Gloria Sanchez, the production partnership between Will Ferrell and Jessica Elbaum that ramped up after Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy ended their long partnership, today launches Theater Camp. Coming on the heels of the Apple TV+ musical Spirited, Theater Camp premieres shortly at Eccles as an acquisition title. Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, the film stars Gordon and Ben Platt as longtime best friends who return to an upstate run down theater camp which is imperiled when its founder lapses into a coma due to an unfortunate strobe light incident. Her son takes over, and he tries to stave off foreclosure even though he initially has little interest in greasepaint and the boards. The project grew out of Booksmart, another Gloria Sanchez production. Elbaum & Ferrell produced with PictureStart’s Erik Feig (who financed), Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Noah Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman and Platt.
DEADLINE: You can tell that Theater Camp is infused with the real experiences its architects had spending their formative years putting on productions. What made you both lean into this?
JESSICA ELBAUM: We produced Booksmart, and that’s where we met Molly [Gordon] and Nick [Lieberman]. We were instantly taken with both of them. We’d heard they did this as a short film, and we were really taken with it. We got to know Ben [Platt]. Will and I just wanted to help upcomers and give opportunities to people we think are super talented. And this was just so fun, and funny.
WILL FERRELL: In our initial meetings with them, you could see the shared camaraderie they all had. It was obvious they’ve known each other for a while and love working together creatively. This was Jessica’s idea to make this into a feature, after watching them just finishing each other’s sentences as they riffed. We were like, God, these guys [Molly & Nick] should just be the directors.
DEADLINE: Will, could you relate to these theater camps? Was there a version of this that correlated to your growth as an improvisational performer? These kids are so serious that they look down on one of their group who is caught throwing around a football…
FERRELL: Well, so here’s the irony. I did none of that. I was more of a jock in high school. I really didn’t do any of, of the theater training until after I graduated from college. So for me, this was a look behind the curtain in this world with…almost jealousy. Wishing I had done more of that kind of growing up. And yes, they are all over the top and passionate in this world, but I think we all love pulling for these underdogs who all have their dreams, and some fall quite short of what their aspirations were.
But they still come back to this sweet, nostalgic place, and they take it so seriously. When we finally got the movie all cut together, it’s really funny and hyper specific to this world, but what touched me most was the vulnerability you have to have to do any of this stuff. Whether it’s at the highest level or if it is at some theater camp in upstate New York for 25 years. That’s where the sweetness comes into this movie, the craft of acting and performing and, and putting yourself into sort of these pursuits you, you just have to put yourself in such a vulnerable place. I think that comes through.
DEADLINE: There is also that inevitable moment where things are not happening, you’re not getting parts. Even though you love the world, when do you throw in the towel for a more traditional life? And envy when someone struggling alongside you catches that career break.
FERRELL: The world of entertainment is a game of benches. I know that, coming up through the Groundlings in Los Angeles where I did a lot of my training and sketch comedy work, there were many people just as many talented people as myself. Who, for whatever reason, never quite got the same opportunity or the same just moment where someone looked at them and thought you know, I’m gonna take a chance on them. It’s a very fragile thing and a lot of it is luck.
DEADLINE: What was that lucky moment for you?
FERRELL: It would be the process of getting on Saturday Night Live. Especially the year that I got on, because that was a mass exodus of the cast and they brought in a bunch of us. They were looking at people from all over the country. And yeah, the fact that Lorne Michaels saw something in me…because I can look back at some of that old audition stuff. And for as many people who’ve seen it and said, God, that’s so funny, I could equally accept someone coming up to me going, what were you doing? Why was that even funny? Why’d you even think it was funny? But that’s the moment where I look back and go, gosh, I was lucky he thought I could contribute to that show.
DEADLINE: So Jessica, you find this as a short film. What was the biggest challenge in getting in getting it financed and to the start line?
ELBAUM: It’s always a challenge getting financing for these types of things, but we got lucky. We were making another movie with Erik Feig of PictureStart. We told him about Molly, Nick, Ben, Noah [Galvin] and this idea. So this one was easier than these things tend to be, but it took a minute because there was talk of doing it as a series before we pivoted to do it as a film. It was a very quick 19-day shoot.
FERRELL: The short they were working off served as a kind of bible of the characters, and it was for the most part completely improvised, which was attractive to us. And they wrote all the original music. It is hard to write that stuff that’s silly and kind of good at the same time specific. They had an ear for the specificity of that world.
DEADLINE: You are coming off Spirited, the Apple musical adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. How reflective of Gloria Sanchez’s path is Theater Camp? How much of the company’s purpose is finding acting vehicles for Will?
ELBAUM: Will is the priority. We’re constantly looking for vehicles, but we want to continue finding and discovering and empowering original voices and making things that feel original. We don’t have a mandate. We lean toward comedy, but we just produced the Todd Haynes film May December with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, which is very much not a comedy.
DEADLINE: Spirited was a complicated effort. Ryan Reynolds told Deadline that if the song Good Afternoon gets a Best Song nomination, he’ll perform it at the Oscarcast even though he said it took forever to get it right. How about you Will?
FERRELL: Well, it was such a huge endeavor for, myself, for Jessica and Ryan, and our director Sean Anders and his writing partner John Morris. In some ways, ignorance is bliss and we all dove in with the idea we’ll figure it out. But wrangling those songs, the musical numbers, that was a feat. Seven weeks of rehearsal and coordinating all the jumping into the choreography and then performing it a lot of times live on set which we weren’t told about ahead of time. I’ve got to sing it live, too? But I’m proud of it and that it turned out to be a solid reason to remake A Christmas Carol.
So, famous last words, if Ryan is in, I am too. It would be exciting, and I would be peeing my pante all day, downstage.