Creative partnerships have always worked for David Wain. Whether performing with influential comedy troupe The State 20 years ago or, more recently, developing television series Children’s Hospital with Rob Corddry, he has remained a committed collaborator. On his last two films, however, the writer/director formed an artistic alliance with an entity some view as originality’s nemesis—a major movie studio.
Wain’s first Universal-backed release was Role Models, the surprise 2008 hit starring Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott as immature man-children forced into mentoring misfit boys. Long after he’d cemented his cult comedy hero rep, perennial outsider David Wain had successfully infiltrated the mainstream.
"Wanderlust was never intended to be a big-budget studio movie star-type movie," Wain says. "It just sort of turned into that by happenstance."
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity that the director initially aimed for a somewhat low-key follow-up to Role Models. After that movie recouped more than double its budget, Wain’s position in the Hollywood caste system changed for the better. At that moment, his name was on an elite list of directors whose last feature comedy turned a profit for a studio. Offers poured in. They just weren’t the right ones.
"I ended up not taking any of those offers because I was committed to making the next movie something that we originated and we loved," Wain says. He turned down all the lucrative work-for-hire directing jobs that came his way; not as a blanket rule, but with the aim of making the next film a little more personal. As it turns out, what he was waiting for ended up being a project he and writing partner Ken Marino had begun working on even before their recent success.
Because the first draft was written five years ago, Wanderlust is an unintentionally timely story. It’s about a couple, played by Aniston and Rudd, who suddenly find themselves unemployed and unable to afford their Manhattan apartment. With very few options, the two ultimately decide to take a chance living in a commune where the '60s spirit of free love remains in full effect. Although the characters’ predicament may be au courant, the meat of the story is rooted in something deeper and timeless. "The main idea for me was just thinking about the whole notion of life choices," Wain says, "Who says that there’s only one way to live your life?"
Looking at his career, it’s clear that Wain has also long had a fascination with group mentality and group living. It shows in his experience as a member of 11-person sketch comedy ensemble, The State, which had their own series on MTV in the early '90s. Or how about his next sketch group, Stella, which had a show on Comedy Central where three guys in suits do everything together like the Marx Brothers of Brooklyn. This group element is also the thrust of Wain’s first feature, cult comedy mainstay Wet Hot American Summer, which takes place at sleepaway camp in 1981. Even Role Models had a long camping scene and a major subplot about the tight-knit Live Action Role Playing community.
Wain got the job directing his breakthrough film with an assist from Paul Rudd, who was already attached to star. There had been a number of writers involved previously, and then the director left the project close to the shooting date. As sort of a staffing hail mary, Rudd recommended Wain to the producers. He and writing partner Ken Marino (also an alum of The State) then came in during the test period and pitched their vision for Role Models. The two were hired and, along with Rudd, completely rewrote the script.
Suddenly, a guy whose last movie (2007's The Ten) brought in a paltry $770K found himself at the helm of a major studio production.
"I was surprised at how much was the same, when it came down to it," Wain says of the experience. "Even though the budgets for my previous films were wildly different, and there were some politics around the studio and so forth, the actual making of the movie was actually very similar."
The director was still simply trying to communicate a story and coax funny performances out of his actors, only now there would be a lot more people watching the results. "We knew we were dealing with a different viewer than before, so we knew that it was important to hit certain traditional story beats in a more traditional way," Wain says. "At the same time, it was my goal to try to maintain some layer of what our sensibility is, and not get it lost."
Getting across an original voice in comedy is difficult when going through huge channels, but with Role Models David Wain and his team succeeded in doing just that. Any movie that boasts a major subplot about LARPing is bound to have some residual weirdness, even if Steven Spielberg were directing, but this particular movie managed to sneak in plenty of little odd moments, like so many pills inside spoonfuls of peanut butter. Almost every character entrance—Jane Lynch’s infomercial, Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s imaginary rooftop duel—could double as its own self-contained skit on The State.
"Any movie with a budget like ours and kind of a high profile, the studio will be involved," Wain says. "You hear these horror stories, but for us it was just a really good back and forth."
When it came time for Wain to embark on the follow-up to Role Models, in very quick succession Wanderlust went from a small, personal movie he was raising money for, to a decent-size studio comedy, all in a very roundabout way. He and Marino first took their script to Rudd, who responded to it and came on as both star and producer. After that, the three approached Aniston, who liked what she read. Suddenly, Wain had a Paul Rudd-Jennifer Aniston movie on his hands. By the time Universal got a look at the whole package, though, there was one more boldface name attached.
"We brought the project to Judd [Apatow] very much wanting someone to push us hard, because that’s kind of what the studio and the producers did on Role Models, which we valued," Wain says. "We wanted someone to not let us be lazy with the writing. And also, of course, someone who has incredible talent and a track record and who we’re big fans of."
The teaming of Wain and Apatow represents the commingling of two sets of sensibilities that jibe together nicely. Although at this point, Apatow is an industry unto himself, and a mainstream one at that, he did produce Anchorman, one of the weirder studio comedy hits of the last decade—and one that co-starred Paul Rudd.
As collaborative as David Wain is, and despite his fascination with groups, there is one project he’s worked on in which he enjoys total control, and that is the web series Wainy Days. This flagship show of popular online platform My Damn Channel follows a fictionalized Wain’s romantic travails around New York City, populated by actors who frequently appear in his other projects (Elizabeth Banks, A.D. Miles, much of The State). "It’s an end in its own right," Wain says. "It’s not meant to be a stepping stone to something. It’s really an opportunity for me to have a personal playground to try any idea."
Perhaps having an outlet to pursue his own ideas has helped Wain sharpen his awareness of what he can get away with, and tailor his projects accordingly. The mandate for something like the Adult Swim show Children’s Hospital, for example, is much different than that of any network series. Wain’s movie The Ten was designed for a fairly small audience, and therefore did not carry the burden of having to please a mass market. Although job one for a movie like Wanderlust is to satisfy the largest audience possible, that doesn’t necessarily mean the only way to do so is by alienating the audience that likes Children’s Hospital.
While there are any number of failed projects that prove the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen, one need look no further than the career of Judd Apatow, or the rise of David Wain to see how original comedic voices can remain alive in big studio projects. "The fewer people who are voting on something in comedy is often helpful. A TV show like [Louis C.K.'s] Louie doesn’t get a lot of anyone telling the creator what he has to do or what he can’t do. Having veto power is helpful." Wain says. "At the same time, I think the idea of demonizing the studio people as if they’re out to make bad movies is a mistake. These are smart people who want the movie to do well and be good, and that’s exactly what I want too."