When the initial idea that would become co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s directorial debut first came up, it was relatively small. Literally: it was a short film. But after Gordon and Lieberman, along with their creative partners Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, released the short film “Theatre Camp” online in 2020 to quick success, the group knew they had to make it bigger. Like, feature bigger.
Three years later, the quartet (pause here to untangle all the merits of this tight-knit group: Gordon and Lieberman also wrote the film with Platt and Galvin, while Gordon, Platt and Galvin starred in the film, and all four produced it; of Lieberman’s disinterest in acting, Platt recently told IndieWire, “Thank God there’s one of us who doesn’t want to act. He’s basically the one behind the camera”) previewed the version of “Theatre Camp” feature film at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it received rave reviews and a quick buy by Searchlight Pictures, who picked it up in the “high seven-figure range,” with a guaranteed theatrical release.
Both the short film and the feature film are based on a concept near and dear to all their hearts. Cleverly conceived as a mockumentary, ‘Theatre Camp’ picks up while our unnamed (and unseen) directors are just one day into production. Their plan: Follow a summer at “AdirondACTS,” an upstate New York theater camp run by beloved Joan (Amy Sedaris). When an ambitious strobe sends Joan into a coma, AdirondaACTS is thrust into the hands of a motley crew, including Gordon, Platt, Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri and Owen Thiele, for what threatens to be the last summer. High beats (and high notes) follow.
But while some directors might have a hard time turning a short into a feature, Gordon and Lieberman had no such problems. The film was shot in upstate New York over the course of about three weeks, a process Gordon called “absolutely insane,” but which was more than fruitful. Perhaps mashed potato fruitful.
“We have so much material for seven more movies that should never come out,” Gordon said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Nick and I, we had an archive of footage, just like a documentary, and we sat in a room every single day until 1 in the morning and on the weekends until the Sundance deadline, just trying to make it as tight as possible . That’s what kind of sucks about improv, is that some of the funniest stuff can’t actually be in the movie because it doesn’t make sense to the plot, but it’s the funniest stuff ever.”
The couple’s close collaboration, honed over years and years of friendship and creative work, came into play. “It’s falling in love with the idea that, OK, some of your favorite things aren’t going to be in the movie, some of the things you fought to get in there and have a job ultimately have no place in the movie you’re making,” Lieberman said “I think that’s where, being two of us and being so collaborative, helps. Some of the stuff that we cut out, I’d be like, ‘Oh, man, but this is so much fun. Can we lose this?’ and if we both said, ‘Yeah, let’s get rid of it,’ it was like, ‘OK, OK.’”
With the Sundance submission deadline looming over their heads, Gordon and Lieberman set out to break down their loved ones (Lieberman is also the film’s credited editor) and craft the best comedy possible. “We have reduced this film to its size. We were just playing, playing, playing for a while, and the movie was over three hours, and then we cut it down to basically an hour and a half in a week, a week and a half,” Lieberman said.
Added Gordon, “That David Fincher quote, ‘The movies aren’t done, they’re abandoned or they’ve been taken from you,’ has never run more true. Nick and I could have worked on it for the rest of our lives. We didn’t have time to go down the spirals. You can also get over it faster if it didn’t work out. It makes your skin tougher, so you just want to keep generating new ideas, rather than that we’re all sensitive artists, like’noooodon’t you like this joke?’”
OK yes, Some spirals, though. “The only spiral we’d ever go into is one of us would have an opinion, the other person would disagree, and then we’d convince each other for a while, and then we’d completely swap and have the same level of passion that argues for the other thing,” Lieberman said. “We always go in the same direction. … And whoever is right will be right, and that’s how we’ve always gone: the best idea wins. We’d look at the same denomination and both take our notes and we’d have the same 150 notes. Not just a couple alike, literally 150 were Exactly the same.”
(Even in a Zoom interview, Gordon and Lieberman naturally line up, quickly affirming each other with a “yes, yes” or “totally,” nodding to each other’s responses, finishing each other’s sentences. other.)
