An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait: From Clowns to Bigfoots

by Donato Totaro Volume 18, Issue 5 / May 2014 18 minutes (4388 words)

Coming from the worlds of stand-up comedy, television, and feature film comedy, Bobcat Goldthwait does not seem like a fit to Fantasia. I discovered Goldthwait through repeat VHS viewings of his debut very offbeat comedy about an alcoholic, depressive clown –played by Goldthwait– Shakes the Clown (1991). The world of the film would have us believe that clowns and mimes are mortal enemies, the equivalent of popular artists (clowns) versus high artists (mimes), and the bar on your corner street is a watering hole for grumpy clowns who spend nights drinking and complaining about life. Goldthwait’s debut holds a special place in my heart, and remains his purest cult film, but he has moved on with other feature films that have seen him improve as a filmmaker: Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), a rom com that takes to task the adage that “honesty is the best policy” when an act of college sexual experimentation (the young woman fellates a dog) comes back to haunt a woman engaged to be married; and two top notch black comedies, World’s Greatest Dad (2009, arguably his best film thus far) and God Bless America (2011). In WGD Robin Williams plays a sad sack high school teacher Lance, who dreams about writing the next great American novel; when his unsympathetic teenage son dies accidently by Erotic asphyxiation, he feigns a suicide note which inadvertently turns his son into an overnight cult hero in death. Rather than come clean with the phony suicide note, Lance ghost writes his son’s journals, which become a best seller. Lance has achieved his sought after fame, but what price glory? Goldthwait pulls no punches with this dark, daring and funny black comedy. God Bless America switches the tone to a broader social commentary about the death of social taste and decorum in the US. When an all-too average middle aged man named Frank (Joel Murray) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor (incorrectly it turns out, by an indifferent doctor with despicable bed side manners) he decides to leave his mark and sets out on a mass killing spree to eradicate society’s inconsiderate, misfits and cretins. When an angry 16 year old teenage girl Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), with a slightly different agenda, joins him on his spree, things turn unpredictable and nasty. Goldthwait changes gears with his follow-up to God Bless America, Willow Creek (2013), a first-person horror film about a likeable young couple, Jim (Bryce Johnson from Sleeping Dogs Lie) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), who set out to trace the tracks of Big Foot by interviewing people from Bluff Creek, which is the town very close to where the famed Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot was shot in 1967. Once the couple finish their interviews and enter the famed woods in search of Big Foot, the film shifts tone from light-hearted rom com (featuring banter between the obsessive Jim and his ‘around for the ride’ girlfriend) to suspenseful and frightening first person horror. Goldthwait’s horror debut is marked by the same brave attitude as his comedies, concluding with a remarkable and terrifying set-piece: a 19 minute static long take two shot of Jim and Alexie in their tent, slowly growing in fear over the realization that SOMETHING is just outside their tent. Is it Big Foot? An offspring? Their imagination? A local sicko? Someone playing a prank? You’ll have to see the film to find out. Goldthwait was in Montreal to present Willow Creek at the Fantasia International Film Festival 2013 and took time from his busy schedule to speak to Offscreen. Thanks to Fantasia’s Anna Phelan, Director of Communications, for helping to make this interview possible.

Offscreen: I’m going to start with a very general question. In one of the first textbooks on film comedy, The Comic Mind, film scholar Gerald Mast in his introduction, tries to set out an evaluative criteria for comedy. He asks: “How do you judge the best comedy? Is it the out and out funniest, the one which makes you laugh the most, or is it the one that is funny but also says something about the human condition?” His bias was towards the latter so if you look at Woody Allan as an example, is it Bananas and Take the Money and Run? Or is it Manhattan and Annie Hall? I’m just curious about your thought process when you set out to do a comedy; I know last night when you talked before Willow Creek you said you don’t really care about the laughs so maybe…

Bobcat Goldthwait: I’m not so interested in getting laughs; I’m more interested in connecting with an audience and telling a story and then and if the laughs come out that’s fine. I’ve never considered much of the stuff I’ve done, out and out comedy, it’s just that I think the way I see the world is, well…I’m slightly perverted and twisted. [laughter] So everything goes through that filter.

