Since starting out as a stand-up comedian while still a teenager, Bobcat Goldthwait has gone on to become a well known comedy actor, probably still best remembered as the squeaky-voiced criminal turned police cadet Zed in the Police Academy series.
He made his directorial debut in 1991with Shakes the Clown (described by the Boston Globe as "The Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”) in which he also starred. He didn't direct another feature film until 2006 when, with bestiality comedy Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, he seemed to have found his niche, making clever black comedies with likeable characters that explore the darkest corners of the human psyche. Bobcat followed up Let Sleeping Dogs Lie in 2009 with World's Greatest Dad ,about a sensitive failed writer, played by Robin Williams, who writes a fake suicide note for his obnoxious son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) after he dies in a humiliating accident.
Now, with God Bless America, Bobcat levels his sights at the nauseatingly shallow world of reality TV and the worthless "celebrities” that it spawns, as well as fear-mongering news organisations and uninformed political movements. Veteran character actor and Mad Men star Joel Murray (last seen on British cinema screens in a small role in The Artist) gets a rare feature film lead role as Frank, a disillusioned, jobless and terminally ill man who, sick of a culture that celebrates "the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest”, takes matters into his own hands and sets off on a killing spree. He encounters Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) a teenage outcast with similar disillusions about modern culture to Frank and the pair form an unusual bond.
I was able to catch up with Bobcat and Joel during the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss their film which is released in cinemas on July 4th and on DVD on July 9th. Oh, and by the way, the interview contains spoilers.
Where did the original idea for God Bless America come from?
Bobcat Goldthwait: A couple of things, one of the big things that kind of influenced it was, I was in London and they were having a My Super Sweet 16 marathon. I was really disappointed that this was what we were projecting to the rest of the world and I thought, "Oh, these children should die!” I think that was part of the germ of the idea.
How did it progress from there?
BG: I wrote the screenplay as a Christmas present for my wife. You know, I think people think I'm a misanthrope but I think she's more of the misanthrope of the couple.
Joel Murray: You're the cockeyed optimistic.
BG: Yeah, I'm the plucky one. No, because she actually thinks if you kill certain people the world would be better (laughs). I'm more just kind of only say: "Kill ‘em all.” I'm more like an old Metallica album.
Do you think you're an angry person?
BG: I don't think I'm angry at all; you'd have to ask Joel that!
JM: The kids that play on your lawn think you're angry! I don't think you're angry, I think you've just got something to say and you say it. And I got hired to say it.
Would either of you say you're as pessimistic as Frank is in the film?
BG: No, the reason the ending is pessimistic is because I was trying to make a movie that kind of threw it back onto the audience and asked: "Are you part of the problem? Or are you part of the solution?” And if I'd had an ending that was all kind of upbeat I think it would have been kind of a cop-out. It wouldn't be challenging people; it would just be preaching to the converted and pandering.
JM: Well, there would have been a much better chance of a sequel.
What is essentially the message you're trying to convey to the audience?
BG: I was trying to ask the audience "Where are we going as people? What it does it say about us that we have such a huge appetite for these kinds of distractions?”
JM: Why can't we be nice?
BG: And why can't we be nice at the end of the day? You know, these shows and things don't really bother me; the list could have been anything. I picked American Idol because it was something that's universally known. I don't watch these shows so they don't bother me.
JM: As an actor they kind of bother me because they take work from other actors. They're hiring non-actors because they're cheaper and they're taking work from writers and producers who aren't getting regular salaries. I think it's a complete scam.
BG: With reality shows, beside the writers and actors, it's all the people behind the scenes...
JM: If I want to work for nothing I'll work for you!
Was the part written with Joel in mind? Have you know each other a long time?
JM: It was on One Crazy Summer we met, the John Cusack comedy.
BG: It wasn't a movie it was just one crazy summer! I didn't write the part with Joel in mind but I had back pain and he was kind enough to give me a box-set of Mad Men when I was high on pain medicine and my wife said "You should use Joel”. I would have said yes even if I wasn't high! But it was one of the coolest things I've had in regards to casting, it just finally made sense. I thought, "If Joel will do this then it will work” and I gave him the script but I forgot to tell him I wanted him to be the lead.
JM: I read the script I was like, "Yeah it's great, am I the guy in the office or who? Wait, THE GUY?”
BG: It's kind of funny, if you watch the movie, whatever you think of it, it's clear that Joel is a Bill Macy or a Phillip Seymour Hoffman, you know? I don't understand why he's not leading other pictures.
JM: I'm not like those guys. Bill Macy is a much nicer guy (laughs).
