Sundance 2014: David Wain spoofs rom-coms in “They Came Together”

The film “Wet Hot American Summer” is now something of a Sundance prototype, an unexpected surprise that seemed to catch many young talents at the beginning of their careers. When it played Sundance in 2001, such performers as Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler were far from household names. The film was the feature directing debut for David Wain, who also co-wrote the script with Michael Showalter.

Wain is back in Park City this week for the world premiere Friday night of “They Came Together,” again co-wriitten with Showalter. Starring Rudd and Poehler along with a few other “Wet Hot” alum and newer faces such as Cobie Smulders and Max Greenfield, the film gleefully lifts the bones of the storyline to “The Shop Around The Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail” in spoofing romantic comedies. Poehler runs a small candy store in New York City that becomes threatened by the candy conglomerate Rudd works for. Without knowing their opposing positions, they meet and fall for each other.

“They Came Together” looks like it does for romantic comedies what “Wet Hot American Summer” did to the summer-camp movie, equal parts affectionate and knowing jab while also making space for oddball asides.

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“I don’t know that we were thinking in exactly those terms,” said Wain of whether the new film was a conscious follow-up. “I think we were saying we just wanted to do our look at rom-coms, a ‘Mad Magazine’ look at rom-coms, doing something in that genre in our voice. And certainly ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ is an example of doing something in our voice.”

Wain and Showalter wrote the original story many years ago when they were pitching ideas as a follow-up to “Wet Hot American Summer.” Then a couple of years ago when they did a radio-show reading of “Wet Hot” at the San Francisco Sketchfest comedy festival with much of the original cast, the next morning they also did a reading of “They Came Together.” They partly just wanted to hear aloud the project that had long been on the shelf, but everyone liked it so much they decided to focus on it anew.

The film was shot in summer 2012 based around the extremely busy schedules of Poehler and Rudd. Then because of Wain’s schedule with his television show “Children’s Hospital” he had to postpone finishing the film until recently.

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Among the most frequent questions now in Sundance Q&As, especially at comedies, is how much improvisation was done in making the film, because in the post-Apatow world, many filmmakers let their actors riff off-script to see what funny one-liners emerge.

“Perhaps compared to some of our peers, we are actually less improv-oriented than it may seem,” said Wain. “Actually on a movie like this, as on ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ we’re working on such a tight budget and schedule, we don’t have time for the kinds of improvs that have become fashionable in comedy films lately… We did some of that, but we had to do a lot of decision-making, ‘you know what, what’s on the page is good and we gotta keep going.’ ”

Among the hurdles facing Wain and “They Came Together” is that potential audiences may arrive thinking they are seeing a straightforward romantic comedy starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. One day of reshoots were done to create a framing device in which Rudd and Poehler’s characters tell another couple (Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper) their story over dinner, positioning the film more clearly, as Wain put it, “in quotes.”

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“It does create a challenge for us to not mislead an audience into thinking it’s a quote-unquote real romantic comedy,” he said. “Paul and Amy easily could star in a legitimate romantic comedy.

“Ultimately the goal is not to make a statement about genre or anything like that. The goal is to entertain and make people laugh and tell a fun story. And the guiding principle to that end was that we really do on some level follow and get involved in the relationship. And I think the way you do that is casting Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. For my money it really does both, it undercuts it while also allowing you to root for them to get together.”


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