One reason they had so much good stuff: They improvised much of the film with their talented cast, which also includes a huge pool of young and first-time stars along with veterans. “We wrote a few lines, but I’d say 90 percent of the film is ad-libbed,” Gordon said. “We were really inspired by an outline of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and how it sets very clear boundaries for exactly what’s going to happen, but then all the stuff in between is the game. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of comedies as an actor, and you always end up with 20 minutes to play (when you shoot a scene) and then they end up using it all the time. I’ve always had this dream, why can’t the 20 minutes be the full movie?
He added with a laugh, “Then of course we wrote a whole musical, so we always knew we’d have that one as a finale to really land in.” (The film ends, of course, with the entire camp putting on a great show, a delicious icing on the cake of an already hugely entertaining film.)
Fun seems to be the watchword of the entire project. “Some of the actors that were coming[on set]were from busy jobs where you have to be perfect with your words,” Gordon said. “I was just talking to Ayo, and we were remembering that she was from ‘The Bear,’ and she was doing a very intense kitchen scene and then she came to us and she just played a fucking liar, a crazy person. She was like, ‘It was so fun to be free for a bit and then I was able to go back to this other world.’ It really felt like this should be part of our daily routine as artists, to go and have fun like this.
Lieberman added, “There’s also something so beautiful about creating an environment, or creating a situation, where every mistake that happens is an opportunity for the scene to go there, or to be commented on, and not a sense of like, ‘Oh, we blew it. OK, now let’s go back.'” Gordon chimed in, “Yeah, we rarely cut. We’ve always used the mistake as an opportunity to move the story in a different way.”
The mockumentary style also helped them keep things loose. “I think Nick and I have always had an obsession with vérité documentaries,” Gordon said. “That was a minor thing, not even connected to our love of comedy, but I think we’ve always had this dream of merging those two things. … You can really get close to your subjects, and theater people are so fucking crazy. We wanted it to be as real as possible, as they really are like thiss, and a mockumentary really lets you do that.
Gordon and Lieberman realize the film’s premise might not appeal to everyone, but they think they’ve accomplished something surprisingly universal. “I think our favorite reaction is when people say, ‘Oh, I thought I was going to hate it, but I actually loved it,’ because they think it’s a theater movie, but it’s so much more,” he said Gordon.
He referenced some of the film’s other big inspirations, such as ‘The Parent Trap’, ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ and ‘Jesus Camp’, although he added, ‘We really drew more from the realities of life rather than specific movie.” (For lifelong theater kids like Gordon, Lieberman, Platt, and Galvin, there was plenty of fertile ground to tread.)
That summer (not only Theater) The camp atmosphere also informed the look of the film, which helped draw in an audience that might not be so naturally inclined to watch a bunch of theater kids having a good time.
“We really wanted to make our visual feel of this film amazing. We wanted people to be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think this movie was going to be like this,’ but summer camp is the greatest time of your life, where you feel like anything is possible,” Gordon said. “It feels like being in a movie You’re like, ‘Am I going to kiss this guy tonight? Oh, no, he’s gay.’ It’s like the ride of life and we wanted it to visually resemble this nostalgic childhood time capsule.”
Once the movie was in its finished form (or, of course, as close as it gets finished how could that ever be), the pair had to do something even crazier than make it happen: watch the damn thing to a huge audience at Park City’s Eccles Theater.
“We hadn’t shown it publicly, we had done a screening of friends and family,” Lieberman said. “When the movie finished and we walked backstage, Molly said, ‘I got you, you’re good,’ and I knew I must be shaking so badly. In my mind, I felt like I was having a normal reaction, and I could see in Molly’s eyes that, in fact, I wasn’t having a normal reaction. We’d spent so many sleepless nights worrying about every tiny tiny moment (only to then) blow it up in front of everyone for the first time. We’ve never had something that either of us worked as hard on in our lives as we worked on this movie.
Even after the pair see the final cut that hits theaters this week Lieberman broke, they’re still pitching new ideas to each other. Yes, they tried to stop, really. “We’re still seeing that, saying, ‘Should we cut there? We have this other line,’” Gordon said with a laugh.
Searchlight Pictures will release “Theatre Camp” in theaters on Friday, July 14.