The film's been out a month or so in the states, what has the general reaction been? Have there been any accusations of being irresponsible?
BG: Some of that. You know, being irresponsible came about from the trailer, people were saying that. And I was saying that if you could take healthy normal people and turn them into killers by making a movie then the military would be producing a lot more movies. And in regards to banning it because... You know if we were just killing people that Americans don't like right now, then no one would have a problem with it (laughs)
Was there much backlash regarding the baby killing fantasy sequence?
JM: Everyone seems to like it!
BG: Everyone knows that baby's an asshole!
JM: You know that's kind of Bob's style in that its, "Let's see if you're gonna stay for the whole film!” It's what, like a minute and forty seconds into the film? Bam! Okay, everyone's staying!
BG: The only weird thing about that is that there's something Joel's character says " I now know I'm no longer normal” he's not a healthy guy at this point he already knows that he doesn't like where he's going or how he's thinking.
JM: There's something about the lullaby music as the baby's exploding and bloods dripping down my face. There's something about that lullaby that lets you know we're not taking it that seriously. Later there's a montage with an animated car as we go on a killing spree, it's not for real!
BG: The funny story about the baby is that the baby wouldn't cry. I'd said I needed an ugly baby; it should look like we'd shaved a pug! And when the baby turned up its parents were like, "So, what are we shooting today?” and the AD goes "Your baby” and they didn't laugh and we went, "Oh fuck, no one told them!” (laughs). And the baby wouldn't cry no matter what it just sat there like Hitchcock or something, we would take things from it...
JM: Sent its parents away...
BG: And you know eventually, I'd love to tell you I'm a better man than this, but I got down on my knees and sat an inch away from its face and went [makes terrifying monster noises] until the baby started crying. But as soon as I left her she stopped crying again! So the funny part of that story is nine or ten years from now that kid will be watching a Police Academy and then just start screaming and run out the door! (Laughs)
So the parents were totally unaware of what was going to happen to their baby?
JM: No, they were just so excited to be making money off this kid.
Bobcat, do you think your stand up persona and your role as Zed in the Police Academy series affects your audience for your films as a director?
BG: I think, especially in the states, my name and everything, I come with a lot of baggage. I think some people who might enjoy the movies stay away but they're so small that they're really only known through the festival circuit and stuff like that. I intentionally keep my name at the end of the movie, I like it when people stumble upon one of my movies accidentally on cable and they go, "I didn't know he made that movie.” Ao, you know it doesn't say "A Bobcat Goldthwait Joint”. So yeah, I think I come with baggage but I don't think it's even from Police Academy and things like that, I think it's the more embarrassing things I did as a guy making a living like being on Hollywood Squares and you know, game shows and crap like that.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
BG: I like the scene where they're playing Russian roulette with the balloon gun. But the thing about that is I didn't write that. It's just a scene that Joel and Tara are adlibbing, the sun was going down and Joel pointed out that the lighting was really pretty and my movies are always claustrophobic because they're so cheap that they're always just a couple people talking inside. So we ran out and that scene was an adlibbed scene. And the other scene I really like is I really love it when he kills Chloe, you know I just think that's funny and...
JM: Lighting the cigarette and you're expecting the car to explode...
BG: Yeah I always liked that scene as well. And you?
JM: I really like the office scene, the guy I was in the scene with was so funny. I mean just to get all that out, it's just two and a half minutes or something but there's just so much information that comes out of my mouth and then to go to this other guy who's just such a perfect dick, you know? Such an LA guy somehow in Syracuse.
BG: He's really funny, just laughing at the wrong things. Like, he's trying to make a point about what's wrong with these TV shows and he's like, "Shit I missed that, that sounds really good, a woman threw her tampon?” He's really great.
JM: I liked the driving shots as well; I think the car looks good.
When Kick-Ass came out a couple of years ago there was a lot of controversy over the fact it featured a young girl and a grown man killing people in what was seen as almost a pornographic way. Do you think the relationship between Frank and Roxy will similarly be seen as suspect?
BG: It should be. That's the idea, that Frank has this idea of how people should live and then by the end he's thinking about possibly running off and living with this girl in France. So Frank doesn't even hold up to his own expectations. You know for me, that part of the movie was important because instead it would have just been a vigilante movie for 90 minutes, where I just shoot things that everybody doesn't like, or the majority of us don't like, and that didn't really interest me. I wanted to make it a movie where we question our own behaviour. But Kick-Ass bothered me because, I didn't mind it and thought it was funny when the kid was killing and stuff, but what really disturbed me was the scene where she shows up in like a sexy school uniform to infiltrate the place and she's supposed to be 11 maybe? That actually creeped me out, it made it so I couldn't enjoy the movie after that point, it lost me there.
