Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait

The Off-Center of the Universe

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Bobcat Goldthwait, 47, has an incredible life story. He became a stand-up comedian as a teenager and landed a slot on David Letterman's show at age 20. He became famous rather quickly for his offbeat delivery (a kind of moaning punctuated by shrieking howls) and his strange antics. He appeared in a string of fairly typical 1980s comedies ranging in quality from the Police Academy films to things like One Crazy Summer and Scrooged. Astonishingly, even toured as the warm-up act for the band Nirvana in the early 1990s. Around that time, he wrote and directed his first film, the black comedy Shakes the Clown, which didn't exactly become a box office smash, but has since become a cult classic, especially among industry people. Before long he re-invented himself as a director. His made Windy City Heat (2003) for television, and his Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006) practically went straight to video, but he found steady employment as a staff director for "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Today he's back with World's Greatest Dad, a very black comedy starring Goldthwait's old pal Robin Williams, and judging from the early response, it looks to be another cult classic at the very least, and a possible sleeper hit besides. Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school poetry teacher and would-be writer whose awful, hateful son accidentally dies while masturbating; Lance turns the embarrassing death into a suicide by writing a fake, but tragically beautiful suicide note and journal, which has a profound effect on the students and community.

Combustible Celluloid: You went to high school with Tom Kenny (the voice of "Spongebob Squarepants") and have been friends with him ever since, and he has a part in your new movie. You probably don't get to see him very often. He seems awfully busy.

Bobcat Goldthwait: Yeah he's way busier than I am. When he came to this movie, he did a scene with his wife, I was thinking that I should write a movie for him. One, because I think he's so talented, but Two, so we could hang out together.

CC: You know, World's Greatest Dad is a black comedy, but it doesn't really strike you how black it is while you're watching it. It seems kind of sweet, but it creeps up on you.

BG: I hope that Lance's character, and some of the things he does, makes sense. That doesn't necessarily mean they're the things you would do, but they might be the things that I would do.

CC: I was thinking of some of the recent literary "frauds" like J.T. Leroy...

BG: Yeah, and A Million Little Pieces. I wasn't really trying to parody those. I think I was more trying to parody a little bit about celebrity and mostly trying to satirize how, when people die, everybody tries to make it about them and they forget about the actual person. Everybody has to make everything about them. We're a society with the inability to step away and say, 'Hey this isn't about me.' It's like people say, "I hated Transformers 2." Well, you know what? Transformers 2 wasn't made for me. I don't give a shit about Transformers 2. I really couldn't care less. No one can comprehend that maybe this product wasn't made for you. That's why I've jokingly said in the past that if you're really good at "Guitar Hero," then don't go to my movie. It wasn't made for you. Everybody's at the center of the universe. Our culture of American capitalism is that everything is supposed to have the broadest and giant mass appeal. What's really weird is that there's no more counterculture. It's gone. It's really strange. And the reason there's no counterculture is because isn't because it's not needed, but that people today couldn't comprehend that they might need it. They couldn't step back and go, "Maybe the fact that my burrito is 'extreme' is kind of insane." [laughs] What's going on?

CC: It's true. Recently I was thinking about the whole Joaquin Phoenix thing in relation to the stuff that Andy Kaufman used to do, and the reaction is totally different.

BG: In American culture, the ultimate goal -- including presidential candidates -- is to go on a talk show. So you go on a talk show and you're Joaquin Phoenix... Why would you go on and be weird on a talk show? Why wouldn't you present yourself in a light that's accessible on a talk show? Because maybe he doesn't want to sell himself anymore. Here's Joaquin. He's the survivor of a cult. His brother has died in this horrible way, and these are things that people want to talk to him about. I'm Joaquin, and I'm going on to promote Two Lovers and people are going to ask me about my dead brother. What would you rather do, grow a beard and act like a kook, or have people bring up painful memories on national television for a product? I can't believe people can't figure that out. Also, he caught the brass ring and maybe he's going, "Alright, I've been acting for a long time, I've got a really quality body of work, I've got an Academy award [nomination] and I make a lot of money, and this doesn't fill the hole. This doesn't fix me. Hmm."

CC: It makes you wonder why more people don't do that?

BG: I'm just using poor Joaquin to magnify my own existence. I had a lot of fame, and people knew me and I really got tired of this idea of just being a celebrity for that purpose, because I don't care about that. I was very destructive on certain talk shows because of that. That's why I like Daryl [Sabara], who's in this movie. He's really smart boy. He was 15 when we hired him. He truly just wants to be an actor. He doesn't care about being a celebrity. He's a teenage Gary Oldman. He came in and he was that creepy kid that's in the movie, and that's about as far as you could be from the guy in Spy Kids. I gotta give it up to him because he doesn't disappear in his scenes with Robin Williams. And Robin's a powerful presence, even when he's doing something as subtle as this.

