Editor's Note: This interview was conducted on June 26, 2023, before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14, 2023.

Making a feature film is hard enough, but when that creative venture combines the spontaneity of improv, the energy of theater, and the magic of filmmaking with a young cast, it's an entirely different challenge.

Nick Lieberman co-wrote and co-directed the Sundance 2023 charmer Theater Camp alongside Molly Gordon. The mockumentary follows an upstate New York summer camp where theater kids learn singing, acting, stage combat, and more from a kooky cast of counselors, including Gordon and Ben Platt.

No Film School spoke with Lieberman via Zoom ahead of the film's release. He takes us behind the scenes, sharing his experiences and insights on shooting and editing improv, working with young actors, and what aspiring filmmakers should know. Theater Camp provides a unique canvas for the collaboration between Lieberman and Gordon, where authenticity and creativity intertwine to bring this story to life.

THEATER CAMP | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

Editor's note: the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I know that you adapted this from a short film. What was the process of developing this into a full feature from that short?

Nick Lieberman: I think that one thing that we were really interested in doing was taking some of the techniques that we were using on that smaller scale, and I think that it is such a cool opportunity to try things. I mean, obviously, it's stressful when it is your own money, your own time, and you're not in the situation that when you have the support that we had for the movie. In another way, it is the best opportunity and the best place to really take a big bite out of some idea you have about how to go about making something. Thinking about how you're making something is often so much of what ends up being the product or the style of the thing that you're making. I think we have such kind of a collective energy, especially with the fact that I co-directed the movie with Molly [Gordon], but four of us wrote this movie [Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt].

Having a bunch of actors who I think really understand their character, what they want their character to do, and then the bigger picture as writers as well, really allowed us to have this more like a freer improvisational spirit and trust that we made this film off a scriptment, not even a script. We didn't write any of the dialogue, basically. I mean, not any, but the official shooting document was not a very dialogue-heavy document at all. I guess that the idea was really to make sure that we were taking this short and the story within this short and not just having it be a sketch and not having it just have the stakes that could sustain only a 10-15-minute thing but instead really knowing that this would arc and have the payoffs and have the journey that a feature requires.

NFS: You mentioned the movie being largely improv. Why did you choose that approach?

Lieberman: I love movies that have that sort of feeling to them, that feeling of discovery, and that feeling of giving actors full permission to be themselves or be confused about something or trip up and not go like, "Oh, okay, that was a bad take." Instead, take every opportunity that happens in real time and say, "That's right. And that's an opportunity to bring that into the scene."

I think that working with kids, especially, allows you to have such a brilliant chaos agent in a certain way because they so knew the story and they weren't just improvising off of script, but we hadn't really worked with them in a sense of, a lot of times it was like, "Okay, and then they're going to react to this event that's happening," and the ways that they reacted to it were always brilliant and always exciting. I just love also vérité documentaries. Molly and I had great inspiration from actual documentaries and the ways that those movies can be so funny because they're true and the confusions or the intensities and that feeling that you're just really in it with the people, with the subjects. So, we really wanted to make sure this film had a bit of that.

Four children acting in white mask

'Theater Camp'

Searchlight Pictures

NFS: One thing that I noticed on my rewatch was the film has such a unique look. It looks kind of almost dark and gritty in places. Is that coming off of that vérité style?

Lieberman: The look of the film is very much inspired by vérité documentaries, and I think we wanted to capture that timelessness and that feeling that you get from those films of that 60-millimeter feeling where it's like you had to have been spending film going through a camera to capture this live moment. I think now you have that sense of everything could be filmed. So, it's so editorial and I think what makes something feel like where this film can sit in a more cinematic place, I think in certain moments, I think it is largely to do with that focus and that lean in that the more physical and textural image of 60-millimeter can have. Yeah.

NFS: I think it is almost, again, rewatching, it's almost a surprise. I don't remember it necessarily looking like that, but it looks great and it works really well for the film.

