David Wain is funny. We know this. From Wet Hot American Summer to Stella to Children’s Hospital, it seems that everything David Wain touches turns to cult-comedy gold — and we’re not complaining. With an absurd and bizarrely addictive sense of humor, he’s found a way to bring that unflappable sense of humor to Hollywood while still preserving his smaller projects for his fans to obsess over. With Wanderlust, which he co-wrote with fellow State member Ken Marino, he gives us perhaps his best studio picture — one that manages to appeal to a broad audience while still keeping the Wain comedy trademarks alive. Starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, the film follows a couple who’ve lost their apartment and are in search of the next phase of their lives. After packing up their things and hitting the road, they stumble upon Elysium, a commune rife with free-loving hippies, vegan meals, casual afternoon acid trips, and a brilliantly funny cast of characters including Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney, and Joe Lo Truglio. We caught up with Wain to chat about what sparked his interest in this story, his early days in comedy, and the role improvisation plays in his work.
I heard the original idea for the movie was when you and your wife were having trouble selling your apartment?
Well, we’re actually currently having trouble. But it’s more that we just live in an apartment that’s way too small and way beyond our means, basically just to live in Manhattan. That was sort of one of the inspirational seeds, so taking that to the next step of losing everything and suddenly being in a position where you might make more radical choices about your life because you have less to lose.
And you wrote with Ken Marino, who is someone you’ve worked with many times before. How did you go about writing it together?
We’re both so busy and live on separate coasts so we picked a week and got into room for 12 hours a day for seven days without any ideas, and we made it our assignment to come up with that idea, outline it, and write a draft by the end of the first week so we had something to work from. We tried to invent a story that would use a lot of the people we love to work with and use themes we were interested in.
Were you writing the role of George for Paul Rudd?
Kind of; we definitely had him in mind. We didn’t know that he would do it or be interested in it, but having him in a leading role in the previous three movies I did, it was hard not to picture him playing that.
What’s your relationship like with him? He’s in so many of the things you do and he’s obviously so good.
He’s become a great friend, obviously, but he’s also such a good actor and such a funny guy great at improv, and in every way such a good person to have in your court making everyone look good.
Did the other characters sort of just come about because they’re all such strong personalities themselves?
Generally our process is not to do that, so we wrote most of the characters in something of a vacuum just imaging who the people on a commune would be, with the exception of Justin Theroux, who we really did visualize in that part.
It was so strange seeing him like that and I really loved it.
You know, he had played Jesus in The Ten and I guess that had something to do with what informed it for us. We had Justin in mind for that one, but once we got to the next phase we started looking at people we knew and also auditioning to fill out the cast. And people we didn’t know would do it, like Alan Alda, who we just made Hail Mary-best offers to.
He was so perfect for the role, but I was going to ask how you decided to cast him.
He’s basically my dream-list actor for any role and I assumed, having never met him, that he was the funniest, coolest guy. And I was right by ten-fold. He was just the greatest, so working with him was amazing. You want someone who’s funny and knows what he’s talking about, and I can’t believe he did it. A lot of his funniest stuff didn’t even make it into the movie just for time, so it’s going to be on the DVD.
Is there going to be a lot of stuff on the DVD?
The DVD has something we call the Bizzaro Cut, which is essentially an entire other cut of the movie that’s made up almost entirely of material that’s not in the first movie, so it’s going to be really cool.
Do you think that being a part of The State and being at NYU really shaped you as a comedian in terms of being able to collaborate so well with other people?
I certainly couldn’t state that enough. Meeting all those guys at NYU at the beginning of college changed and formed my life in just about every way. They were my best friends and still are most of my best friends, and I don’t even know necessarily if I’d still be doing comedy if it wasn’t for them. We all came together at a time and basically taught each other everything about comedy and doing this stuff, and we lived together day and night from age 18 to 27, and we still, now into our forties, work together all the time. Being part of The State has defined my professional life.
Do you find that writing bigger studio films like this is different than when you’re doing TV or smaller films? Do you feel like you have less freedom?
