SXSW 2012 Interview: Bobcat Goldthwait Wants You to Act Nice with ‘God Bless America’

By  · Published on March 15th, 2012

If you say bro, give high fives, call your boobs “the girls,” or talk like Juno, writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait will shoot you in the face…or at least his sad, funny, and sweet leads will, Frank and Roxy. Underneath the dark concept and inherent sadness of God Bless America, there’s a well-intentioned message most of us can all get behind: just act nice.

Frank (Joel Murray) and Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) go on a killing spree, taking out the scum of the world. They see the annoying people they murder as selfish, as they indulge in extremely selfish wish-fulfillment acts. Haven’t we all dreamed about taking out the daily annoyances and unbearable people in our lives? Bobcat Goldthwait shows how sad carrying out that fantasy is, and the same goes for how funny it can be.

Here’s what Bobcat Goldhwait had to say about long rants, when violence and sweetness come together, and how shitty nerds are:

Do you find it really cathartic writing movies like God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad where you take aim at day-to-day problems?

I don’t know if I find it cathartic. It just seems to be the subject matter that interests me. I don’t feel like I have an agenda, like, “I’m going to show these people! I’m upset!” It’s just the stuff that occupies my brain.

You do have the signature annoying speech, “I don’t like Angelina Jolie.”

That’s actually a thing that drives me nuts when I hear that conversation, and that’s why I put that in. You know, it’s funny…[Star] Joel [Murray] and I were talking about this, about what was cathartic. We don’t find the movie cathartic, because at the end it’s asking all of us, you know, where are we going? When we were doing the movie, we found some of that stuff super cathartic, and mostly the violence that was really…I didn’t realize how funny it was. [Laughs]

Well, shooting babies is always funny.

When I wrote that scene, I really questioned if we were really going to film it. It just say, “She tosses the baby up in the air and then it just goes boom.” [Laughs] It was one of those things that was waiting for someone to go: “Really? We shoot the baby?” [Laughs] But it just kept going and stuff. You know what’s funny, we actually flirted with making a baby. But I think the way it’s shot is more violent. And what we had was a baby onesie and a diaper…besides this mortar cannon filled with gore and blood, we had this explosion of diaper. That’s what’s coming down from the sky in that scene.

[Laughs] Do you storyboard a scene like that?

No, this one wasn’t storyboarded. I make these movies so small, it’s more like that stone soup thing. You know what I’m talking about? It’s the thing where some soldiers come in…it’s a fable…they come to town and nobody will help them. Like, “Oh, we’re starving.” They go, “Oh, we don’t need your help. We’re going to make stone soup.” So they start boiling stones and people are watching. They go, “Oh, do you want some carrots for that?” Then they eventually make a real soup. So that’s kind of like how I make movies! [Laughs] I say, “Yeah, I’m making a movie…” And then people join in and the effects guy goes, “Well, you know, I got a mortar, a cannon.” We’re like, “Oh, can you bring that?” They’re like, “Yeah, all right. We’ll bring it.” So that’s why it wasn’t storyboarded. By that time everybody was chipping in, so we really made it bigger.

There’s this dichotomy to your films where the material is deranged, but there’s a real sweetness to the characters.

In a weird way I guess that is my view. I guess… yeah, my movies are sweet.

Is that something you don’t really think about, it just happens naturally?

Yeah, it is definitely like that. You know, you make these movies, so you kind of get to make the world that you want versus the way the world is. And all the movies I’ve made so far, they’re not like supposed to be an actor portrayal or even traditional stories. They’re all like little fables.

I think the fable intention comes through. The movie’s pretty heightened, but I think some people dismiss it as “heavy-handed.”

It is a satire, so it’s not supposed to be reality. As far as it being heavy-handed… I feel like it’s only heavy-handed if you don’t agree with what it’s saying. I don’t feel like I’m trying to convert people with this movie at all. Like I say, the movies that influenced this was Network and Little Murders. And characters just had these long speeches. I think the message is very simple. I’m trying to put the brakes on things. I don’t know that I’m just changing anything, but I do want to say that some of us are aware of what’s going on. Some of us are going, “Hey man, we don’t have to be…” You know what? I don’t know what it was like in the ’30s. It could have been even nastier then. But right now it feels like it’s just a real nasty culture.

The funny thing is I don’t find the movie political. I’m not asking anyone to take up any causes. I just kind of miss connecting with people. All I do is I have this insulated life with my wife and my daughter and a couple of friends who I try to see but it doesn’t even happen. It’s all about being with people, being with them, instead of, like I said, texting or looking over your shoulder…

And look, I have a little phone. I text. But I try not to do it when I’m talking to people. In certain places, like at an airport, it’s like, “Am I missing the quality friendships I would make at an airport?” [Laughs] Probably not. But I do feel like we’re missing something.

