In late 2011, while shooting Rick Alverson’s movie The Comedy, Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington launched a janky movie review show that ribbed the “uhhhh” and “errrr”-proned podcasts popping up all over the Internet. On Cinema may have been a goof to kill boredom between takes, but it quickly evolved into a whole thing. Heidecker and Turkington’s new movie Mister America brings the gag to a major motion picture.
In the On Cinema universe, “Tim” and “Gregg” are two stooges blinded by their own vanity. Their enormous soap opera of stupidity, which has expanded over time from web shorts to an Adult Swim series to ARG-like social media storytelling, now involves killer vape pens wreaking havoc at an outdoor EDM festival. A recent five-hour performance piece called The Trial, set to have a special screening at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image in mid-November, suggests the possibilities are limitless for Tim and Gregg’s On Cinema personas.
“Our stuff is either ignored as being dumb, or shown in museums, it’s perfect,” Heidecker chuckles when I bring it up.
He also has a bit of a hangdog look admitting that it’s time to deal with the potential of “bad reviews” for Mister America, the first On Cinema-verse feature film, considering the whole thing began poking fun of movie critics.
“Every year I say I won’t read my reviews,” he says, but it’s hard not to. This is a man that is proud of his work, and while he understands it may not be for everyone, it is undoubtedly irksome when someone writes it off as slapped together. And he’s earned that right. Mister America and Tim’s other work with collaborators like Eric Wareheim and Rick Alverson is edgy, risky, and a lot smarter than most people think.
Mister America, which expands a bit of On Cinema backstory, is a mock political campaign documentary following Tim as he tries to get on the ballot to run for District Attorney in San Bernadino, California. The movie is, on its own weird terms, as invigorating as the legendary films by D.A. Pennebaker or the Robert Drew that it is lampooning. It is also a remarkable refutation of the Trump phenomenon, but in a cleverly roundabout way.
Despite being awakened early by, as he put it, “the sound of someone violently vomiting into the toilet in the room next to mine,” Heidecker was eager to discuss Mister America, which opens today in theaters before expanding to VOD on Oct. 11.
I read just yesterday that Brendan Gleeson, who is great, is going to be in a miniseries about Trump. We’re going to get a lot of films about Trump, but what I like about your movie is that it’s about Trump, but it isn’t about Trump.
A lot of times we don’t exactly know what we’re going to do until we do it, but someone told us, after a screening, that it was comforting to watch this Trumpian character lose and fail. As if this is how the world should be. It’s less satire about corrupt politics and more of an argument for a “normal” political process. To show that people like my character should not be taken seriously as a candidate.
When you are a kid and learn about America, you learn “No More Kings!” and how anyone can be the President. But then it’s like a guy like Trump or “Tim Heidecker” who can run, and win.
The judge in this movie says “we should value character” and, you know, we don’t need to state things a lot, because it is implicit, but yeah, Trumpian insanity [sighs]. Just yesterday he said “in my great and unmatched wisdom,” right? That’s something my character would definitely say. “100% of all crime!!!”
It’s amazing how On Cinema grew to become this whole, substantial part of your career.
Yes, through we’ve gotten some terrible press. You should read this one [review] in The Wrap. They approached On Cinema as “the joke is just that we keep doing it.” That is no longer the joke. It’s a lot of jokes. It’s a rich universe of stories and relationships. We’ve realized we can do so much with a small budget by just talking about things that have happened to me or Gregg, and then it expands to what happens on Twitter and Facebook, where we communicate in character.
People might dismiss it because it evolved haphazardly, but even if it has, so what?
It’s all about the end result.
To what extent does someone need to know On Cinema lore to dig into this movie?
When we started this, we weren’t thinking about a theatrically released movie. It would just be something we put up on the Adult Swim website, as maybe a half hour. But as we were doing it, we realized it was working. It felt right. Our editor gave us a rough, two-hour cut and said “I don’t know, this feels like a movie.”
Nathan Fielder [of Nathan for You] looked at it early on and said “guys, this isn’t just for the website. This needs a poster. It needs to get reviewed.” So then we looked to restructure the first half for people who hadn’t watched anything from us.
If you watch, say, Making A Murderer or any of the thousand murder documentaries on Netflix, you don’t know everything about these people. A good documentary feeds you the backstory and moves you along. We don’t bombard you with “a film critic who started an EDM festival — “
Who had a brain clot.
Yeah … there’s a lot. It’s just “a guy running for office” and restructured like a mystery. We’re following him, then we introduce Gregg and the murder stuff. Yes, it is a richer experience if you are a huge fan, but a layman with a general intellectual curiosity for a weird or off-beat thing will, hopefully, enjoy it. Maybe some jokes won’t connect, but we watched it with enough people to know it works.
Did you study previous campaign documentaries while prepping this?
Yes, and I love those kinds of movies in general, as does Gregg and [director] Eric Notarnicola. One in particular I tried to find is A Perfect Candidate, about Oliver North when he was running, but it’s out of print. I had to go to a library to get it and I was a little too lazy to do that. But I had seen it a lot, it used to run all the time on IFC or something. And the Weiner documentary is in the same style [...] The cinema verite, style, the on-the-go style, that was our style. We made this very quickly. We made this movie in three days.
Wait, that’s wild.
We had a day in San Bernardino, a day in the hotel, and then a day for other things, like Gregg’s interviews.
Everything in the hotel in one day??
