Amy Rice directed a documentary following Barack Obama from Illinois to the White House (2009’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama), which was nothing like summer camp. Especially nothing like a movie about summer camp. Nor the decks of footage Rice had stored away in her closet from four weeks in May 2000, when she had trained her cameras on David Wain and Michael Showalter and the crazy funny cast they’d assembled to make Wet Hot American Summer.
Rice sat on the footage for the better part of 15 years. When Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp became a reality for Netflix this summer as an eight-episode mini-series, Rice wondered: Was her footage any good? Was it even usuable?
Turns out she had more than 25 hours of footage, which she editor Ezra Paek culled down to 64 minutes for Hurricane of Fun, which is how Joe Lo Truglio described the filming experience at the time.
“I could release just the interview at the bar with Paul (Rudd) and Janeane (Garofalo) and Chris Meloni,” Rice told The Comic’s Comic after a special screening Sunday at the UCB’s East Village theater in New York City. “That was hilarious. There were just so many fun moments that we were trying to find ways to have it make sense to leave it all in.”
“I believe this film will be the Caddyshack of the new millennium,” Janeane Garofalo predicted in an on-camera interview from the campsite. Before adding, even more accurately: “I’m just hoping that not just us will see this film. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great home video.”
Wet Hot was panned at 2001’s Sundance Film Festival but became a cult favorite over the years, so much so that Wain playfully noted about this summer’s Netflix series: “even critics like it this time!”
For many of the comedians and actors, their month at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania representing their first experience acting in a feature film. Bradley Cooper had just graduated from acting school (actually missing his graduation to film his “sex” scene with Michael Ian Black). Amy Poehler hadn’t yet made the cast of Saturday Night Live. Rudd was best known for Clueless; Meloni, for HBO’s Oz.
“I had an idea that things would be in a trailer situation, where everybody’s segmented and off in their own little area, and then you come together to shoot the film,” Cooper said in an interview on set. “But after being here for two weeks, I realized that I get just as excited for after wrap as before a scene just because everybody’s locked together. It is camp. We all live in the infirmary. I live right next door to Michael Showalter and Ken Marino. Janeane has a little porch that we all go to. The downtime is the time we get to know each other.”
“We’re in a camp with no rules, and now we’re all in our 30s, so we really know how to party,” added Poehler.
And party they did.
But watching Poehler hold her laugh off-camera until Wain yelled “cut!” or seeing how Wain and his cinematographer grappled with the unseasonable weather conditions — cold rain fell on 23 of the 28 shoot days, when the plot hinged on everything happening during one hot, sunny day — that seemingly conspired against them. Watching that and how the actors and comedians rallied through friendship, drunken antics and mental riddle games such as SNAPS. Realizing their close quarters and the unique nature of the production, even Wain says as production neared its end: “The movie and the making of the movie have become one thing.”
Though Poehler notes many of them had hit their 30s by then, they’re still so fresh-faced and new to the moviemaking experience that Rice manages to catch interviews with the parents of both Wain and Showalter at the camp, proud of their sons for what they were accomplishing. Even amid the obstacles from Mother Nature.
When Rice unearthed the footage over this past year, “We didn’t know if it was going to be a 20-minute piece, or not.”
“Yeah, initially I told Amy, this might be a half-hour of content,” Paek said. “And then, after digging more and more into it, it’s like, there’s so much stuff to show and tell. At the end of the day, it became a little more than an hour, without dragging too long, but also the right amount of time where you feel really entertained.”
How could you not feel entertained by what amounts to a home movie sequestering so many funny people just coming in to their own as comedians and actors? Not just from Poehler, Cooper, Rudd, Meloni, Garofalo, Lo Truglio, Black, Wain and Showalter, but also from Elizabeth Banks, A.D. Miles, Molly Shannon, David Hyde Pierce, Zak Orth and Ken Marino.
Did waiting as long as she did make it easier or harder to edit the 25 hours of footage?
“I think easier,” Rice said. “Just having the perspective, and I think independent filmmaking has changed a lot. But maybe it hasn’t.” Technology behind filmmaking certainly has transformed fundamentally. “In there you can hear the 35 mm magazines when I’m filming next to the camera. That never happens anymore. Not that that’s important.”
Not nearly as important as that basic rule of comedy: Timing.
“What if we had released this a few years afterward?” Rice asked. “I don’t think it would have had the same impact, or that people would have enjoyed it as much.”
Hurricane of Fun is streaming now on Netflix, or available via iTunes: