In Bobcat Goldthwait's new film God Bless America, an ordinary man is driven to breaking point by the shamelessness, ignorance and cruelty that he sees around him every day and decides to take matters into his own hands. The film is an attack on everything that Goldthwait sees as being wrong with modern society – from reality TV shows to extreme political commentators and people who talk in cinemas – and it is the latest in a series of pictures that have established Goldthwait as one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in American independent film. Ahead of God Bless America's July 4th UK release, I had the opportunity to speak with Bobcat Goldthwait.
You know, you were the first person I ever interviewed, for Sleeping Dogs Lie back in 2006.
And how did it go? Did it go well?
It did. I'm still interviewing people so you didn't put me off it or anything like that.
Oh, thank God. "I only ever did one interview. It was horrible!" [Laughs]
One of the things we spoke about back then was how many years had elapsed between the films you've directed, but since then you have released two more movies and I understand you have a number of scripts in the works. Has something changed in your attitude or approach that has made you more prolific?
The big change is simply that I started writing movies for myself. They were just movies I wanted to make and I stopped thinking about what would probably get made, what would make money, what would be a vehicle for myself, I stopped all that. I sat down and wrote five more screenplays.
Was God Bless America one of the scripts you wrote in this burst of activity?
Yeah, I wrote that just after World's Greatest Dad.
And was it a film written in anger, or was more a sense of despair at what you were seeing around you?
Well, the germ of it actually came when I was doing press for Sleeping Dogs in London. I was in a hotel room in London and there was a marathon of My Super Sweet Sixteen on TV, and I just thought, "Oh, these children should die." That was the germ of the whole thing. I don't think of myself as angry and fed up, but maybe I am. The other day my wife told me I don't like people and I was devastated. When I showed the movie the other night at a rock festival someone asked me if I had always been a misanthrope and I was like, "No, I like people!" [laughs] Maybe when I look back at the movie I can see that this character or that character is a certain person in my life.
In this film I think you've hit on a lot of themes or complaints that have been festering in people for a long time.
I think there's a zeitgeist right now of people giving up. There are all these movies about meteors hitting the world and the world ending and I think you can slide this movie in with those, except I don't see it as a meteor, I think the problem is our own behaviour. I was watching the movie Bonnie and Clyde and I realised that the counterculture people were very frustrated with the establishment, and that was behind the popularity of that movie, so I started to think about who we're mad at now and I think we're mad at ourselves. It's all these shows and as my wife called them these non-versations, so that was the idea behind the movie.
I had assumed that the film would play as an attack on the media but it's more about the society that breeds it. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for this kind of trash culture.
Yeah, I didn't want to do an attack on the media because that was what Natural Born Killers was, and it's exactly what you said, it's our appetite for this stuff. You know, years back, around the time I wrote this, I did make a decision in my life to not watch reality TV programmes and not click on the gossip sites on the internet. Now, do I slip occasionally? Sure, I mean, I'll watch RuPaul's Drag Race [laughs] and I'm not implying that we should all be having these heavy conversations about political and current events. What I'm saying is we should make an effort to connect.
It's interesting that you said you tried to opt out of trash culture because one theme of the film is how inescapable it is. Even when Frank turns off the TV and goes to work, every conversation begins with, "Did you see that guy on X-Factor last night?"
That's funny, because I sometimes see people saying, "Why didn't he just turn off the TV?" but it's exactly what you said. There's no reason why I should know that Kim Kardashian got married but I know she got married and I know she got divorced, and I never even asked what people were talking about. It's just shoved down our throats. I think that may be the thing that I'm really tired of and frustrated with.
Aside from the media and culture, your film is about behaviour in general. It suggests people have lost a sense of kindness and thoughtfulness for their fellow man, which is such a basic aspect of humanity to lose.
It's really strange. I think the digital age has really deepened our narcissism and entitlement, so you're not even aware of when you're ignoring someone, you're not even aware of when you're being impolite.
When you show this movie to audiences, do you get a sense that they are recognising aspects of themselves, or taking a message away from the film?
I don't know, I've seen the movie play differently. I've seen people just take it as a comedy and like it, and I've seen people be kinda shocked by it. For me the message is just asking people if they're part of the problem or part of the solution, and I also include myself in that. I don't think the movie necessarily works for everyone and if you lack empathy then you'll say, "Oh, it's just a one-joke movie" but if you're not a passive viewer and you're thinking about what's being said, then hopefully you'll enjoy it.
All of your films tend to have these attention-grabbing and taboo-challenging premises. Do you think it's sometimes hard for people to see past that layer and to engage with the ideas you're trying to express?
