Faster Filmmaker Q&A: “God Bless America” Writer-Director Bobcat Goldthwait on Kindness Through Ultraviolence, Online Hecklers, and Banning the Bible
Do you know the fable of the blue-collar comedian who played the “Police Academy” weirdo and then became an unhinged and prolific auteur? Do you want to? In the new movie from writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, a middle-aged man named Frank (Joel Murray, most recently Freddy Rumsen from “Mad Men”) becomes unsustainably debased. Having lost both his dreary cube-farm job and custody of his spoiled child, and gained only a grim medical prognosis, Frank finds himself no longer able to abide the cruel and corrosively stupid pop culture that surrounds him. So, with help from a runaway teenage girl (relative newcomer Tara Lynne Barr), he strikes out in search of cathartic satisfaction — namely, a nationwide killing spree. Targets include the entitlement-monsters of reality TV, right-wing radio, and movie theater decorum disruption. “God Bless America,” it’s called, and here’s what Goldthwait, recently hanging out in the green room of a San Francsico comedy club, had to say about it.
How did you even get “God Bless America” made?
[Laughs.] I made it with the same folks I made “World’s Greatest Dad” with. I guess the key is that I keep the budgets really small. And one of the producers, who’s a really nice guy, is part of the Hamm’s beer family, so I got this Hamm’s beer tattoo, and I said, “Hey are we gonna make this!?” And they didn’t actually laugh. They were like, “Uhh….” And then I was like, “Hey, don’t worry, there’s plenty of room for Fox Searchlight on the other side of my chest.” But still it’s like, “Oh, I’m glad you like the movie where his son dies during autoerotic asphyxiation! Now will you make a movie where we shoot a baby in the first five minutes?” After “World’s Greatest Dad,” I actually wrote five more screenplays. I’m very productive with writing scripts. Writing a screenplay to me is much easier than Tweeting. That’s why I’m not on social media. I know that I need to do it because it would help promote the movie, and reach people. But to write a screenplay, I usually have a theme and I usually have a world where this theme takes place. And then I go into a chain hotel for four days or so and write the script. But I don’t know if it gets any easier to get one made. Maybe a little. At least the producers know I actually will deliver a movie.
This movie has, shall we say, a certain ranting quality. So how do you decide to do it as a movie and not as stand-up?
This is the first time a couple of lines from my act actually snuck in as lines of dialogue. And it was just out of laziness. Like when he says that he wishes he was a super genius and he could figure out how to make a cell phone into an explosive device. But somebody who I always admired, and whose filmmaking I’ve always been a fan of — and of course he gets bashed in the movie — is Woody Allen. Every once in a while as a young man I would see a Woody Allen joke from his stand-up occasionally come in to one of his movies. That can be fun. I don’t know, maybe someday I’ll try something like a “His Girl Friday,” where it’s really snappy stuff, but for some reason that kind of comedy doesn’t always interest me — where it’s joke driven, or it’s people topping each other. The first review of my stand-up from when I was 19 said the laughs came from my unnervingly realistic weirdness. And you know, that’s the comedy I’m interested in. When you’re uncomfortable. The movie is like my stand-up in that I always would dig a hole. And I think the more well known I got, the harder it was to dig a hole for myself. So when I make movies, it’s a lot easier to do.
Well, yeah, the hole you’ve dug here looks pretty deep and dark. And the way out isn’t exactly “toward the light.” I figure some people might not like what you’re saying here.
Really I just wanted to write a movie that was kinda like, “Who are we, and where are we going? And am I the only one who feels a little pushed off to the side because this big steamroller of stupidity is coming? I’m really just trying to connect with my people. I’m not trying to corrupt anybody. You can’t change anyone and I’m not interested in that. But there’s a lot of fucking crazy people out there. They’re crazy enough to think that “The Muppets” is a leftist communist agenda. So when a guy in a movie is actually shooting a guy who’s loosely based on Bill O’Reilly, yeah, of course, people are gonna be upset. Someone asked me if I’m concerned with copycats. And you know, if you can take a normal person and convince them to become a murderer by showing them a movie, then the military would be producing movies. And I do hope people are influenced by the movie but I don’t think they will be because the message is kindness. It’s a violent movie about kindness. Frank has a code. He wants people to be nice. But the subtext is Frank realizing that he’s a human being, and that he can’t even keep all these unrealistic rules that he wishes everybody else would keep. That’s when the wheels fall off. My movies are fables, kinda. They’re not supposed to be the real world. Someday maybe I’ll I do a biopic or something, and I’ll be truer and create the actual world. I’m sure movies like the first “Willie Wonka” probably informed the way I make movies more than, like, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” But you know, sometimes, when I’m ego-surfing, I read things where people say the movie should be banned. I’m like, wow. If you want to start banning violent works of fiction, you should really start with the Bible.
Do you get into it with people on line?
Well, one time I was on Reddit, and people were talking about a clip from the movie. And unfortunately there were so many questions, and I was trying to answer as they came down the line, so I couldn’t get into it with people. So one guy said, “Oh sure, ask me anything, as long as it’s about my movie.” And I said “Hey man, I’m answering questions as they’re coming to me.” And I said, “Hey, yell upstairs and tell your mom I said hi.” And then that guy goes, “Hey, how’d you know I lived at home?” I think he was being nice, he was joking….
“My mom’s actually a big fan!”
[Laughs.] “You banged my mom in the ’80s!” Yeah. But that world is so funny and strange. I have friends who do talk back to the folks on social media, and so many of them, as soon as you acknowledge them, not only do they say sorry, they go, “Oh, hi!” I have one friend who, when she ends up challenging people, they all end up going, “Oh I love you, what are you talking about?” But then I have another friend, Charlyne Yi, and you know she’s younger, and she’s like, “What, you read that stuff!?” She can’t even begin to think of it. And she’s someone who’s posting stuff constantly. Yeah, it’s a really weird thing. She’s got a lot to teach grandpa.
What about your “God Bless America” leading lady Tara Lynn Barr, who’s still a teenager?
Yeah, and thank goodness her parents were cool. It’s funny, once you find them, I do like a background check on the parents, ’cause that’s who’s gonna be around the set. And thankfully Tara and her mom were really awesome to work with. But Tara’s really fun because she’s really anti-gun. So I’d take her out to a gun range. And I’m so glad I actually have it on video, I recorded it, where she unloads a whole clip — blam blam blam blam blam — and then she turns and looks at the lens like a fucking maniac. She’s all teeth. It was like the scene in the original “Producers”: “I found my Hitler!” I’m interested to find out what younger folks make of this movie. Like if you’re sitting there at home playing first-person killing games all day. I mean, I think people in the older generation, my contemporaries, aren’t even aware of that. So again it’s that question: What’s happening to us, where the hell are we going?
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