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Summer Scamps

David Wain relives his camp days in Wet Hot American Summer.


Happy camper: David Wain reinterprets his past.
  • Happy camper: David Wain reinterprets his past.
Shaker Heights native David Wain stopped attending summer camp in Maine in 1986, after ascending to the rank of junior counselor, because he "didn't want to go to the next level and actually have to work all day." The irony is that for Wet Hot American Summer, based on his childhood experiences at camp, he did all of the work, co-writing, co-producing, and directing the film.

The movie, which opens Friday at Shaker Square Cinemas, is Wain's first feature, but he is no newcomer to the workload or his audience. Almost the day they graduated from New York University's film school, he and co-conspirator Michael Showalter created The State, a sketch comedy show that aired on MTV for two years in the early 1990s.

"We were so young, and they handed the reins of the show over entirely," Wain recalls. "We didn't know anything, so we ended up writing, directing, editing, performing, and producing our own show. It was insane."

Advance reviews of American Summer have labeled it a parody, largely because it is set in 1981, a year when camp movies like Meatballs were the film du jour. But Wain is adamant that it is not a spoof -- though there is a brief homage to Bill Murray, who played the activities director at Meatballs' Camp Sasquatch.

"I liked the camp movies, but it was far more directly inspired by going to camp," Wain says. "We wanted to do a huge, funny story with lots of characters, and camp just seemed like the perfect time and 1981 like the perfect year -- the '70s were over, the '80s were just starting, and people in my generation were trying to figure out what was going on."

American Summer takes place on the last day of an eight-week stint at Camp Firewood in Maine. While a local astrophysics expert is trying to save the campground from an errant chunk of Skylab hurtling from space, the counselors are trying to organize a talent show -- and hook up with members of the opposite sex in a last-ditch effort to vent feelings that have been pent up all summer.

"You've been through this whole experience, and then everything happens the last day," Wain says of camp life. "That's what this movie is about."

Wain does admit that most of the situations are more how he imagined things should have been, but there "is at least one incident in the film that is exactly my real-life experience. It involves a guy who crashes a van on the way home from a campsite in order to see a girl. That was me." The Skylab situation harks back to the summer of '79, when the NASA space station was falling back to Earth, and "when we were at camp, we were very scared that it was going to hit us."

"It's a lot of fantasy wish-fulfillment," Wain admits. "But it's mostly a lot of stupid jokes."

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