It hasn’t been since Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s “Good Will Hunting” that a group of actors (and true friends) have so happily picked up a film.
Two childhood friends, Tony winner Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and “The Bear” star Molly Gordon, along with Gordon’s “Booksmart” co-star Noah Galvin, plus Nick Lieberman, the their go-to video director, they spent the early days of the pandemic writing “Theatre Camp,” itself a version of their 2020 18-minute mockumentary of the same name. (Platt lovingly described the short on Zoom as a “very short zero dollars”, which comes to its charm.)
Platt, Gordon, and Galvin also starred in both the short (Platt-financed) and feature, while Lieberman directed the short and co-directed the feature with Gordon (whose parents, Bryan and Jessie Gordon, are both writer-directors) . The four are also all accredited producers. Let’s talk about DIY.
Platt and Lieberman have collaborated on improv and sketch comedy videos since they were just teenagers. “He’s like a vital voice in the group as a director and writer,” Platt told IndieWire. “And thank God there’s one of us who doesn’t want to perform. It’s basically what’s behind the camera.”
Gordon had long edited their material with Lieberman, Platt said, “and it made sense that they would collaborate and direct together.”
“It was a huge undertaking,” Galvin said on Zoom. “We had to shoot the film in 19 days. As well as having children who can only work four or five hours a day. Other than being in a remote place full of sweaty goose poo upstate New York City.
Since Platt and Gordon starred together like actual kids in musicals like ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’, there was no question as to what subject they would tackle. “Naturally, the world we chose to represent was theater,” Platt said, “because we love it so much. And we also felt that we could have a lot of fun.
“The crossroads of all four is our shared trauma and love of youth theater,” said Galvin, who is engaged to Platt. “And all of our collective experiences dealing with youth theater teachers and these people who take their work incredibly seriously. If Ben had to lean into every terrible bad quality in himself, he’d probably be a lot more like (his character) Amos.
“So you’re saying those qualities are in me?” Platt said. “They absolutely reside in you,” Galvin replied. “And Molly.”
After making it, the group decided to sit back on the short, waiting for the right time to expand it into a feature film. “We dreamed about what we could accomplish if we had a longer story,” Platt said. “And a little more money,” Galvin said. “We thought it might be proof of concept for something bigger.”
Era. During the pandemic, the gang decided to release the short film “Theatre Camp” on YouTube. “We didn’t know what the future held in terms of lives,” Galvin said. “But also business. And we thought, ‘He made us laugh. I hope it does for others.’”
They were amazed at the positive response. The message was clear: the feature film “Theatre Camp” was to be their next project. The quartet convened in Platt’s home (and on Zoom when they were otherwise working) to write the full-length musical comedy about two longtime camp counselors in upstate New York who take their tuition Very seriously (Piatt and Gordon). When the camp’s owner (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, they must contend with her incapacitated tech son (Jimmy Tatro), who threatens to sell the camp in shreds.
They know exactly what to do: “Let’s put on a show!”
The councilors, plus their longtime production manager (Galvin) and talented troupe of kids must make a benefit musical to raise enough money to save their beloved Adirondats. Creating the music book and songs for the film with Mark Sonnenblick was another challenge for the filmmakers, who allowed three days for musical performances.
A year later, Galvin presented the finished script to producer Jessica Elbaum of Will Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, who had encouraged him to write while filming “Booksmart.” He called Picturestart to support the project.
Galvin and Platt credit the pandemic for forcing them to call upon their own creative resources. “A lot of this activity is dictated by so many other things than just your skills,” Galvin said. “And it takes a lot to prove you’re an artist who can do many things. Everyone wants this business to simplify and make things easier for them, and many people find ways to do this by compartmentalizing and putting people into boxes. This has been an opportunity for us to capture our own narratives, create opportunities for ourselves, and showcase all of our strengths.”
Platt, who has thrived more on Broadway than in Hollywood films, can relate. “If you’re in a position to do something that really fills you up and is joyful and fulfilling and meaningful,” she said, “then that has to be the priority. We learned the hard way that you have to really prioritize this. Because I don’t think there’s anyone who’s going to look into this somewhat niche topic on paper, this little alternative comedy film – especially right now in the cinema landscape – and in our individual lanes of our careers they tell us to prioritize that. So we had to learn that it had to come to us putting it first. We feel so wonderfully lucky and grateful and vindicated that it has come to pass the way we always dreamed it could.
And the actor never expected his fantasy scenario for the film to come true: find someone to finance the film, whip it into a coherent narrative, get into Sundance – where “Theatre Camp” played to enthusiastic ovations – and sell to a major film distributor, Searchlight Pictures, who paid $8 million for the worldwide rights. “It’s about the shared live experience, the film,” Platt said, “the importance of family and friendship. Searchlight is so special about finding quirky, small, specific, warm stories and bringing them to life. We actually couldn’t believe it for a while.
And the other benefit the film provided was a showcase for Galvin (who, strangely, also played the lead role in the Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen,” just like her fiancé), who bursts into the musical finale in full drag – and full voice. Platt and Galvin added this conclusion to the script in the final weeks of preparation when the two directors were otherwise busy.
Platt knew exactly what Galvin could do, he said: “One of the joys of this was the discovery of his performance by the audience. Based on the short and what they’ve seen him do in the past, they probably have an idea of what they might expect from him. And he subverts those expectations and exceeds them. He was wonderful as an icing on the cake to have him partner with him.
Next: Galvin continues with “The Good Doctor,” while Platt ends its Broadway run with “Parade” on Aug. 6. He’s already shot the first sequence of Richard Linklater’s 18-year project “Merrily We Roll Along” (that first sequence was shot a second time, after Paul Mescal replaced Blake Jenner). The second will arrive at the end of the year. “It will be the second of nine,” Platt said. “Each one is about two or three years apart.”
Searchlight Pictures releases “Theatre Camp” in theaters on Friday, July 14.