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15 Campy Facts About Wet Hot American Summer

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

You might be able to quote 2001's Wet Hot American Summer word for word, but even the most diehard fans of Coop, McKinley, and the rest of the Camp Firewood crew probably don't know these 15 "gournal"-worthy facts about the original movie's making—just as your favorite camp counselors get ready to reunite for Netflix's new series, Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.

1. THE WRITERS WERE INSPIRED BY THEIR OWN CAMP EXPERIENCES.

Director David Wain, who penned the script alongside longtime pal and collaborator Michael Showalter, remembers what a big deal Skylab was during the summer he spent at Maine's Camp Modin in 1979. "Kids like us were like, 'Oh my God, do you think Skylab's going to fall on our camp?'" Wain told DETAILS. "And then we'd see a piece of metal and it was like, 'Do you think that's a piece of Skylab?'"

The hour-long trip to town was inspired—sort of—by Showalter's camp experience. "That was something you did at my camp sometimes," he shared. "It was considered a big, awesome thing, kind of like going off-campus in high school." Presumably, though, his sojourns didn't involve a crack den.

2. MICHAEL SHOWALTER AND DAVID WAIN SPENT THREE YEARS FINDING FINANCING.

"Over and over again, we were told, 'We're giving you the money!'" Wain said. "Then these people would disappear. I remember trying to track someone down in their office in the East Village to confront them. And the ‘office’ was someone’s house, and there was no one there by that name.” Ultimately, getting Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce—at the time, two of the cast's biggest names—to sign on helped their cause.

3. THE ENTIRE BUDGET WAS JUST $1.8 MILLION.

Paul Rudd, who plays Camp Firewood's resident bad boy Andy, says no one was really in this for the money. In fact, "I'm not sure I got paid," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I'm not kidding … it was such a small production, and stuff fell through the cracks."

4. IT LAUNCHED SOME MAJOR CAREERS.

The cast of Wet Hot American Summer is full of familiar faces, including Elizabeth Banks, who scored the part of Lindsay (a.k.a. Barbecue Girl) while she was working as a cocktail waitress in New York. Bradley Cooper, meanwhile, missed his graduation from The Actors Studio because of Wet Hot American Summer's production schedule.

5. THE CAST LIVED AT THE CAMP WHERE THE MOVIE WAS FILMED.

Everyone bunked together at Pennsylvania's Camp Towanda for the month-long shoot. Rudd told Details that the experience was "definitely like camp, only we were allowed to have beer." Amy Poehler (who plays talent show director Susie) joked that the shoot felt like a necessary do-over: "We were being given the chance to take one more shot at summer camp, only we were wiser, better drinkers, and more sexually experienced."

6. YES, THEY ATE THEIR MEALS IN THE CAFETERIA.

The fare didn't really hold up, according to Michael Ian Black (McKinley). Pizza bagels "every day when you're 11 is a dream. When you're 30, and it's pizza bagels every day, you wanna kill somebody." 

7. HANK AZARIA IS A CAMP TOWANDA ALUM.


Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Garofalo called Hank Azaria after seeing his name on a plaque by a bunk. "She said, 'I'm staring at your name right now. What gives?'" Azaria, who spent every summer at Towanda from the time he was six years old until he was 15, told Entertainment Weekly, "It was fantastic, some of the happiest times of my life."

8. WHEN THE CAST WASN'T SHOOTING, THEY WERE DRINKING. A LOT.

"Everybody stayed up late. Everybody partied," Rudd told Details. ("There were totally random hookups," Wain admitted.) One night the group even decided to have a camp dance. "They hired this DJ, Mr. Blue, who was friends with the guys from The State, and we had a rave on the grass of the camp," Poehler told the magazine. "He played great '80s music, and we all went into the wardrobe department and put on outfits and had sparklers and danced." 

9. THE WEATHER WAS TERRIBLE.

It rained 25 out of 28 shooting days, turning Camp Towanda's grounds into a giant (freezing) mudpit. "We were wearing three layers of clothing at all times, unless we were shooting, when we were wearing basically nothing," Marguerite Moreau (Katie) revealed to Details. Luckily for the already cash-strapped production, the crew was (mostly) able to work around it. "The one thing about the rain is, even when it's pouring, unless you light for it, it doesn't fully show up on camera. So a lot of times we just shot in the rain," Wain said. It was, for example, pouring for the campfire intro. After a crew member tried and failed to get a fire going, Camp Towanda's director had to intervene and start a fire for them.

10. WHEN IT CAME TO ENTERTAINING THEMSELVES, THE CAST GOT CREATIVE.

Filming took place during the pre-smartphone era, and the nearest attraction was a Walmart a half-hour away. So to amuse themselves, the cast turned to games, including Stratego, backgammon, and stickball, and spent time decorating their cabins. "We would go to Walmart and buy posters and put them in people's rooms," recalled Poehler. "I remember having a lot of *NSYNC." Another popular wall art option: Britney Spears. Ken Marino (Victor) carried around a portable TV "cause he wanted to watch Juliana Margulies's last ER or something," Poehler said. "I remember him running around, crying, being like, 'She went back to Clooney! She went back to Clooney!'"

11. CHRISTOPHER MELONI LOOKED TO RAMBO FOR INSPIRATION.

To play deranged camp cook (and Vietnam vet) Gene, Meloni—who had just started on Law and Order: SVU—grew a beard and gained weight. At his audition, he did his best to channel film's most iconic Vietnam veteran. "I saw him as a whacked-out, cuddly Rambo," Meloni told Details.

12. ALMOST NONE OF THE MOVIE WAS IMPROVISED.

Despite the cast's impressive sketch comedy chops, for the most part, they stuck to Wain and Showalter's script. As Black explained, "The script was pretty locked in. When you have a budget that small, and you have to make your days, and you're fighting the weather, there isn't time to f--k around that much."

13. THE FILM WAS A FINANCIAL FLOP.


Michael Showalter and David Wain.
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Wain and Showalter struggled to find a backer at Sundance, and the film raked in just $300,000 at the box office.

14. CRITICS HATED IT.

Although Entertainment Weekly'sOwen Gleiberman gave Wet Hot American Summer an 'A', he was one of the few who seemed to enjoy it. The Oregonian called it "agony on a stick," and in his review, Roger Ebert decided to parody "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," writing, "Wow I hate it something fierce / Except the astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce.”

In the year since its release, the film has gained a reputation as a cult comedy classic and has spawned two Netflix series: a 2015 prequel, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and a sequel, Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later, which will drop on Netflix on August 4, 2017.

15. IT WAS AN EXPERIENCE THAT BRADLEY COOPER WON'T FORGET.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Of all the stars he's locked lips with, Cooper told Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa in 2010 that Michael Ian Black is his favorite onscreen kiss. A flattered Black responded via Twitter, with one correction:  

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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