Offscreen : So I guess it would be more the latter, you want to say something about the human condition as well than just making people laugh.

BG: Yes, the human condition. I think a lot of the things I do in movies is just asking a general question, like of “Hey…you guys this seems weird right?” So it’s me shooting a flare up and looking for other people with similar mindsets.

Offscreen: When I talk about comedy to my students, I say there are basically three comic modes, slapstick, parody and satire; I think you use a bit of each, but I’d say satire and black comedy which is part of satire is the one that you’re drawn to the most?

BG: Yes…I would say so, it’s the comedy of the awkward that is always the most fascinating to me; as a young man or boy, I really loved Andy Kaufman and that kind of humor. And other people doing these kind of weird personas and stuff, which was my earlier stand up routine, doing this guy who shouldn’t be on stage. Eventually I shifted over into just telling stories because I started out trying to make fun of comedy; then I became a comedian that was getting hired so I developed an act which is kind of an ass backwards way to do it, but yeah…that’s how it happened.

Bobcat hamming it up for Fantasia media

Offscreen : Your comedy really hits on raw nerves, bestiality, even a bit of necrophilia in Sleeping Dogs Lie, where the guy says “Oh I kissed the [dead] body.” The death by autoerotic asphyxiation in World’s Greatest Dad. Well that’s satire, because satire tries to ruffle feathers but you really tend to go for those raw emotions and nerves.

BG: It’s kind of funny, I bring up these things that people would consider taboo, but in reality you’re exposed to worse topics all the time in comedies, but they don’t make them real so they’re very fleeting. I was watching 21 Jump Street (2012); at one point, the guy gets his penis cut off and then he puts it in his mouth because he doesn’t have any hands to pick it up with. Now if that happened in one of my movies, that would be the whole movie; there wouldn’t be any other plot. What would happen to the guy afterwards, his family…you know, so I tend to take these off-putting topics and treat the repercussions of them very seriously.

Offscreen: Another theme that seems to be very important in your work is the complexity of honesty; how a lot of people think that honesty is always the best policy; but in Sleeping Dogs Lie, the character ends up realizing that it’s not always the case.

BG: Right, and then in World’s Greatest Dad, it’s the flip of that where honesty does set him [the Robin Williams character] free. I just finished another screenplay that is again about whether to tell the truth or not because that does interest me. I am fascinated by the question: “is there an actual right and wrong in the world” or do we come up with our own truth so we feel comfortable. Do we come up with our own versions of what is good, what is evil?

Lance finally frees himself

BG: But then I will tell you, ever since I was a little boy, that’s the thing I think about more than anything else all the time: what is hypocritical of me and what is hypocritical of others. I don’t know why I’ve always been interested in that, it’s pretty weird. I don’t know if it’s in this movie, Willow Creek. Maybe it is the first time it is not, but then again, it’s about someone who’s kind of headstrong and then gets punished for it in a weird way but I don’t know where this fits in with the other movies….

Offscreen: Well I guess it is, there’s an element of truth in the fact that you decided to use that particular form; the found footage form.

BG: Yes.

Offscreen: The idea of truth is there at the level of form, even in your earlier film Windy City Heat which was a mockumentary; using this ‘truthful’ form.

BG: That movie is so weird. I was nervous about making a found footage movie, Willow Creek, but for the most part, people seem to like it and go along with it. I put that on the actors because I fell that Bryce and Alexie come off as a real couple and often in a genre picture, you don’t care too much about the characters so you’re not frightened when terrible things happen to them.

