Bobcat Goldthwait on God Bless America
Despite the evidence of his new film, Bobcat Goldthwait insists that he is not an angry person. In God Bless America, the director lines up everyone and everything that he sees as being responsible for the cheapening of modern society, before enacting the violent retribution that many have surely fantasised about, but Goldthwait doesn't want to give the impression that he's a walking time-bomb of seething rage.
"I don't think of myself as angry and fed up, but maybe I am," he says. "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!’" he adds with a laugh. Instead, Goldthwait simply sees this film as a disaster movie in a different guise. "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," he says, before adding, "except I don't see it as a meteor, I think the problem is our own behaviour."
Back in the 1980s, nobody would have guessed that Bobcat Goldthwait would develop into such an astute chronicler of human behaviour. For most people, Goldthwait will always be the shrill-voiced, unhinged Officer Zed from three Police Academy films, or perhaps he is best-remembered as the anarchic comedian who set fire to his chair when he appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
These days, Goldthwait is a quieter, mellower and more thoughtful presence, and a steadily growing number of film fans are starting to recognise his as one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in American comedy. He made his directorial debut in 1992 with Shakes the Clown (described by Martin Scorsese as "The Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies") but it has only been in the last six years that he has really found his groove as a filmmaker.
"The big change is simply that I started writing movies for myself," Goldthwait says, when asked about his impressive workrate. "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."
Nobody could accuse him of taking the easy route to getting films in production, as none of his pictures to date have been an easy sell. Sleeping Dogs Lie is about the shame of a young woman who once performed fellatio on a dog, while World's Greatest Dad is the story of a man who fakes his son's suicide note after the teen dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident.
Look closer, however, and you'll see that there are complex and insightful analyses of universal themes tucked away behind these attention-grabbing premises. In keeping with this grand tradition, God Bless America begins with a violent scene that's guaranteed to startle and potentially turn off the audience. This time, even he admits to being surprised that they went as far as they did ("When we edited it together my editor and I just looked at each other and went, ‘Holy fuck...’ "), but he feels such an aggressive approach is necessary. "The culture we live in is so shocking so that's why my gimmicks or MacGuffins are so bold, but it's funny that this is a movie about kindness," he says. "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."
Certainly, God Bless America has achieved a greater visibility than any of Goldthwait's previous pictures, and much of the conversation will surely revolve around the movie's attack on trash culture. Rather alarmingly, the depictions of TV's most shameful offerings are straightforward duplications of the real thing, with no exaggeration required, but the prime target for Goldthwait is less these shows than the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for them.
While Goldthwait does admit a weakness for RuPaul's Drag Race, he says that he has made a conscious effort to avoid reality shows and the gossip that comes with them, but opting out of the national discourse proved to be harder than expected. "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," he recalls. "It's just shoved down our throats. I think that may be the thing that I'm really tired of and frustrated with."
The question being posed by God Bless America is what effect all of this is having on the way we relate to one another, and what it has done to society at large. "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," he says. "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."
God Bless America may display little optimism for the state of humanity, but the future seems bright for Bobcat Goldthwait. The director has carved out a niche for himself by working on a small budget with a group of friends, and while this approach means he doesn’t earn much from his movies – he still performs stand-up to pay the rent – it affords him a creative autonomy that is invaluable.
Perhaps it’s time for Goldthwait to work on a larger canvas, though? His dream project is a musical based on The Kinks’ 1975 album Schoolboys in Disgrace, and he admits that realising this particular dream is a whole new challenge. “I have been trying to make that movie and I will make that movie, it's just trying to find the right cast,” he explains. “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.”
Even if Schoolboys in Disgrace doesn’t come off, Goldthwait is not a man short of ideas, as he has spent the last couple of years writing a number of screenplays, but he remains philosophical about his chances of, as he puts it, conning people into giving him money. “You know, I said to my daughter, ‘When I die, all these screenplays are yours,’” he says. “And she just said to me, ‘Dad, you can't get them made, why would I want them?’"