CC: Robin has had this reputation of being undirectable. You had to have him in a role where he could be immersed, like Moscow on the Hudson, or something loose like Good Morning, Vietnam where he had room to play. Otherwise he just never fits in.

BG: The difference for me is that I feel that Robin and I made this movie together, rather than Robin Williams was in the movie. And I haven't said that before in an interview. That's really the difference to me. We collaborated. I love all the stuff Robin does. I think people perceive Robin and comedy is that he does a take, the director gets a take, and then they do one where he's ad-libbing. But he and I would talk all the time about the takes, and we would change things, but there was no conflict. Early on in the movie, about a day or two, he goes, "Oh, I get it. I'm playing you." And I go, "Yeah..."

CC: Do you make each other laugh on the set?

BG: There were some scenes and some days on this movie where the tone was what was in the scenes. We didn't go out of our way to sabotage that. We just kind of said, "OK, these are some really depressing scenes, and we just stay in that tone and we'll do it." I'm very respectful when talent is in a place to let them just get it done. When [Robin's character Lance] falls apart on the talk show. We shot it the way it was written and we were both going, "this isn't working." And I go, "You know what? Don't even think about anything. Just play this for the absurdity. Not only for the movie, but everything." We were both exhausted beyond belief at that point, and we were both going through all this personal stuff. And he loses it. And he said, "That's the first time I had a breakdown on camera." And I said, "Oh. Wow. That was really awesome. Could you do it again?" I don't know if I'm a good friend...

CC: That's a great moment. Robin is doing this brilliant thing where he's kind of laughing insanely and it sounds like crying.

BG: I was so happy with that. When you're making a movie, every single scene, you're going, "Oh this shot is reminiscent of this." We've seen this scene in X, Y and Z. But when he did that, I was thinking, "I haven't seen this before." And those are the things you get really excited about.

CC: I'm not sure how much was on the written page, and how much Daryl brought to it, but this was just about the foulest most horrible teenager I've ever seen.

BG: [Laughs] He's gotta piss on everything. They would get in the zone and finish each other's sentences. They were getting shitty. They were those people. I didn't rehearse a lot, but what I did do is spend a lot of time with them. Just so people could get comfortable, because Robin's one of the biggest stars in the world. We went to dinners a lot and we'd hang out at the school and we'd walk through the scenes -- we'll do this and that -- but we didn't rehearse them. I didn't talk it to death. We did that probably for half a week of eating together and talking. So when it came time to make the movie, there wasn't those first couple of days.

CC: Robin is one of the biggest stars in the world, but he's also your friend...

BG: I don't mind giving Robin direction, but when the door opened when I was in the movie, I really went up. I was like, "Fuck. I'm acting with Robin Williams." And he goes, "You forgot your line, didn't you?" And I said, "Dude, I really did."

CC: I like your cameo, by the way.

BG: I didn't do that to be cheeky. Guillermo Rodriguez from the "Jimmy Kimmel Show," he's actually the parking lot attendant, and when I directed the show he became a good friend of mine, and now he's on the show and he gets laughs. He's a funny guy. I wanted him to fly up and do it, but he couldn't get the day off. So we started casting people, and we couldn't get anyone. So I said, "Fuck it. I'll do it." You know, there's a reason I don't act in these movies. I really hope that I can keep making movies, so I take directing really seriously, so that's why I'd rather not be in front of the camera.

CC: You've found your calling. This is what you want to do.

BG: Oh yeah. And that's why I do standup and other things. I do it so I can afford to keep making these movies. I always think it's funny when I see these financially successful movies made by people, and they'll start talking about Cassavetes. And I'm like, "John Cassavetes would punch you in the face." And I'm certainly not trying to compare myself to John Cassavetes, but he would have to mortgage the house to finish the movie. I rent a house now so I can keep making indie movies. I try not to live beyond my means. I have a very stripped-down lifestyle. I'm not wealthy, but I know that I'm way more fulfilled as a person by making these tiny movies that are very personal than being on a reality show or a game show or all the crap that's out there.

CC: What about working on the "Jimmy Kimmel Show"? Was that fulfilling to you?

BG: I loved it when I was there. It was the first time in my life that I had a regular job. I started doing comedy... I got on Letterman when I was 20, so I never really had a job-job. I was a waiter, and I worked as a janitor at the high school and worked at a grocery store. But I never had a job where I showed up every day and saw the same people and worked together. I really did like that. A lot. I don't have a problem directing stuff for other people. I find that rewarding also.

August 12, 2009

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