A homicidal duo cross the country laying waste to the cruel denizens of modern popular culture in writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest feature, God Bless America. From spoiled teenagers to people who talk in movie theaters, no one is safe from the satiric wrath of Frank (Joel Murray, brother of Bill), Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), or Bobcat himself.
Cinedelphia recently spoke with Bobcat at length concerning his new film, the Twitter-verse, and our mutual youths spent in upstate New York.
Cinedelphia: How’s it going?
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: Okeydoke, y’know, I made a movie about how narcissistic our culture is and then I sit around and get interviewed about myself all day, so, it’s kind of weird.
Cinedelphia: A bit of a paradox. So first off, I’m also an upstate New York native, I’m from Watertown, so I was excited to see the I-81 sign in the film.
BG: Yeah, yeah! And I thought of how people were gonna go “Hey, that’s bullshit, if you’re going to Virginia you’re not gonna drive up to Watertown!”
C: Did you choose Syracuse as a setting for any reason other than it being where you grew up? I’ve always felt that a lot of those upstate towns are a bit isolated from the greater culture.
BG: And defeated, yeah. It’s really weird, even the climate, I remember driving in from Montreal with my daughter and I said to her “Just you wait, when we get to central New York there’s gonna be this gloom” and it showed up and it was really funny. I don’t see myself as Frank, but clearly I guess I am even though I deny it. So maybe that’s why it’s in Syracuse. I didn’t think I’d actually get to film scenes there, it was great that we did that.
C: You’d think that the city would be eager to bring in filmmakers.
BG: Well they were, but it’s a really small movie so…I actually shot a version of the Syracuse scenes in L.A. and after I assembled the movie the producers were nice enough to give me more money to film them again in Syracuse. I was pretty excited.
What was really funny was that I was putting flags everywhere in the movie and when you’re in Syracuse there are actually flags everywhere, up and down the streets. It was really weird.
I go back, my sister has places up on the Saint Lawrence so I drive through Watertown, the Thousand Islands, Bolt Castle. That’d be a great place for a horror picture.
C: You had a long stint as a director on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, did that experience serve as an inspiration for the script?
BG: It did in a big way. I remember when William Hung was on and he was kind of difficult. So that influenced this movie a lot, I learned that everyone is corrupt. Someone who I thought was very misguided and innocent turned out to be a diva.
C: It’s amazing that the mind can make such a switch virtually overnight.
BG: It’s awesome, fame just corrupts everyone immediately.
C: Was the germ for this picture planted back in those days?
BG: The real inspiration was when I was in London and they had a My Super Sweet 16 marathon on and it really bothered me that that was what a good portion of the world was thinking we were. I’m aware that the movie is very dated, but I used shows like American Idol because I wanted ones that people are familiar with.
C: One of the reasons the film works is because these shows just seep into our subconscious, whether we’re aware of it or not. I have no idea when I learned about The Bad Girls Club, these things just appear.
BG: Right, I don’t even parody it that much in the film, I just recreate the scenes. Some people are like, “Why doesn’t Frank just turn off the TV?” and I’m like “Why do I have to listen to idiots talk about Charlie Sheen all the time?” When he was having his manic episode it was conversation at parties, you just get crammed with all of this stuff whether you like it or not. Like that scene where those two women walk by in the office and have a non-versation about Jennifer Aniston. One of those women is Joel’s wife and I asked him if he had a problem shooting her with a gun and he just looked at me and smirked.
C: I thought it was actually a wonderful thing that he never turned off the television, because I’m always searching, I never quit.
BG: Yeah, like you’re gonna beat it, like something that isn’t horrendous has gotta be out there. That’s a little bit based on me too, I’d like to tell you that it’s not true, but true crime programming makes me sleep like a baby, as soon as they start going “They met in high school, they were the perfect couple…” I’m like “I’m in.” I’m not above pop culture, it’s just the cruel aspects of it that I’m fed up with. I like watching The Office and Modern Family. When my wife is watching RuPaul’s Drag Race I’ll sit down and root for Sharon Needles to win.
C: It’s obvious in the film that you’re really attacking the cruelty of it all.
BG: Yeah, it’s not about telling people that we shouldn’t have it or shouldn’t watch it. We certainly shouldn’t kill these people, but what does it say about us that these are the people we put on a pedestal?
