At one point in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, one of the protagonists endures a penis piercing so visceral that it’s almost unwatchable— and that’s the point. The penis is, of course, very fake. But when the graphic scene unfolded at a screening during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the screams in the audience were very, very real. By the end of the movie, according to one report only two-thirds of the once-packed house remained in their seats. After the credits rolled, the film’s co-directors and stars, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, took the stage to answer for what they had done.
The crowd was a mix of unsuspecting moviegoers and diehard fans of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the wonderfully disconcerting sketch comedy show that aired for five seasons on Adult Swim. When members of the audience asked questions like “Who got wood first?” and “What the fuck?” the two comedians hurled insults into the crowd, who lapped it up. “I don’t think anybody really takes it seriously,” Wareheim says of their aggressive post-screening shtick. “If you goof on somebody or yell at them, usually the audience laughs, so I think they understand that we’re not actually upset or anything.”
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie represents the culmination of a dream that began when Heidecker, 36, met Wareheim, 35, when they were film students at Temple University in the mid ’90s. A feature film was always their goal, but they never imagined the twisty—and twisted— road they’d travel to get there. “We fell into TV as a sideways move,” Wareheim admits. After one of their heroes, Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame, responded favorably to some cheaply made shorts they sent him, Heidecker and Wareheim got the confidence they needed to pursue their brand of comedy, which was a fresh blend of the awkward and the macabre, usually involving a public-access aesthetic and characters culled from the bowels of hell. As their cult following grew, famous admirers like Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifiankis, and Will Forte, all of whom make appearances in their feature debut—became frequent collaborators.
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is partly an indictment of Hollywood’s autopilot moviemaking, but also a self-aware attempt to adhere to the very tropes it lampoons. (After ninety minutes, the heroes will learn an important lesson.) It follows two friends, also named Tim and Eric—“Those guys are a lot dumber than we are,” says Heidecker—who were given one billion dollars by the Schlaang corporation to make a movie. Instead, they blow their budget on diamond suits and makeovers, and turn in a three- minute film starring a Johnny Depp impersonator. To pay back the angry investors, they take up an offer by a deranged mall manager (Ferrell) to revive his decaying shopping center for a billion-dollar fee. “We didn’t want to make an experimental art film,” says Heidecker of the more traditional— by their standards—storytelling in Billion Dollar Movie. “We wanted it to be more watchable and entertaining, not just a nightmare. It’s still pretty wild, it’s just not a ‘fuck you’ to the audience.”
But some audiences at Sundance didn’t see it that way. “I think we pissed off a lot of people,” Heidecker says, referring to the walkouts. “It’s understandable,” adds Wareheim. “Sundance audiences are not exactly our key demo, but it’s fun to see the walkouts. There are a couple scenes in the movie that are whoppers.” Those include a go–for–broke sex scene involving a blow-up doll and strap-ons, which is intercut with an unsettling episode involving character actor Ray Wise, a coterie of cherubic boys, and a bathtub. Wareheim calls it “our ultimate brown joke.”
For Heidecker and Wareheim, who normally reside on comedy’s lunatic fringe, Sundance was a mainstream debut of sorts. Their distributor, Magnolia Pictures, threw them a lavish dinner at a mountaintop hotel, which they were chauffeured to in an RV that doubled as a karaoke bar. “It was very scary,” says Wareheim, recalling the treacherous journey. “The driver would take his hands off the steering wheel and dance to the music while we’re trying to traverse these insane mountains.” Once inside, they were astonished that all the swank was in their honor. “It was really ridiculous and over-the-top,” says Heidecker. “I think there might have been some confusion that maybe Will Ferrell was going to show because—not that he wants this—there was a jeweler named Roberto Coin who had a display in the dining room, and everybody got a gift card for a Roberto Coin necklace. We just looked around at all our friends, and were like, What the fuck is going on?”
Later that night, following their premiere, Heidecker and Wareheim got a dose of Sundance’s infamous, zoo-like party circuit when they attended their after–party at the Blue Iguana on Main Street. “These parties are generally for people who haven’t seen each other in a while to have a drink and talk,” says Heidecker, “but these DJs have turned it into a rave, where nobody can hear each other and if you want to communicate, you have to scream and everybody wakes up the next morning with no voice.” Wareheim adds: “It’s the kind of L.A. thing you want to escape. When you’re in Park City, you want to focus on this positive, independent film vibe, and then you go to a party and you see lines around the block with douchebags. At our after–party I knew, like, four people, and that was in our roped-off VIP section.”
But despite its growing reputation as a ten-day excuse for people named Paris to get plastered, the Sundance Film Festival is still a place where filmmakers go to have their films seen and voices heard. That means an endless parade of interviews. Heidecker and Wareheim surprised many reporters who expected to question their onscreen characters, only to find two normal dudes. “If an interviewer treated us like our characters, Tim and I usually shut it down right away because we don’t like engaging in that kind of thing,” says Wareheim. “It depends on our energy level,” adds Heidecker, “but it’s too much work to keep up some kind of Andy Kaufman routine.”
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie debuted on video on demand shortly after its Sundance premiere, but it finally hits theaters this month. Heidecker and Wareheim already know their fan base will remain faithful, but if they can shock and awe a virgin audience, they’ll be okay with that. “Hopefully it’s not going to be like Bucky Larson, or one of those movies where everybody can agree that it was a disaster,” says Heidecker. “It’s going to be a matter of personal preference, but it’ll be a relief to know that it’s not just a universal repudiation of us.”
Illustration by Amy Steinhauser