America: The Motion Picture Director Matt Thompson Interview

America: The Motion Picture is a blockbuster animated comedy available on Netflix now. The raucously hilarious patriotic satire features a completely ridiculous and nonsensical account of the American Revolutionary War, where George Washington, Sam Adams, Thomas Edison, Paul Revere, Geronimo and John Henry team up to take on Benedict Arnold (who just so happens to be a werewolf) and the British army.

After America: The Motion Picture arrived on Netflix, we talked with director Matt Thompson (Archer, Sealab 2021) about balancing the ludicrous comedy throughout the movie, some of the best bits, and deleted scenes that were too expensive or too ridiculous. Plus, we found out how that perfect Swordfish parody made it into the final cut.

I loved America: The Motion Picture. This movie is so funny. It’s just nonsensically ridiculous historical satire. It cracked me up the whole way through, so great job.

Thank you for saying that. We tried to just have absolute much fun as we could, to pack as much comedy as we could, but still trying to keep a sense of heart and a story to go along with it. But more importantly it’s supposed to be a wild ride that you just have to just turn your brain off and let it go.

Yeah, for sure. Speaking of which, I was actually wondering how you figure out where the line is as far as when something is too ridiculous or doesn’t work in a movie like this where the comedy comes from things being so insane and nonsensical? One of the things that stuck out to me, and I don’t mean this to sound like a nitpick, just so you know, but Martha Dandridge says “Hashtag blessed,” at one point, but then a few seconds later, she doesn’t know what a phone is. So I’m just wondering if there are any rules that you establish to keep things from going off the rails?

As far as things going too far, we did several times, and things kept getting cut out of the movie because we’re like, “Okay, that’s too ridiculous. The story’s getting offline.” And that came from continuing to screen the movie about once every three months with [producers Phil] Lord [and Chris] Miller and then saying, “Scale this back, you’re getting to nuts, take it easy. Give me more heart, give me more character development and story.” They were integral to try to keep us in line, because there are times where we were even going more insane than when you saw.

A particular example would be the credits scene in the movie. There’s a small coda scene and that scene represents something that used to be in the movie, and people have to try and figure out what it is. That was a large part of the movie that became too insane. So that’s an example of something that got cut out because we had the streamline it. As far as people saying “hashtag blessed” and “What’s a car?” and then there’s a vehicle in the next scene, I was just trying to have fun. I understand that it doesn’t make sense sometimes, but that’s America too. It’s like we’re dumb and smart at the same time, we’re vulgar and thoughtful at the same time. And so I tried not to care so hard about those little small logical things.

Yeah. I think that’s fair, because if you start trying to figure out the rules and you restrict yourself too much then you start losing sight of the comedy.

There was constant conversation with the writer, Dave Callaham, that was like, “Matt, you realize you’re trying to put logic rules on a movie where a werewolf biting the head off of Abraham Lincoln to start the revolutionary war is one of your more normal things. So, don’t talk to me about rules about what you can and cannot say in an individual scene. All rules are already out the door by the time you get five minutes into the movie. So just hang up and enjoy the ride.”

For sure. Speaking of Dave Callaham, as I understand it, he wrote this movie roughly 10 years ago and it was originally intended to be a live-action script. How did you get involved and how did the project change once it turned into an animated project?

Dave did write this 10 years ago to the day that it came out on Netflix on June 30.

Oh, wow!

And the history of the project is Dave was doing something with Lord and Miller, and he wanted them to have a comedy spec, because he’s mostly known as a big budget action movie writer. So he wrote this script on a lark thinking, “I’m constantly writing these things about action movies, a group of people band together to fight something.” And he thought, what would be the greatest origin story that he could tell, the origin of this team? And it’s the origin of the team that went to fight the British to establish our freedom. So he started with that and they were reading his spec script, I believe on the set of one of the 21 Jump Street movies, I can’t remember which one. When Channing [Tatum] read it, he’s like, “Why don’t we just do this? Let’s just do this.” And then it quickly became, “You know what, let’s do it as a cartoon. And we can take that to wherever we want it to go.” I was brought in after Channing, after Lord and Miller, to come in and direct it.

So how did the project change once you came on board? Was there a rewrite of the script since it had been so long since it was written? I’m sure you brought some of your comedic sensibilities from Archer and whatnot to the production.

Yeah. The script has been rewritten many times between Dave and myself, with Dave always involved in helping making sure we’re still telling the same tale. There are just a lot of things in the original script that we couldn’t do. A lot of people, from the comments that I’ve read online, wanted us to take harder shots at America and stuff like that. I believe that Dave’s original script might have been a bit darker, might’ve been a bit biting, and we wanted to tell a tale more about let’s just have a good time. Let’s just tell some jokes. We do have some stuff to say and it’s important to say it, but we all felt as group that if we get too hard at taking an opinion one way or the other about what’s happening in America today, it becomes a different movie than just, “Let’s have some fun, let’s have Paul Bunyan battle a giant mech Big Ben clock.” So we focus more on the wild ride than on telling a straight-up political satire.

