On Friday night, Gallery 1988's so-called Venice location (which is really in Santa Monica) runneth over with fans of cult classic movie Wet Hot American Summer. They packed in to check out “Camp Firewood,” an exhibition of 65 works of art inspired by the film, and perhaps to catch a glimpse of David Wain, the film's director, who was there to host the opening.
Wain is a bit of cult hero himself. Though he's had commercial success in recent years (Role Models, Children's Hospital) many of his followers go all the way back to The State, a sketch comedy show from the early 1990s he directed and starred in alongside his college pals. Several of those pals ended up in Wet Hot American Summer, which was Wain's first film.
We chatted with Wain outside the gallery about how his adolescence spent at summer camp turned into a movie:
What was your summer camp experience like and how did it play into the movie?
It was pretty similar. I mean, my memories of camp are mostly about sitting around, both as a camper and as a counselor. I went to a very laid back, disorganized Jewish summer camp in Maine. I mainly remember sitting around, doing not too much, and trying to make out with girls. It was directly inspired by that, and Michael Showalter's similar experience at a different Jewish camp.
Are there any scenes in the movie that were taken directly from your past?
A lot of the little things in the movie were inspired by very specific real experiences that Michael or I had at camp. Probably the most specifically direct experience was that I did leave a group of campers that I had driven up to a camping trip in a van. I left them, not alone, but I was supposed to stay — I left them with another counselor and drove back to the camp to see a girl, but I didn't get very far before I smashed into a tree.
I was blasting music — it was the middle of the night actually, and I was blasting “Light My Fire” by The Doors I remember. Then there was this huge crash into a tree.
Do a lot of former summer campers tell you the movie reminds them of their experience?
One of the things about summer camp, I think, is that you feel like your camp and your group of friends at camp is unique, and that nobody else has had your experience. But all camps are the same. At least all certain kinds of camps are the same. I think people identified with that.
And as absurd and ridiculous and off the wall as the movie is, I think it's also lovingly observational. We tried to make it about what summer camp really did feel like. For us.
Why do you think this movie developed such a cult following?
Who can really say? It was my first movie and I knew it was special to us because the line between me being at summer camp and making the movie was very gray. You know, we did a movie that we knew that we would like. I guess that's what anyone would do. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it never really did get much of a release or much mainstream attention. It still never has, so I think people who discover it feel a certain sense of immersion of it. And I think it's that slow and steady build over the years that more and more people have become aware of it. But it's still a cult thing. It's still a thing that most people haven't heard of.
How did this art show come about?
I've just been aware of this gallery for years. They emailed me years and years ago and I kind of just kept in touch with them about different things. Really they did it themselves. They had this concept to do a Wet Hot-related art show. They told me about it several months ago and said, 'Do you think that would be good? Would you come?' And I was like, 'Are you kidding?'
All of the pieces are for sale, of course, many of which at extremely reasonable prices. A lot of the prints are a mere $30 unframed. A few are even $15. Wet Hot cast members Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino cleaned up, buying several pieces, and stopping to autograph a few purchased by fans.
“Camp Firewood” runs until June 29th.
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife