Bobcat Goldthwait achieved fame in the 1980’s as the shrill-voiced Officer Zed in the Police Academy series, and the anarchic comedian later gained notoriety when he set fire to his chair on Jay Leno’s TV show; but the passing years seem to have mellowed Goldthwait somewhat, and his new film Sleeping Dogs Lie reflects that, offering a surprisingly perceptive look at some serious themes. I met the writer/director shortly before the film’s UK premiere at the this year’s London Film Festival, and we spoke about the zero-budget bestiality comedy which seems to be having a big impact wherever it screens.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is a very different type of film to the kind you’re normally associated with; much more thoughtful and low-key compared to the more outrageous comedy you’ve done in the past. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
It wasn’t really an effort to reinvent myself or anything like that, it was just the kind of movie I was interested in making. So no, it wasn’t like I was trying to get people to perceive me in a different light. I’ve been directing a bunch of television stuff in the States - all comedy - and this was just something that we shot in two weeks and it was just a fun thing to do, and it continues to be a fun thing to do, so I’m pretty lucky.
And as well as making the film in a short amount of time you made it with hardly any money at all.
Yeah, we just used our own money and stole a lot of stuff. Well, not really ‘stole’ because we returned most of the stuff we took from various television shows, and things like that.
What were your expectations when you made the film?
I had no expectations. I truly never thought I’d see it in a theatre, I never thought I’d see it in any film festivals. What I thought was, I’d get it done and maybe I could sell it to a company who would put it out as a DVD so Marty (Pasetta), the other producer, and myself would make our money back and not lose money, that was the only real goal. So it has just exceeded all my expectations, you know. I thought it would be something where I could say to my friends “you want to see something fucked-up? Come over to my house and I’ll show you this movie I made in two weeks,” that’s really all I thought it would be.
The film started to take off when you entered it into Sundance.
Yeah, we entered it into Sundance. I didn’t think it would get in, and when they called to tell me it was in I was working on The Jimmy Kimmel show, and Jimmy Kimmel’s really big on pranks, so I thought maybe he had one of the writers calling and saying they were from Sundance. So I said “I’ll call you back”, and I got his number because I wanted to call an office to see if it was real. Because Jimmy does a lot of pranks, he does a crank phone call show called Crank Yankers, I don’t know if you know that?
Yeah, we get that over here.
Jimmy produces that, and he and I did a prank movie on this guy, so I thought it was just another one of his pranks.
The audience reactions have been great so far.
It’s been really crazy, we’ve had some really nice reactions. I’ll be interested to see what translates, what people laugh at, because tonight will be the first time I’ve seen it with an audience in the UK, so I’ll be interested to see what plays and what doesn’t play.
The screening I attended seemed to be a combination of people laughing, but also being slightly uncomfortable with what they’re laughing at. Is that a kind of comedy you like to explore?
That’s the only comedy that really interests me, to make people uncomfortable, I don’t know why. Robin Williams is a friend and we were talking about different comedies, and we were discussing our neuroses, and he really wants approval from everyone, and I’ve never been too concerned with that. I’ve almost been more concerned with annoying people. We were laughing, I said “you know, your neurosis is way more lucrative” [laughs].
I suppose the studios are a bit more likely to stump up the cash for one of his films rather than yours.
Yeah, although I guess it is kind of funny that I made this dark, weird movie which ends up quasi life-affirming. That might be the ultimate joke.
What do you think it is that has caught the public’s imagination with this film?
Um, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve untapped this big whole world of bestiality…[laughs]
Maybe you have.
Well, yeah, but if you’re into bestiality I think you’re going to be greatly disappointed, as it all happens off-camera and is tastefully done. It’s not an exploration of bestiality, it’s an exploration of relationships, and not just romantic relationships, but your relationship with your family and stuff. I think all families have this stuff you never talk about and it’s always there, you know. I like the Mom who is in total denial that her son is on drugs, and I like the dad’s total denial, you know, his perception that his wife is virginal, and there are just all these lies we tell ourselves to get through. The funny thing with these lies is that we know they’re lies, you know, it’s not even a lie that we hope is true, we know it’s a lie.
