When you talk to Bobcat Goldthwait, the American stand-up comic turned Police Academy sideshow attraction and now filmmaker, you see that his demeanor is very similar to the even-handed tone of his films. During our talk, Goldthwait casually referenced Preston Sturges and Falling Down as he addressed the tone of his controversial comedies. And he did it all while talking very matter-of-factly about the logic behind making movies centered around outlandish behavior.
Goldthwait’s recent breakthrough as a director was Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), a romcom about a woman who admits to her fiancé that she once drunkenly gave a blowjob to her dog. He then followed that up with World’s Greatest Dad (2009), a black comedy about a father/teacher (Robin Williams) who admits that he didn’t always love his son (a perversely inspired performance by Daryl Sabara). Now, Goldthwait has directed a film called God Bless America (2011), a characteristically thoughtful black comedy about an unlikely pair of vigilante killers (one of whom is played by Mad Men’s Joel “Freddy Rumsen” Murray) who murder people whose bad behavior they can’t stand.
God Bless America is, like Goldthwait’s last two movies, a comedy about characters who eventually give in to their morally weaker impulses. But the film has been weirdly mischaracterized by many detractors as a goofy revamp of Natural Born Killers. I talked to Goldthwait on the phone about his audience’s expectations, directing a superhero movie, and his idea for a remake of Billy Jack.
I saw God Bless America at Toronto and am still taken aback by how wildly misinterpreted it’s been. How would you describe the reception it’s gotten?
Bobcat Goldthwait (BG): It’s had its fair share of positive reviews and . . . well, you know, my other movies had the same thing. People will say, “It’s a one-joke movie.” Well, yeah, if you don’t empathize with any of those characters. Then it’s a no-joke movie. I’m not into comedies that are joke-driven. I’m not trying to make Two and a Half Men: The Movie.
One of the thing’s that’s striking about your films is that you do try to get us to empathize with your characters. One of the things I found most bizarre about the negative pans was the way people compared God Bless America to Natural Born Killers. Natural Born Killers is about the psychosis of its characters, whereas this film seems to be about how your characters allow themselves to be seduced by psychosis. That’s not really the subject of the film, right?
BG: Yes, right. And Natural Born Killers, at the end of the day, was trying to implicate the media. And with this movie, I’m not trying to blame the media. I’m trying to make a movie that questions our own appetite for distraction, and that raises the question of where are we going. If you’re disappointed that I didn’t have a scene where I keep cutting back to Harvey Keitel in front of a big map saying, “I gotta get inside the brains of these people! Where are they gonna strike next?! Oh, I got it: this reality TV show,” I have no interest in doing that kind of movie.
The movies I make don’t take place in reality. I have a problem with vigilante movies. Usually, they start with a very gratuitous rape. And at the end, the hero kills all the bad people. So people can get their rocks off watching this gratuitous rape and then they can get their rocks off watching people get blown away.
In this movie, at first you’re rooting for the characters, and in the end, the wheels fall off. You should be questioning their behavior all along. Frank eventually realizes that he’s a flawed human being, and that this whole thing that he put into motion doesn’t really work. [laughs] I mean, for instance, if people were to treat Sleeping Dogs Lie as a serious examination of bestiality, they’d be out of their minds! This isn’t a movie about serial killers, it’s a movie about our own appetite for distraction.
That comparison to Sleeping Dogs Lie is striking as it doesn’t look like it’s being made by God Bless America’s critics. I think people get confused about the characters’ speeches—or more accurately, the rants—and they assume they’re speaking for an authorial voice. Which is ridiculous, considering what the consequences of those rants are.
BG: Yeah, I think it’s funny that people mistake those rants for my opinions. I wouldn’t make those speeches in everyday life. People think, “Oh, this movie is preaching,” but obviously those are people that don’t agree with what’s being said or think that they should agree with everything. I like to go to the movies and watch characters who make me question how I see the world. I don’t want to watch a movie where everyone does things I agree with. I think people see this movie on a superficial level sometimes and think that’s what it is. Those are the people that are more likely to go see The Avengers.
