A delightful new scripted podcast from Audible Originals is partial consolation for kids stuck at home this summer because of sleepaway camp’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “Letters from Camp” co-creator and star is Golden Globe Award-winning actress Jamie Lee Curtis. In conversation with The Times of Israel, Curtis said that a summer release became imperative when it became clear that millions of kids would be unable to enjoy their usual camp experiences.
“We absolutely needed this to be released this summer, before kids went back to school,” said Curtis, 61, who lends her voice to one of the podcast’s main characters. The podcast’s first four episodes were released on August 4, and the next four will drop August 18.
“Letters from Camp” is set in pre-social media 2005. It follows the adventures of protagonist Mookie Hooper at Camp Cartwright in Maine. The 11-year-old first-time camper is from Manhattan, and her mother is a famous investigative journalist and a revered Camp Cartwright alumna. The intellectually precocious and socially awkward Mookie faces challenges in fitting in, especially with her mother’s reputation to live up to.
“It’s the concept of being a fish out of water, and having a famous parent — something I can relate to,” said Curtis, who is the daughter of actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
“Feeling different, not part of, is at the soul of the whole thing: the great freedom of being a human is when you discover who you are. So, we realized the show was a coming of age of this young woman at a summer camp — and with a lot of humor,” Curtis explained.
Co-creator and writer Boco Haft, 27, is responsible for the the sophisticated, laugh-out-loud dialogue in “Letters from Camp.” Haft, who modeled Mookie on herself as a tween, is the daughter of writer Lisa Birnbach and film producer and media executive Steven Haft. Like Curtis, she is familiar with being raised by well-known parents.
Camp Cartwright is a fictional version of Kamp Kohut, the summer camp Haft attended for six summers as a camper and two years as a counselor. Kamp Kohut was founded in 1907 by a rabbi, Dr. George Alexander Kohut, who wanted to create a refuge for children from the heat and pollution of the city.
“I didn’t love being a camper, but I did like being a counsellor. I didn’t always fit in or know how to socialize,” said Haft, who has worked as a production assistant in Los Angeles since graduating from Skidmore College in 2016. “Letters from Camp” is her first major writing job.
“I was very homesick, but I would also sob on the bus on the way back home at the end of the four-week session. I clearly had a love-hate relationship with camp,” said Haft, who grew up in Manhattan.
The concept for “Letters from Camp” is the result of a letter Haft wrote — but never sent — to Curtis (who is her godmother) from Kamp Kohut when she was around Mookie’s age.
In October 2019, Haft was visiting her mother in New York, and the two were looking through old boxes. They found a stack of letters Haft had written from camp, including some she had never sent. Birnbach chose one letter addressed to Curtis — still sealed in its original envelope — and forwarded it to the actress.
“Jamie called to say she got the letter and was blown away. It was a devastating account of a week when I messed up and got into trouble in my attempts to make friends. I was asking Jamie for advice. It reflected just how hard it was to be 12,” Haft said.
Curtis said she was excited by the time capsule aspect of the letter, and immediately thought it could be the inspiration for a television show about a young woman who gets thrown back into her life as a 12 year old each time she opens one of these unsent letters.
“What popped in my head is that Boco is 26 and a comedy writer, and how often does someone get sent a portal back into their youth that is unopened?” Curtis said.
The two women, along with Curtis’s director of development Russell Goldman, pitched the TV series concept to Creative Artists Agency. As it turned out, the “podcast people” jumped on it. There was interest from several podcast companies, but in the end Curtis, Haft and Goldman decided to go with Audible Inc.
“They are the gold standard in that world. We were thrilled, and they have been amazing and so enthusiastic,” Curtis said.
Haft went into high gear in the late spring, writing the scripts for all of the first season’s eight episodes. The main tips Audible gave the project’s creative team was to limit the main characters to around five so as not to confuse listeners with too many voices, and to keep the length of each episode to that of an average car ride.
It was also critical to thread a mystery throughout the arc of the eight episodes to keep listeners’ interest. Haft invented the “Lady of the Lake” ghost story about a former camper disappearing into the lake in 1980 who plans to return 25 years later to attack a legacy camper. Legacy camper Mookie is both terrified and intrigued. True to her DNA, she begins an investigation.
“There was a quick learning curve with regard for writing for audio. I had to make creative choices of how to communicate visual things. The letters [which Mookie writes to someone named Kelly] compensate for visuals and let the audience know what Mookie is seeing,” Haft explained.
A cast was pulled together is short order, with everyone involved using personal contacts. Curtis plays camp director Sue, who keeps a close eye on Mookie. Jake Gyllenhaal (also Curtis’ godchild) took on the small role of Trout, the water sports counsellor. Edi Patterson (“Knives Out,” “Righteous Gemstones”) plays Mookie’s panic-prone Australian bunk counsellor Fanny, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (“Barry,” “The Good Place”) plays lunch lady Lansbury. Haft’s brother, performer Sam Haft has the hilarious role of Igor, the bodyguard of a six-year-old princess from a small European country.
“I just love Princess Nastia. I think it is hilarious that Boco created this crown princess who is carried everywhere at camp by her bodyguard, and who never speaks,” Curtis noted.
Mookie is played by 11-year-old Sunny Sandler, daughter of Adam Sandler and his wife Jackie. Curtis’s daughter Annie teaches dance to Sunny, and she mentioned to Curtis that her pupil was starting to get into acting.
“Sunny Sandler is sensational. All of us in charge of casting agreed unanimously that Sunny is Mookie Hooper, because she is so real, has a strong personality, and is so smart. Sunny earned the part. She worked very hard,” Curtis said.
Recording the podcast during the pandemic posed challenges. The actors could not gather in a recording studio, so each had to record their part at home using mobile recording units. They had no other actors to play against, and could consult the director via Zoom only.
“One person was in a closet, one person was under a desk. I was in a little nook in a cabin in the woods with outdoor cushions as a baffle, and with an umbrella with a blanket over it. You have to basically create a soundproof environment,” Curtis explained.
Although “Letters from Camp” is primarily aimed at a pre-teenage audience, adults will also enjoy it. The historical and cultural references from 2005 are fun, and Haft’s writing keeps all listeners’ attentions.
Curtis said she hopes the podcast will be picked up for more seasons. The outlines for two more already exist.
“I don’t feel done with Mookie and this story. I’ve developed a lot of empathy for myself at that age. It’s been like free therapy,” Haft said.