Amid a full slate of summer blockbusters, Searchlight Pictures brings to the big screen a small, ensemble-driven comedy called Theater Camp. Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, making their feature directorial debuts, the film had its start as a 2020 short film co-starring Gordon and Dear Evan Hanson’s Ben Platt. They reprise their roles in the feature as Rebecca-Diane and Amos, two teachers struggling to keep their financially struggling camp theater camp afloat after its longtime director falls into a coma. Stepping into his mother’s shoes is the director’s clueless but well-meaning son, Troy (“American Vandal” breakout Jimmy Tatro), the lone bro in a sea of precocious theater kids.
The “theater kid” may be a pretty specific cultural niche, but stories like this one—a team of misfits bands together to save something important to them—have universal appeal, made evident in this case when Theater Camp won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for best ensemble at the 2023 edition of Sundance. A warm, crowd-pleasing comedy, Theater Camp debuts in domestic theaters on July 14. In advance of its release, Gordon and Lieberman spoke with Boxoffice PRO about creating a theatrical comedy fit for a wide audience—including those who think Hamilton is just a township in New Jersey.
Can you walk me through the process of remaking your original short film as a feature? You have a concept that works, and characters that work—how do you enlarge it to feature-length size in a way that maintains the spirit of the short?
Molly Gordon: It was daunting. We never wanted people to watch it and go, “Oh God, it could have just been a short,” right? That’s the worst possible thing. But the method and spirit that went into the short, we tried to bring into the feature, the spirit of wanting to create opportunities for our friends to stretch themselves, and [create] roles specifically for them where they would get to feel free and get to play in a way that maybe they haven’t in other jobs.
Nick Lieberman: Using improvisation and letting the comedy come out of the situations, but then really giving room to the actors to see where a scene goes and generate their own dialogue.
And then, you know, also, the world of the theater is really what we brought over. We knew that this was going to be a different portrait of that same world, which is a world that we know really well. So that was easy. The film is just the tip of the iceberg of crazy theater class and theater camp stories, in our experience.
Molly Gordon: The arts are the first thing to go when funding gets pulled, and that was a core thing about our short that was also really important to us. It was about how important the arts are and what people will do to keep their job in the arts. Because people that work in the arts, they’re not there for the money. They’re there because they love it. And we wanted to bring that over to the feature: the instability of an artist’s life and how important creative havens are for young people.
I was never a theater kid in high school. I was a debate kid. Still, some of the debate club kids had this very intense, obsessive focus. It made Theater Camp relatable to me, even though I was never into that scene.
Molly Gordon: That’s the goal. We want to bring it out of everybody.
Whether it’s seeing a play or seeing a film in the theater, being part of a live audience is a huge part of the experience. Molly, as someone with a background in theater, how is performing onstage different from, for example, Theater Camp debuting at Sundance?
Molly Gordon: I mean, inside of my body it’s a pretty similar Jewish anxiety. When you’re performing in a show, it’s this one-night experience, and you’re only going to do it that way that night. Whoever saw it that night—it’s this beautiful connection you have with the audience.
With Theater Camp, we shot it, and then we have this archive of footage that we manipulated to create this thing that’s going to play in movie theaters. And the audience will have a connection with it, but it is also so different, because theater is this one-night-only thing and [Theater Camp] is obviously going to continue to run in a different way.
Nick Lieberman: Yeah, it’s definitely weird to think about all the situations in which people will be experiencing this movie and we won’t be there. That’s an interesting part of it: You’re making this machine that can operate without you even being present.
Molly Gordon: And we’ve been so close to it, but we actually just finished working on it yesterday. To think that we’re not going to be a part of it anymore and it doesn’t belong to us is thrilling, but sad, too.
What was the final stuff you were working on?
Molly Gordon: We were just reworking it a bit. We shot it over the summer. We edited it in about two minutes, and then we went to Sundance. It’s been beautiful, now that we’ve had some audience reactions, to get to do a little bit of a polish. Nothing big. It’s ready to be seen now; we just needed to do a couple of oil changes.
Can you talk a bit about that process of screening for audience reactions? What did you take out of the experience?
Nick Lieberman: Well, we’d only really shown it once before, as part of the process, before our actual premiere at Sundance. So we were sitting there freaking out, just trying to figure out what was working and what wasn’t working, all while being 10 feet above our heads floating in space. Getting through that initial exposure therapy of having it in front of an audience and starting to see it with other groups, you definitely realize, “OK, this thing that was feeling really good to us just isn’t quite hitting. Then, this thing that we really felt still insecure about is working.”
I don’t know. Every audience is different, and the timing of when they respond is different. That’s one of the things that’s nice about tuning up a movie: you have a control case, which is that the movie isn’t changing, so you can see how different audiences laughing at different moments affects different laughs. We’d just never in our lives gotten the chance to expose [our work] this much to this many people and be in the room. We’re so intense and anal-retentive about our comedy, so it’s really nice to be able to keep trying to drill it.
As first-time feature directors, how concerned were you with where the film would eventually be seen by audiences? Were you like, “We want this to be screened theatrically. That’s a hard line,” or was it more, “We’ll see what happens”?
Molly Gordon: We’ve always dreamed of theatrical. It doesn’t feel like many people get that opportunity anymore, so it felt like maybe our dream wouldn’t be a reality. But this movie came out of being inspired by seeing movies in a theater as children. I remember seeing Anchorman when I was too young—and throwing up I was laughing so hard. It was the craziest experience of my life, having that communal laughter. We dreamed that it could happen, and we feel so grateful that it’s going to.
The whole movie is about people getting together and kind of bouncing off each other’s energy. For people not to have access to that communal experience while watching it, that would be sad.