I'm sure, but the culture we live in is so shocking so that's why my gimmicks or MacGuffins are so bold, but it's funny this is a movie about kindness. It is kind of weird that these movies I make have these taboo subjects but they are very moral movies. I don't know if that helps or hurts the movie but they're just these weird little stories I like to make. If I had just made a non-violent movie about how we're losing touch with each other, I don't think it would have got the attention that this one has.
Shooting a baby is certainly one way to get people's attention.
[Laughs] It is fun to shoot a baby. You know what's funny about that? Normally I make these things and I feel that everyone is on board, but with that one I was kind of surprised that we just kept going along and I was thinking, "Wow...so we really are going to do this?" When we edited it together my editor and I just looked at each other and went, "Holy fuck..." [Laughs] "You've done it again, Goldthwait!"
When you're doing things like that it I guess helps to have a guy like Joel Murray doing it. He's the kind of actor who the audience can instantly like and empathise with.
Joel definitely has that, and Robin has that too. If I didn't have such strong leads these movies wouldn't work. Joel is an old friend and I had enquired about him being in my other movie but his agent at the time didn't send him the script, because I guess he thought it was offensive or too small or whatever. It was my wife who suggested Joel because she's a big Mad Men fan, and I thought yeah, he'd be great.
Was it hard to find the right tone in his relationship with Roxy? Films with serial killers on the run usually have a strong sexual aspect and Roxy actually flirts with that idea at one point, which makes Frank very uncomfortable.
I wanted it to be where the wheels start falling off, when Frank has these strong ideas about how someone should live there life and then he is contemplating briefly the possibility of running off and starting a life with this young kid. I didn't want it to be just a vigilante movie in which we kill a bunch of people that we all agree are horrible, you know, I wanted to show that nobody is perfect. The tone wasn't hard to find because of the casting. I didn't want someone who was a Lolita and I didn't want the clichéd goth kid thing, and although Roxy is a bit of a...I was going to say cunt [laughs] Tera actually has a lot of the same energy as the character. As soon as she came in it was clear that it would work if we got this kid to do the movie.
Did she have a different perspective on the material? Because she's of such a younger generation she has really grown up inside this culture you're attacking.
It's funny, because her perspective is almost like the other people in the movie's perspective. She is beyond of years and listens to a lot of 70s rock music and stuff like that and has her own politics, you know, she is actually very much against guns, but it was kind of funny that as soon as she started firing them her face lit up like a jack-o-lantern. She was a good match.
When you make a film like this and get these concerns off your chest, does it feel cathartic?
I found some of the stuff cathartic but what was really cathartic was when the movie appeared at the Toronto Film Festival. They didn't get a print and it was actually a digital tape we had been still been editing up to a couple of days before, and when Frank's rants started playing in the theatre and people started clapping, I was sitting next to Joel and we were both shocked, we were definitely shocked. You know, I wanted the character to say these things but I didn't know so many people would agree with them.
This film does seem to have already achieved a greater visibility than your previous pictures. I always felt that Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad didn't receive the attention they deserved.
Well, thanks. I guess the more I keep making stuff the more I have a brand, but I guess it has something to do with having guns in the movie, I think that helps. This is the first time a movie I made has been sold to Japan, which is funny.
If Melinda Page Hamilton had shot that dog instead of giving it a blowjob you might have had a hit.
[Laughs] Or the dog pulls out a gun: "Back off, lady. You're going to regret this for the rest of your life."
You said recently that you would have probably just gone straight to filmmaking if you were a young person starting your career today, and would have skipped the comedy and acting route. Do you wish you had done that back in the 80s?
Maybe, I don't know. I was really into stand-up comedy as a little kid and that's why I became a comedian when I was a teenager, but I think it would have interested me a lot. If I had been making shorts that would have been invaluable to me and that might have got me on this path, but you never know. I might be an old guy now saying, "I wonder if I could do stand-up comedy?" The only thing I find frustrating is that I know I'll never get to make all the movies I've had ideas for. You know, I said to my daughter, "When I die, all these screenplays are yours" and she said to me, "Dad, you can't get them made, why would I want them?" [Laughs]
You seem to be doing OK in terms of working on a small budget and working with friends, and you seem to have carved out a little niche for yourself.
Yeah, but like a lot of people I'm not set. I have to go and do stand-up to help pay my rent, and I don't have a big financial cushion or anything, but the trade-off is that I get to make movies on my own terms which I'd much rather do.
Finally, I know the Kinks musical is the project you have been trying to make for a long time now. What's the status on that?
I have been trying to make that movie and I will make that movie, it's just trying to find the right cast. It's not like me just going out with my friends and it will be a much larger movie with sets, a big cast, rehearsing, and all that stuff. I will make it but it's a different way to go about it. I have a feeling the next movie will probably be my straight-up take on a horror picture, but I have written five screenplays since World's Greatest Dad so it's a case of whichever one will allow me to con people into giving me money. [Laughs]