Bobcat Goldthwait's filmmaking career has yet to gain as much recognition as his '80s comedy work, which many people will recall for his screaming delivery in several "Police Academy" movies among other places. As a writer-director, however, Goldthwait funnels that rage into more contained storytelling and characters struggling with repressed emotions. Last year's "God Bless America" involved a psychotic man's quest to murder obnoxious reality television stars. His latest movie, "Willow Creek," deals with the prospect of discovering that there's more to mythology than just pure folklore.
Shot in found footage style, the film involves a young, idealistic couple venturing into Bigfoot territory in Willow Creek, California. Goldthwait mixed this quietly suspenseful tale with real interviews with Willow Creek locals, many of whom believe in Bigfoot. The result is a strangely involving and ultimately downright scary commentary on the tension between true believers and skeptics. Goldthwait spoke to Indiewire about his inspiration for the project and how it feeds into the rest of his career. "Willow Creek" screens today at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Read Indiewire's review of the film here.
While this is a fictional story, there's a very clear sense that you take the culture surrounding Bigfoot lore seriously, which is how you're able to turn the creatures into a legitimate threat.
It's scary to a lot of folks. I actually really like being in the woods. I don't know what that says about me.
Did you camp in Willow Creek?
We went to Willow Creek and then hiked into Bluff Creek where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was shot. It's like 17 miles down this dirt road. It took about two and a half hours to get there. Then we saw a couple of mountain lions, which seemed to help the actors when there were actual scary things out there. I think they thought I was crazy. They were like, "We could do this whole tent scene in a parking lot."
How many of you were out there?
It was just a handful. The whole crew and actors were about seven total. But then we had a couple of guys who were Bigfoot experts and they went out with us.
Did they understand you weren't only making a documentary -- that there was a fictionalized component?
To some of the folks. People were on a need-to-know basis. I didn't explain that to the locals you see in the first half of the movie because I just wanted them to be natural, so they just did some interviews with the actors, and I let the actors drive it. It would've been like "Paging Mr. Herman." It would've been pretty stiff if they'd known.
The found footage horror movie is such a tired device. You must have known this going into the project. How much did you take the precedents into account?
Fortunately, for me, unlike a lot of people with your job, I haven't had to watch a bunch of them. I've seen a few. Initially, my instinct on making the movie was not to do it because there are so many found footage movies. But then a friend said, "You know, this will be your take on it. You should just go out and do it. You would make a Western or a musical -- why not this?"
I really wanted to see if I could do suspense. A lot of filmmakers I admire do these really suspenseful scenes where there's not a lot going on. So that was a big challenge that interested me. In some ways, I think the movies that influenced this would be more like Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man." That movie had more to do with this than some of the more famous found footage movies. But look, I jokingly call it "The Blair Squatch Project." I'm first one to do that. Those are the challenges. As a boy, I was always into Bigfoot so this just seemed to make sense for me.
How much of a screenplay did you have?
I wrote a treatment and an outline. It was an 11-hour drive up to Willow Creek. During that drive, we just discussed the backstory and what the characters would be like, all that kind of stuff. Then once we got there, we had to film right away. People were nervous we wouldn't be able to make this whole movie in a week. I wanted to make sure I got the right locations. About a half a year before this, I took a 1400-mile roadtrip where I drove all around California going to all the Bigfoot hotspots.
What instigated that?
I knew in the back of my mind that I would make a sasquatch movie, but I had different ideas that were more along the lines of the kind of movies I make. But when I got up there, this was the idea that hit me. It just seemed like the one I could make right away. I've written a whole bunch of screenplays -- in fact, I just finished another one today. Oddly enough, I was up in the woods writing it a few weeks ago. So I have all these different screenplays I'm writing but I don't go out and make the movie in a way that would compromise how I see it. With each screenplay, there isn't a big panic to get it made right away.
Who financed "Willow Creek"?
This one was self-financed. We just went out and did it. It was very guerrilla style. I did have a lot of laughs on this one. The craziness of all of us camping out together. Even though all the movies I make are pretty down and dirty, this one was the smallest. It does give you a bit of a break.
The thing I was trying to do on this movie -- one of the things about found footage movies that always disturbs me is, "Who are these creeps who edit this stuff together?" It's like, "I'm sorry your daughter got raped to death, but I could take this footage and edit a movie out of it." I was trying to avoid that. So all the cuts are done in camera. The cast is turning the camera on and off. There are only 67 edits in the whole movie. So that was part of what I found to be an interesting challenge. We would do multiple takes, but it always had to start with the actors turning the camera on. Overall, it was a different assemblage process.
The couple at the center of the movie aren't as broadly defined character types as the ones in your previous movies. They could very well be the people we see them portraying onscreen.
I was interested in making these people very, very realistic -- and hoped the audience to get into a lull of comfort with them, so when the shit hits the fan, it has more an impact on you, if you really think it's this knucklehead dragging his girlfriend around trying to make a Bigfoot movie. That was always the goal. I did want to make them very realistic. I think the actors are really natural. Sometimes we just kept the camera going. Some of the stuff is very scripted and other stuff isn't. Usually the stuff that's scripted you think is ad-libbed.
The movie shifts from quasi-documentary to suspense mode over the course of one very long take. How did the plan for that come together?
It's 19 minutes long. That was always an idea where I thought, "Well, that would be a challenge, let's see if I could do it." It was a combination of rehearsal with the people in the tent and those around it who had certain cues. I'm really happy that that scene works for people because that was going to be the moment where we sunk or swam by. We just blocked it out and did it three times. It ended up that the middle take was the one we used. In the first take, they broke down, they just lost their shit, in the middle of it.
Not the best thing to do in the middle of a long take.
It happened when I was in the movie "Scrooged." There only a piece of it in the movie, but there's this big, long take where I get fired that was filmed in New York City. There were holding back about 1000 people on the street. They had this crane shot that comes down into the crowd and finds me. And this guy walked over to me and looks up while the camera's rolling and says, "You're not Bill Murray!" Richard Donner's like, "Cut! Goddamn it!"
So "Scrooged" actually influenced you as a filmmaker.
Well, Richard Donner was like, "Kid, you wanna learn how to direct?" And I did learn a lot by shadowing him. He was always really open to the idea of letting me ask a million questions.
However, you also show an interest in documentary aesthetics with this movie. Did you ever consider doing it as a straightforward documentary?
I thought if I'd make a straightforward doc, there'd be a smaller audience for it. With the suspense element, it exposes more people to it. So far, the sasquatch community has embraced the movie. On Labor Day, I'm going to go up to Willow Creek and participate in their Bigfoot parade. I'm going to be in a float. I don't know if I'll be sharing it with a guy in a Chewbacca outfit or what. But I'm actually super into it.