This is what happens when you hang out with the smartest minds and biggest names in comedy
TheWrap's film reporter Jordan Zakarin spent much of Sundance shadowing David Wain and friends as they prepared to premiere the film “They Came Together,” due in theaters June 27. This is the story of that week in Park City.
David Wain likes to perform card tricks, and he's really, frustratingly good at them. The writer/director tends to summon out a deck of 52 from his pocket during the most random, idle moments, and can somehow always pull the right ace from the re-shuffled pile or switch out the cards that you think you have trapped under your hand. The man is full of surprises.
Wain's new romantic comedy spoof “They Came Together” premieres on the second-to-last night of the annual Sundance Film Festival, but he's in Park City, Utah a week early to take care of all the routine and mildly exhausting promo work that is now required of filmmakers with movies at the festival. He has been in the public consciousness for the last two decades, starting with the early '90s MTV sketch comedy group The State and then cult classics like “Wet Hot American Summer” and box office successes such as “Role Models,” but Wain is soft-spoken and unassuming; you'd never guess he spent the last 20 years making people roar with laughter and inspiring fervent reverence in certain nerdy circles.
Paul Rudd and the rest of the “They Came Together” crew — Amy Poehler, Max Greenfield, Ellie Kemper, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mantzoukas, Christopher Meloni, and co-writer Michael Showalter — will come together to celebrate and walk the red carpet for a film that has been over a decade in the making. But for these few days, it's the David Wain Show, which is largely a quiet character study; on this Friday afternoon, it features him bouncing between quick photo sessions with half a dozen media outlets and getting some work done, really attending to the trudgery of the festival, fitting for the guy who has long handled many of the details and heavy lifting for his troupe of comedians.
This is his fourth Sundance with a film in tow, making him a seasoned pro here, but Wain jokes that his experience in Park City has largely been defined by, as he says with a wink, “Walking around with Paul Rudd, and going to the gifting suites, and people being like, ‘Can you go to the bathroom and we'll take care of Paul?'”
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Still, it's worth noting how far he's come since his first Sundance, back in 1993, when he brought a short film called “Aisle Six” to the festival. Now, even if he's keeping a low profile, Wain's body of work and new project make attaining his favor a worthy endeavor.
“Nike sent me an insane jersey that said ‘TCT 14' in a huge gift box,” he reports, marveling at the outlays made by big corporate sponsors. “It's all so insane.”
To be clear, Wain is not opposed to all the perks and swag that come his way — “All my clothes are from Sundance,” he laughs — but he is also well aware of how removed from reality this whole golden, mountain neverland is. He has, after all, been a working filmmaker for the last two decades, with a career of highs and lows that inform a measured outlook on the festival and the business at large.
The typical David Wain origin story begins at NYU, where he joined a group of freshmen in a sketch group that became known as The State, an 11-headed comedy hydra that was so successful that it earned its own MTV show in 1993. His show biz aspirations, though, really began during a childhood spent in Shaker Heights, Ohio, when he teamed with his friends to write and make little short films; he and his pal Stuart produced a murder mystery called “Weekend for Disaster” when they were 12 years old, and ended up shooting it four times over three years in an effort to get it just right.
In college, the extracurricular adventures in cinema became full-time and all-consuming. Yes, he spent a bulk of his waking hours working with The State, but Wain also found time to write his first feature script, “Blue Light Reversals.” It was his sketch portfolio that kicked off his pro career, but the long form scripting was a muscle he'd continue to work.
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“The State,” the eponymous program the group was given by a before-its-time MTV, ran between 1993 and 1995, creating four now-classic seasons of fresh sketch madness. Along with the network's “Ben Stiller Show” and HBO's spiritual descendant “Mr. Show,” the inventive mix of absurdity and pop culture/social commentary, with scenes bleeding over into others to create show-long narratives, helped shape the alt-comedy of the next few decades.
By 1997, he and Showalter had written another feature script, one called “Cleveland Rocks,” about a high school teacher who has an affair with a student, but they were having trouble getting it into production shape. Putting the uncrackable story aside, they began looking for something “we could shoot for nothing, outside, without lighting, daylight exteriors,” he recalls, “where we didn't have to change costumes, where we could just get all our friends to do it.”
Nothing is that easy, of course, because short of fooling around in the backyard and making a home video, producing a movie costs money — a lot of it — and a decade and a half ago, it was way more expensive than what the all-digital marvels run today. Little did Wain and Showalter know that it would take three years, more or less, of stringing together all the dollars and certifying all the details required for their scrappy side project, which they finally shot in 2000.
“Wet Hot American Summer,” an absurdist summer camp spoof, would ultimately debut at Sundance in 2001. The tightly scripted, preposterous romp is now one of the more beloved cult comedies of the early days of this century, with an ensemble cast — Rudd, Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Bradley Cooper especially — that would go on to major stardom. Wain directed the project, his first produced feature.
