It is an oddly terrifying experience, walking into a room to interview Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Judging from the almost impossibly bizarre Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, not to mention its creators’ entire aesthetic, the pair appear to have no use for experiences even verging on normal. It’s silly to mistake any performer’s real persona with a character he plays, but going in, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the eccentricity of this duo’s work will bleed over into the act of being interviewed (which, in fairness, has actually happened).
Of course, Heidecker and Wareheim answer most of my questions sincerely and succinctly. No matter how avant-garde their material might be, at the helm are total professionals who know exactly what they’re doing. At other times, though, they do seem to answer questions in character as “Tim and Eric,” with short, clipped responses that would be hilarious if only I were allowed in on the joke. It’s difficult disassociating for long enough to learn how they were able to graft their unique brand onto a movie completely intact. But based on our interview, we were able to break down exactly how Billion Dollar Movie happened and how practically anyone can learn from their experience.
Step 1: Be Tim and Eric
“I mean, how did those guys manage to find each other?” alt-comedy legend Bob Odenkirk asked on a recent episode of the Nerdist podcast. It turns out the two met in film school at Temple University, and collaborated together on screenplays and other projects. Eventually, tastemaker Odenkirk helped them parlay a web comic into divisive TV show Tom Goes to the Mayor for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block in 2004. What came after that show, though, was a clarion call informing the world of Heidecker and Wareheim’s subversive vision.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, is the kind of show that teaches you how to watch it as you watch. “It’s a satire of pop culture, entertainment, movies, and television–sort of poking fun at structure,” Heidecker says. Everything in the TV-centric universe of the show is a little bit off, and sometimes completely off. The characters on the show react to things differently than anyone else on TV, going from smiling to nervous to terrified in a series of quick cuts. A sketch might involve a talk show where everyone sits on 7-foot-tall couches, or an educational music video with kids rapping about incest, but with Tim and Eric, premise always runs secondary to uncompromising execution. By liberally garnishing their version of TV with surreal and often gross touches, Tim and Eric call attention to how unreal most everything else on TV can be.
If that style sounds familiar, it’s because it has been absorbed by the advertising industry–for the past few years, the directing team has occasionally taken on commercial assignments. Companies like Old Spice and Absolut have harnessed the Awesome Show look and texture, and they’ve found success with it. “I think people had been ripping off our style,” Heidecker says. “Some companies just came to us eventually and said ‘Why don’t you do these instead of us stealing them.’”
Just as their TV show often made fun of the state of TV from within, their advertising work serves as meta commentary on the state of advertising. Guess what Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is about?
Step 2: Subvert the Cliché
Despite a potentially lucrative upside, the two say they were never tempted to make a somewhat crowd-pleasing movie. They had other ideas.
“We wanted this to be a movie about movies,” Heidecker says. “Sort of play with certain notes that get hit way too many times.” Indeed, everything from on-the-nose music cues to winking cracks in the fourth wall are sent up in Billion Dollar Movie.
The plot of the film sort of echoes Heidecker’s description of how the deal with Absolut vodka went down: “Absolut had an idea to tell artists they can do what they wanted as long as they put their vodka in the ad. So we said, ‘As long as you don’t give us any notes, we’ll take your money and do something crazy.’”
In the movie, the Schlaang corporation gives Heidecker and Wareheim (playing “Tim and Eric”) a billion dollars to make a movie. Unfortunately, the two end up blowing it on an expensive opening credit sequence involving Johnny Depp (played by a lookalike) as a man named Diamond Jim, who wears a suit made entirely of diamonds–a suit which had to be recreated anew each shooting day. Tim and Eric spend the rest of the movie hiding from the Schlaang corporation, who are literally out for blood. Parts of it are much more strange than I can possibly describe here. For instance, my eyes will never unsee the already-famous “Schrim” sequence.
Step 3: Obtain the Support of Funny or Die
Getting the movie funded “was a positive experience,” Heidecker says. “We talked to Funny or Die, and they wanted to help us get a movie made, so they were with us from the beginning.”
The comedy powerhouse founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay had been supportive for years, hosting videos on the site, which helped turn more people on to Awesome Show. Additionally, Heidecker and Wareheim made contact with 2929 Entertainment, part of the Mark Cuban family of companies, which also came on board to help distribute and promote the movie.
Before embarking on filming, though, the directors had a chance to make some short films for the HBO series Funny or Die Presents, which served as a final training ground for creating longer material. They were ready.
Step 4: Maintain Creative Control
By obtaining financing from people who know what they do and believe in it, Heidecker and Wareheim were able to maintain about the same level of creative control on the movie as they had on the laissez-faire show. Because their only restrictions were temporal and financial, the two got to make their debut movie on their own terms, as long as they delivered it on schedule and for a certain amount of money.
“We wanted it to be as ‘Tim and Eric’ as we could keep it,” Wareheim says.
Step 5: Cast From Outside the System
Part of maintaining the specific look of the TV show meant casting from the same lot of unusual actors that have come to be associated with the directors’ style. Or at least that’s what one would assume. “I don’t think they’re unusual,” Wareheim clarifies, “I think of them as usual.” Heidecker adds, “We’re so trained to look at what Hollywood wants to present as normal people, that if you stick regular people from the street in front of a camera, suddenly it’s a big deal.” Unusual or not, the two are clearly interested in interesting-looking faces and their movie is full of them. There are some recognizable faces as well.
Step 6: Also Cast From Within the System
It’s a bit disorienting to see veteran actors like Robert Loggia and William Atherton thrust into the odd rhythms of a Tim and Eric production. They may not exactly fit right in, but that only helps bring into sharp relief the difference between Billion Dollar Movie and every other movie these familiar faces have been in. “Those guys were pros,” Wareheim says. “We told them exactly how we wanted them to be, and they just nailed it.”
The directors also happen to have a lot of fans in the mainstream and alternative comedy worlds, many of whom have stopped by Awesome Show before to be in sketches. It’s only natural that some of these performers ended up taking on small roles in the movie, or at least making cameos. The list of names includes benefactors Will Ferrell and Bob Odenkirk, as well as Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum, John C. Reilly, and Will Forte.
The presence of these known quantities in the trailer might help spur some people to see the movie, even if they don’t quite know what it is they’re in for. Tim and Eric are not worried about that at all, though. “We hope they will be pleasantly surprised,” Wareheim says of these potential new viewers. “Some of them will be shocked, awed, and angry, but we hope they’ll enjoy seeing something that’s new and different.”
Step 7: Explore New Distribution Models
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie opens in theatres on Friday, but it’s been available through Video on Demand since January 27th. “That’s just the new model,” Heidecker says. “Younger kids, this is just how they watch stuff now. They watch on the computer, they watch online. So to try to circumvent them from stealing it, we say, ‘Here it is, it’s really easy for you to get this. It will cost a little money.’ It’s just having a conversation with the audience, being straight with them. We’re not holding anything back.”
Although they don’t discuss the numbers, Tim and Eric say that the movie has done well so far in this format. Their show has been on hiatus since 2010, and they’re looking forward to making more movies in the future. As for the way this first movie turned out, they seem very enthusiastic. I think.
“It’s beyond the movie we envisioned,” Heidecker says.
“It’s better than anything we could possibly dream of,” says Wareheim.
Tim adds something else after that, but I can’t quite hear it. When I ask him to repeat that last part, he stares at me with a patient, blank look until I don’t know whether to laugh or recoil.