Was there ever a version of the script where Tara turned out to be a figment of Frank's imagination? Watching the film that seemed like a possibility.
BG: No, that would have been interesting, I like that idea. Reshoots! I think [If Roxy was imaginary] Frank would have had an adult woman who was smart and I don't think he would have been fighting with her. That is a good idea, for some reason I just wanted to ride this all the way out. I think for me the only kind of magical realism that shows up in the movie is when she appears at the end but in my head I kind of justify it when her parents say, "We're going to Disneyland!” so I imagine at the end that's when she escapes, I could have had her running out of the Magic Kingdom! (Laughs)
Was the Roxy character a part of the film from beginning or was she added to the script later on?
BG: Yeah, the Roxy character came about because I kind of...there's two scenes where, a theme that I always kind of like exploring is that we are what we hate, so I needed a young girl but I didn't want her to be a Lolita or a Goth or you know, a clichéd character. I wanted the reason she's an outcast to be because she's smart. So I often come up with the end of the movie first but actually the very first scene I ever came up with was this idea of the kid who says, "You killed Chloe? Awesome”. I didn't even know where they were gonna go when I came with that idea but I liked the idea that there's this kid who instead of screaming and freaking out, thinks it's the coolest thing she's ever seen.
How much rehearsal time did you get to work with Tara Lynne Barr before you started production?
BG: We usually have a table read but we didn't even get that.
JM: You said I was going to be part of the casting process and you'll come in and you'll read with the girls and then he called me and said "Oh yeah, I got the girl.” I was like "Oh, how'd I do?” (Laughs)
BG: Well Tara came in and in my head I was like, "If her and Joel get on this'll work”. I always panic too once I find the person that they're not gonna do it, and it doesn't matter who it is. Once I had the idea of Joel being Frank I was really being coy when I said, "Hey, I got a new script do you want to read it?” because I was afraid he was gonna say, "This is too fucking dark” and then with Tara or when Daryl Sabara came in for World's Greatest Dad and did a great job, I was afraid that his parents are gonna be jerks – they weren't, his mom's really nice – and that someone was gonna tell him not to do it. Because that does happen to me a lot, people tell people not to be in my movies (Laughs).
Your films are all fairly dark, do you have any plans to make anything more light-hearted?
BG: I've written other movies that weren't dark, I guess. But even the movies that people think of in terms of kids movies, you know like Wizard of Oz is really scary, you know like when the monkeys rip them apart and the good Disney animations are really terrifying so... I did write a movie that when my wife finished reading it she looked at me and said, "You wrote a family picture”, I didn't mean to but I just write these movies really quick and you know even the ones that wouldn't be rated for adults still have the same themes, you know? And you know, you're laughing when you're not supposed to if they work for you and they explore the unpleasant side of people, even the ones that are a little G-rated explore parts of us that we don't often like to poke around. I met Todd Solondz about a month and a half ago, did I tell you?
BG: Todd Solondz, John Waters and I posed for a photo and it was like the Mount Rushmore of fucked up! (Laughs).
Did you cut anything out of the film that you were sorry to lose, or not sorry to lose?
BG: No, the only bonus footage is, there's actually more television stuff that Frank watches. One didn't make it into the movie because it was really funny but it was a different tone, it was almost Christopher Guest, kind of, which are great movies, so if you get the DVD then there's like another five minutes of Chloe when she does that show, there's like a five, six minute version of that where they're all adlibbing. It's pretty funny. And then there's a baby fashion show called the Jersey Shorties, that's in there, you know just more TV.
Obviously the film's called God Bless America and is about America and American culture, but how aware are you of that reality TV culture being worldwide?
BG: I don't know because this is the European debut, so I'm interested in that. I have a feeling, yes, in the UK [there is the same kind of culture], but I don't know what it means in the rest of the world. I don't know if everybody's watching the same stuff. This is the first movie I've ever had that was bought in Japan, but that could just be because they have guns and Tara has huge anime eyes!
Are you both proud to be American?
JM: I've been to a lot of countries, I think it's still a great place; it's one of my favourite places to be. Am I proud to be American? Well, I hope we can keep my man in the presidency in the next election, as opposed to going off the Right end! I'm not a wild liberal but I grew up a Democrat. I'm not ashamed of my country in any way but I'm ashamed of the way that Congress is acting now. It's doing absolutely nothing on purpose, if you behaved that way in any other job you'd be fired! And I hope these people do get fired. But that's the way it is sometimes and hopefully, come November; we'll get back on track and do some actual things to make the country better.
