Sundance 2012: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim Skewer 'Douchey' Hollywood in Their 'Billion Dollar Movie' (Q&A)
With the help of their friend Will Ferrell, the writer-actor-directors branch out from their cult-TV following to offer an absurdist view on what it means to make it (and fail) in Hollywood.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are making their Sundance feature debut on Friday, Jan. 20 with their ode to show business (and what happens when two guys take over an abandoned mall in Palm Springs), Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie. But the cult-TV icons (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) are hardly flippant about their Park City debut. Here the longtime friends and collaborators reveal a surprisingly (mostly) serious side when revealing the tricks of their trade, what it means to have Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in their movie and why screening a comedy at Sundance is “scary.”
The Hollywood Reporter: How excited are you about your first big Sundance feature?
Eric Wareheim: Very — it’s huge. We haven’t screened it for more than about 10 people. We haven’t done any test screening or anything, so we’re really looking forward to hearing, like, big screams.
Tim Heidecker: We’ve only shown it to animals so far. They were excited.
THR: One of the villains in your movie is a wolf who’s been terrorizing a mall. Did you test market it for wolves?
Heidecker: Yeah. I think actually the ASPCA has to watch the movie. They’re really strict because we have a couple animals in the movie. I guess they have to, like, make sure that we didn’t slaughter them on camera or something
THR: Where did you get the idea for the movie?
Heidecker: We kind of just started with a bunch of things we knew we wanted to do in general. We knew we didn’t want to do a sketch movie. We knew we wanted to sort of make it the same way our sketch show is made, in that we didn’t want to make this big leap into a big, high-production-value kind of thing. We kind of set some initial ground rules about what kind of movie we wanted to make.
THR: Can I assume your budget was not a billion dollars?
Heidecker: You can safely assume that.
THR: What was the budget?
Wareheim: It was low, I don’t know if they want us to share any exact figure, but we definitely squeezed every penny out of it.
THR: How did you fund the film?
Wareheim: We teamed up with Funny or Die, which is co-producing it. We worked with Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy on developing the script, and then they helped pitch us to financers. Then one of them picked it up and rolled the dice.
THR: How long did the process take from inception to finished product?
Heidecker:I think a little more than a year. Probably six months from writing the script to getting it financed, and then the shoot took about a month, and two or three months of editing.
THR: That’s pretty fast!
Heidecker: Yeah, we had very little wiggle room.
THR: The film essentially lampoons the entire notion of making a “Hollywood movie.” What does it say about your own experiences in the business?
Wareheim: A lot of our work is based on real experiences of us moving to Hollywood from Philadelphia; coming from a kind of artistic film school environment to the douchey world of Hollywood. The characters are representations of what we see out here, you know, someone having their own personal poet. We liked the idea of lampooning filmmaking; the whole process of trying to make a hit, trying to make money.
THR: What do see you as your brand of comedy?
Wareheim: A lot of people consider us crazy artists. To be honest, we don’t. We’re not crazy guys, we’re actually very rational. The stuff that we think is funny is just the stuff that we think is funny in our heads and it’s not like we go out there to be like, “How can we do a zany-brained bit here?” And then the second part of it is making fun of things, like moviemaking or products or marketing.
THR: Veteran drama actor Robert Loggia plays a mobsterlike financier in the film. How in the world did you get him for the movie?
Heidecker: Well, we worked with our producer, Jon Mugar, who has also been with us from the beginning. For that character, we kept saying, 'Somebody like Robert Loggia would be great. You know, like a bad guy from old movies.' For some reason, it didn’t dawn on us to just ask Robert Loggia to do it. We worked with him years ago on our cartoon, so we kind of had a little in there. Some instincts might be to go with a comedian since we’re making a comedy, but Eric and I always try very carefully to only use comedians for certain things. We try mostly to get real actors or real people to make it feel as real as possible. And you can’t get a better bad guy than Loggia.
THR: Where did you shoot all the abandoned-mall sequences?
Wareheim: We shot everything in the parking lot at an abandoned place called the Desert Fashion Plaza in Palm Springs. Right in the heart of Palm Springs. It’s this place that was abandoned 15 years ago. It’s really weird. Our art department actually salvaged a bunch of stuff from the other stores to make these other bizarre stores. A lot of what you see in the movie is from that mall.
THR: I haven’t laughed as much watching a movie in a long time as I did watching yours. How do you get through the more absurd moments without totally cracking up?
Heidecker: There were a few times when exhaustion got the best of us and we became very silly and stupid and not in control. I think the scene where I’m giving Eric the Spanish fly on his tongue … if you look closely you can see tears in our eyes because we’ve been laughing and losing our minds. Honestly, the hardest part of making the movie was just the constancy of the schedule. On our show, we’d have a lazy schedule; Shoot for a couple of hours here and there, and we have breaks to go look at stuff and edit. The movie was 12 hours a day, every day, with directing as well and working with all these people in a big crazy mall. Just keeping the funny alive all day long, while you were trying to catch your breath.
THR: Well, it’s refreshing in any case that a funny movie made the feature competition. Sundance films tend to veer toward the serious.
Wareheim: It was interesting, last year we had a short in the festival called The Terrys. It starts as a real dramatic, serious, indie short film, then just digresses into total disgustingness. A woman is impregnated and gives birth on camera; really messed up. And it was interesting to see it in the shorts category — there are a lot of “serious” artists. But it was cool they got it and all laughed. I think it was a nice change.
Heidecker: The scariest thing about screening a comedy … if you screen a drama, you know, there’s no real way to tell in real time if people are enjoying it or not. But in a comedy, it’s like, if people aren’t laughing, it’s sort of scary.
THR: Do you think it’s possible to 'make it' in Hollywood while essentially satirizing the system at the same time?
Heidecker: I think there’s a fine, healthy tradition of, you know, the people on the fringes satirizing the process of Hollywood. We hate a lot of stuff, we find a lot of stuff horrible, so it’s nice to have some targets.
THR: Tim, you had a small role in Bridesmaids last year. Do either of you aspire to do more mainstream acting?
Heidecker: My relationship with Eric has always been just as a stepping stone. I’ve told him that many times.
THR: Do you have plans to return to TV anytime soon?
Wareheim: Well we have a brand-new season of Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule that premieres in March on Adult Swim.
THR: I spoke to John C. Reilly last fall about playing Steve Brule and he was surprisingly cagey about it. What does it mean to have Will Ferrell and John in your movie? Do they offer bridges to commercial success?
Wareheim: We developed a good relationship with them making Awesome Show. They got to improvise, do whatever they wanted; they really felt like it was an interesting atmosphere, different from a big Hollywood movie or TV show. I think that’s what turned them on to do the movie; it’s like they could help bring whatever they wanted to the characters and they knew it was going to be something really radically different. And that’s pretty exciting to people who are not used to it every day like we are.
Heidecker: We feel super lucky that we had the filet mignon cuts of comedy actors at our disposal. Will, just through being who he is and the company, literally allowed this movie to happen. And that should be acknowledged; that those guys believed in us and put their necks out and said, 'I’ll be in this movie. If you’re worried about people wanting to see this movie, I’ll be in it and maybe people will go see it for that reason.' And he couldn’t have been nicer, funnier and more patient with all us young hipster dudes with beards just running around. Eric and I just got to goof around with him for a couple days, and it was the best.