Critical Questions: David Wain
Revered comedic writer/director/actor talks craft and collaboration.
Comedian David Wain broke through in the 1990s with the cutting-edge comedy troupe The State. Since then he has co-written and helmed a string of acclaimed and deeply funny features, from the cult-adored Wet Hot American Summer to the critically heralded box-office hit Role Models. With his next effort, the commune-set ensemble comedy Wanderlust, poised to make a splash this week, we sat down with Wain to discuss his filmmaking process, why he's reluctant to meet Woody Allen, and the possibility of a Wet Hot sequel.
CM: Wanderlust features a lot of performers you've worked with before. Do you and Ken Marino write with actors in mind?
DW: We really don't for the most part. We just kind of try to write freely and be open to what these characters are. Only later do we plug in all the people that we know and love to work with. The one exception [on Wanderlust] was Justin Theroux. Somehow from the get-go we thought of Justin Theroux or a Justin Theroux type playing that role [of the overtly sexual guru], and so we were happy to actually cast the real Justin Theroux in that role.
Paul Rudd has been in every single one of your feature films so far. How did he come to be such a major part of your collaborative team?
I met Paul quite a long time ago. I believe it was 1998, back when we were doing a play in New York called SEX: a.k.a. Wieners and Boobs. And we had a mutual friend that had brought him to see it. I think we just hit it off with a predilection for a lot of the same kinds of comedy. He was really into what we were doing, and it was around the time that we were trying to put Wet Hot American Summer together. And we asked him to be a part of it, and he jumped on board for that, and we just kept on working with him. We laugh at a lot of the same things.
While much of the cast of Wanderlust has appeared in your earlier efforts, this marks your first time directing Jennifer Aniston and Alan Alda. How did they come to the project?
At the point that we came to Jennifer Aniston, it was me, Paul, and Ken [Marino] doing it together. We had nobody else involved until financing. We just thought about who would be the best actress to play this role, and we couldn't think of any name that was as exciting to us as Jen. And you know they [Paul and Jen] had worked together before both on Friends and The Object of My Affection, but it was still kind of a pie-in-the-sky kind of a choice for us. But we got her the script, and she laughed and decided to do it, to our surprise and delight.
For Alan Alda, it was also a huge shoot-the-moon idea, like there was no way he was going to do it. And we got the script to his people, and he passed on it. But then I wrote an email to the agent, sort of just explaining how much of a fan I am and how much we wanted to [him be a part of Wanderlust], and I got an email back from Alan personally, sort of explaining the larger situation. He thought it was interesting, but he had some issues with it-- some timeline issues-- and eventually we decided to meet in person and, very coincidentally, we both happened to be in this little tiny town in western NY state the same weekend, and so we got to sit down for an hour an get to know each other. I had always expected that Alan Alda would be funny and smart and cool, but he was 10 times what I expected. It was a great joy every day to be able to work with him.
You have a lot of renowned improv artists in your cast, not to mention the improv-loving Judd Apatow as a producer. Did you encourage ad-libbing on set, and how much did this influence the final cut?
A lot, to both of your questions -- more than any movie I'd ever done. And definitely with the encouragement and guidance of Judd, we really did a lot of improvising. In addition to the improvising, for much of the script, we had all sorts of alternate material whether it was different directions, different jokes, ideas from other drafts. And we'd just try a lot of it on the set and see which ones the actors sparked to, and, later, when we're editing which ones the audience sparked to. It's a really cool and interesting way to work.
You and the Michaels [Showalter and Ian Black] have a memorable cameo in Wanderlust as an incredibly awkward news team. How did that concept come about?
Well, we knew there would be some sort of news report following the big plot point with Jennifer Aniston, and we toyed around with different versions of what that bit would be. Then it evolved into, "What if it was a female reporter with three guys on an afternoon news talk show?" And from three guys, the idea very quickly became, "Why not those three guys?" So that's what we did, because as a comedy troupe, Stella, the three of us were always known for wearing suits, so it just seemed it would be a very natural fit.
We were just more than anything playing ourselves 100%. We were just doing a throwback to our own -- you know, the three of us have a 25-year history of doing shtick together. And, as a trio since 1997, we've been touring, and have developed our own kind of repartee. So I think we were just playing off that.
In its comedic tone and setting, Wanderlust seems almost a sister film to Wet Hot American Summer. Is this the closest we'll come to a Wet Hot sequel?
Fortunately, no! We are in process. We're writing scripts, getting ducks in order for a Wet Hot sequel.
That's great! There's been some flurry about it online recently because Michael Ian Black tweeted it wasn't happening, but Michael Showalter said it was.
Well, Michael Showalter went on that show on Bravo and overstated it a bit. So there was a lot of back and forth. But I can tell you from the horse's mouth -- we are writing a script, and we are putting together serious plans, so that once the script is written, we will get -- hopefully -- very quickly into shooting this movie.
Wet Hot, The Ten, Role Models, and Wanderlust all have more than one protagonist driving the story. What attracts you to this kind of unconventional narrative?
For some reason so many of my favorite movies have that multi-protagonist quality. Whether it's Nashville or Magnolia or Do the Right Thing. These are movies that are in my top ten. Dazed and Confused. Maybe it has to do with lack of attention span or just that I'm drawn to groups. Maybe being part of The State, I just always enjoy learning about how a group of people's stories adds up to something larger than just the group, something greater than the sum of its parts. In some way, the situation or the setting becomes its own central arch, and I always find that moving and interesting. And I think it's also just growing up and watching television so much, where that's often the case -- these different people having their own stories, but it all adds up to one goal: the TV show.
As a director and writer, who do you count as your influences?
Probably the biggest pulls of influence for me growing up would be Steve Martin and Woody Allen. They were the two who I ingested everything I could get my hands on -- every record, every movie, every TV special, every TV appearance, anything I could find. I just consider them both mentors, even though I've never met them.
Is that an aspiration of yours, meeting or working with them?
Yeah, I would love to meet and/or work with either of them. Absolutely. Although it's not like that's the point of it in a way. It's more just that the work that they were doing as I was growing up was so shaping to who I am [now], and that's the thing that matters. I mean, I remember Woody Allen talking about meeting your idols can be disappointing, because they're human beings, and you know they're not perfect. Sometimes I wonder if it's best to just leave it at that.
Any plans for a reunion of The State cast?
Well, you know, we did have a big reunion a couple of years ago where we wrote a whole new show of sketch material, and we performed it live at the San Francisco Sketchfest as an entire group. And we're always talking and wanting to do some sort of larger The State project. Usually what stands in the way is that we have 11 people with 11 careers, and to organize everybody to be in one place for enough time to do something worthwhile--other than like some tribute dinner or something--is definitely a challenge. But I have a feeling it will happen. We are still very much a family. We still hang out together. We still all love each other.
In your films, you've lampooned camp culture, communes, urban living, modern morality and masculinity, LARPing, and community outreach programs. What sacred-or not-so-sacred-cow is your next target?
I'm going to take on [pause] all that horrible food they serve on airplanes. That's the next thing. I'm just going to take it down. Let the airlines know! Let's put them all on notice, and we're going to skewer that stuff to the point of no return.