I was actually going to ask you later—beg you—to please, please try to make a superhero movie. I think you’d make a great Dr. Strange.
BG: [laughs] They usually use their own people, or they’ll sniff around and say, “Are you interested?” I briefly tried to look at the Marvel catalogue, and everything is gone. The only thing I could find was, during the CB craze of the ‘70s, a trucker called Razorback.
BG: My friend who helped me find this character says, “You gotta make the Razorback movie!” [both laugh] I say to him, “You’re out of your mind!” Somebody told me about World’s Greatest Dad, “Wow, you really created a whole world there. I half expected Batman to show up at any moment!”
[laughs] That’s the thing about your movies: I almost want to describe them as Bobcat Goldthwait’s Moral Tales. Without shaming the audience, they’re about a sense of perspective people get when they realize they can be pushed beyond their comfort zones. World’s Greatest Dad, Sleeping Dogs Lie and God Bless America all have these characters that think, “Oh, I don’t even understand myself beyond a point.” That almost goes hand-in-hand with the superhero genre!
BG: That’s what interests me about making movies. I don’t think I’m smarter than the audience and I’m not trying to manipulate them. I’m making movies about people as flawed as myself and the viewers. So if you just have a reptilian brain and live your life simply by reacting to things, my movies aren’t going to work for you. They’re not going to make any sense, you know? I’m not trying to manipulate you with clever zingers. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still trying to figure it out.
That reminds me of something [comic book writer and artist] Howard Chaykin said. He’s said he that he creates characters who were flawed because he felt it would be dishonest to create paragons of virtue when he himself isn’t totally virtuous.
BG: Right. Right! And that’s the thing: there are plenty of things that Frank complains about that I’m guilty of. I’m not this angry guy that wishes the world would operate the way I see it. Another movie people bring up is Falling Down. But that movie—I don’t think people understand. He really wants to go to his daughter’s birthday party. It’s a racist movie! [laughs] When they finally get around to killing people, the Michael Douglas character winds up being a closeted Nazi. But we’re supposed to go, “Well, I still don’t hate this guy, but he’s still a Nazi.” In the movie I made, you should be going, “Well, none of this is right. This is all a little screwy.”
When I’m ego-surfing on the web, and I look at people’s comments to the movie’s trailer, and they go, [slow voice] “So, what, I’m not supposed to text during a movie anymore?!” [both laugh] I make these tiny, independent movies with my friends on a very, very small budget. I don’t make them for everybody. I expect to continue to pay rent for the rest of my life. [laughs]
World’s Great Dad and God Bless America have gotten some pretty good exposure. One of the things that’s striking about you is that, while you see plenty of actors and comedians try their hands at directing movies, you’ve kept at it. How difficult is it for you to keep on making these films?
BG: I actually write a lot of screenplays. I don’t really have an objective. I don’t sit down and go, “Well, this is one I can get made this year. Movies with penguins are really popular.” I just write whatever comes out of me. And then I try to get money and get all of them going. The key is I don’t make them if I have to compromise. I would rather not make a movie than compromise or to change something in the story so it’s more sensible or less offensive. So for good or for bad, these movies have my voice.
Even given the increasingly positive response you’ve gotten to your movies, are there some ideas that you thought were so extreme that only you could write and direct them?
BG: I don’t make compromises. One of the movies I wrote—I said to my wife, jokingly, “I’m tired of not making money. I’m going to write a genre picture.” I love Billy Jack, so I wanted to make something like Billy Jack.
BG: I’m, like, 45 pages in, and she comes over and asks, “Well, how’s it goin’?” And I go, “Well, he’s gay now.” And she goes, “We really are just going to keep renting, aren’t we?” [both laugh] Well, anyway, he goes into a redneck town and kicks ass.
And again, it’s meant to question all this craziness about equal rights for the gay community. I did it in a funny way, but the joke’s not that this guy dresses funny. He’s an ass-kicking Marine that gets kicked out during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I want to make that movie, but when I do make it, I want to make it the right way, with the right cast. I can’t get money for that. I’m surprised, but not a lot of action stars want to make out with a dude on camera! [both laugh]
But that’s an example of how I work. I just write it and say, “This is the world I want to see.” And then I wait until I get the right people to pull the trigger on the money. I wrote five screenplays, and God Bless America is one of them.
