There is quite a bit of history between the team behind “Theater Camp,” a loving satire of musical theater kids and their teachers that opens in theaters Friday.
Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin and Nick Lieberman are all, first and foremost, theater kids themselves. They’re also longtime friends. Lieberman has been making things with Platt since they were in high school. Galvin and Gordon are best friends and did a play together about a decade ago. And Galvin and Platt are currently engaged.
It’s Platt and Gordon’s relationship that stretches back the furthest, though. Both children of parents in the entertainment industry, they’ve been friends since they were 3 years old.
“I was deeply in love with him,” Gordon laughed in an interview with her collaborators during the Sundance Film Festival. “He came out to me and didn’t want to be with me, but I still tried for years.”
The ins and outs of all of their collaborations, musical workshops, web series, comedy videos and hours improvising would require a flow chart to process fully. But what it boils down to is when the four found each other, they didn’t want to let go.
About five years ago, they found themselves with a moment between projects and decided that they would finally do something together. So they “stole” some kids from Galvin’s old performing arts high school in Manhattan and put together a short film about a musical theater camp.
“It seemed like the most natural world for us to jump off the ledge into together as this comedy collective for the first time,” Platt said. “We all felt like it really suited us tonally and emotionally. It was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to make. (The short) was a quite a janky, very fast, very, very, very cheap, quick little moment. But it definitely set off an alarm in all of us.”
A few years would go by before they got the greenlight for the feature, helped by Picturestart and Topic Studios, as well as Jessica Elbaum, of Will Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, who’d gotten to know Gordon and Galvin during “Booksmart.”
“I’m such a nerd, so I knew who Jessica was,” Gordon said. “We got lunch one day and she said ‘I feel like you want more than this. I feel like you want to write things.’ She’s done that to Noah too. She’s really good at spotting people who want more.”
“Theater Camp” is the feature debut for Gordon and Lieberman. They all wrote the screenplay, and everyone but Lieberman acts in the film. The premise is that a documentary crew has come to make a film about a crumbling but beloved upstate New York camp, AdirondACTS, run by Amy Sedaris’ character. In the first few minutes she has a seizure, and her son, a finance bro (Jimmy Tatro), steps in to try to run the camp. Gordon and Platt play camp teachers and former students, while Galvin is a techie with unsung talents.
“We don’t often give a voice to the tech people,” Galvin said.
Nearly all of the scenarios in the film are based on things that have happened to them or stories they’ve heard from friends.
“Theater is a world of people who are so absurd and in their own worlds. You can get away with them doing things that are ridiculous,” Lieberman said. “But you also want to find a way to ground it.”
“The Bear” breakout Ayo Edebiri — nominated this week for an Emmy — plays a new hire, who tries to hide the fact that she has no experience teaching musical theater.
“We all have moments with teachers who are so formative and meaningful and also, like, wildly absurd,” Platt said.
Though all the 20-somethings have been in the business for most of their lives, making “Theater Camp” was still a baptism by fire in some ways. They only had 19 days to shoot, which they did last summer at a defunct camp in upstate New York, and then had to feverishly edit the film to get a cut to Sundance in time for this year’s festival. This was made more complicated by the fact that “Theater Camp” was also largely improvised.
“There’s about 47 different versions of this movie. Some of them are bad, some of them are good,” Gordon said. “But like Christopher Guest edits for a year!”
Still the set was a joyous place and all took care to make sure it was a fun experience, especially for their young co-stars. Some of their favorite moments ever were at school performances and theater camps and they wanted to recreate that.
“It felt like being in a real theater program,” Gordon said. “Even if they messed up, that could be turned into a beautiful moment. I think everyone was scared when we were pitching this movie. How are the kids going to improvise? And they improvised around all of us. They were amazing.”
The truth and history in “Theater Camp” runs deep, from real footage of Platt and Gordon performing together as kids, up through some more dramatic elements in which the co-dependent friends have a fight.
“I just felt totally, completely free to be intense and unlikable and funny and weird and all of the things necessary in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced,” Platt said. “We’ve all been part of things where the making of it just really didn’t live up to what the project was. And even if it came out beautifully, there was something either challenging or difficult about the making of it. The fact that people can look back on this experience separate from the product and be like, ‘This was so fun and I’m going to remember this positively’ is the best thing.”
The film premiered to positive reviews at Sundance earlier this year and was quickly acquired by Searchlight Pictures for a theatrical release in the summer — the ideal scenario. But the making was already a peak.
“There will never be another quite like it,” Platt said.