Definitely not at the airport, though.

You know, the other night I was just stuck in an airport and talking to this woman and had a lot of laughs. I really thought it was probably because she was in her 50’s and she wasn’t texting. [Laughs] There’s also the myth of multitasking. Like, everybody thinks they’re multitasking. There’s a study done at Stanford, I think, and we’re not multitasking. We may be doing a bunch of things at once, but we’re doing them all 20–30% poorer than we think we are. Like they took all these kids that were over-achievers and high-end, and they tested them, and they just basically learned they weren’t assimilating a lot of information.

Did you do that kind of research for this?

No, that was just something that fascinated me when I was watching it. It wasn’t about this movie, but it was just a BBC doc that I saw. It was about the digital age. They had this guy who pilots drones from Nevada. He sits there and he’ll take out people; he kills people. And then he goes home and has dinner with his family. He’s in the middle of a war, but he’s just…You know how crazy that is? It was really crazy.

It’s interesting, that dichotomy. When it comes to Frank and Roxy there’s a pretty complex dichotomy to what they’re doing, in how selfish it is.

Oh, God yeah.

Did you always see that as being the counter-argument to whether it’s okay or not what they’re doing?

What they are doing is horrible. It’s not justifying it, but it…And that’s the part of the movie that’s a satire, is it’s like it is wrong. I’m not encouraging violence. I’m encouraging kindness. I’m trying to magnify it. Like I’ve said before, you can’t hug a Glenn Beck fan into reason. I could have made a whiney doc, a very liberal, progressive doc about how we’re tied off from our fellow man. And as Frank says, a shocking comment has more weight than the truth now. A shocking comment has more weight than the truth.

That’s what all this is about from both sides ‐ from left, right, from your sports commentators to your whacky morning DJ’s, to your nightclub comics, to your…you know, nobody is saying anything. Being shocking and cruel is a commerce. It’s an actual valued skill now. The thing that really annoys me, the perception of it is that it takes intelligence, and it doesn’t. It’s just this reactive thing.

To you, is it about finding the truth in shocking?

Yeah. I mean there are things that people…Yeah, I guess you don’t shoot a baby and think people are going to go, “Yay!” I guess in this movie you could read a whole bunch of stuff into it. But I think it’s there because it’s like, “Are you in or are you out?” And in a weird way, I’m not anti-children or anything, but I’ve also noticed that babies are things that people use as an achievement.

A dog can do it!

Yeah, man, anybody can crap out a kid. If you raise a cool adult, that’s an achievement. But the over-entitled nature of our country, in a weird way, actually is magnified with people with babies and children. I don’t want to kill any babies, for God’s sake. But I also think that it’s just insane. It’s like, “Oh, they’re good people! They had a baby.” What? What they’re really saying is…Well, that’ll be the next movie. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Good to hear. Were there a lot of ideas or people you wanted to take aim out, but never got a chance to fit them in?

Oh yeah, because it wasn’t really as personal as it was like I was just trying to do a thing about us. My pet peeves aren’t even really in the movie that much. Some of them are. I believe that it’s not liking the same thing that makes a good relationship, it’s hating the same things. So I think that when Frank and Roxy start doing their laundry list of things they hate and stuff, they’re not really saying, “Well, she wants to kill everybody.” But Frank’s not saying he wants to kill people that say, you know, whatever. That high-five or whatever.

But Frank…but that is in there because, in a weird way, it’s just this part where I’m trying to show that they are a team, that they do like each other, that even though it’s wrong, they probably are a good match. I needed Frank with all of his high ideas to learn that he is flawed and he is just like everybody else. You know, we’re all part of the problem, including him. When Frank finds himself attracted to this kid, he’s the very things that he’s been rallying against. I mean that’s all the subtext; I don’t know if that works for people.

With Frank and Roxy, did you always see it as relationship/duo road trip movie first?

You know, I wanted it to be about this guy who’s trying to figure out who we are and where we’re going. Then I realized that the idea of her kinda worked for me because she could first represent the family that he doesn’t have, and then later on, like a future that he doesn’t have. I also kinda liked the idea of her being a young kid to prevent it from just being an old guy’s manifesto about what’s wrong with these kids today. [Laughs]

Well, you had that a little of that in God Bless America.

Oh, it’s always in there, because you know what? I’m an old guy. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Do you sit there like, “This is what kids are probably doing!”