Offscreen: Interesting because sometimes people will say “I didn’t like this movie because I couldn’t relate to the characters; they weren’t sympathetic characters.” In your films, most of the characters are pretty unsympathetic but …. characters in a film are completely different things so I don’t know why people say that they can’t enjoy a film under those circumstances……

BG: Well, I find it annoying when someone says “woah…I didn’t like this guy”. I think it’s funny when they do test marketing in Los Angeles; the villains always test poorly. People can’t seem to separate themselves even to see the function of a villain in a story. In God Bless America, people who didn’t like that movie couldn’t separate the fact that these characters had opinions because in movies, people don’t have opinions; but these characters had very specific opinions. I always say that the key to a successful relationship isn’t liking the same thing, it’s hating the same thing. Those two [Frank and Roxy] connect on hating the same things, and there’s some of the things they rattle off and their diatribes that I actually like, even though I don’t really think a fifteen year old girl would be a big Green Day fan! But there are people that can’t comprehend subtext. And I don’t write jokes in my movies; it’s the situations and how the people react that you’re supposed to be laughing at so if you can’t read subtext or you can’t project yourself into these scenarios, my movies won’t work for you.

Offscreen : I saw Willow Creek for the first time last night; amazing, I really enjoyed it.

BG: Oh thanks.

Offscreen : I thought…it’s been a while since I’ve seen a found footage film that actually worked…almost all of the way. There’s only one scene maybe shot where I thought “something seems not right about that.” It’s that shot towards the end where –the one that seems to be used in festival catalogues all the time– the low angle shot of them towards the end…they’re kind of huddled…it just seemed too….studied.

BG: There was something about that shot too to me that felt cooked. I don’t know either, I think it looks a little too “Blair Witch.” There was a scene where Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) kind of had a breakdown, and I didn’t include that because it seemed too “Blair Witch” also.

Offscreen : Maybe it’s because it’s held at that low angle that they’re kind of not looking at the camera maybe?

BG: It would have been better perhaps had they looked at it more, but it would have been weird for them to hold the camera in that way.

OFFSCREEN: Was it just on the floor?

BG: No, Jim is holding it.

Offscreen: OK, so he’s holding it like that, and Alexie has a stick in her hands ready to hit whatever is coming next.

BG: That was actually an organic thing she did; she picked up this stick, and I was looking at it last night and there’s, like, a clump of moss on it and its aged and it looks like a “prop”.

BG: But that’s the challenge of making a found footage movie: how can we justify this camera being on and how can we achieve that in the edits. I’m happy about the fact that there’s only 67 edits in the movie.

Offscreen: Yes, that was great. You mention The Blair Witch Project and on the surface it seems that’s what the structure is like, but then you turn it on its head by having this nineteen minute static long take which is just incredible; you use this hand held stuff and then you kind of turn that on its head and have this; is that something you had planned from the beginning?

BG: No, because I thought that take was gonna be five minutes long because I knew I didn’t want them to turn the camera off, but when we got out there, you know, the things that are happening are all live; all that audio and all that stuff is happening live. What I would be listening for was when they finally came to a point of resolve, where they weren’t so scared and that would be time to amp it up. Sometimes it would take a couple of minutes before they were back to where it was time to scare them again. I wanted you to have to lean into the movie and ask, “what’s going on?” I didn’t want the movie to just lay it all out for you.

Offscreen: I’m surprised that there aren’t more comic directors making horror films, because there are strong parallels between the two genres: timing and suspense.

BG: Timing and suspense and there’s like a misdirect; you think it’s going to go this way and then something else happens. It really is the same thing because when people get scared –as you heard them last night– they start laughing, so it is similar. Tod Browning started off as a comic, the guy who did Freaks and Dracula. He started off as a carnival barker, but then he ended up being a filmmaker. I don’t know who else has done horror that came from comedy, but they are very similar.

Offscreen: Peter Jackson never really made any scary films but he’s made these splatstick, gore comedy things.

BG: Yeah, Dead Alive or Braindead is one of my favorite movies actually; just so funny, so over the top. I recently wrote a screenplay that is similar in tone to that movie that I hope to make.

Offscreen: That would be nice. How about a sequel for Willow Creek, where someone finds the footage and they go back trying to retrace the steps, like Cannibal Holocaust.

BG: Or maybe just do the Muppet babies and have them as children. [laughter]

Offscreen: Getting back to Willow Creek, is the lady that we see outisde the tent, is she the missing woman?

BG: Yeah, it is her.

