Most people first became familiar with David Wain through MTV's giddily anarchic sketch half-hour, The State. As a writer, director, and performer on the show, Wain shared his fraction of the spotlight with 10 other grad school-aged buddies. Although the show only lasted three seasons, this proved to be one wildly talented bunch of creative polymaths. The 11 members of The State can now count authors, screenwriters, character actors, and directors among their rank. Wain couldn't possibly have known it when the show was on the air, but this exact sort of ensemble would follow him throughout his career.
Considering that his last film, Wanderlust, centered around life on a commune, Wain's continued interest in groups is apparent. What's more revealing, though, is the kind of groups he assembles when making films—a shuffling repertory company of State-like multi-hyphenates (including many members of The State.) His '80s movie homage, Wet Hot American Summer, basically the Godfather of modern-day spoofs, set the tone, with a cast full of writer-performers like Amy Poehler and Janeane Garofalo. Every movie since has kept pace, including Wanderlust, which features Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, along with the usual crew. You can't throw a rock on Wain's set without hitting someone with a development deal.
The latest Wain production is a return to the absurdist parody of Wet Hot, only with the laser-sighting now turned toward '90s romantic comedies. They Came Together reunites the director and his frequent cowriter Michael Showalter with Poehler and Paul Rudd, and pairs them all with an almost overwhelming collection of some of the funniest writer-performers around, such as Jason Mantzoukas, Ellie Kemper, and Bill Hader. As They Came Together rolls out in theaters, Wain tells Co.Create about how to make the most out of a cast with the most ringers.
The best comedic performers—and many of them these days come from improv—tend to not try to top each other. If you see Amy Poehler on set, she's perhaps the greatest improver there is, she and Paul Rudd are not looking to get their jokes in there. They know that best performances come from really listening and really participating in the scene and reacting to the classic improv and comedy stuff. I find that those rules are there for a reason, and the best actors tend to follow them.
You never realize how funny or much better these lines can be when people who really know what they're doing make choices—and that can be anything from inflection and emotion to the way they stand and turn, just everything contributes to it in ways that are still mysterious to me. We’ve written this material over many years and have dissected every syllable and feel like we really understand it and hear it in our heads. And then the right person will elevate it 10 floors.
Part of my job as director is to elicit the best contributions from everyone involved in the project and locate the best ideas or the best jokes or the best thoughts on things, while at the same time understanding that I have to put a filter on a singular cohesive vision and so have to make sure just because an actor has an enthusiastic idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can write for the whole of it, which is my job as a director—to keep an eye on the whole.
I always want to hear if there’s a better idea whether it comes from an actor or crew member or anybody. But at the end of the day though, it’s my job to make the decision and even when everyone says, ‘Why don’t we do this,’ I say, ‘Well, I have to make a call.' I have fallen into the trap where I’m kind of going with the wind and not sticking to my guidebook. Making a movie is making decisions—a hundred a minute. (You have to) make sure that you’re making the right compromises and giving in when it doesn’t matter and holding steady for things that do matter, even when others are trying to push you in another direction.
Generally, I like to feel like we have enough of a blueprint each day so that if we’re all brain dead that day, we know we’ll be okay. I want it all on paper and if we can better it, then that’s awesome, and we always try to do that. Sometimes I throw the plan completely out the window when we get there, and we make up how we’re going to shoot it entirely, but I still know I’ve thought about it enough before so I have something to fall back on.
Almost every day on the set, I find that I have a more complicated approach to how a scene is going to go, so I have this ambitious idea, cinematically. And then you get there and it will become obvious that there’s a simpler way from point A to point B, which is usually the more elegant way.
Sometimes you have to follow good ideas, even if they don’t come when you hope they will. If you’re shooting a scene that isn’t going well, it may cost money to switch gears, but it’s worse to keep going the wrong way.
They Came Together had a slight issue, which was that certain audience members didn’t quite understand early enough what it was, so everybody kind of took a step and realized that we needed to re-think the structure of it. So even relatively late into the process, we conceived that framing device of two couples on a double date telling the story in the past tense, and that helped frame and contextualize it and explain to the audience as they’re watching.
The story wasn’t originally even told in past tense, it was just told in order. We were going to end with Paul Rudd turning to the camera as if he’s been talking to the camera the whole movie and say, "I told you it was going to be a crazy day." We still do have a scene where all of a sudden the camera pushes in and he says, "I told you it was going to be a crazy day," but that was originally the ending before we put in the framing device.
Sometimes ADR (re-recording dialog after filming) can be a very creative area where you can add a lot comedically. In They Came Together, we were re-stitching and restructuring reactions and inputs from actors and other people involved. When people are smart and they know how to tell stories, why would you just let yourself sit there unhelped?