Todd Graff pumps ‘Camp’ with passion, wit and charm. So, why is he biting his nails? (Did we mention it’s his directorial debut?)
When I was 13, I played the viola just because it was different. It was. And so was I. What the hell is a viola? was the typical response. (Like myself at the time, that oft overlooked stringed instrument just seemed out of place in the world.) In the end, my alto-cleff’d cohort—and my expanding teenage waistline—became the ridicule of the school band. I didn’t help that I wore a retainer, had a horrible faux Sean Cassidy hairdo that was two years out of date and that to I chose Stanislaus as my Catholic Confirmation name. (Sorry, St. Stan, it wound up becoming the most hellish, old-world, three-syllabled moniker I could have chosen.) Summer camp was worse. While watching active teens frolic in camp.
I opted to analyze the cosmic significance of lightening bugs. There was, of course, Boy Scout summer camp, one of the more emotionally charged experiences of youth that consisted of braving a humiliating initiation into the troupe—another sad sap and I were forced to trek through the Girl Scout troop’s camp area wearing nothing but boots and a T-shirt. (My tight-fitting Fruit of the Looms, purchased with pride—and on sale at Montgomery Wards—by my discerning Polish mother were the absolute hoot and holler of Schiller Woods that summer night. The girls who spotted us, red-faced and timid, became squeamish. The boys in the troop—they couldn’t wait to shine the flashlight on certain areas of the bod. Ah, the days of Weeblos … so simple, so safe, yet so full of illusion.) I listened to soundtracks of “Cats,” “A Chorus Line” and “West Side Story.” I pondered the mystique of Farrah Fawcett and wondered, perhaps too much, why Lindsay Wagner never made a bigger dent in show business after the demise of The Bionic Woman.
Who the heck is this kid? my parents wondered. I wanted to know the very same thing, which is why the much-talked about new Indie film Camp lured me in and kept me captivated all the way through. But Todd Graff’s directorial debut unearthed some personal quandaries. At first, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s just me… I can relate so much to the young characters in the film. Maybe I have no panache in the detachment area. I can’t review this film because it’s dredging up too many embarrassing yet poignant memories for me.’
To hell with that. Here’s what I have to say about Camp: At last there’s a movie to cheer about and embrace. Finally, there’s a film whose message encourages the celebration of difference and also embraces the oft-amusing battle of self-acceptance. While Camp doesn’t plow you over quite the way Fame did back in the early ’80s—it could use 10 more minutes to further develop some of its characters—there is something powerfully rich and wonderfully universal about this film, which chronicles a group of teens and their experiences at a musical theater summer camp, a place where life is all about “drama;” where the ultimate realization is: “You can’t fit in when you stand out.”
Who can’t relate to a little bit of teenage—or adult—angst? Furthermore, there’s something profoundly identifiable in the fruitful misadventures of finding—and owning—one’s identity. Like devouring a hot fudge sundae loaded with extra nuts and whipped cream, it’s both messy and delicious.
Interestingly enough, Camp brought Todd Graff full circle. He filmed the movie in a swift 23 days at Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, New York, the very same summer camp he attended at 14. (In the film, it’s called “Camp Ovation.”)
“I went there three years,” Graff recalls in a recent GT interview. “And then I worked there for two subsequent years as a counselor. And, in broad strokes, it was exactly like the movie—the craziness and the inappropriate of it all. We did Beckett and “Follies” and “Hair” … and the kind of kids that went there, there were a great many that were considered ‘misfits’ for the other 10 months of the year. Some were gay, others had body issues, and [we] got off the bus at Stagedoor and you couldn’t believe it—there were 200 kids exactly like you. The day I got there, there were 10 kids singing every internal harmony to a musical number. And I just came from 10 months of listening to Neal Yong and drinking—yes—TANG. It was the drink of choice. Actually, TANG and vodka in a bottle … and you get there and suddenly everybody was singing and drinking black coffee.”
Graff, now 39, culled from the “craziness and the inappropriateness” of his own camp experience and plopped it right into this film, which he also penned.
“I was very Vlad,” he says, referring to Camp’s teenage Casanova, played by Daniel Letterle. “I didn’t look like him—I was not that cute. But I was somebody who appeared to have it all together and who was considered very popular. My problems were not that obvious on the surface. I had this pathological need to please: what you needed from me was what I would be for you. And not knowing the consequences of that bad boy thing, in that environment (the camp’s), it would be what girls I could get to have a crush on me.”
Good thing Graff had experiencing in the swooning department. He romanced the thought of bringing Camp to life for about five years before IFC Films came along and decided to take a chance on him. He’d been known a actor who helped nurse Broadway’s “Baby” and whose presence in a number of diverse films—The Abyss, Five Corners and Dominic & Eugene—never really amounted to the celeb du jour experience Hollywood looks for. When he became a screenwriter, he poured his soul into modest hits: Used People, Angie, The Preacher’s Wife and Coyote Ugly.