[Note: It is now getting a prequel series on Netflix, with the idea that the same actors, 15 years later, will play even younger.]
He doesn't look much different now; his hairline and rippleless skin are showing some deference to time, but at 44, Wain has largely preserved himself physically as he's taken the incremental steps to notoriety.
It's striking how divided festival participants have become in their knowledge of the film business; directors, who are held in the highest regard among movie fans and industry types, are sometimes forgotten in the most commercial sectors of this carnival. Wain winds his way through Main Street and its parallel side roads, submitting to various publications and photo services’ calls for quick studio shoots. He's recognized by some celebrity wranglers — one sponsored mingler requests that he pose in front of an absurd backdrop of jazzed-up Quaker Oats tubs, which he politely declines — but some photographers are unmoved by most anyone who is not a tabloid staple.
When one session photographer rotely asks what Wain's movie is about, he goes into a deadpan summary. “A guy and a girl meet and then fall in love,” he says, “and then they aren't in love, but then they overcome an easy obstacle to fall in love again.”
“Everyone loves a good romantic comedy!” the photographer replies, smile plastered to her face, none the wiser that Wain's explanation is exactly what his movie is parodying. No harm, no foul.
Among David Wain's talents is the deft ability to shift quickly into a goofy face — as required for the last few snaps of every photo session — and then switch back just as fast into his normal guy mode and getting down to work. In between photo shoots, he visits his agency's rented lodge, which provides a home-base for clients. There, he picks up a few tickets to films he wants to see, and reads the script for a TV pilot. He plans on giving the television dice another role this year, after NBC declined to pick up “Brenda Forever,” the single camera half hour that he directed for Ellie Kemper last year.
The new pilot — and its attendant pre-production casting and planning — would come in addition to his work in film and running “Children's Hospital,” an example of a tireless drive that dates back to a lesson learned in college. Wain has long meshed high concept with workmanlike effort, going back to when Showalter taught him the value of churning out screenplays when they were back at NYU.
[Note: Wain later directed the pilot for the comedy "Old Soul," which was co-written and produced by Amy Poehler; NBC passed on the project.]
It's easier to work now that he's moved to Los Angeles; his family left New York for the West Coast just a few months ago. In fact, he ducks out in the middle of the festival to return home for a few days, in part because his young son was having a birthday party that he was obviously going to attend.
As is so often the case, having kids has helped Wain adjust his priorities. Back in the The State's heyday, and even in the years after, his only responsibility was to the comedy. He gravitated toward the director's role, organizing and leading and becoming the quiet influence behind the semi-calculated madness of each new project.
Catching him after the harried rush to finish “They Came Together,” Wain admits that captaining a production can be “a pain in the ass,” and that he has “mixed feelings on” all the responsibility it entails.
Just recently, a friend asked him to audition to act in a pilot. The tape he put together was so well-received that he was offered a test deal, which could mean a regular sitcom job if the show got picked up. But Wain had to decline the opportunity, given all the projects he has going on, and he acknowledges in hindsight that a steady, somewhat less-engaged day gig wouldn't be such a bad thing.
But for Wain, this seems like just a momentary lapse in enthusiasm; he quickly adds that “having the time limit of having to get home to my kids helps light a fire under my ass,” and there are still great rewards in every step of the filmmaking process, because, of course, the guy gets paid to make jokes with his buddies, and that's a dream life. It's also still a totally immersive, all-in situation; working on “Children's Hospital” is enough to be a full-time job alone.
“The last episode of ‘Children's’ this year was an incredibly ambitious two-part episode, and the day before shooting, we had the board that had all the storylines that we wanted to do, but no scenes written, just nothing,” Wain recalls, smiling. “It was like totally one of those out of body experiences, lots of writing all night and writing on the fly, flying pages down to set and all that craziness.”
We grab lunch when he returns from LA, enchiladas at a little Mexican place in a strip mall next to a theater, and we're joined by his childhood friend and current Hollywood composer, Craig Wedren. One of the funnier revelations that comes out of the chat is that Wain has recently taken to finding isolated tracks of pop songs in order to edit them together in such a way that the songs sound slightly off; recently, he re-jiggered the easy listening staple “Every Breath You Take” to make it sound as if Sting was having trouble with his throaty crooning. Only Wedren would know this, because he's the only one to whom Wain sends the songs.
This is a sign of the silly side of the writer/director that will soon emerge, a preview of the hidden-away extrovert that is summoned by friendship. It's a day before the premiere of “They Came Together,” which makes it just 24 hours until a saga over a decade in the making is complete.
Wain and Showalter wrote the initial draft in 2002, seeing it as the logical follow-up to “Wet Hot American Summer.” Instead, the script got buried. “Wet Hot” hadn't attained its cult classic status yet, and its miniscule $295K gross meant that Universal, which owned the rights to the “They Came Together,” figured it wasn't all that prudent financially to move forward with production on its spiritual sequel.
