'Mister America' Is a Hilarious Sadsack Extension of the 'On Cinema' Universe
Mister America was made for fans, on a shoestring budget in three days. If you are not a "fan," have never heard of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkingon's Adult Swim movie review series On Cinema at the Cinema, and expect Mister America to be a breezy mockumentary about Heidecker's fake run for the San Bernardino District Attorney's office, this is probably not the film for you. But anyone who appreciates off-beat comedies or anything that's run late night on Adult Swim (including Heidecker's earlier long-running series Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!) will have an easy time keeping up with the deadpan jokes as Heidecker stumbles through a thoroughly shitty campaign for an office he has absolutely no qualifications to hold.
How did this campaign come to be? Well: Years and years of On Cinema, the podcast and the series and its segments and Oscar specials, and its spinoff properties built to this moment. Heidecker and Turkington have played dementedly solipsistic versions of themselves -- and sometimes characters of those characters in, say, the spoof spy series Decker -- since 2011's The Comedy, directed by Rick Alverson, killing time in between takes by recording the earliest podcast episodes. Since then, On Cinema has ballooned into an extended universe that gives Marvel a run for its money. In between then and now, the pair of movie reviewers, awarding practically every film they've talked about on the show "five bags of popcorn" and maybe an extra flourish, have been through a lot, their antagonism for each other roiling with each gaffe and "phase" the opportunistic Heidecker involves himself in. There are far too many to name here, but most relevant to Mister America is Heidecker's douchey rock n' roll persona who starts a band named DKR, gets into mixing his own vaping juices, and starts the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, where he sells these vape rigs, which kill a bunch of people, leading to his next turn as a bombastic lawyer who represents himself in the five-hour courtroom special The Trial where he was being tried for manslaughter in San Bernardino County and was acquitted due to a mistrial.
Don't worry, though: Mister America is diligent in explaining exactly what you need to know to "get" the run for the DA's office against incumbent Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), who unsuccessfully prosecuted Heidecker, now with a personal vendetta against Rosetti to clean out the "rat problem." Styled as a documentary, of course, the film presents itself made by "rookie" director Josh Lorton -- who is actually the longtime director of On Cinema and its various iterations since 2013, Eric Notarnicola, who was also a writer and editor on Nathan for You, and wrote for Sacha Baron Cohen's Showtime series Who Is America? -- following Heidecker's campaign, which is being run by Toni Newman (Terri Parks), the juror responsible for the Electric Sun Desert mistrial. Through its hour-and-a-half runtime, Mister America traces the minutiae of collecting enough signatures to get Heidecker, perpetually drinking Bud Lite while Newman sips on comically overpoured glasses of red wine, on the ballot, with Turkington always lurking nearby. I'll give it five bags of popcorn, and a Blu-Ray DVD of Ant-Man (which Turkington starred in as Scott Lang's Baskin-Robbins manager) -- for the fans.
Ahead of its October 9 release, Thrillist spoke with Notarnicola over the phone to talk about making a feature-length extension of On Cinema, why bad reviews from critics don't really matter, vaping, and having the best fan community in comedy.
Thrillist: Mister America builds on seven years of a series and its spinoffs. How did you approach bringing in all of this archival material to help pad the story for casual On Cinema fans, or non-fans, versus having Mister America be a standalone story? At what point did you cut yourself off from including something about the Delgados or other arcs within On Cinema?
Eric Notarnicola: When we decided to make this mock documentary, we knew that we would have an opportunity to open it up to people that were not necessarily fans of the On Cinema universe, and didn't know anything about it. Because in a documentary, you know, you have to explain information about these characters, like you would if they were real. So we knew that would be a good chance to tell some of the backstory to people that might not be familiar with it. And it was certainly a balance to figure out how much of that is necessary to tell the story, what things including what not to include, and our editor, Sascha Stanton-Craven, was super, super helpful in crafting that balance, and deciding what's exactly necessary for each moment in the movie to make sense and what we can leave for people to discover on their own.
This is sort of an alienating movie for non-fans or people who don't "get" the humor -- I don't know if you read reviews, but the earliest ones weren't particularly kind. One suggested that Tim "really should have run for San Bernardino DA" for this to have been more plausible.