One of the things I find striking about your movies—and also Spike Lee’s movies—is that you assume that these prejudices come from somewhere. And the places where they come from, like family and religion—those institutions have the potential to be good things. They’re not always bad. They have the potential to bring people together. That even-handedness is striking. When you write characters who aren’t necessarily totally sympathetic but also aren’t black-hat-wearing bad guys, how do you make them somewhat sympathetic?
BG: Well, as I said, none of these movies take place in the real world but I try to make the lead characters in these movies very real people. I’m a big Preston Sturges fan and the leads in his films are often quite flawed. They have a lot of dimension to ‘em, even the sillier ones. But then there are always these one-dimensional characters that are circling around these people. And that’s how I see these movies, where the main people are hopefully well-rounded characters and that’s why you empathize with ‘em.
That’s why I think Joel did a terrific job in this movie. I didn’t want people to pity Frank. I didn’t want him to be someone they felt bad for, I wanted him to be somebody they empathized with.
Yeah, there’s usually a level of latent patronization or condescension in comedies when audiences are asked to sympathize with a character. Your movies place your characters on a pretty even level with the audience.
BG: That’s the goal, thanks. I hope folks see that. Sometimes I’ll pop out jokes and get rid of things that are a little too funny or too silly if they compromise the world that this guy comes from. It’s funny that, for a guy that was a night-club comedian for so long, jokes are the last thing I think about when I’m writing a screenplay.
Really? Do you work it in afterwards?
BG: Yeah, or they just come up organically, like an actor will pitch a funny line or on the day I’ll come up with a funny line. But like I said, I don’t like comedies that are joke-driven. And I don’t like comedies where the theme is an afterthought. Like, at the end of the day, it feels like they just made it up. Like, “Friends are the most important friends,” or, “If you don’t give up, you’ll wind up believing in yourself.” For me, it’s the themes and the world first and then I figure out who those people are from there.
That conjured up an image of Judd Apatow’s comedies. They often have an improvisatory feel to them. They just go on forever and there never seems to be anyone calling cut. There’s just a lot of riffing and that’s sort of become a style unto itself.
BG: Yeah, that’s a form and people enjoy it the same way… I don’t have that luxury when I go to make a movie. There are scenes that are ad-libbed, and I do ask people to contribute. That’s usually because the people I collaborate with, we collaborate from day one. [laughs] I don’t have the budget to deliver a four-hour cut of a movie.
At what point do you start talking to your collaborators about what the characters’ voices are?
BG: Well, when somebody’s hired, because of the small world that I make my movies in, you’re dealing with people that are the right people for the job first. So they usually already have that character dialed in. They audition, or I already know that they can do it. But, you know, Joel had a lot of questions about the character, and I reflected it in the screenplay. He said, “Well, he wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” So I would rewrite it.
I think I’ve got what I need. So I just want to urge you: please, please make an Antman movie or a Razorback movie. [Goldthwait laughs] You don’t even need to think of it as selling out, you’d just be doing a Bobcat Goldthwait movie on a different level.
BG: It’s so hard! All the good ones are taken. All of them are in development, that’s the problem.
Yeah, I can’t imagine them doing anything with a lot of these properties but I’m sure all of them are in development hell on some stage or another.
BG: Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll make a movie about my alter ego when I was a little boy, which was Super Rabbit.
Super Rabbit. What’s the story behind that?
BG: When I was a little boy, my sister would make pills out of dough. When I took the pills, I would have all the powers and strength of a rabbit. [laughs]
BG: What happened was, when me and [Sponge Bob voice actor] Tom Kenny were kids—he had actually written it out, he had a character named Captain Caribou.
Oh my gosh.
BG: Which was about a guy that was bitten by a radioactive caribou in Alaska. And he had these antlers that he had to live with . . .
I think you’ve got your next movie right there.
BG: [laughs] Captain Caribou and Super Rabbit!
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.