Nick Lieberman: Totally. We’ve tried to include all these different strands that we’re interested in—obviously theater, and our background in children’s theater. And some of our favorite people, that Molly, in particular, is close to—comedians that are doing really strange, avant garde live comedy that is wonderful. Jimmy Tatro does his concerts all over. [We didn’t want to] create something that just exists in an online ecosystem, but something that is built around people who are comfortable performing, comfortable performing live, and have a wide range of audiences that respond to them, not just on streaming platforms but also in real life.
That sounds like it opens the door to some really funny improv. How much footage do you have that you didn’t use?
Molly Gordon: We have so much footage. We have not seen all of our footage. We hope that we can own it one day and get to watch all of it, because so much of the funniest stuff isn’t even in the movie, because it makes no sense for the story: Ayo [Edebiri] and Jimmy [Tatro] riffing about something that is just the best thing I’ve ever seen but is not about a theater camp. So I hope we can continue to [release content from] this movie for a long time, because there are such great gems that we’re still discovering.
Molly, you spoke about a moviegoing experience that was important to you growing up. Nick, is there a standout cinema memory for you? What’s the earliest movie you remember seeing in a theater?
Nick Lieberman: Going to the movie theater was always such a core part of my life. The first movie I ever saw in the movie theater was Babe. I was really into it, though I think I was also really amazed by how many [different kinds of] people were there.
I was at a screening of The Wizard of Oz, and there were a bunch of parents in the audience with young kids who had clearly never seen the movie before. And seeing them react to it made me fall in love with the movie all over again. It terrified them! That movie is scary!
Nick Lieberman: Totally. It’s really thrilling to think that that was 84 years ago, and it’s just as thrilling now. It’s pretty amazing.
Do you go to the cinema a lot?
Molly Gordon: We’ve been inside for a year working on this movie, so I think this was the least amount of time we’ve ever spent in a movie theater. But Nick and I love movie theaters. We’re just big supporters of them and never want it to be a thing that isn’t happening anymore.
Well, we’re getting to summer movie season, so you’ll have a lot of options. Huge tentpoles, but smaller stuff, too.
Nick Lieberman: Like our little camp movie.
Molly Gordon: It’s such an exciting summer for cinema. I hope we all feed off of each other, and we all go to the movies. There are huge movies like Oppenheimer and Barbie, and then there’s us. So many little-movies-that-could, and big movies. I hope we all go to see all of them. That’s the dream.
Nick Lieberman: More people are back in that weekly habit of [asking], “What’s on?” because there’s something that’s actually going to be worthy every week. Not to say that there haven’t been great movies that have come out the last few years, but obviously the pace and the restrictions have made it hard.
So you finished the film last night, after working on it in some form for six years. You’re beginning to let go of something that was such a huge part of your life for years. How does that feel?
Molly Gordon: You’re the start of it, Rebecca. We’re letting it go. I think it’s going to be a comedown, but we all feel really grateful that it happened. It’s been such a long road. But I don’t know, I’m probably going to be sad for a couple of weeks, and then it’ll be OK.
Nick Lieberman: It’s like, “You’re done.” And then you’re not done. There’s always something more to do on helping the movie reach an audience and advocate for it and just keep it going. So, while we can sign our little names in the corner and send it off to be potentially exhibited, we’re still in the thick of it. Maybe in like two months, we’ll have a different answer to that question.
I feel like this is the sort of movie that people are going to keep discovering. There are so many funny individual performances. You could keep finding new things on every viewing.
Molly Gordon: We’ve watched it now, like, 60 times, and random things are still tickling us. There are gems in a rewatch that we hope people will find throughout the years. We’re hopeful that it’ll have a life beyond this summer. Obviously, we drew inspiration from Wet Hot [American Summer] and Christopher Guest movies, which we found [years after they came out]. So that’s the hope.
Nick Lieberman: Definitely. Especially with improv, there’s a lot of stuff—a little aside or a little moment or a look or something—that we only found deep into the editing process. Like, “OK, that’s my new favorite thing in this scene.” We’re excited about that.
Molly Gordon: All we’re focused on right now is making anyone see it. One person seeing it!
It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser. It’s a fun movie, even if you’re not into theater.
Nick Lieberman: We should put that quote on the poster: “If you literally hate theater, if you do not ever want to know another thing about theater—this could still work!”
It reminds me of something Greta Gerwig said about Barbie—that even if you hate Barbies, this movie’s for you. It’s critiquing its subject matter, but it’s coming from a place of love.
Molly Gordon: Totally. We were given the advice going into making it that the more specific we make it, the more universal it will feel. I’m not obsessed with watching baseball, but a movie about baseball where the characters are so juicy, and the world is so interesting—I can find my way into it. I think Nick and I get the most happy when someone hates theater and thinks this movie is OK. We’re like, “Yes! We did it!”
As someone who dislikes sports and loves sports movies, I agree.
Nick Lieberman: Totally. We found some Jimmy-esque guys on YouTube that were reviewing it and were like, “Honestly, surprisingly, this kind of rules.” OK, we will absolutely take that from you. That’s the biggest endorsement we could get.
SIDEBAR: Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman at the Movies
Finally, I always like to ask: What are your movie theater concessions of choice?
Molly Gordon: I’m the queen of “I don’t want anything,” and then eating everyone’s popcorn and everyone’s everything. I love it all. But any sort of chocolate. I like to put M&Ms in my popcorn.
Nick Lieberman: Definitely popcorn. I do like sour candy of some kind. Maybe a sour Skittle. I am partial to Dibs as well, even though I was raised not eating dairy. Somehow my one dairy vice was Dibs.