Notarnicola: Yeah, yeah, I have read that review. The idea behind this was to make something that exists purely in the On Cinema universe, and it's just for people that have been following the story and want to continue it. So that was our primary goal, and it's what we really wanted to accomplish with this. I think we saw an opportunity to perhaps widen, or at least get people interested in the On Cinema universe through it. Basically, we really made this for fans, and realized that we could open it up just a little bit to people that might be interested in this sense of humor, but don't know all the backstory necessarily.
There are definitely going to be people that aren't into the type of comedy that Tim and Gregg make with this series, and they're not going to like it, whether they know the backstory about the Delgados or not. So I think that we didn't want to make something that was too broad. We still wanted to make this for the fans and the people following the story. And, you know, as far as that review goes, we weren't looking to make something that was like a prank on the world, or like some kind of big political, Sacha Baron Cohen-style intersect with reality. We were trying to tell this story, and the best way to tell parts of this were to have it intersect with the real world. We weren't trying to actually interfere in any elections or create some kind of massive real-world prank with this. It's more about the characters and telling their story. And I think that's what On Cinema is focused on, and that's what we're trying to do with this movie too. The other thing when there's a review that gives a suggestion on how they would have made the movie, it's rarely something that aligns with what we would have wanted to do [laughs].
Why did you decide that Tim's DA run was the story to tell in feature-length movie form, instead of, like, a Decker movie or even The Trial?
Notarnicola: One of the interesting things to me about On Cinema is that so much of it is indirect, in that you're not necessarily watching what the story is, you're watching people talk about it in the side that they mention in between movie reviews on their movie review show. There's all these different formats we're playing with, but the main story of these two characters is not really seen in a direct way. So in The Trial, we continued that process by having seen the aftermath of this disaster. We had talked a little bit about perhaps trying to recreate some footage of the actual festival, but it just it felt too... It's just too gritty to see it for real. So there's something interesting about these secondary pieces of media that are referencing other events. And in a way, that's a lot of the way that we see events in reality, is through these lenses. So having a lens of a court TV trial proceeding was a really interesting mechanism for us to keep telling these stories in indirect ways. And then as far as the documentary, that felt just like a natural progression. I don't think we ever set out to say "we want to make an On Cinema movie" at any point. I just felt that after The Trial, we sort of had this idea of making a mock documentary. It really came story first rather than "let's make a movie, what could it be about?"
How far did you get at attempting to recreate the music festival?
Notarnicola: We were just looking for a big empty field to shoot in and, and, you know, we didn't have the resources or the budget -- we made this movie for a tiny, tiny fraction amount of money that you would normally make something for. So, you know, we couldn't put on a giant festival. We had to get creative with how to present these larger setpieces. And usually, that involved telling people about it, talking about it, seeing the aftermath, rather than the actual event itself.
How did you go about mapping the movie out, leading up to the climax where Tim and Gregg clash in this debate that neither of Tim's opponents show up to in the hotel?
Notarnicola: We had written an outline and scripts for the movie. And inside of each scene, there's an enormous amount of freedom for Tim and Gregg to improvise and to kind of follow where the characters are taking them. But we definitely knew what we wanted to get out of each scene overall, but still giving them the freedom to follow what they want. So we definitely knew there was gonna be a clash between them in that scene. And Gregg was going to sort of keep interfering in Tim's election attempts and his campaign and in the creation of the documentary, which was something that we really enjoyed, as, you know, thinking about what -- this guy is essentially stalking the documentary crew and trying to weasel his way into the movie.
This movie is basically the culmination of this insane vaping storyline, which came to a head long before the current moral panic about vaping started -- and it's much different here considering Tim, the character, is clearly in the wrong -- but I'm curious how you were thinking about that whole arc before and in light of current events.
Notarnicola: I think we were pretty surprised at how real life had begun to imitate some of the plot points that we had developed for On Cinema. These are all based on real -- like, we didn't come up with the idea of vaping, we started seeing people do it and thought it was kind of a funny thing. So you know, I think that just goes to show Tim and Gregg's really unique lens that they view the world through and they're able to find these things that are funny before other people might necessarily catch onto it or before it becomes a big thing.
