Over the last 10 or 15 years, a wave of filmmakers have worked to reconcile the spontaneity and innovation of sketch comedy with the demands of narrative film. David Wain is one of them. Since their beloved MTV sketch show The State, Wain and his collaborators—Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter (Wain’s later partner with the comedy group Stella), Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, and others—have continued working together (and apart) on various film projects. Many of them, along with Wain favorite Paul Rudd and a who’s-who of comedic talent, united for his 2001 debut feature, Wet Hot American Summer, which bombed commercially, but has since become a cult touchstone. In the years since, Wain has alternated independent movies like 2007’s The Ten with Hollywood projects like Role Models and Wanderlust, and offbeat ventures like the web series Wainy Days and the TV show Childrens Hospital. His latest film, They Came Together, gives the romantic-comedy genre the Wet Hot American Summer treatment.
David Wain: I think the first movie I might have ever seen, anywhere, was in a theater. My parents took me to see Sleeper. I remember it being really, really scary, and feeling like this nightmarish, dystopian disaster story. My early impression of it is that there was nothing funny about it. I think I had nightmares about it. Later in life, when I was around 10, I think it was one of the two or three movies we had on Betamax. It took me years to realize it was a comedy, and then it became one of my favorite comedies.
The Dissolve: The Orgasmatron is not going to resonate too much with a 5-year-old.
Wain: No, none of it. It was just scary people who had white paint on their face and a little thing in their mouth. Walking around like robots, and being chased. And the giant vegetables and all that. It was all basically the stuff of nightmares. I had no awareness of Woody Allen or anything. Certainly that movie, more than most comedies or even Woody Allen comedies, is filled with topical jokes from the ’70s that of course I also didn’t get. I was left with just the visual terror.
The Dissolve: Did your family gravitate to comedy, or Woody Allen?
Wain: I think specifically they were Woody Allen-oriented, yes. My sister Cathy, who was nine years older than me, in particular. Actually, my whole family, though—my mom, dad, and two sisters, they were big Woody Allen fans. My dad is from Brooklyn, and we were a Jewish family growing up in Cleveland. Most of the first videotapes we got in 1980 were Woody Allen.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Wain: So 10, again, it’s all about the Betamax in the house. We were the first on the block to have a Betamax. One of the things my sister or my parents just randomly taped off Showtime was Heaven Can Wait. I think I also saw that one in the theater when it came out. But then I watched it on Beta like 100 times. I just loved it. The fantasy of it, and everything about that story, just resonated with me so hardcore, and it’s only grown as I’ve gone along in life. I’ve come to appreciate just how amazing what Warren Beatty was doing, and Buck Henry, and Charles Grodin in his performance. That kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy of stepping into a rich man’s body. I also thought Dyan Cannon was just the hottest woman I’d ever seen in my life. I wrote her a fan letter, and she wrote me back a Xeroxed autograph. [Laughs.] I watched it so many times that I really could recite it. And I probably still could recite it right now.
You know, the novelty of having a videotape player was so incredible, that I would just watch anything. And that’s what we had. I had a few Steve Martin specials and Heaven Can Wait and a couple other things, and I just basically watched those over and over and over until they seeped into my subconscious. Those turns of phrase still come out in my writing subconsciously all the time. I’m just remembering that another tape we had around that time was the last three-quarters of Animal House, because the first part was taped over, or they started taping it late. Basically I’ve seen the second half of Animal House 100 times, and seen the first half two or three times.