You know, my wife and daughter both bust me on how much I am the guy yelling at kids to get off my lawn. You know what’s funny is I do write other kind of movies. Since World’s Greatest Dad, I’ve written like five or six different screenplays. But these small personal ones are the ones that I can get done with a limited budget, and that’s why I’m making them. I’d like to make other movies…I mean, I still think they probably hopefully will go through my filter, but they don’t all have to be…

I’ve been trying to get this musical going for a long time. That’s a biggie for me. Still, even though it’s a musical, it has some of the same themes. That one’s about…I guess it’s the same kind of premise in all of them. Even though they may be despicable people or they do despicable things, or they do things that aren’t necessarily the smartest things, they are all about kindness. And in a weird way, to be sincere is really kind of…

It’s considered lame, yeah.

Oh, of course it is. That’s why it’s like…Yeah, I mean that’s the thing. To be willing to be possibly called that, I think is way more daring than not trying.

Was there like one day where you just looked around at today’s culture and thought, “Things are going downhill.”

Well not only things are going downhill, more like…Instead of everybody becoming more and more connected with all this awesome technology they have, it seems that we’re just all isolated and only finding like-minded people, which is dangerous, because then you don’t come up with solutions when you start demonizing everybody who isn’t in your little clique. One of the things that’s really weird to me is the nerd culture. When I was a kid, it was all-inclusive. Like, “Wow, you like that stuff? I do too! Oh my God!” And now it’s… Well, nerd culture is just like jock culture. It’s just as shitty. [Laughs] When did the nerds become jocks? It’s horrible!

[Laughs] Why do you say it’s shitty?

That was one of the things Joel and I have beef with. I had a whole rant about jocks that hit the floor because… But I have a couple things where…You see a riot after a sporting event. And Roxy goes, “Fucking jocks. They ruin everything!” And he goes, “I like sports!” And then she goes, “Yeah, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” [laughs] That was actually cut.

Why did you cut that out?

You know, it was in a place where it was already a little long. But it was funny, because Joel does like sports. And that was pretty funny to me. There is another thing where I had them open fire at a wet t-shirt contest! [Laughs]

[Laughs] That would’ve been great. It’s interesting for those jocks and bros, though. I know those kind of guys who say “bro” and high five, and they’re good people, too.

Of course, of course. But I like to just go…Look, man. I used to work on the Man Show and I used to write for the Kimmel show. So, trust me. [Laughs] They’re the biggest freaks, and I certainly love those guys. You know, I don’t know anything about sports…

You hate both jocks and nerds. So, what group do you fall in?

Well, I don’t hate them. I just get frustrated with both of them. Just like Frank; I just want everybody to be all-inclusive. I want people to be tolerant. It’s so funny because I’m intolerant to people who are…I know, it’s just like Frank ‐ I’m intolerant to everybody who isn’t intolerant.

You mentioned how you wrote five or six scripts. Do you ever see yourself directing a movie you didn’t write?

You know, so far the scripts that I’m ever sent, they’re usually about people who crap themselves.

[Laughs] Really?

Yeah. Everybody craps themselves, usually by page 30. Until I get a script where people don’t crap themselves…No, but, you know, the thing is I make my movies completely outside of the system. So I mean maybe if somebody wrote something that was similar and tolerant and I felt excited about, yeah. But right now it’s just that I write my own screenplays and I’m so busy doing that, I don’t know.

You seem very comfortable working in the cheap independent world. There’s never that question or temptation of, “Should I try to make something bigger and more commercial?”

I don’t want to do that. And it’s funny, because I’ve done interviews with different reporters who are always like, “Next you’ll do a studio…” And I go, “No I won’t.” And I don’t. I don’t meet with them. I don’t talk to them. Because they do a thing that has nothing to do with what I’m interested in doing…. You just start making movies and you’ve got notes, and you’re trying to appeal to everybody. I think it’s funny when some snarky person will go, “Ooh, this movie will be another direct to DVD!” It’s like, “Well that’s not an insult.” I have so many talented friends that I’ve made during film festivals that that’s all we’re looking for is DVD movies. We want people to see our movies. I have no interest in doing what a lot of these other guys do.

Even films that go online, as well.

Yeah. That’s the other thing. That’s what’s funny. It’s like, you know, folks who aren’t a fan of mine, it’s like, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to stop making it, because even if I had to make it on my own with a DV camera with paper puppets, I’m going to do it.” I’m not going to stop telling stories.

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God Bless America will open in limited release on May 11th and is available via VOD on April 6th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.