Hamilton set the American Revolution to music. Matt Thompson is setting it on fire, throwing fireworks on the pile while werewolves and founding fathers with chainsaw hands dance. Welcome to an utterly bonkers rewriting of American history at a time when large portions of the country seem susceptible to believing utterly bonkers rewritings of American history. But let’s not talk politics. America: The Motion Picture wasn’t created as a response to the devaluation of facts. As director (and Archer co-creator) Matt Thompson tells us, “wouldn’t it be cool if this is how it went” became a guiding philosophy. And so beer replaces tea at the Boston Tea Party and George Washington and Abe Lincoln are besties.
A project ten years in the making from the writer (Dave Callaham) behind some of this moment’s most accomplished big-budget comic book epics (Shang-Chi and Wonder Woman: 1984) the animated America: The Motion Picture (which is available to stream now on Netflix) goes big with action filled sequences while featuring a Rushmore-esque (I’m shameless!) voice cast. Thompson raves about Channing Tatum’s (George Washington) “boundless energy,” how Andy Samberg (Benedict Arnold) is a “rifle of fun,” and how Jason Mantzoukas (Samuel Adams), Olivia Munn (Thomas Edison), Raoul Max Trujillo (Geronimo), Simon Pegg (King James), and others made the characters their own. But while this is, essentially, an All-Star comedy smash em-up, there’s also an effort to make you care about these ridiculous versions of characters you barely remember reading about. Below, we talk with Thompson about that, messing with history, and whether there’s more story to tell.
Somewhat predictably, this has landed squarely in the midst of a moment of alt-history and nationalistic propaganda.
We’re just coming at this through a comedic lens. We wanted to do a revisionist take on the founding of America as if was being told by an idiot.
As it often is.
Yeah. We just found it funny. What would happen if George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were best friends and they went to Ford’s Theater and Benedict Arnold, their other best friend, turned into a werewolf and bit off Lincoln’s head? And that’s what started the American revolution? We found that to be very funny and we took that ball and went with it from there.
There are some side characters that get roped into this, to a certain extent. And if you have a bad memory and you’ve been away from formal education for a long enough time, there are some things, aside from the werewolf, where you almost forget the exact details. You kind of play with that a little bit.
Yep. Very much so. A very good example of that is, Simon Pegg does an awesome job as King James, who is fighting against the colonists who are trying to found America. We didn’t fight against King James. [Laughs] But we stuck with King James as the name because we wanted to see how well people would even know that.
Yeah, and I didn’t. It’s canon now, I guess.
There are so many things in the movie that are rooted in truth, but then it takes a severely different turn. And we found that to be great because it wasn’t just that we were making fun, but it was also, wouldn’t that be cool if that’s the way that it went? Wouldn’t that be a cooler starting place for America, if you had Sam Adams and he was the inventor of beer and beer is what we were using in our fight against the British instead of tea? So yeah, sure, the Boston Tea Party is in there, but our Boston tea party takes place on King James’ boat, the Titanic. And it’s not just a tea party, it’s how we’re getting beer into the conversation. And so all of those slightly adjacent things were very amusing to us.
If this is popular enough, in 50 years’ time, once the haze of history occurs, people may just think, “yeah, the tea party happened on the Titanic. It was a massive rager, and there were werewolves among us back then.”
If I can convince people that a werewolf and chainsaw hands on George Washington were part of what was the founding of America, my job here is complete.
What’s the kind of order to the chaos here? Were there any rules of the road? Anything you didn’t want to touch?
Dave Callaham, the writer, had one rule, which was for him, it was no research. He just wanted to not necessarily know exactly what happened. And so there’s actually a nod to him saying that to me over and over again, when King James lands in America, he says, “Oh, has George Washington not read the rules?” And we pan up to a list of ten rules that King James was trying to tell the colonists, and one of them was no research. And so that was Dave’s number one rule about how he wanted to do this.
And I agreed with him, but at the same time, my number one rule was, at the end, wouldn’t it be better, even if… comedically it’s very silly, that we started from this place. Would it be better if George Washington, as our leader, was a person that listened to all voices in the end, who learned, and who came to understand that we were better together — all races, creeds, colors, sexual orientations? And that was my feeling, which was, it’s a revisionist tale, so at least in the comedy, say what you hope for.
Obviously, you’ve done a ton of directing on animated projects before, but this is your first film. What were the surprises for you during this process?
I thought when I entered into this three years ago, that this was just going to be like making three episodes of Archer, back-to-back. And boy, was I wrong. I basically was afforded the right to go to film school to figure out why this is different, and I was surrounded by an incredible team. I’ll never forget, I screened the movie for my partners a handful of times over the last couple of years. And I was screening the movie for Phil Lord and Chris Miller (they were integral to me making sure the movie had heart and that it pulled me through and that I really cared about the characters instead of just making jokes) and it was a Monday morning. And Sunday night, I had watched them accept the Oscar for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. And I’m sitting in this room with them, less than 12 hours after they accepted an Oscar for the best-animated feature going, “Boy, I should probably listen.”
The number one thing that I learned was yes, we have the most insane, crazy jokes that we’re doing. From dinosaur ranchers, to the sinking of the Titanic, to chainsaw arms, whatever. But make sure you care about the characters, make sure that they have clear goals set out and that you want to root for them and you want to see them win and succeed. And so hopefully, you get to see that Lord and Miller part that they greatly helped put into this movie.
Is this something you want to do more of?
We actually have a loose one-pager about how to continue this as a television series, but I’m not sure if everything’s going to come together correctly or not, but we have been talking about how we could evolve this passage. But first, right now, we just want to see what America’s reaction to it is. I just want to see if people react to it. I think one of the big problems that I’ve run into over the years is just, do people even know that it’s there? There’s so much product out there. And so first, we just need to see, is this a tale that people enjoy hearing? I hope so. I want to hear more stories about the giant Paul Bunyan battling the giant Big Ben. So first of all, just want to see how that goes.
‘America: The Motion Picture’ is currently streaming via Netflix.