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Screenwriter Dave Callaham And Director Matt Thompson Talk America: The Motion Picture - Exclusive Interview

"America: The Motion Picture" is the story of the American Revolution. Well, sort of, kind of. A completely anachronistic retelling of America's founding, the adult animated comedy sees a chainsaw-wielding George Washington (Channing Tatum) take on the Brits after his best friend Abe Lincoln (Will Forte) is killed by werewolf Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg). The proverbial foot does not come off the metaphorical pedal for a second after that.

The movie is directed by Matt Thompson and written by Dave Callaham. Thompson has a long background in animation. A longtime creative partner of Adam Reed, Thompson has been instrumental in shows like "Archer," "Sealab 2021," and "Frisky Dingo." This is his first feature-length movie. Callaham has a background in action movies — he wrote "The Expendables," 2021's "Mortal Kombat," and "Wonder Woman 1984." He's also penned the screenplay for "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and is attached to the "Into The Spider-Verse" sequel with Lord and Miller.

Looper spoke with Thompson and Callaham. They told us how they assembled their murderer's row of a cast, talked live action vs. animation action, and stressed the importance of not messing around with fireworks.

Working with Lord and Miller

Matt Thompson: It's insane, isn't it? I mean, I can't believe that somebody gave us money to make this revisionist tale of history. It's a quite insane movie.

I'm glad you're the one who started with that and not me.

Matt Thompson: Yeah. The best way to describe this thing, I think Dave told it to me a long time ago, which is, it's the story of the founding of America as if that tale was told by an absolute moron. And we are those morons.

What's it like working with Lord and Miller? Because those guys are geniuses.

Matt Thompson: Yeah, it's amazing. It really is. I learned so much from them in this process. I've been doing this basic job for 20 years. I've been making adult animated comedy cartoons for 20 years, and I've never learned as much in the short period of time as I've learned from these two guys about how they tell stories and why they tell them.

But my favorite remembrance of one time with them was, we would screen the movie for them about once every three months. We'd look at a cut, see how we're doing, "what do you think," they'd give us some feedback. I remember one Monday morning, I was showing them a cut of the movie. It was about a year ago. And Chris was ... so it's a Monday morning, and I just spent the evening on Sunday night watching them accept the Oscar for "Spider-Verse." And so, that person walked in the door 12 hours later and you go, "Yes, I think I should listen to what they have to say." And Dave has worked with them for a long time, haven't you, Dave?

Dave Callaham: Yeah, I've known the guys for quite some time and I'm working with them now on something else. And they are geniuses of storytelling. I don't think that's a particularly hot take, so I don't probably need to elaborate. But they are. The thing that they do is they are so empathetic about the way that they approach character, even in movies like ours, where you might not probably need to. But they always go above and beyond because they want people to care about their characters. And then on top of that, those two guys just truly believe that you can always try to do better. You can always be the joke. And they will iterate and iterate and iterate until you have all of the best stuff. And it's really refreshing because you don't do that all the time. And also, they're geniuses. So it works out.

Animating America

So, the animation in this movie's really good. It's just really slick, really beautifully done. Could you walk me through how the animation came together for this?

Matt Thompson: Sure. I own an animation company in Atlanta, Georgia called Floyd County Productions. And we've made a lot of animated shows over the years, we're mostly known for making a show called "Archer." And we have just put together a really extraordinary fighting force of animators over the years. And this is, I would say, the greatest-looking thing that we've ever made. And we tried our best to really, really make 2D animation imbued with as much of a hint of 3D as we could, to give it everything we got. I would say that final battle sequence when the British army faces off against the ragtag American crew, that's the hardest sequence that I've ever attempted in 20 years of doing this. And it took us, a small group of people just working on that battle scene, probably four or five months.

Wow. Also, fun fact, I'm the big "Archer" fan on the interview team. I spoke with Amber, Lucky, and John. They are wonderful people.

Matt Thompson: They are.

You got Lucky Yates, Amber Nash, and Judy Greer for this. How hard was it to convince them to get on board with this?

