Born-Again Director Bobcat Goldthwait: 'There's No Heckling in a Movie'
To hear him tell it, even Bobcat Goldthwait probably wouldn't have bet on going two-for-two with his recent renaissance as an independent filmmaker. Not that he doesn't have faith in his work -- which has made sizable strides since his 1991 cult classic Shakes the Clown -- or that he nurses a false-modesty streak. Anything but. Instead, the man best known as a growling, yelping '80s comedy icon didn't anticipate that his squirmy blend of pathos and pitch-black humor might find an audience at the Sundance Film Festival (twice), or that his long relationship with Robin Williams might culminate in this week's sensational World's Greatest Dad.
The less said about Dad's premise, the better; Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a high-school poetry teacher and father of an unrelentingly boorish teenage son. When Lance's life takes a sudden, shocking turn, the change provokes an unexpectedly thrilling new perspective on Thoreau's admonition to "live the life you've imagined." It's perverse, complex and quite funny stuff, offering Williams one of his best roles in years and the latest reminder yet that Goldthwait the director is for real. The director talked to Movieline last week about finding his creative voice, directing his Oscar-winning best friend, and the trouble with fleeing your past.
I was thinking how hard a conversation this might be to have with you, particularly considering some of the key plot twists. Then I opened up the NY Times yesterday, and there it was.
Yep. They gave away the twist.
How do you feel about that?
It doesn't bother me when the events that happen in the movie are revealed. It's not like a marketing ploy [or] that I don't want people to know. I almost feel like the G-rated trailer is a disservice, but I hope that it makes families go to the movie accidentally. I think if a divorced dad takes his kids, he'd probably lose them in the settlement. It's a very R-rated movie, and it's certainly hard to promote in a public forum. I would prefer people didn't know the events that are revealed in the movie, just so they can have a good time watching the movie. It's like Magnolia Pictures or I are trying to pull a Marley and Me: "What? The dog dies?"
It's not like you're Bobcat Night Shyamalan.
Right. "Don't reveal the twist!"
You been navigating the terrain between straight drama and pitch-black comedy for a while now. How does this advance your study of that?
Well, this one's different from the last one [Sleeping Dogs Lie], because the last one I shot in two weeks with a crew from Craigslist. With this one, because Robin was involved, I got to shoot it on film over five weeks. He was like, "How long is it going to take to make this movie? Eight weeks? Nine weeks?" I was like, "Well, if I was shooting Lawrence of Arabia, maybe." But yeah. I hope that if I get to keep making small indie movies, I'm trying my best to get better at it.
But you two are accustomed to working on vastly different scales. How was it having a little more time and money for this one, and how do you think he adapted to a smaller indie?
It's a nice compliment; it meant he believed in the project, and that's why he lent his name to it. But the funny thing is that with this movie, the last movie, and other movies I've made, I always work with my friends. And 80 or 90 percent of them are comedians or comediennes I've known. The difference with him is that he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Not that I put all my friends in. I have friends with no talent; I don't put them in.
Yet Robin is a guy who's taken a lot of crap over the year for taking paycheck roles, or whatever you want to call them. Whether or not that's true, this is a risky film for him. Why do you think he did it?
I think he really did like Sleeping Dogs Lie a lot. Robin hadn't seen this movie until we were at Sundance. At the end of the screening, he reached over and held my hand. He was crying, and he said, "Thanks for putting me in your movie." That was awesome. It was also scary, because I thought he was mad. "You ruined my career!" I will say this, and I'm not going out on a limb: Robin is one of the best actors in the world. And we are best friends, but the night before filming I thought, "Is he really going to listen to me? Am I gonna say, 'Hey, let's do one where we just do it really quiet.' And he's gonna say, 'I have an Academy Award. You were in Police Academy 2, 3 and 4. We're gonna do it my way, Bobscratch Goldfart.'" But that wasn't the way it worked. I think that kind of like myself and the character in the movie, we're middle-aged guys who said, "I'm not gonna do things that I don't enjoy doing." I think that had a lot to do with it. And Robin did say this was the safest he ever felt making a movie, so that was all pretty special.
Let's back up a bit. You've been directing for almost 20 years, actually, though there was that big break between Shakes the Clown and Sleeping Dogs Lie. What brought you to directing in the first place?
Well, I made a movie called Hot to Trot, and the director [Michael Dinner] was such a jackass that I thought, "Well, I might as well give it a shot." That's pretty much it. [Laughs] I went and made a short after that. Then I went and made my fine alcoholic clown movie, Shakes the Clown. After that, I didn't really get any work as a director. Hmm. And then I started directing videos and things like that. Then Jimmy Kimmel was a friend of mine; he got on The Man Show. He liked Shakes, and he asked me to come and direct on the show. And then after that Jimmy had me direct his talk show. I did that for three years; it was close to 300 episodes. But ABC never promoted that fact because it was like, "Hey, you know the guy who's not allowed on other talk shows? He directs ours."
Even though Shakes wasn't so well-received, you still knew directing was for you. How did you bounce back from that experience professionally?
When I look at Shakes, I mean, I wrote it with John Goodman in mind. I kind of think it would have been a better movie. I just watched it recently with my daughter and a bunch of the people who were in Shakes; in the middle of it, my daughter goes, "Dad, you're a really bad actor." And I'm like, "Yeah -- right, dude?" So what happened was that five or six years ago I kind of just stopped pursuing things that didn't make me happy -- much like Robin's character in the movie. I started writing screenplays simply to write them, not even with the idea that maybe they would get made. And my girlfriend, Sara de Sa Rego, read the script for Sleeping Dogs Lie and said, "This is a really good movie. We should make it." And I go, "Well, I don't have any money." And she said, "Well, we'll just start, and people will help." And that's how we made that one.
By the way, I'd like to say this: If you're not a fan of the movies I make, I hope that still inspires you. That movie, when it got into Sundance, it was only made for $50,000. A lot of you might go, "Well, you're already in show business, so when your movie came in, you had the leg up." But trust me: When a movie by Bobcat Goldthwait gets submitted to Sundance, I'm sure there are a lot of eyeballs rolling. It's like, "I can't wait to see Screech's movie, too."
How does directing influence your stand-up, and vice versa?
I'm going to say something that sounds brutally honest, but: When you're a nightclub comedian, you're trying to entertain the dumbest person in the room, because that's going to be the person that's going to get drunk and heckle. So you end up kind of dumbing it down. The luxury of making a movie is that you don't have to dumb it down. That person sits in a movie and talks a lot and texts and eventually gets bored and leaves. So the knuckleheads get thinned out. There's no heckling in a movie. Or there is, and I don't have to hear it.
Have you seen Funny People?
No, I haven't.
Well, it's all about comics in crisis, and how one tries to change his career direction and try new things.
I will say this: I just got done doing eight cities in 10 days as a comedian, and I shot it, because I thought it would be interesting. It was really coming from this thing about how I hate doing stand-up comedy. And in the middle of it I realized I didn't hate stand-up comedy; I just hated the persona that I came up with. So in the middle of the tour I tried to drop the persona and do comedy. And, um... it didn't go well. No, actually it was refreshing. All of the sudden I was interested in performing and I had a good time. Still, you know, when you're in Des Moines, there's gonna be some people going, "Do the voice! Talk like Grover!" And it was finally this thing I realized I have to do. It was scary, but Zed's dead, baby.