Penning Camp may have been cathartic, but directing it ushered in a whole other set of dramas. Graff wanted to use three songs from Stephen Sondheim and after numerous letters trying to convince Mr. Broadway to even look at the script, Sondheim, “touched” by the film’s theme, went on to donate the rights to three of his songs, including “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the hit play “Company.”
“It was a Hail Mary pass, the whole movie was a Hail Mary pass,” Graff says. “I wrote Stephen Sondheim in as a character and I built the whole movie up to his appearance, and I didn’t know the man.” (Sondheim would later agree to make a cameo in the film—his first ever. He even slept in one of the camp’s bunks during filming.)
Oscar-winning composer Michael Gore (Fame) came on board as did Tony Award-winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens (“Ragtime”), who wrote two original songs for film: “I Sing for You” and the emotional tearjerker “Here’s Where I Stand.” Then choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray) made sparks with the film’s dance numbers—absolutely invigorating, by the way.
Long before all that was in place, there was a wild casting call. Graff sifted through hundreds of children who had won free movie tickets from a radio station that had agreed to mention Camp’s open audition. He finally settled on mostly newcomers: Daniel Letterle would play Vlad, the film’s lead male, a charming teen whose hidden agenda is all about being the “star” in everybody’s life. Joanna Chilcoat was cast as Ellen—she was 15 at the time and had to chop more than a foot of her hair to take on the role as a musical theater lover craving a romantic connection. Eighteen-year-old Robin De Jesus would ultimately morph into Michael, a pivotal role considering he would be playing a pimple-faced gay teen, gay-bashed at his junior prom after arriving in drag.
“Somehow he came out of the closet at an early age,” De Jesus notes of the character. “And when he goes to camp, this camp is ‘home,’ where he’s loved and where he’s happiest. But even when he’s in the happiest place, he still wants to resolve the issues at home because being there at camp isn’t all there is to make him totally happy. I mean, he gets a crush on the only straight guy there …”
Like the teens at the fictitious camp, De Jesus, a musical theater performer who rocked high school audiences in the 20-plus shows he appeared in, experienced his own share of epiphanies during filming.
“I learned that I am an actor,” he says. “I always thought of myself as vocalist who was going to go into opera and to be thrown into this … in all honesty, to have myself known as an actor now; to have confidence now to know I don’t have to just sing anymore; to say ‘You are an actor …’ I am both actually and I am going to do what I love to do.”
The word love is dished amongst the cast as freely as gazpacho on a hot summer day. Joanna Chilcoat spews the L word often when talking about Camp—even if she did have to spend more than eight hours standing in tight-fitting dress during prep for the film’s “Dreamgirls” number. True, Chilcoat, 17, adored every minute of Camp’s shoot, but most of all, the newcomer discovered she “can do it.”
“It’s like, when you are young, and you say ‘I am going to be in the movies someday,’ and most people never get that chance to audition. This is something people dream about. It’s incredible to know, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ It’s pretty intense.”
Which brings us to Daniel Letterle, aka Vlad the Heartbreaker. (Think Val Kilmer 20 years ago and that’s Vlad, or Letterle, at least physically.) The Ohio native has been feverishly moving through the show biz maze ever since he moved to New York to become an actor at the age of 17 XX years ago. After some significant theater work—he was Doody in a prominent Berlin production of in “Grease”—he eventually landed guest television guest spots, a Law and Order SVU here, an ABFAB there. While it’s too soon to say whether Camp may jumpstart the young actor’s big-screen career, he seems pretty focused.
“[Camp} helped me learn, or reaffirm, that trying to get into things that matter and make a difference, and that have a purpose—that’s important to me,” Letterle says. “I guess my hunger to be involved in things like that has grown.”
Then he coughs up this morsel: “I think show business and acting don’t mix. You know, I’m learning there is a business in the phrase show business—it’s not ‘show art.’ But I think I’ve grown as an artist in my years in New York when I was trying to put some cheese on my cracker.”
Letterle’s oracle seems to echo Graff’s own revelations: “One of the things [acclaimed director and friend] Thomas Anderson said to me that I love, was that ‘movies are a war off attrition—you have to be the last one standing.’ Nature abhors a vacuum. If you abdicate, you will regret it forever. Circumstances will kick your ass—you just want to go ‘I can’t do this; I don’t know how’—but it isn’t even important to know. It’s important to trust yourself.”
Spoken like a true Camp counselor.
A benefit screening of Camp takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7. The film opens at the Nickelodeon on Friday. Rated PG. *** (out of four).