BG: Am I proud? Probably not. I mean the problem when you say stuff like that is you start losing your ability to look at your flaws. So, I think it is a great country with a lot of really large flaws. And I am glad that I live in a country where I can point them out and not be jailed. So yeah, there are a lot of great things about it. But often I'm not happy about the foreign policy; also a lot of citizens in the US really have tunnel-vision on how our actions affect the globe. But of course I'm thrilled to be living in a place where I can express myself and find like-minded people.
So how long did it actually take you to write the script for God Bless America?
BG: About a month but it took longer to write this one than usual. And it took me an even longer time to edit it, because the original draft was about 187 pages! A lot more people got killed; there was a lot more weird stuff, like Steven Clark (Aris Alvarado) is on the cross at one point and the Idol judges are the soldiers holding a sponge to his face and Joel and Tara are on the cross next to him and then Joel reaches behind the cross and rips the nail out of his hand and pulls an AK-47 out and starts shooting all the Roman soldiers! But, you know budget, so that hit the floor.
Joel, were you sorry you didn't get to do that scene?
JM: I didn't know about it until we started doing these press interviews! (Laughs)
BG: You would have been in a loincloth!
JM: It would have been a chance to get stigmata.
BG: We could have put you in your Hawaiian shirt on the cross! There were fantasy scenes; there were other scenes that became kind of redundant. And then there's the stuff that's just budget-wise you know? There was a time when they were up on a rooftop in Manhattan shooting people; there was a lot of stuff hit the floor. I mean they weren't just shooting random people! There's a movie called Little Murders where, spoiler alert I'm going to ruin it, it's about a family who are just like Frank in a weird way they're just crushed by modern society and they come together as a family unit at the end of the picture by getting up on the roof and starting shooting strangers. It was made in the 70s and I'm sure was an influence [on God Bless America].
Had you seen James Gunn's Super?
BG: No, but they're brought up a lot, this movie and Super. You know there were a lot of comments when people saw the trailer, "I liked this movie better when it was called Super.” Really? I liked that joke better when I heard it 9,000 other times! But no, I didn't see it, I did see Slither, I liked that James Gunn movie. I don't feel, from what I'm aware of that movie, it doesn't seem like it explores the same themes. I mean it does have a middle-aged guy and a young girl...
JM: Who's named Frank.
BG: Yeah, I think if I was gonna rip someone off; I probably would have changed the name! That's how brilliant I am. I mean I didn't see it but if I had maybe it would have affected me not writing it, but I think I'd probably written it already by the time that movie came out.
Were there any other influences for God Bless America?
BG: The real influences were like, Gun Crazy, Bonnie & Clyde...I think it's funny that sometimes people say, "Did you ever see Super?” because no, but I steal plenty of scenes from other movies that aren't Super! There's the Taxi Driver scene, the overhead shot [of the car] is from Taxi Driver too. It's very derivative of Network. You know, I'll tell you who I'm ripping off; I'm not coy about it! And I would say Little Murders is a big one.
So, do you have plans for your next project?
BG: I don't know, because I'd written five movies after World's Greatest Dad but I don't know what the next ones going to be. I just try to get them financed and I don't really have, like, an agenda. I just try to get the next one going.
Do you think you two will work together again?
JM: I hope so; it was a lot of fun.
BG: Yeah I'd love to work with him again.
JM: It was a great time. The whole vibe on the shoot was really fun; it was people making film for the sake of the art and you know, older guys teaching younger kids how to do certain things in their section or their craft. And people being promoted to scoring the movie from being a PA, just because they were doodling on a piano at one point!
BG: Yeah, we were cleaning all the blood out from when we killed the parents and the guy who wound up writing the score was just sat there playing on an electric piano that was there and he ended up scoring the movie. So yeah, in the Bob-World universe that kind of thing happens.
JM: Well, I ended up being the star of the movie! You never know what you're gonna be! (Laughs)
So you enjoyed making a smaller, independent film?
JM: It was fun. I mean I was changing in my van and literally, you know, moving sandbags and stuff like that. I worked like a week after this on a movie that's just come out with Bruce Willis: Lay The Favourite. And you know, I worked with these guys, they were in the same film as me, but I never saw them. They were in these huge, monolith trailers. But I got to work with Stephen Frears which was cool.
Thank you very much, Joel and Bobcat.
Interviewer: Adam Pidgeon