David Wain has a perfectly plausible explanation for the origin of “Wanderlust,” his new comedy about an out-of-work New York couple who find refuge in an unconventional commune.
As a longtime New Yorker with a wife, two young sons and a too-small apartment he can barely afford, “Wanderlust” was a place for him to channel recession-era gallows humor and a pervasive, longstanding feeling of: Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?
“That whole setup is right out of our experiences,” Wain said recently. “The only big difference, luckily, at the moment, is that I have not lost my income. So far.”
His colleagues have their own theories about why a utopian satire might appeal to him. “Knowing Dave so well,” said Ken Marino, his “Wanderlust” co-writer, “he’s constantly doing 70 things at one time. I think he has these fantasies of running away from it all and relaxing.”
It’s true that Wain’s resume offers few clues about where his employment anxieties might stem from. In a given month he is usually shuttling between producing duties on “Childrens Hospital,” the absurdist Adult Swim comedy (whose cast includes Marino) about an inept medical team, and “Wainy Days,” an online series about his fictional dating life.
He is also the director of two independent comedies, including the 2001 cult movie “Wet Hot American Summer.” “Wanderlust,” opening Friday, stars KC’s Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston and is his first studio movie since “Role Models,” a surprise 2008 hit that starred Rudd and Seann William Scott as irresponsible men making the best of a Big Brothers-like program.
Amid tough times Wain has carved out his own piece of comedy turf, sometimes going against the grain of the film industry and without surrendering an idiosyncratic and silly style he developed on the long-ago MTV sketch series “The State.”
Now his mainstream track record is about to be tested with “Wanderlust,” which hopes to find topical humor in this era of downturn and Occupy Everything. For Wain this has created uncertainty about how to define his own success and whether to root for an economic rebound or the continuing relevance of his film.
“There’s lines in the script,” Wain said, “where we’re like: Is this going to make sense when she says, ‘even in a recession,’ and ‘in this economy’?”
Without having to acknowledge the hesitant state of the current recovery Wain quietly added: “So. Yay?”
Over breakfast one recent Saturday at a Studio City cafe, Wain, a balding but boyish man of 42, projected a low-key calm as he was winding down work on a new season of “Childrens Hospital” and gearing up for a directing assignment on the Fox comedy “New Girl.”
Though he seems extraordinarily busy now, Wain could remember several less productive years that came after his time on “The State,” which connected him in the 1990s to future collaborators like Marino, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black.
“The State” had its following and helped open doors for Wain, but in pitch meetings the answer he said he heard most often was: “We love you guys — now do something else,” or “We just don’t care.”
With Showalter, Wain wrote “Wet Hot American Summer,” a summer-camp comedy that featured Rudd, Marino and future stars Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper. Produced for under $2 million, the film grossed less than $300,000 in its initial release and took about a decade to break even. “We now get profit checks,” Wain said. “Usually under $100.”
For Rudd the low-budget affair was a crash course in Wain’s ability to keep cool under pressure.
“Out of 28 days of shooting,” Rudd recalled, “25 of them it was pouring rain, and all of our stuff was being shot outside. We had no money, and we were on a schedule, and I think any other director would be absolutely freaking out and even affecting the cast.”
He added, “David kept all of that from us, and he got very creative and figured things out.”
A few years later Wain teamed up with Marino to write “The Ten,” an anthology of comic vignettes inspired by the Ten Commandments, which was released in 2007 and did not fare well at the box office either. But the two men learned that by more or less locking themselves in a room for a week and forcing themselves to write, they could at least come up with a viable script. And it is a process they say they have repeated on subsequent projects.
This was an especially valuable lesson on “Role Models,” which Wain was brought in to direct and rewrite with Marino about two months before filming started. With a script infused with strangely quotable lines (and a running gag about a song that may or may not be part of Paul McCartney’s catalog), “Role Models” sold $92 million in tickets at the worldwide box office and effectively erased Wain’s underwhelming indie record.
“Even though I had been directing for 20 years up until then, none of that counted because none of it was in that major league,” Wain said. “For all intents and purposes that was my first time directing, and that was a success.”
What the film ultimately did, Marino said, was to invite the widest audience yet into “that David Wain universe that he’s created over the years.”
“He plays both ends of the highbrow-lowbrow thing,” Marino added. “He does dumb jokes but in a very smart way.”
Wain said he was underwhelmed with the projects he was offered after “Role Models.” (“This movie is really raunchy, so it’s right up David Wain’s alley,” he said.) Instead he gravitated back to an idea he and Marino had been playing with for several years, drawn from their mutual love of “Together,” Lukas Moodysson’s 2000 comedy-drama about a Swedish commune in the 1970s.
“You always fantasize about: Could I just pick up and completely do something else?” Wain said. “Who says you have to go to a job, and who says you have to earn money? Who says you have to have a bathroom with a door? All these things are societal assumptions, and how far can you go with that?”
In revising “Wanderlust” he and Marino excised a subplot in which Rudd’s character, a suddenly unemployed corporate type, journeys to his parents’ condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., and focused on the dilemma of both husband and wife, who each fall in and out of love with the hippie life that embraces them.
Taking a cue from the film’s producer Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”), whose own directing process relies on ad-libbing and reams of dialogue options, Wain shot numerous versions of each scene and varying trajectories for his main characters, a strategy that was new to some cast members.
“You had to be prepared to play two different aspects of your character, two different intentions sometimes, per day,” said Aniston, who had previously acted with Rudd on “Friends” and in “The Object of My Affection.” “Who am I? Am I the one who’s enjoying this and thinks it’s wonderful, or am I the one who disapproves? Just to cover all of our moral bases. It keeps you on your improvisational toes, for sure.”
What ended up on the cutting room floor, Aniston suggested, could make for a very lively but very different DVD release of “Wanderlust” than the version that will play in theaters. “Well, I got into bed with three women, although that didn’t make it onto the screen,” she said. “That was a new one.”
Though many of Wain’s signature touches are on display in “Wanderlust” (as are “State” alumni like Kerri Kenney-Silver and Joe Lo Truglio in supporting roles), the director said he knows the film required an underlying heart not necessarily seen in projects like “Childrens Hospital.”
“One is far, far more absurd, but that’s just a dial that I can turn,” Wain said. “A mainstream feature and a cult 15-minute comedy series are very different platforms, and yet they share a lot. I would like to think my voice is loud in both.”
What comes next for Wain will depend on the critical and box office responses to “Wanderlust,” but he is already preparing a “Childrens Hospital” spinoff, “Newsreaders,” about a fictional “60 Minutes”-style show.
Naturally his escapist tendencies were pushing him toward a “Wet Hot American Summer” prequel, which he would write with Showalter and cast with the original performers. In the first film, Wain said, “they were already 10 years too old.” Now “they’ll be 42 playing 16,” he said. “I think that alone should drive the comedy.”