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Freaks and Geeks of the Theatrical Persuasion: Todd Graff Talks About “Camp”

Freaks and Geeks of the Theatrical Persuasion: Todd Graff Talks About "Camp"

Freaks and Geeks of the Theatrical Persuasion: Todd Graff Talks About “Camp”

by Tommy Nguyen

Filmmaker Todd Graff (left) talks with “Camp” co-star Daniel Letterle on the set of the film. Image courtesy IFC Films.

You can imagine director Todd Graff dropping his jaw when studio executives started to suggest changes to his script for “Camp.” Instead of having a group of mostly gay boys as the main characters in a film about a summer theater camp, couldn’t all the boys tell the same tale just by being, say, Trekkies?

“You guys are equating being 15 years old and knowing that you’re gay with being a fan of ‘Star Trek’?” Graff recalls saying. One of the executives responded, “Hey, Trekkies have a very tough time. It’s not easy.”

But who said anything about tough times? The whole point of the film’s Camp Ovation — which is based on the real Stagedoor Manor summer camp located in upstate New York — is that young drama-club freaks, gay or otherwise, have a place to explore and express the beautiful attributes of their lives. At Camp Ovation, the kids do it with a song, a dance, a lot of back-stabbing and flirtations — the rehearsed perfection of all these elements will eventually give these kids the last laugh. As Graff puts it, “The line between nerdy and cool is a matter of enough time passing.”

Patience. That’s good advice not only for teenage freaks and geeks, but also for a mid-life Hollywood screenwriter, who dabbles in a bit of self-deprecation when mentioning such past works as “Angie” and “The Beautician and the Beast” (though I sort of enjoyed his first studio film, “Used People”). With “Camp,” Graff can finally feel cool again about writing movies, proving himself as a director with a distinct feel for graceful absurdities. He waited more than five years for the film to find funding, ultimately through the triumvirate of Jersey Films, Killer Films, and IFC Films, companies with the demonstrated cojones to take on the harsh, gritty and, yes, often gay reality of inchoate musical theater divas.

With a young and predominantly non-professional cast, songbook numbers ranging from “Dreamgirls” to “Follies” (along with a few original songs by Michael Gore of “Fame” fame), choreography by Jerry Mitchell of “Hairspray,” and a startling piece of manna from the heavens (“Camp” marks Stephen Sondheim’s first cameo appearance in a feature film), production began in the summer of 2002 and shot for 23 days at Stagedoor Manor, where Graff stayed three years as a camper and two as a counselor. indieWIRE contributor Tommy Nguyen spoke to Graff about “Camp,” which IFC Films releases on Friday.

indieWIRE: At the screening I attended, a bunch of stuffy New York film journalists and critics were laughing heartily at the film’s references to such plays as “Buried Child,” “Wit,” and “Midnight Sun.” Sure, it’s a riot that the kids at this camp would be performing such plays, but it’s even more of a riot for audience members who know these plays. How did you go about striking a balance when it came to the specificity of the film’s humor?

Todd Graff: There were probably 12 people at that screening — you can’t make a film for 12 people. I think that for people who don’t know why “Wit” or “Buried Child” is funny in the context of the movie, there’s still something that they can smell, I hope, that reveals the credibility of the work behind the movie. That it’s not made by people who don’t know what theater is. When you’re trying to create characters who are obsessed with theater, then you have to go to a place of obsessive theater. You can make jokes about “Annie” because everyone knows “Annie,” but I don’t think that would make the point of who these kids really are. So I did put in a lot of things that I expected few people to get, but I think it all serves the larger purpose.

iW: What type of audience did you have mostly in mind? Teenagers?