Matt Thompson: Oh, it was great. Lucky and Amber both live in Atlanta, Georgia, where I live. And so I will frequently see Lucky and Amber for beer. They can't get too far away from me. Judy is just a delight. She makes everything that she touches better. I've never had a session with Judy in 12 years where I didn't say, "Well, that got better." She says silly things, she's a very, very good actress. And she just brings a lightness to everything, and it kills me. And both Amber and Lucky are just great improv comics themselves, and can bring a lot of comedy to stuff.

From live action to animated action

Dave, I have a question for you. You come from an action movie background, but is this your first foray into animation?

Dave Callaham: It is. Yeah. It's crazy.

How do you translate big action "Expendables" kinds of movies into animated movies? How does that translation work for you?

I mean, for me, I can't speak to how other people do it. And again, I've benefited from Lord and Miller being on all of the animation projects I've been on, so I tend to be able to defer to geniuses. But I think for me, personally, the only real difference was realizing that the scale and the scope and the vision of what I'm writing, it can blow up quite a bit with animation. The first version of the script was always fairly large and unmakeable as a live-action movie. It was never really intended to be made at all. It was just sort of a goof.

And once we started working on it as an animated project, I just realized the way the budgeting works is very different — you can write as big as you can think. And Matt could accomplish what I was thinking. And so, it really opens things up from a storytelling perspective. It allows you to do really crazy stuff, that even ... I've obviously worked at Marvel and some of the other places, and even those places, you have that real conversation about how you're going to accomplish these things. But the animation, you just say it and then it's happening. And so, that's super fun for a writer.

Influencing Spider-Verse 2

So, I guess you can't talk too much about this, but I know you're on board for "Spider-Verse 2." Did this movie influence how you made "Spider-Verse 2"?

Dave Callaham: We are still making "Spider-Verse 2," so I think there's still a lot to be determined. [Laughs] But I think, mostly, just this movie deepens the relationship that I have with Phil and Chris. And this one being the one that we were working on first, it was very helpful for me to learn from Matt sort of the ins and outs of animation, because it's such a different storytelling medium than what I'm used to doing as a live-action writer. So that enabled me to go into the "Spider-Verse" process with a lot more understanding of how we were going to write and how things got done in the animation world. So for me, mostly, it was just an amazing animation school experience.

Matt Thompson: Is it true that in "Spider-Verse 2," that Spider-Man now has chainsaw arms? Is that right?

Dave Callaham: Yes. And Will Forte plays Abraham Lincoln in "Spider-Verse 2." [Laughs]

Matt Thompson: [Laughs] That's not true. We're just joking.

Dave Callaham: Yeah. I suppose it could be.

We're just going to publish that as if it's true. Nobody will know.

Dave Callaham: I was just going to point out that Will Forte has played Abraham Lincoln in three different animated Lord and Miller productions at this point. So you never can tell.

The amazing cast

You guys have an amazing cast in here. When you were writing, did you have this cast in mind or did things just fall into place perfectly?

Dave Callaham: On the writing side, no. I mean, again, I was writing it primarily early. The early part of the process was just me writing comedy for the sake of writing something that I could show people as a goof. But then Channing Tatum came on as a producer and actually got excited about it as a producible feature. We brought Matt in and all of the casting beyond Channing happened after that stage. Matt can talk about that a little bit.

Matt Thompson: Yeah. We didn't have a casting agent. We just reached out to people that we wanted. We've all been doing this long enough that we felt that we knew who would be best for these roles. And we just walked out and asked them. And then the great thing about having partners like Lord and Miller and Channing Tatum is people are like ... It's a crazy story. And who would sign on to a story where we're saying that Paul Bunyan and Big Ben get in a battlefield fight?