But they're always looking around, I think, at things in the world that are interesting or funny to them. And vaping was one that kind of caught our eye early on, as well as the idea of EDM festivals where there's a chance for... there was an actual festival that was created in Los Angeles that actually turned into a really popular festival. But the first couple iterations of it, the first couple of years, there was, like, not enough bathrooms. They were underprepared for it. I'd heard these horror stories of people that would go and it was just a nightmare. That was kind of the early idea behind him putting on this festival and being sort of not prepared for the immense path it represented. And then almost a month or two after we had come up with that and started talking about this Electric Sun Music Festival, then Fyre Festival came out, and became this phenomenon of, like, how funny it is that this festival turned into a disaster. So it was just luck and a weird, I don't know, clairvoyance on Tim and Gregg's part, where they can kind of see these things before they become huge international jokes. Or disasters, depending on how you look at it. People dying from vaping is not a funny thing when it happens in real life. But at the time, no one had really died from it [laughs], so we felt okay to joke about it.
So, you were teased to appear on episode 3 of On Cinema as Josh Lorton to talk about Mister America [ed. note: "Josh" is a no-show in the episode, and Tim gives him a special "shame on you" for "going off the grid"], which I presume that, like basically every other movie talked about on the show, Tim has not actually seen. Can you tease what's to come for the rest of this season? Will Tim be obsessed with the outcome of the race, in addition to promoting Moneyzap.com and praying? Or are these decisions you can make as you go?
Notarnicola: Well, as the timeline of the show allows, Tim has already sort of had a couple months to get over his election loss. You are now talking about On Cinema, which is airing currently. So I think that the release of Mister America is certainly going to weigh on Tim's psyche a bit, and you'll see his reactions to it in upcoming episodes. I don't want to give anything away. But it's something that is going to affect him and you'll see his reaction to it. It's certainly a driving factor of this season.
I'm sure you guys think about this a lot, but I think that's why so many people obsess over On Cinema because there is this continuum; Mister America doesn't exist in isolation. There is a before and after the movie in the On Cinema universe, which has a mounting story that spans so many media properties that still intersect.
Notarnicola: It's so much fun for us to be able to make something that is not bound to any one particular format, or genre, or style of creating media. I mean, like, half of the On Cinema storylines take place on Twitter, between Tim and Gregg interacting back and forth. There's a book now; it's just really fun to just not be limited by a specific format, and to explore whatever format or way of telling the story interests us at the moment, or whatever fits the particular storyline the best. Some storylines, we feel like play out better during On Cinema, the show, some we hold for the Oscar special, others are better for online. And then eventually The Trial became another way of expressing that, and the movie is yet another. So we all enjoy following these hundreds of different places to get the story, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with everything, so now On Cinema fans have taken it upon themselves to create these guides. There's a fan in particular named Justin Gaynor who makes this incredible website that's called the On Cinema Timeline that allows you to trace every single story point in the universe across the different formats and track down certain characters or plots. He also makes these recap videos that are really helpful for people who want to get into the On Cinema universe for the first time.
It's really amazing how much work people put into it, and it's a labor of love for them. There's definitely a sense of community creating this, and we get to know the fans, we get to know the people who are interested in this kind of stuff and they think a lot like us and they're interested in the same kind of things we are. So it's a very communal relationship that Tim, Gregg, myself, and the people that watch the show have, which is I think really special. And it's fun to make things with them in mind. And they also get to participate, as well. I mean, there's not a lot of comedy out there where the fans get to participate as well as just watch.
It is very special! And the fans interact with each other in a way that isn't horribly toxic unlike most any other online communities.
Notarnicola: You mean the Tim-heads versus the Gregg-heads? Yeah, it's like a friendly rivalry that they sort of get to play a character as well in the show, which I think must be fun for them. It's very gratifying for us to get to watch these social media posts or interactions on Twitter. And so many of the fans are also like, very funny -- they make us laugh all the time with their contribution to the story as the loyal supporters of these movie reviewers, and they pick sides. It's really fun.