Like Hall & Oates, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim met at Temple University. The two proceeded to make short films that played to a rarely exploited aspect of comic filmmaking: that is, filmmaking, particularly the cheesy effects found on archaic editing programs like Toaster. Of the copies of Tom Goes to the Mayor, their faux-cardboard cutout comedy, they sent to their many comic idols, only Bob Odenkirk responded. He in turn helped shepherd Tom to a run on Adult Swim, followed by Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, an even more mind-bending televisual explosion. With Awesome Show on a probably-not-permanent hiatus, the pair have had time to launch the spin-off show Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, starring John C. Reilly. (Its second season premieres mid-March.) And it’s also allowed them to write, direct and star in Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which has been available on VOD since late January. While in town for an advance screening of their filmic opus, Wareheim, sans Heidecker (who was sick), spoke to PW.
PW: You guys have been very careful to cultivate your various public personas, not just in your shows but when on talk shows. No one knows the real you.
Eric Wareheim: We like that. A lot of journalists are a little scared to talk to us because they’re not sure what version they’ll be getting. With talk shows, we’ve always wanted to make it an experience. We’re so bored of “Tell us a funny anecdote that happened the other day? Ever see Tom Cruise on the street?” We try to use everything we do as part of our thing. Sometimes we’ll just say shit just to get it printed, as a joke. Our fans know when we’re fucking around or when we’re serious. We also want a little bit of privacy. We have real lives as well.
PW: When most sketch comedy troupes do films, they go for an overall narrative. In your case that especially makes sense, as a straight-up Awesome Show movie would be nine times its usual length.
EW: And that would be unwatchable. We know that after 12 minutes you’re like, “Fuck, I’ve gotta take a shower here.” I was going to do a marathon with my girlfriend. We’d watch one season a night, to see if we can do this. After one episode ... well, there’s a lot in them. There’s a learning curve with them. You have to watch like four of them to even understand what’s going on.
PW: In the film, your chief adversaries are belligerent studio heads. Judging from your work, including ads for Absolut Vodka and Old Spice, it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much experience with nagging execs.
EW: It’s more of a general comment on Hollywood. The more money you get the more people are meddling in the kitchen. We’re playing off the idea of how much we got away with. We made a lot of TV shows by doing our own thing. The people funding this have all been so cool with us; “This thing you’ve got going, we don’t quite understand it but give it a go.”
PW: What was it like making the change from a smaller TV crew of maybe seven people to a full-on big movie crew of 100?
EW: The filmmakers in us were like, “Oh man, we have a camera on a crane, and a real D.P., a whole real union crew!” At the same time it was a low-budget movie, so we had to work really fast. Tim and I didn’t have the time to improvise and really goof off. We took it seriously. We direct everything, we write everything. We were approving every single piece of furniture, we were approving the extras. Tim and I really obsessed over every minuscule detail. Every element on that canvas, we wanted that to be us. At the same time, people would look over and see Tim and I giggling or tickling some intern.
PW: As with a lot of films released by Magnolia, Billion Dollar Movie was made available on VOD before it hit theaters. What was your reaction to this distribution plan?
EW: Originally we thought, no way. We made a movie, we want this to be in the theater first. They said to trust them, that this is a new model and a lot of people are going to be able to see it in towns where it will never play. So, this is a way to see it in advance, generate some conversation about it online and people who liked it will go see it in the theater again. The first weekend we did really well. We were the No. 1 YouTube download, we were No. 4 on iTunes. Another thing we did was make these “pledge videos.” A big issue to us is piracy, because a lot of our fans are younger college kids, high school kids, who torrent everything. They buy nothing. We reached out to them and said, “Here’s what’s going to happen: if you steal this movie, Tim and I aren’t going to be able to make another movie.” We tried to do it a funny way. And I feel like it worked.
PW: Did you always envision this as a smaller boutique item anyway?
EW: A lot of what works about us is that we’re constricted financially. We have to resort to things like editing tricks. We couldn’t get that shot? How can we make it funny? Let’s zoom in, make the guy’s eyes really big, hold on that too long, have him wink with a chime sound effect. Those are all little tools we had to come up with because we didn’t have any money. We don’t want a $100 million movie. We’d just fuck it up.
PW: Was that love of bad editing something you worked on in college?
EW: You can look at our early stuff from college, which I edited with Tim’s guidance. I had the more technical background because I was a bar mitzvah videographer. We would use a lot of these bad effects: dissolves, wipes. And every cut was a jump cut. You wouldn’t want them to be, they just were. We realized that was actually funny. On [Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule], we pipe the footage through a VCR, then bang on it for moments when we want the frame to jump, so it looks like Dr. Brule made them at home. It’s a very calculated look. We see lots of stuff where people put on a VHS filter, or try to edit bad. It just gives truth that our editors are so talented. To be able to edit bad is hard. You need a lot of skills and comic timing to make it look fucked-up for real.
PW: Making non-actors look awkward isn’t too hard. How do you do the same with professional actors, whose job it is to look comfortable in front of cameras?
EW: Sometimes it’s the environment. We’ll develop a weird feeling on set. Other times they’re just great actors. They can get to that place. I think the best guys, like Will Forte or John C. Reilly or Will Ferrell, they can act like the untrained actors we work with. They can get to that place of being uncomfortable. But it’s just them being great actors, really.
PW: While Billion Dollar Movie was debuting at Sundance, so was The Comedy, which despite the title and that it starred Tim and featured you, is not a comedy. But from the sounds of it, it sounds like it fits into your vibe.
EW: It definitely does. It has the vibe where we fuck with people. In a way, that’s what the movie is about, but there’s no joke there. It’s relentless. It was interesting to have that and [Billion Dollar Movie] at Sundance: polar opposites, but in the same world, in a way. It’s really interesting and refreshing and fucked up.
PW: When you were at school, was there even a plan to go into comedy?