Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait’s Blessing in Disguise With “God Bless America”

The "World's Greatest Dad" writer/director talks about taking aim at celebrity culture with a blistering comedy about a May-December pair of serial killers....Read More

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Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.

Just as there was behind so many of laughs at the Ryerson on Friday night during the world premiere of "God Bless America," there was a sliver of serious introspection when Bobcat Goldthwait responded to a question about whether he'd tone down the film's opening if it meant landing a distributor by replying sincerely, "I sold out so much as a younger man, why would I do it in middle age?"

It's not as if Goldthwait was ever one to compromise, whether it was vocally in voicing his most famous creations as a performer or in his unpredictable standup act that refused to mine the same mean streak that fueled so many others'. But it's notable that at an age when so many artists typically face an identity crisis, Goldthwait has hit his stride.

"God Bless America" is Goldthwait's third film in the last five years and his most confident yet, cinematically as well as in the ideas it expresses about the world through the eyes of a frustrated clockpuncher (Joel Murray) and a disaffected teen (Tara Lynn Barr) who form a lovely friendship by taking up arms against a culture that celebrates Kim Kardashian, spoiled 16-year-olds on national television and people who improperly use the word "literally."

That confidence may not have fully been on display Friday night when Goldthwait wiped a little sweat from his brow before the screening by saying he worried he might've created his "Springtime for Hitler." But ever since he pulled off a funny, surprisingly delicate take on relationships with "Sleeping Dogs Lie" in 2006, Goldthwait's steadily taken on bigger targets, moving on from a couple to a community's hypocrisy in mourning with "World's Greatest Dad" to a country in his latest film which mercilessly blasts a cultural echo chamber of gossip and celebrity that has taken the place of real discourse.

While he may not be happy with the direction America's headed in, Goldthwait has become one of the country's finest filmmakers by speaking the truth in a way both brutal and brutally funny. Fortunately, during his time in Toronto, he had the time to speak to me about why he's really not a cynical person, why standup has become difficult for him and the musical he's working on with Ray Davies of The Kinks.

During the press tour for “World’s Greatest Dad” in 2009, you said you were close to finishing the script for [“God Bless America”], but TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes mentioned last night you were inspired to start filming by seeing “A Horrible Way to Die” last year in Toronto. Was it something that inspired you creatively?

Well, what it was, I had written a 185-page version of this movie [laughs] because I guess it was a bit of a catharsis and when I saw “A Horrible Way to Die,” I was like well, here’s a movie that mixed genres. I don’t know how comfortable [the filmmakers] feel with it, but it’s definitely “mumblegore.” And I thought I have a movie that mixed genres that’s violent and why don’t I make it? So that’s what kicked me in the ass to see that hopefully it would work for people. Because that movie really worked for me. I really enjoyed it.

Since this film takes on so many things going on in the world right now, was there a precipice that you felt pushed over?

No, I think it’s just a collective nudge. I think it was just this simmering with me.

You looked relieved last night at the premiere that the audience went with it as much as they did.

Oh my goodness, yeah. I had no idea. Like I agree with about 90 percent of the things Frank says and when I heard other people agreeing with him, I’d love to tell you that I’m a better man than this, but my eyes started welling up because I didn’t know it would work for people.

How do you prevent a movie like this from becoming a rant?

I think it’s probably the relationship between Joel’s character and Tara’s character that hopefully keeps it from being a rant. People are really angry right now and they don’t know where to vent it, so they go after the government or other countries, but we really should be angry with ourselves. Including me. About six years ago, I kind of said, I’m out. I’m not going to keep up with reality shows. Here’s the thing: I’m not really angry at these people. I’m more frustrated with us. There’s no reason Kim Kardashian’s wedding should be on my radar because I don’t really care one way or the other about it. But I’m forced to hear about this dumb whore’s wedding from people who are incapable of having conversations other than regurgitating what they hear and see in pop media.

Do you think the people working within the industry of creating pop culture see it as hopeless as some consumers do?

What I’ve noticed is people eventually drink the Kool Aid. Whatever turd they’re working on…once I was walking with some friends of mine who were writing on “Blossom” — and this was years ago — and they were making fun of “Married with Children.” Like everybody convinces themselves that what they’re doing is a little bit better. Or people are just making stuff to perpetuate fame.

That’s really why standup is hard for me nowadays. I’m not really interested in it too much because being a comedian now has been reduced to being a reality star. You’re supposed to have a Facebook page, you’re supposed to Twitter, you’re supposed to post new clips of yourself constantly, so you’re supposed to reveal every aspect of your life instead of just creating something to be proud of. Instead of writing an act, saying this is what I have to say, this is what I think of the world, that it’s more about fame. Which I’m not interested in.

One of my favorite lines of the film is when Joel says in irritation, “Everything needs to be documented for it to mean something.”

It’s so frustrating. People’s first reactions now are to record things. Like even a good old fashioned barfight, people whip out their phones. [laughs] It really removes you from life.

When you know there’s something an actor like Joel Murray can do that they’ve never been able to show before, does that give you some special satisfaction?

It’s really awesome that you believe in somebody and you put them out there and I think he knocked it out of the park. But that goes for a lot of people. It’s like the story Joel was telling [at the premiere] about the armorer [Mike Tristano, a real-life weapons specialist who plays an underground gun dealer in the film]. I really thought he could act. All he’s got to do is be himself and he’ll do a really good job. And when he did, we all were like, “holy crap!” Afterwards, I said, “Mike, you did a really great job” and he said, “Thanks. Thanks for giving me a shot.” And I said, “I knew you’d do it, but I also thought, worst case scenario, I’d make it a montage.” [laughs]

You claimed last night that you had more in common with Roxy’s ultra-pessimistic, take-no-prisoners point of view on the world than Frank, who you said was more like your wife in believing “if you got the right people killed, the world would be a better place.” Still, I have trouble believing you’re entirely cynical when when there’s this sweetness to all of your films.

I wouldn’t say I’m cynical. I think I’m beaten. [slight laugh] The idea I was trying to convey with this movie was asking the audience, are you in or you out? Are you part of the problem or are you not? So that’s why [“God Bless America”] does have such a dark ending. But the other movies, which usually end on a much happier note really is how I view the world, which is funny. Because I actually do have an optimistic outlook.

Is your musical [about a supervillain who masterminds a high school musical] based around The Kinks’ “School Boys in Disgrace” album still in the works?

Yeah, it’s still moving along. Ray [Davies] and I are always communicating and taking meetings and trying to get the movie going. We haven’t given up on it. We’re both trying to push it forward. It’s just bigger than the budgets of the movies that I make, the fact that I have to build sets and close down streets and use the crane. The choreographer for that project is Trish Sie, who did the OK Go videos, and she’s actually in [“God Bless America”] a little bit. She’s getting blood splattered on her and then she put together those dancers for me for that scene [on “American Superstarz,” the faux reality competition show in the film].

"God Bless America" was picked up by Magnolia Pictures through its Magnet Distribution arm – it will be released some time in 2012. It has one more screening at Toronto on September 16th at the AMC 7.

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