“It wasn't really a studio-type movie,” Wain acknowledges. “It just kept gnawing at me and us over the years, we thought it was so funny and we had such affection for it.”
A decade later, he had built up the cachet to rescue the passion project from oblivion, albeit on a smaller, smarter scale.
Wain and Showalter exercised a proviso in the Writers’ Guild agreement that allowed them to buy back the rights to the script in 2012 (after a reading at San Francisco's SketchFest), and Lionsgate agreed to finance it as one of their new micro-budget projects. The pair got to work rewriting the thing, taking it from a spoof of specific, iconic rom-com scenes to more of an assemblage of exaggerated tropes and goofy gags, built around an archetypical story that could also stand on its own.
At one point, the pair also began specifically tailoring the script for Rudd and Poehler, who play the two main characters, in what are more or less the mock Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan roles from the “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You've Got Mail” era.
Along with Rudd and Poehler, whose collaboration with Wain and Showalter dates back to “Wet Hot,” there are roles in the film for Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino, two original members of The State. It's been about 25 years that they've known and worked with each other, and it's hard to think of modern day creative relationships that have been so solid for so long, especially among groups as big as their crew of NYU alumni.
“We were all in our early 20s and had endless amount of energy and enthusiasm, we had never done anything like this before so we were so excited,” Wain remembers. Wedren notes that the egos were pretty intense during that era, as the members worked to make sure their sketches made it on air, since a cohesive half hour slot could only contain a sliver of the ideas produced. It was democracy and socialism and cutthroat capitalism all in one room.
“The State to me is exemplified by eight-hour conversations, arguments for everything,” he says. “Even for the color of someone's fingernails in a scene. Everything was consensus. But you knew though, that means that if your piece somehow made it all the way to air, it had something to it.”
I marvel that they're all still friends, all these years later, let alone still working together.
“We grew up together, we came of age together, we taught each other sort of what we do, and so we're a family,” Wain explains. “Though I think, after the show and several failed attempts at other things as a group, it was too big. I don't think it was destined to keep going. It was too many growing separate personas and personalities and talents, but I'm grateful and happy and so thrilled that we're all friends and we all still work together.”
While The State did fraction off into teams — Wain, Showalter, Marino, and Black all frequently work together, while Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver formed another unit, most notably for “Reno 911!” — the group at large still shares a certain specific comedy style. As Showalter explains it in an interview later in the weekend, their ethos is in part defined by the idea that “the joke isn't the joke itself; the joke is that we did the joke.”
When “Wet Hot American Summer” debuted at Sundance in 2001, there was a sizable portion of the audience that didn't quite understand that, say, when Showalter's comically overage counselor character Coop slipped on a banana peel and had a bucket fall on his head, the comedy wasn't the sight gag, but the fact that they'd spent half a day making this silly set piece happen at all.
“Unfortunately a lot of people just went, ‘That's just a dumb joke I've seen before,'” Showalter laments.
Wain is concerned that “They Came Together” will engender the same sort of reaction, based in part on some of the confused comments that he saw online when he debuted the first clip from the film. The spot saw Rudd and Poehler have an incredibly dumb back and forth in a bookstore, bonding over their love of fiction books — as if no one else in the world liked fiction! — and a few people left uncertain remarks.
“They were like, ‘Sounds like a little stilted dialogue. Poehler is usually good but she sounds sort of shaky here,'” he recalls, just a little bit uneasy with the larger implication of such anecdotal complaints for the larger reception of his movie. “Exactly the thing I was worried about, which is why I wanted to put up the full clip, so you get the idea: Oh, they're joking.”
I counter that, with the cult fame of “Wet Hot” and their other projects firmly entrenched, there will be a sizable audience that does get the new gags.
“The goal though, what we're hoping,” he counters, “is that it will go beyond people who know what we do.”
No one would doubt the Marianas Trench depth of comedic talent in the film if they could take a peek behind the scenes when the cast hangs out on Friday night. Their arrival activates the extrovert in Wain; it is as if their presence suddenly allows him to cut loose and reveal the quips and jokes rattling around his brain during his more quiet moments.
Wain's partners in crime — Showalter, Poehler, Rudd, Smulders, Mantzoukas, Kemper, and Meloni — gather at a pre-premiere party at a converted storefront rented out by YouTube. There, Entertainment Weekly is hosting a Google Hangout, and so the cast comes up in pairs to shoot the shit for a few minutes for the viewing public.
The real show, though, is right off camera, in the little queueing area where the actors wait to take their turn on the couch. Anyone watching this little corner of the equipment-covered second floor is treated to a sort of unintentional private performance; it'd be silly to assume that this assemblage of people are always this on and funny — they are humans — but perhaps in an effort to stay loose and psych each other up for the beginning of a long night, it is this evening's default.