The pros and cons are sort of balanced in a lot of ways. You have less freedom because there’s money riding on it, but you have more freedom because you generally have more time and more resources. But independent films can be just as restrictive. Unless you’re personally writing a check for a movie, there’s always someone or some company that has an agenda that’s important to them which may not be the same as the director’s. Movies are always collaborative and always filled with compromises.
Your work over the years has always had a cult following, perhaps because your style of comedy is isn’t mainstream — it’s very bizarre, but it’s not dark. What do you think it is about it that people are so drawn to?
I think part of it that it was formed in things like The State, Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella, which were very much largely without any outside input at all. I think because we developed our comedy through each other in a bubble — we didn’t come out of Second City or UCB or Groundlings or anything like that — so there was just a certain specificity to it or “we don’t care what anyone thinks” quality to it that was appealing. And I think it was perhaps solidified by the nature of Wet Hot American Summer being so unsuccessful; it had all the makings of a cult movie because then people could discover it and feel ownership of it. [Fans think], Here’s this thing that I know of and to this day most people don’t know it, but certainly far, far more frequently watch it [since] it came out.
When you have a cast of people that’s so funny I imagine it’s not difficult to make things really entertaining. How much of Wanderlust was scripted and how much was improvised?
When we’re shooting we do a ton of both. We always make sure to get what’s on the page for sure, because sometimes new ideas or instincts [you think of] on set may not be better than what you thought about for years. We also always let the actors try stuff and improvise and have fun with it, then in editing we just end up choosing what’s funniest. It doesn’t matter how we got it.
Stella is one of my all-time favorite shows. So much of it seemed improvised, but then read where you said sometimes it would be 95% scripted and then 95% unscripted. I feel like there’s an art to making comedy that seems like it’s improvised but is, in fact, not.
Well, like, Wet Hot was 90% scripted. But the writing process is kind of an improv-y process in a way — we’re sitting together in a room throwing things out — so especially on a film like Wet Hot when the budget is so low, you just don’t have time to sit around and play with it. But in a way there are pros and cons to it. You end up not second guessing much of what’s in the script.
I feel like films like Wet Hot and The Ten are sort of abstract humor and then Role Models is broader and more mainstream. Do you think that those older films’ humor can’t translate into a bigger studio film?
I think that it can in the way that we’ve approached things like Role Models and Wanderlust, where we’re taking some elements of what’s needed for a mainstream audience to connect to it while also trying to layer in enough of our sensibility so it’s recognizable. I think that in both of these projects, we’ve done that in different ways, and hopefully the fans will agree.
One of the moments in Wanderlust where I couldn’t stop laughing was when Paul is in the mirror and he’s trying to psych himself up to have sex.
That’s the perfect example of a scene where half of what ended up in the final scene was in the script, but the most memorable part is just Paul being insane.
It seemed like he was going to stop but he just kept pushing it and pushing it.
One of our first instincts in editing was, Let’s just cut this way down. But then we were like, The whole point of this is how long he kept doing it.
Bringing in someone like Jennifer Aniston obviously helps drive people to see the film, but did you have someone in mind that you wanted for the role?
She was definitely at the very top of our list. I didn’t know her very well but Paul had worked with her on Friends and Object of My Affection, and so he kind of knew what hopefully the rest of America will find out — that she totally has the edge in her, is very ballsy, a great sport, a very funny improviser, and can mix right in with our whole group.
You seem to always have these large ensemble casts. Is that something you just love working in?
Yeah. Looking back on my past four movies they’ve had these huge, huge casts, and I think it’s because partially I just hate excluding people from the process because it’s so much fun to work with friends and the more the merrier! And partly because the movies I always loved growing up were these large cast ensembles.
So, what’s next?
I am in editing on the fourth season of Children’s Hospital and just released the DVD of Wainy Days. Next I’m working on the Wet Hot American Summer follow up.
Can you say anything about the follow up?
Just that it’s going to be as many of the same cast as we can wrangle. That’s all I can say so far. But then we also have another show that we’re starting to shoot in the spring that will be on Adult Swim called News Readers, which is a spin-off of Children’s Hospital.