Comedian turned filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait talks about his outrageous, ultraviolent satire "God Bless America"
Bobcat Goldthwait is something like the id underbelly of Michael Moore, with every pretense of journalistic objectivity and reasonableness stripped away. While Moore has a background as a reporter and editor, Goldthwait has always been an entertainer, who began doing stand-up comedy as a teenager in the late 1970s. Both guys present as rumpled, middle-aged heartland Americans with blue-collar roots — Goldthwait is from Syracuse, N.Y., where his dad was a sheet-metal worker — who are angry about the debasement of political life and public dialogue in their beloved country.
But I feel pretty confident that even Moore would not make a movie about a laid-off worker who hits the road with a runaway teenage girl and goes on a killing spree aimed at right-wing talk-show hosts, obnoxious reality-TV subjects and people who talk on the phone in movie theaters. “God Bless America” is Goldthwait’s fourth film as a writer-director — I’m going clear back to “Shakes the Clown” in 1991, often described as the “‘Citizen Kane’ of alcoholic-clown movies” — and it’s definitely his most coherent and most consistently hilarious, perhaps because its canvas is so large and the world it depicts so insane. It plays a little like “Network” mixed with Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” mixed with “Natural Born Killers,” and in the very first scene its main character, the depressed, divorced and soon-to-be unemployed Frank (Joel Murray), does something completely unforgivable.
That first scene turns out to be a dream sequence, thankfully, but it’s not like the stuff Frank will actually do in the waking world “God Bless America” is so much better. After losing his job and getting some really bad medical news, Frank decides to seek violent retribution against the evil, stupidity and cruelty he sees streaming out of the TV every day. (He could, after all, just turn it off instead; I think that’s part of Goldthwait’s point.) While hunting down an ultra-spoiled Southern teenager and her stupid-rich parents — the subjects of an especially insulting reality show — he meets Roxy (the wonderful Tara Lynne Barr), a precocious high-school girl who says she’s fleeing an abusive home life and whose appetite for destruction beggars his own. Roxy’s delighted to waste vapid cheerleaders and reactionary creeps, but wants to up the ante: People who high-five! People who say things are “punk rock”! Adult women who call their breasts “girls”! Diablo Cody (described herein as “the only stripper with too much self-esteem”)!
Yeah, OK, that’s all pretty funny. But what about 50-year-old guys who go on cross-country road trips with cute underage girls, without asking themselves too many hard questions? Somewhat less funny, right? On one level, “God Bless America” is grossly inflated, over-the-top satire, but on another, it possesses its own kind of moral subtlety. Goldthwait doesn’t so much want us to root for Frank and Roxy without question, or to excuse actions that can’t be excused. Rather, he wants us to acknowledge that the idiotic and insulting state of public discourse in our country has made us all a little crazy. And this critique isn’t coming from some avant-garde outsider or media-studies professor, by the way. Goldthwait is a lifelong showbiz professional, who spent four years as the principal director of his friend Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show.
I met Goldthwait last week in his Manhattan hotel room, where he was joined by Joel Murray, who plays ultra-violent anti-cruelty crusader Frank in “God Bless America.” You may know Murray from his recurring role as Freddy Rumsen on “Mad Men,” or before that for extended runs in “Still Standing” and “Dharma & Greg.”
So — another work of subtle and delicate social satire from the mind of Bobcat Goldthwait.
Bobcat Goldthwait: Well, in these not very subtle times, this is what’s called for.
You’re just about the right age to have seen “Network,” growing up, and I couldn’t help thinking there’s a lot of that movie in here.
Oh, I actually went back and watched it when I was writing the movie. You know, this movie’s influences are like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Network,” a movie I love. I went back to movies where obviously comparisons were going to be drawn and watched those too. You know, like “Falling Down.” Which, by the way, is a terrible movie.
Yes, absolutely terrible.
Some people absolutely love it. I’m like, I don’t know. I could never get into the movie. When Michael Douglas finally kills somebody, they make the guy a closet Nazi. So you don’t have to feel bad, you know — Michael Douglas’ character isn’t a bad guy. And he really just wants to get home. It’s also a very racist movie.
