Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

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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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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