Offscreen: OK, or it could be an offspring of…

BG: Yeah, I mean I don’t discuss it too much, as you start poking around in the mythology of Sasquatch and Big Foot, the native people, they have a lot of stories of Sasquatch stealing a woman as a concubine, and that’s kind of what I was of playing off of there.

Offscreen: In 2008, Fantasia did a little spotlight on crypto-zoology and they showed a local film made by a friend of mine, Nicolas Renaud, La Bete du Lac, which is an amazing poetic documentary dealing with this huge gigantic fish monster that is kind of a Quebec version of Loch Ness. And it was programmed with another film called Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie.

BG: Yeah, I heard about that but I have not seen it, but where’s the fish? Where does it live?

Offscreen: Lake Pohénégamook, in Quebec; the thing that I like about this whole mythology is that it really relies on this lost tradition of oral culture; these days people don’t even talk to each other anymore…being able to speak or articulate things, telling stories through voice is a lost art. All these communities do that with their Bigfoot mythology.

BG: It was funny when we were doing the pitches for FRONTIERS [the film market at Fantasia], we all went up with our tone reels and we just showed what we thought the movie would look like; we had powerpoint. For me, the presentation that worked the best was this woman who, I think she was French, and she was so nervous that she had memorized her story in English because she didn’t speak English well. There were no gimmicks, no slides, no this and that, and she got to the first act break, and we all wanted to hear the rest of her story; it was the best pitch and it’s what you’re talking about…storytelling.

Offscreen: Excuse me if I interject a pretentious quote which relates to the enduring nature of these mythologies, “We may be especially interested in man-beasts, given what psychologist Robert A. Baker (1995) observes is our strong tendency to endow things with human characteristics. Hence, angels are basically our better selves with wings; extraterrestrials are humanoids from futuristic worlds; and Bigfoot and his ilk seem linked to our evolutionary past.” So it’s almost as if Bigfoot is the past, these gangly aliens are the future, and angels are somehow the present trying to make shape of the past?

BG: But are angels like guardians and protectors or are they….

Offscreen: Demons I guess…

BG: Or our higher selves, how we would like to be seen….I don’t know. I’m always fascinated by what these represent, these archetypal characters that show up in all these other cultures and for thousands of years? Is Bigfoot or woodland monsters simply a thing we tell ourselves and our kids so they don’t go wander off into the woods and get lost and get eaten by a bear? Or what is it in the middle of the night, it must be something really primal when you’re outside. I think it’s interesting. Maybe it is related, but the other night we all went to a Karaoke bar a couple of blocks down from here, we came out and we saw the Police, someone was murdered.

Offscreen: Oh, the woman that got beat up.

BG: Yeah, and the weird thing is that none of us were aware of it and none of us were terrified of it. I could take everybody who was at that Karaoke party and put them out in the woods and they’d be scared shitless. But there is actual danger in a city; in a city people feel comfortable which is really insane.

Offscreen: Yeah, it’s like what Woody Allen says, he doesn’t like the country because there’s dead bugs on the doors and strange noises! He’s out of his ken so it’s out of his understanding.

BG: But apparently it’s not out of mine, because when I was doing Willow Creek, I walked around the camp fire freely; there’s a great photo of Bryce and Alexie, and Alexie has two coats on by the fire and then I’m just nude from the waist up. I’m just in a pair of shorts and I have a big stick and I’m walking around. I really loved being out in the woods even when it was scary, I wasn’t scared. It just felt like common sense, even when we saw mountain lions; but at one point…I’m listening to this noise behind a bush, and there’s some animal in there that was breathing, and I wasn’t afraid. I was more interested in finding out what kind of animal it was that wasn’t afraid of us! And then someone said, “a kind of animal that could hurt us.” [laughter]

Offscreen: Well I guess these animals are used to hearing all kinds of sounds so it’s just another sound that’s out there; that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to attack you and kill you. Was it actually cold at night time?

BG: Yeah, it was, but not cold to me, since I’m from Syracuse, it probably dipped down to fifty, but you’re still in the mountains, the elevation was pretty high.