People aren't going to sign on for the story, but when Lord and Miller and Channing Tatum give it their blessing, then you call somebody and they're like, "Cool. Let's talk about it." And so we were able to reach out to the people that we thought that best fit those roles. And it is a murder's row that you can just be like, "I'm so thankful that each one of these people brought something unique to it." From Channing's incredible enthusiasm to Jason Mantzoukas as Sam Adams, the inventor of beer. I do not know anybody on this earth that can create more comedy on top of this beat than Jason. Bobby Moynihan, he plays Paul Revere, who is kind of a little bit of a softer, more gentle guy. And Bobby still found ways to be funny inside of keeping it feeble.

Olivia Munn played Thomas Edison, who's kind of the brains of our fighting force. And the thing that I loved about Olivia is not only did she bring comedy to it, but she brought a lot of strength to it. And she didn't let a lot of these guys get away with their white privilege around her. And she held people accountable. Raoul Max Trujillo I met from the FX show "Mayans," and Raoul, he is Geronimo to me. He's just the coolest guy in the room when you meet him. And he was cool enough to kind of speak to me a little bit about how he thought Geronimo should sound and act, which was extremely helpful.

I've known Killer Mike for a long time. Everybody realizes how smart Killer Mike is, but Mike's actually a really fun dude. And he's really down to earth. And so that was a joy for me. I've known Judy Greer, like we talked about, forever. Will Forte was hilarious. I'm a huge fan of MacGruber, and so that was a treat. And then the bad guy being played by Simon Pegg and him basically doing a giant deep voice and bringing his own self to it. And Andy Samberg as Benedict Arnold is just amazing. And a lot of people don't even know that Andy's speaking because he's doing such a voice. You don't know that it's Andy, but he just absolutely crushed that thing.

You said Olivia Munn didn't let people get away with their white privilege. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Matt Thompson: We just wanted that character to be very strong. We didn't want anybody to be able to push her around. And that was one of the reasons that I think Olivia has a lot of that strength in her, and we needed a strong counterpoint to this male team.

22 minutes of TV vs. feature-length

A question for Matt: I think this is your first feature length movie of this style. What's it like doing this compared to 22 minutes of "Archer?"

Matt Thompson: It's extremely, extremely different. When you're making a TV show, you're on a really pretty tight deadline. You've got to kick stuff out. You don't have time to go back and rewrite and redo and revoice. And maybe you get one tweak here and there, but you really got to keep moving, pushing. You've got content to make. When you're doing a movie, the process slows down greatly, and you get to work on your characters. You get to work on your jokes. You get to watch it over and over with friends and have them give you advice. And one of the things that Phil and Chris pointed out to me is when you're making a 22-minute story, if its logic isn't all the way solid, if the story isn't all the way solid, you can push through it in 22 minutes and nobody's going to really catch you on it.

When you expand out to 90 minutes, you better be rooting for your characters. You better have some sort of heart. You give people a reason why they feel they could invest that 90 minutes of time. And so, that shift of having to have more time and making sure your story is stronger, with better goals and better heart, was a complete shift for everything I've done for the last 20 years. Luckily, I had great partners along the way to help me accomplish it. And I think that we did make a great story that you do want to root for these people, I think, at the end of the day. Despite all the crazy weird stuff and dinosaurs and werewolves and chainsaw hands, the story still makes sense.

You packed a lot of jokes into this thing. The one that really stood out to me was right at the beginning when Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton is attending the funeral.

Matt Thompson: We felt that we had to nod, because he kind of opened the door, right? You have to tip your hat to him, to the man.

Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven't brought up yet?

Matt Thompson: I just hope that people will check us out over this holiday weekend because this is something that I believe you've never seen before. I used to have this old boss, Mike Lazzo of Adult Swim, he would say [Southern accent] "Show me something I haven't seen before." This is that. It's still a great story with a great pedigree and great actors and great comedy coming at you. But I hope you're going to come away from this going, "I have never seen something like that before in my life." And hopefully, you'll say it with a smile.

Dave Callaham: And I want you to please let your readers know to be careful with fireworks this July 4. Don't lose your hands over fireworks.

"America: The Motion Picture" is streaming on Netflix.