It was just a weird wonderful day where everything worked out. Terri Parks, who plays my campaign manager, she was just great, and I knew what I was doing. I like to say, it was a three day shoot with eight years of development.
Did you have a script?
We do have a basic script, mostly for production purposes and organizing. A traditionally written script of about 40 pages, which gives the blueprint. The scenes appear in the movie as is. “A scene at the diner to do something something.”
Do you do many second takes, or do you try to film it like a documentary?
We try to make it like a documentary. We have two cameras going, but not to shoot it shot/reverse shot. If one camera is on me and if someone else speaks, move over to her, as Pennebaker or someone would do it.
But if you have a joke planted — like, off the top of my head — there is the woman in the hotel ballroom who introduces herself as “Ndidi” so you think, oh, god, awkward dad-joke “Tim” is going to make a “yes, indeed-y!” joke. And you wait for it and then, of course, there it is.
But that wasn’t set up. That’s the beauty of letting things happen.
Oh, that really was her name?
And you didn’t know it?
No. But I am, you know, open to the Universe. When I am in those situations [makes a Zen-like pause].
How do you know how much of an asshole to make the “Tim” character, which I’m sure is both a blessing and a curse in your life?
There has to be a sense of believability. Too far and it is clownish, and it takes you out of the scene. There’s a scene in an [African-American] barbershop, similar to a scene in The Comedy, where it’s the tension that drives it, so there is some holding back. And you are waiting for him to go really over the line. It’s all to make my character look bad, that’s why we “get away with it,” but you know, we’re making this for an audience that hopefully agrees with us on big issues like race and immigration and compassion and stuff like that. We want the audience to know that this character is not, you know, a good guy.
Does being in this oafish character relieve some stress for you?
Part of it is because I’m with a group I really love. But, yes, there is so much anger, and I get to turn it on. You don’t get to do it in life, so it is a cathartic outlet. I didn’t get to do it at the guy who woke me up with his vomiting this morning.
Your movies are made by, and I include myself in this group, privileged white guys, and they are very angry. Some might say “what right do they have to be angry?” but somehow they thread this needle well. I don’t think anyone has criticized you for that.
Well, when we do poke our heads out into the mainstream, as movies will do, we do get a discussion at a larger level. Like that review in The Wrap that suggested we were making fun of mass death. That review says “in light of the Orlando shooting and the Fyre Festival...”
Wait, what? Putting those two together on equal footing doesn’t make sense.
I know! But it goes on to say “Heidecker and Notarnicola have declared open season on this kind of …” [sighs]. We can make fun of the Fyre Festival. And we do. But this has nothing to do with the Orlando Shooting. Anyway, I bring this up because maybe it isn’t news that there’s something problematic about angry white men screaming and feeling entitled and stuff. But it’s our little thing, and it’s what we do! What else can I do?
When The Comedy came out, there was a guy in our basement in his twenties who smoked a lot of weed who said that movie spoke to him. “That movie is me. They are assholes, they are empty, they take nothing seriously and I need to change my life.” I personally had a conversation with some dude like that.
That guy needs to have a sit-down with [critic] A.O. Scott. He thought we were making a movie that celebrated those guys. We were so mad.
People know you in Hollywood. You were in Bridesmaids and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Do you ever get called in for meetings to create a more “traditional” comedy?
Nothing too serious. Every once in a while, you know, I’ll take meetings and they’ll be like, “we’re big fans. Come to us with ideas.” Honestly, I probably don’t have it in me right now. I check in on what is considered mainstream and, yeah, I get very bewildered about what that is.
The work you do is probably not the most lucrative, but, you’re probably doing okay.
I’m doing okay! And when a project like this happens I look around and think “maybe this will be the thing that becomes big” Right? There’s a treasured history of weird things that pop and become huge. It happens. Why not? I’m really good in this movie! I know that. But maybe I’m too good and people just think I am this rotten guy.
But it’s created another career, like the role I have in Us, which was directly related to Jordan Peele seeing The Comedy and liking it. So maybe someone will see this and say “we want that guy.” And who knows, maybe it can be anything, a period piece or something.
You should totally do a period piece. I just saw, at the New York Film Festival, a movie called First Cow, and there was a role perfect for “Tim” that Toby Jones played.
Is that the Kelly Reichardt movie?
I almost went up for a part in that.
You see? Okay, last question: Tim, you have a lot of dedicated fans and they know you for playing “Tim Heidecker.” If you go to the Coffee Bean in LA, do fans want to engage you in schtick? I feel like a fan of yours may feel entitled to start quoting shit at you?
Well, first, I love my fans. But it doesn’t happen too much. I’m a dad who lives in Glendale and nobody in Glendale knows who I am. I have to go to Silverlake or someplace like that to have those encounters. But my fans? Mostly people I would probably like if I got to know them. They are smart, funny and creative. A lot of people who work for us started as fans. They aren’t as annoying to be around if I was, you know, George Lucas, with his fans. I don’t have a problem with fans. I’m just genuinely flattered if I meet someone.
What’s next for you?
I’m going on tour with Eric Wareheim. We’re writing a two hour variety show. Sketches, musical numbers, dance routines. January and February. We’ll be at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. It’s going to be big; a stupid, stupid show. It’s what we do. We don’t get out there and talk about how we’re depressed.
Foremost, though, you remain a movie critic. What have you seen lately that you liked?
I’m really digging the Ken Burns country music documentary. And I loved the Scorsese Dylan documentary.
You gotta see The Irishman. Three-and-a-half hours long.
I would sit through ten-and-a-half hours.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.