On that same subject, I was wondering if there was ever any concern about the movie potentially being perceived as too jingoistic. Obviously it’s meant to be satirically patriotic and the founding fathers are portrayed as being these douchebros who are kind of idiots as well, but was there ever any concern that it might feel like too much of a gung-ho American movie at a time when America maybe wasn’t on the best footing?

There is a concern for that. And I’m concerned for people that don’t stick with the movie past 15 or 20 minutes in, because it can feel like that at the front, until we start seeing other people of color come into the movie, other voices besides white males as the movie rolls on. Then you begin to see the point of us trying to say, “Wouldn’t it been great if the leader of our founding young nation listened to all voices, listened to people of color, listened to women and learned and grew? Wouldn’t we be in a better place now today if that was true?” That became the thing where we started off as bro fantasy almost, but also hopefully [it becomes about] what those bros learned along the way. And that becomes the point of the movie, all culminating in the final theme where we try to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable for our history and our current path.

Absolutely. All right, so I wanted to dig into some specific bits in this movie. I have to ask about the hacking bit with George Washington that is a basically shot-for-shot recreation of a sequence from Swordfish. How did that come together?

That was Dave Callaham’s idea, and he fought to keep that all the way, because a lot of people are like, “Nobody’s going to get this.” And I’m so happy that that joke is in there for people that realize what it is. For me, that’s what’s known as the worst representation, the silliest representation, of what it means to hack a computer network. Anybody who knows a lot about computers is just like, “Oh my God, have you seen that scene? That’s not hacking.” So we wanted to say, we’re trying to make a very silly fun movie here and we’re, in some sense, making fun of our own pop culture. There’s a lot of movie references and things, but they’re in there to say this is our shared history, this is our shared touchstones and we’re trying to comment upon that. So what’s the dumbest way George can crack a code? Well, it’s Swordfish, and there’s even a very small nod in the background with a couple of shots where there’s a giant swordfish on the wall to try to let people know what I’m doing.

That’s so good. I also love that afterwards they have the little conversation where they talk about, “Was it too self-indulgent?”

Yeah, because it was. That’s just me talking to myself like, yeah, the whole thing is self-indulgent and that’s the point, America’s self-indulgent.

There’s another great bit where Abe Lincoln talks about a big budget dream sequence for George Washington that was too expensive, so they had to tone it down. Is that something that really got axed or is that just a fun joke?

Yep. It’s actually there. In fact, the picture that Lincoln holds up in that scene was a board from the scene as it was. That scene was 100% happening, but it was going to be expensive and we’re on a little bit of a smaller budget here than you would find in your regular big star cartoon movie. They couldn’t afford it. So that was me saying, “Nah, can’t afford it. Let’s make a nod to it.” That scene was 1000% boarded and happening.

Are there any others favorite gags that you have that didn’t make it in the movie scenes that just got cut for one reason or another?

My favorite thing that got cut in the movie, and it was in the movie for so long, and I wanted it to stay. There’s a nod to it in the credits, about one minute into the credits there’s a small coda scene. You meet some characters that you haven’t met on screen before, but yet we’ve talked about them throughout the movie. At one point, they were throughout the scene and because it just got too insane, too crazy we had to let that go. So that is me lamenting the fact that I had to finally let that through-line joke go, but I put it back in there at the end. It’s just a five-second coda and if people see the movie they, and they see that coda scene, they can pretty much figure out what was happening there.

One of the other specific things that I wanted to ask about, because this happens in a lot of Lord and Miller animated projects, and I was wondering how this kind of gag comes about. There’s these little moments that are just added throw away lines of dialogue from minor characters. One of my favorite bits like that in this movie cracked me up so hard. I’ve watched the movie twice now, and I lose it when Sam Adams asked George Washington what America is, and he’s so confused about it. One of his frat bros gets much more adamant about the question and just yells with so much intensity, “FUCKIN’ TELL US!” I want to know how little bits like that come about.

That specific bit is a callback from my own past. I used to make a show for Adult Swim called Frisky Dingo. There were characters in there called the Xtacles, who were these bros in big max suits that used to fight people. So we considered the fraternity brothers our version of the Xtacles from Frisky Dingo. All they are is loud beer-drinking dudes with bad ideas, and they just scream shit. So that is my staff here yelling us stuff, that’s┬áNeal Holman, the longtime director of Archer whose now on some other projects for me. It’s the Xtacles, just guys with too much power, too much beer, and too much loudness.

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America: The Motion Picture is available on Netflix right now.

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