C: When you’re promoting this film, is it difficult to interact with certain outlets for the sake of promotion?
BG: Right, I’ve been wondering if I’m going to compromise what I believe and what this movie is trying to say and end up on “Taint and Teabag In the Morning”, y’know? It hasn’t happened yet. I’m going on Bill Maher, which is really exciting for me, I feel like that’s the audience for this film.
C: It may be a necessary evil though, as long as you’re getting the word out…
BG: What’s interesting is that when I started out in comedy I did the local radio and the local newspaper and that sold tickets and now it’s all about podcasts and twitting, whatever it’s called. I need to be on social media, but I’m not. It feels like it would be another job and it seems kind of weird to have that kind of exposure to the general public. I don’t mind promoting stuff I make, but I feel really empty when I’m just promoting me.
C: I think a lot of people use Twitter as a means to build their ideal personality, recreate their selves.
BG: I saw two people apologizing for an exchange they had on Twitter, and they both decided that it didn’t really matter because it was on Twitter. So their facades were apologizing, they were clearly upset with how nasty their exchange had been, and I was just like “What the fuck is going on, man?”
C: A lot of celebrities at least hire someone to manage their online presence.
BG: Yeah, there are those Twitters too that are like “I’m going to be on such-and-such, check it out!” I know I have to be on social media as a comedian since I make my living from standup and it hurts you if you’re not and local media doesn’t have the impact it used to. I like doing podcasts, but I don’t want to do my own.
C: Right, I heard you on Marc Maron.
BG: Yeah, that was fun.
C: He seems like a personable guy.
BG: He’s the perfect person for that, he’s really good at getting people to air their dirty laundry.
C: Thinking back on Twitter for a second, I remember when just about the entire world turned on Gilbert Gottfried for his jokes about Japan. It’s amazing that a single sentence posted on the internet can have so much power.
BG: Yeah, it’s like, “Your children were just killed when your house collapsed on them, did you hear what Gilbert Gottfried said?” You don’t have a job or a family anymore, there’s a comedian in the United States who’s on the other side of the world, but he said something that wasn’t nice. With my movie, people go “I wonder what Gabby Giffords thinks of this movie”, but I think she has a lot more to worry about on a daily basis than Bobcat’s satire of how nasty we’ve become as a culture.
You used to do radio, there was a handful of people that called everyday to the radio and they complained and were crazy and stalked the on-air talent. And everyone in radio knew this and knew that they were nuts and that was it. But now everybody has turned into those people. It’s the anonymous nature that gets really boring, whenever I say anything I’m held accountable, it’s the world’s largest bathroom stall. But my younger friends think I’m insane for reading comments.
C: I think there’s something in the film that will offend everyone, or at least raise eyebrows. There was that one scene where the girl says that she hates people who talk about punk rock and I was like “It’s okay to talk about punk rock!”
BG: Of course, of course, and there’s a lot of things I’m guilty of.
C: I thought that by including such a range of annoyances it painted all of us as being guilty in a way.
BG: Yeah, I mean that was the idea, there are a few I’m guilty of and I actually have a soft spot for Green Day. If you make your living taking pop culture seriously, then you’re probably not going to like this movie. If you decided that you’re going to be the one that takes down people and determines who is cool or not then you’re not going to like this movie either because it kicks your feet out from underneath you and says that what you’re doing isn’t valid.
I didn’t want to randomly bash people, I think it’s lazy, and whiny. It’s just so easy. Let’s make something, that’s my whole thing. Making things is awesome and it’s giving the middle finger to this condition we’re all suffering in.
C: Related to that, most of the film’s commentary is found in parodies, but you were very specific when it came to Diablo Cody.
BG: Right, and also the dude from TMZ. I wasn’t initially going to go after Harvey Levin personally, but when the actor came in and basically was Harvey Levin, although a better looking Harvey Levin, I thought it was a golden opportunity to shoot him in the throat. The thing about Diablo Cody, my daughter is very funny and if you’re a funny young woman then people will go “Oh, you’re like Juno” and my daughter is like “Dad, I want to stab anybody in the throat that calls me Juno” so that’s what that’s based on. I was asked to remove the Diablo Cody reference, but that only made me make it an entire page and a half diatribe.
C: Did you have Joel Murray in mind when you were writing those diatribes?