Lieberman: Yeah, no, thank you. Yeah, we were very determined to make sure that it was somewhat believably captured by three cameras, and making sure that the camera positions all were believable based on the scene that was happening.

Jimmy Tatro and Ayo Edebiri in 'Theater Camp' (2023)

Jimmy Tatro and Ayo Edebiri in 'Theater Camp'

Searchlight Pictures

NFS: I know you've mentioned in other interviews that you ended up with a lot of footage. I'd love to know what the editing process looked like.

Lieberman: Part of everything I was saying about improv is this idea that, as someone with a background in documentary editing, I believe that creating an archive of material and letting people be free on the other side of that requires systems and time to sift through the sea of footage—or, to use a different metaphor, the forest of footage—to find what actually works.

Molly and I are super relentless and also super harsh on ourselves, where I think we kind of have joy in saying, "Yeah, you know what? That doesn't work. Let's get that out of here." I love that, that feeling of letting go is something that I think it's really important to fall in love with. Because, yes, you need to fight for the things that you think are important and right in your film, but I think you also need to have the humility to recognize that most of what you think is important is going to end up not serving your story and not serving the audience as well as you might think.

NFS: Any tips for co-directing or for collaborating in that setting?

Lieberman: One thing I think that's really important to Molly and I is not having some concept of true division of labor. I think that oftentimes people would want to put that onto, and I definitely am guilty of that with other co-directing teams where it's like, "Oh, that's the person that does this thing, and that's the person that does that thing." I think we're very into references, and I like to pull a lot of references, not just into our references, but just as a way of getting on the same page and saying the way this scene feels, which has absolutely nothing to do with our movie, is trying to really hone in on what that is that's exciting and compelling to us. Really triangulating that and having that kind of common language of, "Oh, this is the Where The Wild Things Are tracking shot." It's like we had really nice kind of shorthand that allowed us to know that the heart of the movie was not going to be lost when one of us was elsewhere.

A child acting on a stage, 'Theater Camp'

'Theater Camp'

Searchlight Pictures

NFS: You mentioned earlier working with young actors. Do you have any tips for working with a lot of young performers? You had a big cast and a lot of them were young.

Lieberman: One big piece of advice would be trusting young actors. Then, on the other hand, I think also, when you're working with kids, it's important to set up your own vision of the scene to incorporate whatever the kid is really doing, like really giving them permission to be themselves.

We can all feel when it seems like a kid was told to walk to a thing and hit a mark and say a line a very specific way, and that's just not how kids are. I love when you see a kid and it's like, "Oh, that was just a kid being a kid, but it served this film perfectly." That doesn't mean not giving them pages of dialogue or difficult scenes. I think that that's wonderful, but I think letting them come to it rather than forcing them into what is it. That's more important with kids, even than with other actors.

Two theater teachers watching auditions, 'Theater Camp'

'Theater Camp'

Searchlight Pictures'

NFS: Yeah. What would you say is the biggest challenge of the production and how did you overcome it?

Lieberman: Definitely the time was very challenging. To come up with the style and everything that we were talking about, of shooting very loosely, and yet we only shot it in 19 days, and that's just not a ton of time when you also want to really execute a musical that's at the end. It's such a large ensemble, and [you] want to make sure everyone's served and you're giving everyone the time to fulfill the concept that we're talking about of discovering moments and discovering their character. Also, kids can only work a certain number of hours a day.

So, with all those things combined require a level of mathematical precision. Even our shooting plans were precisely chaotic. It was like, "Okay, this is a full 180° and we have no idea how you're going to capture that 180°, based on the performance you'll be mobile, but we know that you cannot turn around because there's no kids. And we'll have that from 2:20 p.m. to 2:45 p.m., and then we can free up and get the rest of it as these kids arrive."

It was like that pretty much every day.

NFS: Is there any other advice that you would want to offer our readers or anything else you want to discuss?

Lieberman: I think just watch a lot of stuff. I think watching a lot of stuff is the best way to become a better filmmaker.