You'd never know that there are newcomers to this party; Smulders, who had never met Wain before taking the role — it was clinched in a phone conversation between the two — and felt “intimidated” by her co-stars at first, fits right in with the frenzy.
When we talk the next day, they all joke about the initiation, a conversation that is all slapdash and self-effacing improv that exemplifies the sort of safe space mentality that seems to pervade the group.
“It's like a gang, you're either sexed in or beat in,” Poehler cracks to Smulders. “I think you chose beat in.”
Right on cue, Mantzoukas chimes in, “The thing is, a lot of people choose beat in, but that invariably leads to sex-in, because beating is a real aphrodisiac.”
The green room before the screening is much the same way. Poehler emerges from the red carpet, which was studded with journalists that waited hours to talk to her, and announces, “That was so great, you guys!” to her laughing friends. Minutes later, the group photo is bombed by a visiting Nick Offerman and his wife, Megan Mullally, who giggle with maniacal glee as they dive into the front row.
Before they head out for showtime, Greenfield asks me if Wain had been doing many card tricks.
“It was rough at first,” he says, explaining that Wain was always playing with the deck on the set of the film. “But he got really, really good.”
The worry that Wain had about audiences not quite getting “They Came Together” goes unfulfilled; the response is emphatically enthusiastic, and the jokes get the right laughs at the right times.
A line about a waiter having a pole up his ass is matched with an actual pole up said waiter's ass, a literal gag that is the height of comedic idiocy, which is greeted with appropriate snorts of “Oh my god,” in the best possible way. Rudd repeating his lines over and over upon a bartender's sympathetic “Tell me about it” inspires disbelief and giggles at just how committed they are to such wonderful, face-slapping stupidity. And the running punch lines that lead to Rudd's character realizing that his name is actually Billy Joel — and the fact that he never previously recognized it — draws gasps and smiling head shakes.
As Poehler notes later, “It's the comedy I've done that has the most jokes. It's filled with jokes, and it's really, really fucking stupid, in the best way. It's like the highest compliment. When we were shooting it on set, we'd go, oh that's so dumb! That's great, next!”
Having two of comedy's current heavy hitters in the film certainly buys them some credibility; a squadron of gawking girls in the balcony during the premiere take selfies with the speck of Paul Rudd visible from their far-corner perch. But there is also unanimous belief that the framing device Wain and Showalter added after the initial production also helped clarify the film's winking parody intent.
The film dips in and out of a double date that pairs Poehler and Rudd with a couple played by Kemper and Bill Hader; the stars offer up their story in a narration that leans heavy on silly one-liners, signaling that insanity is to be expected.
“If we don't have that restaurant scene, it's a different reaction that you get from the audience,” Showalter surmises. “I think that whole restaurant scene ties the movie together in a way that allows for people who aren't maybe as familiar with our comedy to really understand, okay, I get it, this is a spoof of this genre of movie, and then it tells you what you need to know, and you can go enjoy the jokes.”
The Q&A is energized and preposterous, with Wain taking center stage to drive the point of absurdity home to the crowd. Someone asks what he'd do with $100 million, like Martin Scorsese's budget for Wolf of Wall Street, to which he responds that he'd rather not talk about “my friend Marty,” and that he doesn't want to bring the personal into his professional life. It's a gag he continues into the next day, aping self-serious showbiz types on command.
The forum goes on for 15 minutes, wry answers and cast riffing, in-jokes aimed at each other as much as the audience. I had a feeling this sort of reception would happen, and during lunch, wondered aloud why it took so long for smart comedy to come together.
“Just about every Hollywood company in that way operates out of fear and out of lowest common denominator,” Wain said, nonplussed at the reality he has come to know quite intimately. “And so you can't even really blame specific individuals, it's just the way of the culture of it.”
When the crew reassembles the next day for press interviews, they're equally as giddy. Laying across some plush couches, there's a sense of accomplishment, and when reporters come to ask questions, it creates a sort of unintended intimidation, like a job interview with the sharpest wits imaginable.
They ping absurd answers back and forth, building momentum on improvisations on questions that hew close to the sort of things you'd ask in a parody interview, like the role that New York played in the film (from the beginning, Wain jokes that it was like “another character in the film”).
A week earlier, Wain predicted this sort of thing, saying that in interviews, “It delineates exactly that, if I'm with myself, I tend to give sort of real answers, but if I'm with any other person, both of us just give no answers at all, just will not answer some questions, just make jokes.”
Poehler is perhaps the most enthusiastic about this all; the newly crowned Golden Globe winner and sitcom darling, she smiles broadly about the attention her friend is getting.
“My favorite thing about those Q&A's,” she says, “is that everyone gets to see how funny David is.”
“They Came Together” hits theaters and VOD on June 27