And the film argues that it’s often better to lie to save someone else’s feelings, so perhaps it’s that different viewpoint which people are buying into?
It’s funny, I don’t run into people who have a problem with bestiality - I’m sure they’re out there - but the people who have a problem with this movie get really mad over the idea of being dishonest with a spouse. I don’t understand that; I think full disclosure is a way to hurt the other person and it’s also a pretty good way to end a relationship.
Was there something which inspired you to write something on this topic of lies and relationships?
I think it’s probably inspired by a whole bunch of lies I’ve been dealing with for years. You can be in a bad relationship and be constantly telling yourself that it’s a good relationship, so I think that’s probably what inspired me to write this [laughs].
One of the main reasons the film works so well is the casting, particularly Melinda Page Hamilton as Amy, how did you come to cast her?
She actually came in and auditioned, and she auditioned with that scene in the car where she actually tells the boyfriend her secret, and she added that nervous laugh that’s not in the script, and when she did that I was like “Oh my God, she’s got to do the movie”. I was afraid that somebody would talk her out of it, like an agent or a family member. You know, it’s not me being self-loathing but I’ve been around this business too long and I know this movie will eventually just be a footnote as her first movie, I truly believe she’ll have a great career. And her career will be any way she wants, if she wants to make indie films and arty films she can do that, if she wants to make big pop movies she can do that, and I know that. I mean, I don’t know if I’m talented at directing or anything like that, but I have in the past hired people before they took off, like Adam Sandler was in my fine alcoholic clown movie (Shakes the Clown), and just other people that I’ve hired, and there’s no way that won’t happen to her. She just got nominated in New York at the Gotham awards for breakout performance.
It’s well deserved. And that scene she auditioned with is a really emotionally demanding scene, where she’s doing a lot of things at the same time.
It’s really funny because, it’s exactly what you’re saying, there are so many things going on in her face, and that’s all her. There’s subtext in that scene but I only wrote one thing, all that other stuff is what she brought to the party.
The casting of the rest of her family anchors the film, particularly the parents who appear so conservative and rigid at first and then their layers are subtly revealed.
Geoff (Pierson), the guy who plays the dad, he was the only actor in the movie that I wrote the part with him in mind; I had worked with him on a television show years ago. Most of the big roles were actually people who auditioned, but there are some comedians that are just friends of mine in the cast, like Brian Posehn who plays the friend of the brother Randy.
He gives a very funny performance.
He’s really funny, and that whole thing where he’s talking about midgets and monkeys not getting along, we were having lunch while we were making the movie and he started telling that story and I said “don’t tell the end of that story, there’s a scene coming up and I want you to tell this story”. So I told the cast it would be a montage scene with music playing but there wasn’t, I just wanted them to stay in character and listen to him, so that’s how that scene was shot. It’s just Brian being funny, and he added so many lines of his that weren’t in the script like when he says “I kissed a dead body once”, which is one of my favourite lines, and “you look really pretty when you’re sad” which is one of those things where it’s not funny but I really love that line.
Were the crew also just people you had worked with previously?
Half of them were kids from Craigslist.
And they were just recent graduates?
Yeah, and not graduates too, some of them were in school. I said “if the cops come, us older guys will hide and you guys tell them we’re shooting a student film”, and they go “we are students” and they all whipped out their college IDs. I said to one guy “how old are you?” and he said “well my ID says I’m 27, but it also says my name is Gary”, and his name was Drew. So in the movie he’s credited as Drew/Gary. But half of them were friends I’d worked with. In fact, it was kind of funny because there were some guys who were 15, 20 years older than me working with the college kids, and normally on a set the older guys would the guys with the big titles, you know? On our movie the big titles like the cinematographer and the gaffer were all young kids. These older guys would come in and it was a great learning experience, it was really cool and really fun, because the young kids would tell the old guys “you know what? That’s kind of hacky, that’s in everyone’s student reel”. It would be really funny.