Offscreen: You had a really small crew, seven or eight people?

BG: Yeah, all in, it kind of took me back to why I started to make movies…

Offscreen: Shakes the Clown, it must have been a bigger crew than that?

BG: Yeah, sure but I did a short before that it was similar to…..

Offscreen: What was the short called?

BG: Oh, I did a short called The Making of Bikini School 3 [laughter] which is a mockumentary; so that’s over twenty years ago that I did on a press junket for Police Academy
basically, that it made fun of.

Offscreen: Is it on youtube?

BG: No it’s not. [laughter] The other day, for some reason I was talking about it and thought, “I should have put that out.” The people who are in it went on to do other things like David Spade, Kathy Griffin.

Offscreen: Wow, because Adam Sandler was in Shakes the Clown.

A young Adam Sandler in Shakes the Clown

BG: Yeah…that was before Saturday Night Live; I always had a pretty good eye with discovering talent.

Offscreen: He’s good, like the three of you, Blake…

BG: Blake Clarke….yeah it is pretty funny, I’ve a good run with talent.

Offscreen: Just physically, the way the three of you looked and the way the Binky character looks, kind of angular.

BG: Well Tommy is kind of angular anyways, but that was intentional with his makeup like he was supposed to be sharp and pointy and when we were looking at clowns that we didn’t like, we realized they didn’t have flowing lines. I guess I put a lot of thought into that, maybe I should have spent a little more time on the plot. [laughter]

Offscreen: How do explain the appeal of_Shakes the Clown_? I see it more like a film that can mean many different things; people, they’re clowns but it can represent people who have hateful jobs…

BG: Yeah, and really I was doing it to kind of make fun of stand-up comedians. People often think, “Oh that must be a lot of fun…comedians.” No, that bar frequented by comedians, it’s the most depressing place…don’t go in that bar. You know it was really based on a bar that all the comics would end up in.

Offscreen: Is it a funny place?

BG: Well…it would be funny but kind of hostile.

Offscreen: It’s like the bar in Mean Streets!

BG: Yeah, that’s funny you say that…that’s great because Scorsese is a fan of Shakes the Clown, and he had defended it; someone said “You think you should preserve every movie…you’d preserve Shakes the Clown?” He goes “I love that movie…it’s a great movie.” So then I worked with Elianna Douglas who was going out with Scorsese at the time and she goes “You know Marty used to watch Shakes the Clown all the time in the editing room.” They just had it playing, a VHS of it…..[at this point I find it an opportune time to take out MY VHS copy of Shakes the Clown, to get Bobcat to sign!]

Offscreen: Which I have with me here…

My signed VHS copy

BG: Oh really? So it was true, it wasn’t just him; yeah that’s really weird.

Offscreen: Mean Streets is way before but…

BG: No, Mean Streets is very similar, it’s funny you mention that; yes they are very similar…Palooka-ville isn’t too far from that bar. [laughter]

Offscreen: I mean it can be seen as a metaphor for class as well or high-art versus low-art…

BG: Yeah, ….it’s about class for me.

Offscreen: So the lower class clowns are what? The party clowns or the rodeo clowns? [laughter]

BG: I think your party clowns are your more common ones. You know Tommy [Tom Kenny], who plays Binky, he’s been my best friend since I was six; he’s also the voice of SpongeBob. He’s also in the animated TV show, Adventure Time, he’s the Ice King. I don’t think that Nickelodeon, the SpongeBob people would be too happy that SpongeBob is doing blow [cocaine] and killing people with juggling pins. [laughter]

Offscreen: Did you actually have one of those Bigfoot burgers we see in the diner?

Bobcat with author

BG: No. I’m a vegetarian so I stay away from Bigfoot meat.

Offscreen: What kind of meat was that any way?

BG: Yeah I think it might have been Sasquatch…

Offscreen: OK well that’s probably a good place to stop. Thanks Bobcat.

An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait: From Clowns to Bigfoots

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 18, Issue 5 / May 2014 Interviews bobcat goldthwaitcomedymockumentary