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David Wain Talks Improv, Working With Judd Apatow & The Value Of Test Screening 'Wanderlust'

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by Jeff Otto
February 24, 2012 11:03 AM
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On paper, “Wanderlust” probably looks like your standard high concept romantic comedy. Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd are two New Yorker’s displaced by job loss who decide to go on the road and figure out what to do with their lives. They wind up on a rural commune called Elysium where the conventions of modern living and societal standards have been thrown out the window. Hijinks ensue. But for those in the know who’ve been following the career of David Wain and his group of pals since they first turned heads on the MTV sketch comedy show "The State" in the mid-‘90s, the humor of “Wanderlust” is probably a little bit stranger than your standard rom-com. Wain’s comedic sensibilities stray a little more towards the avant-garde than modern movie audiences might expect.

With 2008’s “Role Models,” along with co-writers Ken Marino and Paul Rudd, Wain was finally able to find the right balance of his own unique brand of humor with the more conventional mainstream. Wain and co-writer Ken Marino hope to repeat that feat on “Wanderlust,” which would then allow the duo to return to their roots for a long-rumored sequel (or possibly prequel) to their beloved 2000 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.”

The Playlist spoke with David Wain this week about “Wanderlust,” and process Wain went through from teaming on the script with Ken Marino, to the challenges of screening a film with test audiences.

1. Being Locked In A Room With Ken Marino
For what ultimately became the 2007 film “The Ten,” David Wain and Ken Marino decided to lock themselves in a room until they had a new idea. It worked pretty well, so they decided to revisit the process for “Wanderlust.” ‘The Ten’ is the movie where we came up with the idea of locking ourselves in a room for seven days, 12 hours a day and then come up with an idea, outline it and write a draft by the end of the seven days so we have something to start from,” Wain tells The Playlist. “With ‘Wanderlust,’ pretty much on the first day we forced ourselves to lock in on the idea that became what it is now. We outlined and wrote the draft. There isn’t that much more to the story. The draft we wrote that very first week changed every day until the final cut and color correct of the film. But a lot of what was in that first draft did make it to the final film.”

2. Just Getting Away From it All
The concept for “Wanderlust” was born out of the idea of escaping the modern world. Wain admits he often finds himself a slave to our modern technological world. “I am emailing and watching Tivo as we speak,” says Wain. “This is a time where more and more I’m having those moments of fantasy [thinking] couldn’t there be a completely different life? When I visited a Kibbutz in Israel and saw them living communally there I remember thinking, ‘That’s not so crazy. It’s kinda great.’ And when we did research for this movie, I was very excited to have a similar feeling like, 'Man, maybe we’re the weird ones, you know?' You forget that, if you’re me, age 42, I grew up in a time that had so much change in technology and stuff to distract. You really did do things one at a time. It’s hard to imagine now that, when we were kids, if the phone rang and you weren’t home, then you just called back.”

Although Wain and Marino didn’t actually spend time on a commune, they did research the many varieties and ideas that go into such a radical alternative lifestyle. “It was a combination of many experiences and ideas that we wanted to do. We had also recently watched again one of my favorite movies, 'Together,' which is a British movie from 2000 about a commune in the ‘70s. This notion of a group of people going against the grain and trying to do something different has always been appealing to me and, to some degree, has been present in all of my movies.”

The production shot in the rural Georgia mountains, which Wain says created a more close-knit relationship for the cast and crew. “It was particularly a relief for Jen because she’s such an object of attention for paparazzi. And everyone got away from their regular lives, far away from any city," he said. "That’s what Elysium is about. We were saved from being near all those distractions and it really was a cool thing. It helped the cast and crew really bond and it really infused the movie with a sense of fun. We wanted something that had a feeling related to how we did ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ where we’re all in this remote place with a bunch of people together being funny and having fun.”

"Wanderlust"
3. Joining Team Apatow
Wain first cast longtime pal Paul Rudd in the lead role as George, not exactly a surprise considering Rudd has starred in all of Wain’s feature work. But Rudd’s casting also helped land Jennifer Aniston as Linda, the leading lady. Rudd worked with Aniston on 1998’s “The Object of My Affection” and the two have remained friends ever since. Rudd’s involvement also helped get the attention of Judd Apatow, who loved the script and agreed to come aboard as as producer. “He brought so much to the process,” Wain says of Apatow. “He helped us so much with the script and helped us hone in on what the core of it is and different ways to make it funnier. We brought him into the process for the express purpose of really being a creative partner on it. He pushed us to do our best work and he obviously helped us interface with the studio and the marketing. He helped us with every area of the process.”

4. It Ain’t All Improv
Working with such a talented group of improv comedians for so many years, it’s often assumed that everything you see in a David Wain movie is completely off the cuff. We asked Wain if it ever bothers him that people think all the funniest lines were just unscripted improv. “It doesn’t bother me because I feel if people are talking about it at all I’m in the lucky minority. If asked, I will correct people. The fact that what we do seems so off the cuff is, to me, a big compliment. And it just happens to be the case that there is far less improv in a lot of what we do than you might think. Although with ‘Wanderlust,’ we did a lot more improv than any previous project.”

5. Audience Expectations & The Necessary Evil Of Test Screenings
Some audience members might be a little surprised and off-put by Wain and Co.’s unique and often raunchy brand of humor. Especially those expecting the usual run-of-the-mill Jennifer Aniston rom-com. “I think it’s always a trap to second guess the audience in any direction,” says Wain. “You just have to do your thing and hope that there’s an audience for it. I think the more you try to predict what’s mainstream you get into trouble. The only letter that I really try to follow is, does it feel right, does it feel true to the story I’m trying to tell? And then leave the rest to the audience. On a practical level, we do have test screenings that help us get a sense of how far off we are or not.”

Wain admits he’s not particularly in love with the test screening process, but he does see its necessity. “I don’t love doing it that much. But when a studio’s spending millions of dollars, you can’t just do the work in a vacuum. I absolutely recognize its value. It’s stressful and its disheartening sometimes thinking how much power is given to a group of people in a theater somewhere to affect the final film. But there really is no other way to do it and it’s important to get a sense of how audiences are responding. The trick is to take that research and use it properly and not just blindly follow it.”

“Wanderlust” opens in theaters nationwide today.

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