I mean, I didn’t want this to be a vigilante movie where everybody that Frank kills — not only do they talk in the movie theater, but they also happen to be Nazis or they kill a puppy in the parking lot. Because it isn’t OK to shoot people that text in the movie theater! I was just trying to make it clear to people that text in the movie theater that there’s a lot of people that really don’t like them. It’s funny with some of the comments I’ve gotten: “Oh so — what? I’m not supposed to be using my phone in the movie theater?” I can’t even comprehend that someone might be upset by that.
Here’s one scene I found upsetting and challenging. When Frank kills the sleazy contractor dude who has challenged him about his relationship with the girl, I think that gets at something very essential in the movie. Because that guy hasn’t actually done anything except make a disturbing comment. It’s like he’s spoken a dangerous version of the truth, and Frank doesn’t want to hear it.
Joel Murray: It’s a moment in the film where I realize I brought this girl along for the ride and that was a complete lie. I was doing a thing in the movie about the pain in my head — when it was relieved by killing, suddenly the pain would go away. In that scene, I’m slamming that steering wheel in that Camaro as hard as I can, and the pain in my head was really bad. Because suddenly everything was wrong, and I had to kill someone right about then.
B.G.: To me, what’s happened is that guy represents Frank. You know, Frank is flawed because he’s a human being. He has these really strict ideas about how people should live and then he can’t live up to them. He’s not killing that guy because that guy’s a scumbag. He’s killing that guy because he represents a side of himself he did not expect to encounter. He’s been fooling himself: Yeah, I could go home more often, I could have a life to go home to.
J.M.: Yeah, maybe we really can move to France and get some goats! It’s pretty nice dancing with you and touching you and … [growls]
It’s like for the whole movie Frank has been aware of the danger of being around this teenage girl, and trying to reassure himself that he’s not that kind of guy.
B.G.: That he’s not a creep. You know, for the first two-thirds of the movie the girl just supplies Joel’s character with this family he doesn’t have. And then the wheels fall off.
Bobcat, there’s a lot of material in this movie that feels somewhat like your comedy routines, so I’m tempted to see a lot of it as the author speaking through the characters. Is that misleading?
You know, it’s funny, and I haven’t said this in any other interview or anything. But I’ve seen reviews where they say, “It’s clearly Bobcat saying this and that.” But I’m like — well, Bobcat has access to a medium where he gets to say everything he wants and rant for an hour on Showtime. So it’s a character. Clearly I agree with about 90 percent of the things Frank says, but it’s not a showcase for me. I wanted to make a movie that explores our appetite for distractions. Like I said, I do agree with almost everything Frank says, outside of killing people. But I didn’t feel like as a human being I was being ignored and I needed to make a movie because I was pissed off no one was listening to me.
Well, one of the things Frank is pissed off about — or you’re pissed off about, I guess — is the cruelty and sadism we see in popular media, reality shows and talk TV. Frank talks about how that’s a symptom of a dying empire. But do you think that cruelty is specific to the media, or is it a larger social phenomenon?
It’s our appetite for the cruelty. I didn’t want to make a movie that blamed the media because I thought that was really lazy. Both the right and the left blame the media constantly. It’s either bashing Fox News or bashing the “lamestream media.” As soon as I see a post or comment where someone uses the word “Hollyweird” or “elitist” I go, oh, your opinions are already formed for you. You don’t make your own ideas. I’m not interested in what you have to say. But I didn’t want to make a movie that blamed the media because that’s too easy. I didn’t want to kill the messenger. I think the media takes a beating. You know those guys who are trying to give you the truth? We hate them. [Laughter.]
I’m talking about the public’s willingness to be spoon-fed their opinion and not even discuss the different sides. Just: This is my team, I root for this news. This is what I think. I’m jumping off the cliff. I like this radio personality because they’ll make all my decisions for me and I don’t have to. I’m going to sit around for hours talking about Charlie Sheen instead of my own life.
This isn’t in your movie, but I’ve been working in the media for 25 years, and while watching this I couldn’t help thinking about all the tools we have now and the changes they have wrought. It used to be that TV had the Nielsen ratings and the newspapers had circulation numbers. You did marketing surveys or whatever, but that was about it. These days we can tell precisely what people are watching or reading at any given moment. If I publish an article on our site, I can find out, in real time, exactly how many people are looking at it.
So later on, editorial policies — wow, I didn’t even think about that — will be dictated by that.
Sure. Back when I worked at an old-school alternative newspaper, we could decide to run an article about some avant-garde dance performance that nobody else was interested in, just because we thought it was cool and because it was the sort of thing we were supposed to cover.