Graff: They are my core constituency. I made the film for them. I would love everyone to see it, but I really want that fucked-up 15-year-old kid who feels very isolated from the world to see the film. I don’t think kids who have a tendency to beat up other kids will like this movie. If you’re head cheerleader or the captain of the football team — unless you have some deep dark secret — I don’t think you will get this film. If you’re like one of the characters from “She’s All That,” I think you’re going to hate this film. Though I hope you don’t.

iW: That probably has a lot to do with the remarkable majority of gay teen characters in the movie. It’s a bit revolutionary in the rich American tradition of teen summer-camp movies, no?

Graff: I think it’s very unusual, because I think the real camp is very unusual. But I did try to make the subject [of sexuality] not a big deal — I didn’t want every frame of the film to be about this character or that character coming out or not coming out. These kids feel OK with who they are because they are at this bizarre place. In their real lives, they’re probably not OK with it.

iW: It’s a very bizarre place, mostly because there are so many sensationally odd moments between the characters. Since you’re working for the first time as a writer-director, it was hard figuring out whether you had set out to create a determinedly odd universe to represent this specific camp, or whether this was just a first glimpse of a new and very strange filmmaker.

Graff: I think it’s who I am, I hate to say — or I’m happy to say — I don’t know. I only feel confident saying that because I’m 40 pages into my next script, and it is every bit as bizarre. Look at it this way: I started out as an actor and acted in films that I thought were very quirky and good. And then I became a writer and wrote a lot of studio films that I thought were sort of mainstream and bad. Now I’m a writer-director, which took me a long time to become — because it took me years and years to finance the film. I’m 43 now, and I just don’t have time to sell out again. I’ve already sold out. I’ve been doing that for 10 years. I made money and I can afford not to sell out now. At this point, I should try to make movies that are a lot closer to who I am.

iW: What was it like shopping the script around to the studios?

Graff: I’ve written a lot of studio films, so I know all the guys very well. It’s not hard for me to get a pitch meeting set up. So they’re kind of looking to want to say yes when I sit down. When they hear me saying, “It’s ‘Fame’ goes to summer camp,” they’re ready to sign on the dotted line. But when I say, “But three of the four main boys are gay, one is a drag queen, and the one who is not gay is confused enough that he almost makes out with the drag queen.” When they hear that, then they’re looking at their watches. And then I say, “There’s also going to be a scene of a girl washing out the panties of another little girl and being slavishly devoted to her until she poisons her.” It becomes a less obvious choice for them.

iW: If you knew their mentality, why did you even bother going to them?

Graff: Because all these studios had set up these classic divisions, and they were supposedly set up so they can produce edgier, more adventurous movies. But I find, generally speaking, that these divisions simply acquire edgier films at festivals or wherever. They don’t actually finance that many films.

iW: I guess you had a luxury most writers don’t have when they’re trying to visualize the interiors and exteriors of a movie.

Graff: Yes, I knew exactly where every scene took place before we got to location because I spent years there. And we got to film at the camp for free. If they did not give us the location for free, we wouldn’t have been able to make the film.

iW: How early in the film’s development did you know that you would get the location for free?

Graff: Since I was 16 years old. I knew when I said to the camp owner, “I’m going to make a movie about this place!” And he said, “Well, if you want to, you go right ahead. You can have the camp.” And he never wavered. In fact, he put only one rider in the contract: that if the director, meaning me, were fired for any reason, then the rights to the location would be revoked. I couldn’t be replaced. And they said to him, “Well, what if he goes crazy and starts shooting scenes with bestiality with the kids?” And he said, “Well, then I will support his artistic vision.” His name is Carl Samuelson. He’s a guy you want on your side.

iW: Is the title of the movie supposed to be clever?

Graff: I think it’s totally campy. I hope the title is working on two levels. I’m not being disingenuous about it. Our poster has a fabulous diva black girl in a Diana Ross pose. I don’t think we’re pretending anything here. I hope it becomes more than just fabulous in campy sense, and that the film hits audiences somewhere deeper. But I’ll tell you the truth — I’d be very disappointed if this film didn’t strike them as something completely fabulous.

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