." In this case, we were able to say, "Here's the movie. Now you know what it is." So there's a very clear template for what the tone and what the sense of humor is. Furthermore, we hired writers who in most cases already were very familiar with the film and able to demonstrate their understanding of it. … That idea expanded to the crew as well which was really cool. Our costume designer and our production designer, these are people who are a little bit younger than we are, and they were big fans of the film before ever meeting us. That's really been the extra juice to lovingly re-create the world.

How much pressure did you feel knowing what a loyal following the film has?

We just focused on telling this story today. It was important to me as a fan of the original to make it a worthy companion piece and just make it as great as we could make it. For my money, it does achieve that in terms of being able to stand on its own. It was important for us not to retread jokes or ideas from the original movie, but instead to get those connectors and references that make it a satisfying companion piece.

Can you point to anything specific?

Because it's a prequel, you're learning the backstory of all the characters and all the situations in the movie, so you're locked in. It's really fun to write a prequel because your act three is basically locked and there's nothing you can change about it so then you have to work backwards. Because Wet Hot American Summer has an absurdist quality to it, we could really do anything with the backstory of these characters. So we took some of them and really twisted the idea of what you thought they were and changed it so that you could look at the old movie in a new way.

What were some of the positives and negatives of transitioning from a film to a TV series?

It really was the right move. We had first thought about it as a movie, and it was bursting at the seams before we even got into finishing the first draft. There was too much material that we wanted to get into, too many storylines, too many characters. It just felt like, 'Wow, either this is going to be a four-hour movie or we're going to butcher it.' And then we looked around and we're like, 'Wait a minute, there's this whole new thing called Netflix, which isn’t quite the same as a normal TV series, but it's not a movie and it's the perfect medium for this particular project.'

When did you first really start seriously thinking about a sequel?

We had talked about it from very early on. Right at the time of realizing that the movie had a fan base that was not going away anytime soon, we thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be fun to do the next thing?' It was really just something we talked about and people asked us about all the time. It just took us awhile to get around to getting serious about it.

What's next? Have you and Michael started talking about another sequel series? Or another movie?  What talks have there been?

Of course. There are all sorts of pie-in-the-sky discussions of what might be next. I'm sure there could be something next and I'm excited to talk about that more once this comes out.

All eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp will be released on Friday at midnight on Netflix.

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