And you were forcing people to expose themselves to it. My wife is younger than myself — she’s not Roxie’s age, she’s actually age-appropriate. Which is, whatever, new. [Laughter.] But, you know, newspapers seem weird to her: “Why would you hold those dirty things?” Well, because before I rush to the entertainment section, I have: Oh, what are we doing in Syria? On the Web you just click to your site and just keep clicking, like a mouse who has something that stimulates his pleasure zone. I think it’s very cocainey.
Well, that depiction of the workplace in your movie, where people only talk about what they saw last night on TV or what they just heard on the drive-time radio shows. It’s obviously exaggerated for effect, but there might be a kernel of truth there. And it’s very much like mice responding to stimulus.
My exposure to that world is when I go to comedy clubs and do the morning shows and I’m up against this talking that’s all about non-information. Now, I don’t think everything should be the heavies, but very little of it is about our own selves. I’d be more interested if someone tells me something about themselves, versus posting something about their political opinions or whatever. It’s like, I’m about to say that I’m an atheist who owns a gun and is a vegetarian — is he still going to like me? Instead I go: They’re going to take our guns away!
I wanted to talk about the violence in the movie. There’s a fair amount of it! Let’s just say that. And one of the things about contemporary society is that there’s all this cruel and angry discourse you’re talking about, and there’s a national fixation on crime and violence, yet we’re living in a time of relatively low violence. The three of us can all remember the ’70s, when crime rates were double or triple what they are today.
B.G.: Yeah, maybe people are getting it out? I think it’s like, most people don’t even know or feel that, because we’re just constantly told how violent the world is.
J.M.: And how you can’t even let your kids walk to the corner. “What are you thinking?” And it’s less dangerous than it was in the ’70s.
B.G.: We must be comfortable in fear. It must be rewarding for some reason that we want to live in it so much. What I’m learning is that there are a lot of extreme right-wing websites that are really going after me. But what I realize now is that it really doesn’t matter. It’s so funny how little it affects my life in any way at all. They’re saying I’m the worst thing ever.
Because of your movie?
Yeah. I guess I’m really naive about how much anti-Semitism there is. When I ego-surf the comments under the trailer there’s so much stuff about what a dirty kike I am. And I’m not Jewish.
I was gonna say: Wikipedia definitely conveys the fact that you were raised Catholic. They’re just making the incorrect assumption because your name has “Gold” in it?
Yeah. I’m willing to become a Jew, but it’s just really funny.
J.M.: Right when the trailer first came out they were calling us dirty Jew bastards. My first name is Joel, OK, that’s Hebrew. But Murray is 100 percent Irish. I got a sister that’s a nun. I went to Catholic school growing up. Do some research before you start, you know, posting this stuff!
B.G.: You know what’s also funny is that this really isn’t the world I live in, this movie. This is just a theme I wanted to explore. I’m actually fairly happy. I was the one up on the bar last night at Blazing Saddles, dancing with a couple of hot young dudes. They were aping my moves! Aping the moves of a 50-year-old.
J.M.: He’s a shrinking violet.
B.G.: I was like, look, man, carpe diem. How many times am I going to have that kind of access? Can I get on the bar?
There are some truly delicious rants in this movie, both from Frank and Roxy. I love the rhythm of those, because you’ll start out with something almost everybody hates, like texting in the movie theater or whatever, and then it becomes completely absurd. Let’s kill everybody who high-fives! Let’s kill everybody who says “punk rock”! Which spoke to my personal animus, by the way.
J.M.: Right. I try to call her on it when she says we should kill NASCAR fans. What?
Yeah. That’s, like, 40 percent of the United States population.
B.G.: I think the “punk rock” thing is about doing a lot of radio. I’ll be on what they call an alternative rock station and this guy is giving me attitude and I want to say, “Dude, I opened for Nirvana and actually roadied for the Ramones when they were in central New York, the original Ramones. Don’t talk to me about punk rock, you fucking prick.”
I sympathize, it’s the diminishment of discourse. Terms stop meaning anything, you know? You didn’t even bring up the word “hipster.” Let’s shoot everyone who uses that word, positively or negatively.
It means nothing. It’s like the new version of yuppie. In the ’80s, everyone, including me, was always bashing yuppies, and now it’s hipsters that everyone’s decided they don’t like.
