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.
Now that you’ve grown familiar with the Bigfoot community, how much self-awareness do you think there is? Are there a fair amount of people who don’t actually take it seriously?
I’ve run into all different kinds of people. There are folks who started out from a snarky kind of place and then got into it. It’s interesting — just like any kind of faith, there are people who don’t believe they’re ripping people off, and then people who don’t believe what they’re seeing. For the same people go to find a church or a religion, people find their way into Bigfoot and that community.
You did a screening of the film for Bigfoot believers just outside Willow Creek. How did that go?
We had a big turnout and they really, really liked the movie. It was weird for me. I was actually nervous, because I didn’t want to make a movie that made fun of them. That’s too easy. My movies are always about the kooks and the outsiders. That always comes from a place of feeling that I am one of those people, so I wouldn’t want to make fun of them.
They were just happy that I wasn’t doing an all-out comedy. Because I’m a comic — I think Bob Saget came through town and made fun of them, so they were really traumatized. Damn you, Bob Saget! [laughs] I’ve known him for years, so it’s funny that he fell into that super-sweet, clean, wholesome thing because Bob has always been a kind of twisted thing.
It’s interesting that you’ve gone to the believers crowd first ahead of gaining the blessing of the genre lovers.
I feel a little bit like I’m Mel Gibson and this is “The Passion of Squatch,” you know? You know, Gibson went out and peddled that movie to the hardcore base. I’m happy that they liked it.
How familiar are you with the other Bigfoot movies going on? One of the directors of “Blair Witch” has a Bigfoot movie in post-production now called “Exists.”
I’m aware of “Exists.” I hope it’s a good movie and does well. I don’t feel competitive. I remember a few years ago when there were like four movies that had the “Freaky Friday” theme — “17 Again,” “Big.” You just hope you make the “Big” and not one of the lesser versions.
But do you think Bigfoot obsession is possibly about to get more popular?
I am interested in why, after all these years, if you don’t believe in Sasquatch then why does this keep coming back? It could be that parents don’t want their kids to roam out into the woods because they’re going to get lost or attacked by a bear. Or maybe there’s something weird, subconscious going on that goes back thousands of years. I do find that interesting — why these myths exist.
To a certain extent, “Willow Creek” resembles your other movies because it’s about people receiving their comeuppance for acting out of line.
Oh, that’s interesting. You’re right — that is what it is. Right on. I finish these scripts and give them to my wife and she’s always like, “You don’t understand who this is? Well, this character is your mother,” and so on. But you’re right: All my movies are about getting your comeuppance. I just write ’em and hope I can make ’em. I don’t like calling my movies dark, but I guess this one’s dark.
All your movies have an element of darkness at least in the sense that they involve stories with ingredients that are non-commercial. Does it upset you that none of your movies have been hits?
I am frustrated. I do think there are more people who would probably related to my movies and who aren’t aware of them. That’s the frustrating part. I never expect that I’m going to have a hit, but I guess the formula for me would be to just keep making them and maybe the more I make, the more people will be aware of them, and then they’ll go back and discover the rest.
I can imagine that when you started making movies everyone would see you in terms of the comedy career that preceded your directing credits. But now that you’re a couple of films deep, is it frustrating when you go to comedy clubs and nobody knows about your other career?
That doesn’t bother me. I started doing stand-up when I was 15 and doing Letterman when I was 20. So I’ve been doing stand-up comedy and clubs for over 30 years. That’s a long time. Sometimes I come from a film festival and I’m all excited from hanging out with a bunch of filmmakers and seeing a bunch of movies — I really get energized — and then I’m back at a comedy club, and somebody wants to talk gossip about Dane Cook, and I can’t even pretend to give a shit. [laughs] That’s the part of my job that’s a bit of a drag. For myself, I find standup comedy a little limiting for telling stories. With movies, you can tell a whole story.
You seem to be taking a very hands-on approach with this movie, handling a lot of the promotion and other duties on your own. Is that a direction you hope to head into? The film didn’t play at any huge festivals, so it seems like you’re going through the back door in terms of getting it out there.
For me, it feels really like a William Castle thing. I really feel like I’m taking “The Tingler” from city to city. When we were making the movie, at one point, I’m laying in the dirt and I’ve got a big pile of dried sticks that I’m breaking so they’ll sound like footsteps. And I thought, “You are Bill Castle. This isn’t Ed Wood, this is Bill Castle type stuff.”
It did not get the love at some of the bigger festivals. I assume that’s because they sit there and look at a million found footage screeners. I hope that if this movie works for people that hopefully we brought something different to it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think if we knew how people were going to react to these movies, we wouldn’t make them. It is exciting to go to a theater and hear people scream and talk back at the movie.
So what now?
We’ll probably sell the movie. I’d love it if one of the bigger distributors saw it and said, “we could put this on 1400 screens and scare people.” I don’t think that’s crazy with this one. I have a feeling things will get locked up after Fantasia Fest. I’ve had a lot of offers from other countries on this movie. In general my movies do sell quicker in other countries. “God Bless America” had a pretty healthy independent film run in France. Maybe I don’t come with the baggage of being the guy from “Hollywood Squares” in other countries.