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In the opening scene of God Bless America, our hero Frank (Joel Murray) has a detailed fantasy about murdering his obnoxious, right-wing neighbors, which includes shooting their screaming infant. The baby-murder might be some kind of violent middle finger to an audience, an invitation to get the hell out if you can't handle the blood and rage, but hang in there-- the new film from Bobcat Goldthwait is a sweet and crookedly optimistic movie that also happens to include baby murder, a cross-country killing spree, and a vicious skewering of everything vile that American pop culture has become.
His previous two films, Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad, have boasted a unique combination of dark black humor and genuine emotion, but the gonzo violence and pointed pop culture satire of God Bless America takes it to a new, confrontational level. At the same time, it's a kind of modern day Bonnie and Clyde story, as Frank discovers he has a brain tumor, decides to strike back against the poisonous culture, and teams up with a vigilante-minded teenage girl (Tara Lynne Barr) to demand that people just be nice to each other-- or else. In their journeys they encounter people who found fame on TV shows that look an awful lot like the ones we know in real life, from media figures like Glenn Beck to a spoiled teen girl whose lavish sweet 16 party is broadcast on TV. And all the while, Goldthwait-- now about the same age as his hero Frank-- seems to be unleashing his every frustrated impulse about pop culture, banging away at the screenplay in a fit of rage.
Except, Goldthwait promised me, he's actually "cackling" as he writes these scripts, because "oh, I'm going to get a chance to express this." And when I talked to him last fall, just after the movie's exuberant premiere in the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was cheerful and self-deprecating in a way you might not expect from a guy who wrote and directed a movie about a killing spree. I managed to get 10 minutes of our conversation on video before my camera died, so check out that part below-- which starts with some conversation about the Midnight Madness crowd-- and then see a transcript of the rest of it below that.
God Bless America is currently available on VOD, and opens in limited theaters this Friday. Fair warning: we discuss a lot of the film's plot in detail in this interview, so while it's not necessarily spoilery, it's probably best to see the film before watching this interview.
What did you have Tara audition with?
It was when she came in the door and convinces Frank not to kill himself. It didn't even change much from her audition. That's one thing I look for in an actor. Joel and her, they never were asking for a line, never flubbing, they both knew all their dialogue every day. They were really serious about the movie. Even though it was pretty goofy making it.
Yeah, but they can't wink at the camera at all.
Yeah, that would be horrible in this movie. And I do think of these movies, as I said last night, as fairy tales or fables. The folks, our leads, are always kind of anchored in reality, and then in that same kind of Preston Sturges/Billy WIlder thing, I'll have bigger than life and two-dimensional characters that are just silly. I don't have time to develop all these people as real people.
When you're putting this together, do you have to get in a place of anger to write some of the rants?
It's the other way around. I was writing it and kind of cackling. It was kind of funny to write.
So how do you step back enough to laugh at these things?
Because I'm laughing because I"m going "Oh, I'm going to get a chance to express this."
So there's catharsis.
Definitely. And some of this stuff-- my wife actually added to it. When she gives me a note, I usually take it.
Do you show her stuff early on?
No, I write a script and then I give it over to her, and go "What do you think?" If she likes it, then I go forward with it. If she goes "Eh," she'll go "You already made this movie. this is kind of about…" I trust her on what I should keep pursuing. I write very, very fast, so it's not like I'm slaving over these for months and then I hand them to her and she crushes my dreams. I tend to just go off and will write a screenplay in a week or so. But it's usually kind of bouncing around.