It must be great to have that fresh perspective coming in from the younger crew members.
Yeah; I mean, I don’t know if people like the movie or not, it certainly has its flaws, but I truly can’t think of a more fun way to make a movie. I said that when we wrapped, I said “it doesn’t matter if this movie never comes out because I feel this was a pretty successful movie”. Nobody yelled when we made the movie, and we all laughed, and the wrap party was me buying underage people beer [laughs].
Well, you say you had a great time making it but obviously you had to employ some guerrilla tactics to get it done too. Was there any time when you thought you could be getting yourself in trouble?
There’s one scene, the scene in the garage, we were filming at Marty’s house but he didn’t have a garage. I said “what’s the deal with that empty house across the street?”, and he said they had sold the house but nobody had moved in yet. So…um…I’m not going to admit to anything…but somehow the lock fell of the garage and we rolled the car in, and during that scene I was actually a little nervous about getting busted because there was an actual crime being committed. I said to the crew “we’ve got to be quiet tonight because this is a key scene and it’s really heavy, and we have to respect the actors”, and one of the crew kids said “you don’t have a permit again, do you?” and I said “dude, I don’t even know whose fucking house this is” [laughs]. And when you’re doing stuff like that it doesn’t actually add to the tension, it does the opposite, because everyone thought it was really funny and was giggling. We had nicked so much stuff from various productions that Bonnie (Bonita Friedericy), who plays the mom, she was really bummed out that she hadn’t stolen anything from another TV show. Eventually she brought something in - I can’t remember what it was, a piece of wardrobe or something - but she was just so excited to have a stolen item.
It’s like a rites of passage, you have to steal something to be accepted.
Yeah, it’s kind of like being blood brothers, we were all in it together.
Obviously, the canine blowjob occurs in the very first scene, were you ever worried it might be too much for the audience to deal with right at the start and it could throw them off from focusing on the subsequent story?
A little bit. I mean, maybe that’s why it’s not so graphic. I thought it would have been dishonest to an audience to reveal it 20, 30 or 40 minutes in, I thought it would be short-changing them like “Oh my God, I’ve invested in this woman and now you’re telling me this?”. So, in order to not have the audience go through the same thing all the other characters do, judging her, it was done in a really odd and simple, not very lecherous or scandalous way. It was almost made boring.
Was the secret always going to be a dog blow-job, or did you weigh up other possibilities?
No, I couldn’t really think of anything else. I wanted something that would be a deal-breaker for some people, but at the same time didn’t really involve another person, because I’m lazy and didn’t feel like developing another character [laughs].
It’s much easier to write for a dog.
Because nobody’s asking “where’s the dog now?”, nobody worries about that.
Maybe that could be scope for a sequel.
Yeah, telling the dog’s story [laughs].
You’ve been directing a lot of TV in recent years but you haven’t done many films, aside from Windy City Heat…
Yeah, Windy City Heat, which is a prank movie.
And your only feature before that was Shakes the Clown which was 14 years ago.
Yeah, I’m not really prolific. I mean, that’s the other thing I learned from making this movie - I don’t have to wait. I can go and make another movie, and just get down and dirty and just continue. I’d really like to still do what I’ve been doing, keep working for other comedians on television as a director, and then go off and make my own small little movies.
Are you still working in front of the camera and doing stand-up?
No, I really try not to at all. It wasn’t really acting that much anyway, but it just doesn’t interest me. I have more respect now for actors than I ever had after this movie. I know it sounds like I’m having a pity party, but I really don’t think I’m that good of an actor that it’s worth pursuing, and I really like directing.
Have you got anything planned for the near future?
No, I’d just like to just keep writing and directing. I heard rumblings that there’s a sketch show in the states starting up so I might get involved with that. It’s a group who have just started up and they’ve got this sketch show for MTV, they contacted me, but I don’t know if I’ve got the job yet. That would be cool too because I’ve never done that, I’ve worked with individual comedians but I’ve never had to juggle a whole bunch of comedians before, so that would be pretty cool.