The other movie that struck me at age 10 was Caddyshack. I liked Animal House, but Caddyshack was the one that struck my funny bone so hard. I remember going to friends’ houses for sleepovers, and we would just watch Caddyshack over and over and over again. It was rated R, too, and there were boobs in it, and that was just incredible, and I think our parents didn’t realize that, because it was a golf comedy. That was super-exciting. I just think there was this sensibility, that whole Harold Ramis thing that obviously was just a huge, huge influence on my whole life and career choices.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Wain: When I was in summer camp, we weren’t supposed to do anything too high-tech, but the director of our camp had a rule that any time any group of kids wanted to go to the movies, they could, as long as they walked to the movie theater—which was 23 miles away. So we did it. Usually once a summer, we would get the group together and get our canteens and our shoes on, and we would walk the 23 miles. So by the time we got to the theater, we had blisters in our toes and were so tired and so sore that just sitting down and watching anything was exciting. I remember one year it was Young Doctors In Love, one year it was Vacation, but when we saw Rambo, I remember thinking “This is just insane.” The adrenaline of it, the testosterone, the whole notion of that kind of action hero that takes no prisoners. The director of our camp was sort of this kooky guy whose other job was being a secret trainer of counter-terrorists working for either the Israelis or the American government, it was never quite clear. And he took on Rambo as the whole theme of the summer, and he used it as a verb. He’d say, “C’mon guys, lets Rambo this!” We would do karate stuff, and in karate you’d count off in Japanese, “ichi, ni, san, shi.” But he would go, “ichi, ni, san, Rambo!” I He broke his own rule and drove kids in different groups to see Rambo over and over and over. It was so weird, in retrospect. I haven’t seen it since then. But I certainly loved it. I remember another thing at summer camp: “The only rules in life are girls suck, parents suck, and Rambo rules.”
The Dissolve: The “Higher And Higher” montage in Wet Hot American Summer suddenly has an autobiographical flavor.
Wain: Well, yes, that whole movie is far more autobiographical than one might think.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Sex, Lies, And Videotape (1989)
Wain: Now I’m in film school at NYU, and I’m starting to look at movies in the mind of hoping to make them some day. There’s really three I have to mention. First of all, that year, 1989, was incredibly influential to me. There were so many things that came out around that time that really meant a lot to me. One of them was Sex, Lies, And Videotape, which I think was the first movie I was aware of being an indie. Made for a low budget. Went to Sundance. Was done by someone’s force of will, basically. It was one of the first movies where I had that amazing feeling where I have trouble getting up afterward. That’s the ultimate cinematic experience for me. That feeling where I just can’t really speak. I’m just so overwhelmed that I don’t even know what to say by the end. I just have to sit there for a while. The fact that that happened watching not a movie like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but this little drama about four people, was incredible to me. Soon after, I read Steven Soderbergh’s book about how he made it, which became a real inspiration and a bible to me.
Around the same time was Do The Right Thing, where I was so blown away. At the time, I didn’t even know why or what I was feeling. I was so charged by both the storyline and the craft that I was almost in tears. I again took a huge interest in Spike [Lee] and how he did it and his process, watched the documentary about it and read about it.
The third one around that same time was in a class I took at NYU about movies in the ’70s, and they showed Nashville. And Nashville was the first time I saw a movie like that, where was it was this incredibly long, sprawling, epic-size movie about so many things, and added up to one thing in its own crazy way. And I just remember thinking, “Who is this Robert Altman guy, and who are all these actors?” And this was a whole other way of doing it, this was a whole other language. In small ways, very specifically, the structure of Nashville is basically what we get in Wet Hot American Summer, and Do The Right Thing in a way. The whole idea of multiple protagonists over the course of one day.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Wain: Twenty-five marked the end of a very tough dry period in my career, where I was struggling to figure out what to do and how to get projects going, and not having a lot of success. And I saw Before Sunrise. There’s obviously a theme going on here. You have another director with a strong vision who doesn’t particularly seem to care what the marketplace is asking for. And one of the things that just completely blew me away about Before Sunrise is that there really isn’t, for my money, any true central conflict to it. It was just this amazing document of these two people meeting and having this very real and yet also incredibly heightened romantic experience. I felt like it was so true to things I had been through on both sides. It was one of those times where you’re like, “I think I know these people. I’ve been there. They’re showing what life is really like.” It’s not referring to stories or movies—this is life. And then the fact that they went on to tell that story every nine years just really kills me. It kills me. Those three movies are probably in my top five. I really love all of them, and think Richard Linklater is a true hero. He’s done more for exploring the form than almost anybody I can think of. And I loved Boyhood. Oh my God.
The Dissolve: I think also it hits you age-wise too, doesn’t it? In the sense that you’re growing in step with those two characters.
Wain: Oh my God. So much so. I went to see the last one [Before Midnight], and I now have kids, and they now have kids. It’s just so intense. In fact, I went with my wife to that one, and there are these completely terrifying moments of, “Oh my God… Did they have a camera in our bedroom and write this down?!” They really are a marker of lives.