Some people think it’s just me writing a list of what I like and what I don’t like. Today, people find a bond because they hate the same things. Or like all of us, because somebody’s listening to them. But Frank has a moral code, which is that he wants to kill people who are mean to him. It sounds trivial but that was the point.
J.M.: I could definitely relate to Frank and the people he had problems with. And then Roxy enters and brings this whole Pandora’s box of people she wants to kill. It was a great contrast of her, with all the energy, and me being very low-key. I tried to become paternal, to say, “No, you can’t do that. People who really deserve to die and not just anybody.”
I’m glad that you pulled her back on her plan to kill Diablo Cody. I don’t know that you’re going to be on her Christmas list this year. Maybe she has enough of a sense of humor, I’m not sure. You know that people are going to say that Roxy seems like a Diablo Cody character, right? That’s part of the joke?
B.G.: Of course. Another movie that’s often brought up, and it’s not a movie that I’m a fan of, is “Heathers.” So when I wrote “World’s Greatest Dad” someone said, “This script is like ‘Heathers,’” so then I just named the Goth girl Heather. I just ran into it. Someone else said it’s a little bit like Wes Anderson, so the principal is W. Anderson. So, clearly, Roxy speaks like a Diablo Cody character. I thought that was funny. It was originally one line, because my daughter is really funny and people say, “You’re like Juno,” and she said, “Dad, whenever people say that I want to stab them right in the fucking throat.” And then, when it was pointed out that I should remove that line, I went back and added an entire page of dialogue about it. Whatever you tell me to do, I don’t do it.
I have to admit that I don’t watch the kind of TV shows you parody here, so it’s impossible for me to gauge how far you went.
Oh, I didn’t parody it at all, I just refilmed it.
That’s all real stuff? The girls throwing used tampons at each other?
Yeah, and a lot of the stuff the political pundits are saying are really paraphrased or not even paraphrased. My first exposure to Glenn Beck was when I was flipping around the channels and he had Obama with a Hitler mustache next to Stalin, and I was like, what is this guy? All those shows are real and I just reshot the footage. Even the ringtone commercial with a pig that comes out and farts. OK, it’s an elephant, not a pig. But the animation is exactly the same animation. I took it really personally, it really hurt my feelings. The elephant sticks his ass to the camera and makes a farting noise, and it’s the funniest ringtone.
Were you consciously thinking about the question of audience sympathy for Joel’s character, and how complicated that gets? Because Frank seems like a likable guy. He’s not a creep, and he’s going through a hard time, and then he starts doing stuff that from any standard is not defensible. And, as an audience member, you’re sort of stuck with him.
I like the idea that you empathize with this guy and he’s doing these horrible things. So then hopefully, if it’s working for the movie, you’re uncomfortable with the fact that you’re empathizing with this guy who is doing horrible things. That’s the point. I didn’t want to make this vigilante movie where you cheered along with the guy. That’s not the movie, and that’s not what I had any interest in doing. What’s cool about Joel is he’s a fabulous actor but he’s great at playing people who you empathize with, who you care for, but he’s not pathetic. I don’t like that. That would have been bad; the wrong actor would have screwed it up and made a gross movie.
We have to quit, but I wanted to ask you about maybe the most hilarious and painful thing in the movie. That’s the character named Steven Clark, who performs “Theme From ‘Mahogany’” on a show called “American Superstar” and becomes a kind of celebrity for being talentless and terrible. I assume that was based on a really similar case in real life, right?
Right. It’s loosely based on my dealings with William Hung when I was directing the Jimmy Kimmel show. This other director was shooting a piece with him and said, “He’s such a pain in the ass!” I go, “Come on!” And I go down there and his mother’s saying, “We don’t want William saying that.” And William Hung is like, “This is bullshit. I’m William Hung!”
Even William Hung turned out to be a diva after all.
Well, I realized that everybody gets corrupted. No one is mentally ready for fame, including myself.
“God Bless America” opens this week in Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Northampton, Mass., Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Francisco; May 18 in Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans, Portland, Ore., and Salem, Mass.; May 25 in Austin, Texas, Charlotte, N.C., Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Gloucester, Mass., Mobile, Ala., Palm Springs, Calif., Peoria, Ill., and Pittsburgh, with more cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand through many cable and satellite providers.
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