'Billion Dollar' put-on

Writer/directors Tim Heidecker, left, and Eric Wareheim, from the film "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Writer/directors Tim Heidecker, left, and Eric Wareheim, from the film "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. (VICTORIA WILL / Associated Press)

Sundance lets loose Tim and Eric, a couple of filmmakers with Philly roots and an absurdist, anti-Hollywood world premiere.

Posted: January 26, 2012

PARK CITY, Utah - Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who met as Temple film students in the mid-1990s, last week prepared for the world premiere of their first feature, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, at the Sundance Film Festival.

But just before Sundance began, terrible news broke: They'd been Rango'ed. "Sundance gang," Heidecker posted on his Twitter feed, "B$M [Billion Dollar Movie] got Rango'd (large portions of our movie replaced with Rango outtakes) please ask #sundance to take out the Rango!"

Sundance had not, in fact, adulterated the movie with clips of an animated lizard - nor did Robert Redford break into Heidecker's room to watch him sleep, as he posted in a subsequent tweet. But within hours, word of the duo's faux predicament spread across the Internet, sparking outrage from fans and film buffs. Most were playing along with the absurdist humor of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which in five seasons on the Adult Swim network has won Heidecker and Wareheim a substantial and fiercely loyal audience.

"People just latched on and got what was funny about it, and there were people who didn't," Heidecker said in an interview after Billion Dollar Movie's Rango-free premiere. "It's unbelievable after all this time that there are still people who don't know if it's serious or not. I'm not ever going to be serious, so let's just get that over with."

In addition to Billion Dollar Movie, which is available on demand beginning Friday and in theaters in March, Heidecker and Wareheim also played parts in another Sundance entry, The Comedy. In spite of its title, that film is a dark and frequently disturbing exploration of the disaffected and amoral lives of Brooklyn hipsters. Wareheim is part of an amorphous onscreen clique that also includes former LCD Soundsystem singer James Murphy. Heidecker plays the lead, an idle trust-funder who's fond of challenging the unwary with his utter lack of intellectual restraint. While flirting with a pretty liberal-arts major at a party, he argues that Adolf Hitler was "an incredible cheerleader for his people" - apart, that is, from the whole genocide thing.

The Comedy's director, Rick Alverson, explained that he cast Heidecker with several other comedians, because the movie's characters are jerks "who are also really smart and funny." Heidecker's character has several fitful flirtations with manual labor, which seems to strike him as unimaginably exotic. The characters reek of material comfort and postgraduate smarts, even when they're stripped to their underwear and spraying each other with cheap beer.

"It's a horror film about the culture they've created," Heidecker said.

Billion Dollar Movie isn't nearly so abrasive, although it's full of moments designed to stimulate the audience's gag reflexes as well as their funny bones.

"We cross the line on taste issues all the time," Heidecker said, "but it depends on context. We're never going to go out there and say hateful, hurtful things because we think those things are funny, but if we have an idea that we want to talk about the way hateful people are, then it might be appropriate."

As with Awesome Show and its Adult Swim predecessor, Tom Goes to the Mayor, the aesthetic of Billion Dollar Movie is purposefully crude, drawing on the duo's affection for inept infomercials and cheesy computer graphics. In the film, Heidecker and Wareheim's characters, a couple of aspiring filmmakers named Tim and Eric, are given a billion dollars by a corporate behemoth to make the most expensive movie in history. They run through the money almost immediately, blowing it on fake tans and grapefruit-sized diamonds, and are forced to leave town before their corporate creditor attempts to extract its investment from their orange-hued hides.

Although the movie's Tim and Eric aren't explicitly from Philadelphia, Wareheim says their disregard for the movie industry's rules is intimately linked to their area upbringing. (Wareheim was raised in Audubon, Montgomery County; Heidecker in Allentown.)

"There's a movie within the movie commenting on big-budget Hollywood movies," Wareheim says. "Two idiots coming from Philly is not in the script, but it's definitely our expression of the Hollywood experience, the business part of it that we make fun of a lot." The movie, made with a budget closer to $3 million, opens with a raft of the production-company logos that so often pile up before a movie's opening shot, a long list of fake financiers that goes past funny to aggravating and back to funny again.

In a sense, Tim and Eric's worldview is pointedly anti-Hollywood. They embrace outdated visual effects of the kind that might have been part of a basic-cable commercial in the 1980s. Their love of the unhewn extends to their frequent use of nonprofessional actors, whose inconsistency and technical shortcomings give their work an unfinished quality, one that seems to encourage fans to fill in the gaps.

"A lot of that is from high school AV club and Temple University, where he had really horrible equipment," Wareheim says. "We realized we could make jokes out of jump cuts, out of bad toaster graphics." He laughs. "It's kind of the Tim and Eric style," he says drily. "It's all the rage."

Through Awesome Show, the pair have enjoyed working with well-known comedic stars such as Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis, and Will Forte. They asked them to portray regular guys in Billion Dollar Movie.

"That's why we use them, because they have this amazing ability to be that unique and crazy and different," Wareheim said. "We love those guys, they're amazing, but they're also talented enough to be insane, to go to this edge of lunacy."

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