Wain: The movie that really hit me hardest around that time was Together, the Swedish movie. I remember there was an article in The New York Times saying, “It’s a great movie that barely came out.” When I was in film school, I was constantly watching movies in the dorm, and then going out to see stuff in the Village, or all the little movie theaters around the Village, and then I was also watching movies in class. I just took in a ton during that time. As I got older, and started getting so busy with work and life, I didn’t see nearly as many movies, especially in the theater. And so I randomly wandered into Together, and it was another, similar revelation to me about what you can do, and how you can evoke a feeling, and how you can tell a story with a camera and with a certain type of narrative that isn’t the obvious, but is all the more powerful for that exact reason. And I also felt like it was so moving to see this group of people [in a commune] trying with such sincerity to live a type of life that rose above the inherent selfishness of human nature. And we very clearly lifted exactly that theme for my movie Wanderlust. Together was a direct inspiration, hopefully not to the point of plagiarism. At this point, hopefully, the statute of limitations for getting sued is over. But that theme was just so, so powerful to me, and also the idea of making a choice to make a radical change in your life, or to go so heavily against the grain of what society tells you, and making a bold choice. What moves you to do that, and what moves you maybe to undo that. All those things were so interesting to me.
We took a swing at all those questions in Wanderlust, in the lives of characters that were closer to home, and an environment I knew more directly. And I don’t think we completely did that the way I might do it if we tried it again. Together completely nailed it. The scene that always stuck out to me was the one where the wife is saying to the husband, “It’s incredible. I had sex with [another guy] and I think I had an orgasm for the first time.” And he’s like, “Yes that’s great.” I’m paraphrasing, she’s like, “Are you jealous?” And he says, “Maybe a little bit, but mostly I’m really excited for you.” And of course later, he completely freaks out on her. The other thing I always remember is the end of the movie, with the ABBA song playing, and everyone playing soccer and having a moment of peace, which is great.
The Matador (2005)
The movie that really inspired me was The Matador, which was Richard Shepard’s movie with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. Honestly, I never would’ve even seen it, except I had a connection to him, which was that my producer was his producer for his early films, and he said, “Oh, you should check out Matador.” There was just a sense of humor to it, and an energy to it, that really got under my skin. And I know he shot it for a relatively low budget in Mexico, and again, I was just inspired by the spirit of getting it done. And I do think that always does affect it. I feel like the circumstances of making a movie and the budget level and the spirit around the making of it can’t help but show up onscreen. I’ve been doing so much press for my movie, and the thing that keeps coming to mind is, “What was the most fun stuff to work on?” And it’s pretty much in line with how low the budget was. The lower the budget, the more fun it is to do, just because there’s more freedom. Sometimes those obstacles spark creative solutions, and fun solutions. It just seems like there’s an energy there. I also just like Richard Shepard’s approach and visual style. I remember doing a pilot not long after with Rob Huebel that never went. I tried to make his character sort of like The Matador, sort of like Pierce Brosnan, who had that devil-may-care attitude.
The Dissolve: It was also a nice bit of casting to put the former James Bond in a role where he’s kind of this washed-up, long-in-the-tooth guy. And Richard Shepard has a really strong, crisp visual style. It’s a very tight film.
Wain: I agree about the casting. I like when it’s not completely against type, like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, but it’s riffing on the type. Like the way Adam Sandler was used in Punch Drunk Love. You’re using the persona, but in a weird variation.
Please Give (2010)
I think I was in Los Angeles, and I went to see Please Give with my wife. We’d been back and forth between New York and L.A., and we were in L.A. for a stretch when we saw Please Give. This is another tiny little story by Nicole Holofcener, but for all the great New York movies, I think this is, in some ways, among the most true and the most beautiful stories about the New York I know. It took place very much on my block, practically where I lived in New York. I’m such a fan of Holofcener and her approach to those kinds of characters’ yearning. I think it’s probably parallel to Before Sunrise in a way, because it’s essentially a record of one woman’s life, even though they are different characters and different stories. I just remember feeling like it evoked the real feeling of what New York is actually like, vs. the more romanticized, storybooked New York I’m spoofing in They Came Together. It’s clearly a movie that was made for a small amount of money. But the smallness of it only illuminates it. I just thought the performances were terrific—in some cases, by actors I have worked with, or know personally, but have never seen them quite so powerful. Like Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt. It’s a really cool movie, and it’s the one I remember from that time.