BG: I didn’t write it with anyone in mind and usually I do. I wrote World’s Greatest Dad with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind, but this one I didn’t, which maybe means that the character really is me. I never entertained the idea of me playing Frank.
C: Is that because you don’t want to step in front of cameras anymore?
BG: This isn’t me being the hot chick at the party saying “don’t throw me in the pool”, but I really want to write and direct movies and I want to do a really good job so I don’t want to be acting at the same time.
BG: Yeah, it’s funny, when I sent him the script I didn’t tell him that I wanted him to be the lead, I just sent it to him. And when I told him, he was like “Oh, you want me to be the guy. You want me to be the guy?”
C: Was he totally down with the script?
BG: There was a scene where they shoot up a wet t-shirt contest in Florida and he was like “Hey, these are just kids having fun, why do we gotta do that?” And I said “Ok, we don’t have to do that.” There was a line that I cut out because the scene was too long, but she goes “We should just go kill all jocks” and he goes “I like sports” and she goes “I’m just gonna pretend I didn’t hear that.” And Joel was like “I do like sports” and I said “I know you do.”
C: Sports is a topic that would alienate a large portion of the audience.
BG: Well, you’re not supposed to agree with the list. It’s the first thing I’ve made as a guy who wrote and directed the movie, I’m doing my best to avoid the term “filmmaker” because it makes me sound like a fucking load. “Prior to being a filmmaker I was in Hot to Trot…” So as a guy who makes movies, it’s the first thing I’ve done that’s connecting with young people. It doesn’t connect with all young people, but it’s connecting with the misfits and outcasts and that makes me really happy. That is the audience for this movie, the outcasts.
C: Do you think that you’ve been received by a similar crowd throughout your career? I recall the things you did with Nirvana…
BG: Right, well, it’s nice when there were people who saw past the persona and understood that that character was kind of an outcast, a fringe person. It’s nice that Kurt liked the standup and what I was doing, but unfortunately, and a little bit like Nirvana, for some reason even the people who didn’t get that gravitated towards the persona and Nirvana, people who didn’t have a lot in common with Kurt, be it the more extreme side of the punk crowd, the straight edge intolerant people, or the dumb jocks with barbed wire art tattoos.
C: Right, and that’s what marketing does.
BG: It ruins everything. But that’s the cool thing about the time we live in, you don’t have to appeal to everybody and finally some media is catching on. When I first started making movies people were like “This is dumb, we’re gonna see Meet the Fockers”. People can’t wrap their brains around how I’m not necessarily trying to make you laugh, in this new movie I’m probably shooting you in the face. Everybody thinks every product is made for them and that they can have it their way.
C: I saw you on Kimmel earlier this week, you seemed to get somewhat uncomfortable when he asked you to do “the voice”.
BG: Yeah, and he asks me to do that more than anyone because he knows that it drives me nuts. What was funny about that appearance was that I did go back and watch it and I kinda liked how it genuinely seemed like our relationship, which you don’t usually get on a talk show. I felt good when I got done with that, it was just like how we were at work.
C: How do you look back upon your first phase or chapter in Hollywood, your pre-directing days?
BG: It’s definitely with mixed feelings. It took me this long, almost 30 years, to realize what I first started off doing, things that made me laugh. I don’t have any regrets, but I wished I’d wised up a little earlier because I could have been making movies earlier on.
C: Do you blame youth or inexperience?
BG: I said yes to Police Academy 2 the same year that my friends were graduating college. I don’t blame youth because I did know inside that this wasn’t what I wanted to do, this is horrible. People should listen to that voice and it took me a long time before I realized what makes me happy.
C: But it must have been an honor at the same time, your friends are graduating college and you’re going to be in the sequel to a major movie.
BG: It was weird because afterwards I went back and saw my friends and they were all weird, treating me differently. It wasn’t until later on when they started perceiving me as a failure that they would tell me about their floor business and their lives. On my 25th reunion, Tom Kenny [voice of Spongebob Squarepants] and I went back to our high school reunion. He was stuck all day calling people’s children and signing DVDs and I’d just come from Sundance where I sold my first movie and they’re all going “Hang in there Bobcat, things will get better”. They actually talked to me and made Tom the freak.
God Bless America opens at the Ritz at the Bourse on Friday, May 11.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.