THERE are bleak comedies, black comedies, and then there are Bobcat Goldthwait comedies – incendiary, transgressive affairs that are so dark that they can leave fingerprints on charcoal.
In the past he has focused on alcoholic circus performers in Shakes The Clown, nightmare children in World’s Greatest Dad, and bestiality in Sleeping Dogs Lie. Now, with the revenge fantasy God Bless America, the 50-year-old writer-director takes on modern culture by rounding up moviegoers who talk during films, right-wing news presenters and drivers who park over two spaces before exacting a bloody justice.
Joel Murray plays Frank, a divorced average Joe who realises that selfish neighbours, indulged teens and cruel reality shows are sapping his will to live. He’s about to swallow a bullet, when he decides that if he’s going to die, he might as well take some of these obnoxious people with him.
“It’s as a very violent movie about kindness,” says Goldthwait. “I certainly am not encouraging people to take a gun and go shoot people who text in a cinema. But maybe others will realise that if you text during a movie, people won’t think you’re awesome.”
There’s certainly a warm sensation in sitting back and watching other people act out the temporary rage within all of us; and you don’t have to be a typical reactionary to catch yourself nodding along with some of Frank’s targets.
“Hopefully, you catch yourself enjoying it and then go, ‘Well, what the f*** is wrong with me?’ You’re identifying, but if the film works, then you should also be squirming a little,” says Goldthwait, who affably recalls phoning friends, inviting them to play extras in his film … then shooting them.
It was a visit to the UK that drove Goldthwait to make God Bless America; “I came over here and they were showing a My Super Sweet 16 marathon, with this girl throwing a tantrum over getting a car. I was so bummed out that the British would think this was what we were really like. I said to my wife, ‘Let’s get some guns,’ but instead I made this movie.”
His first draft was three hours long: less a film, more a manifesto. “And I realise that it does sound like it’s been written by a grumpy 50-year-old guy. At the same time, we are becoming a culture that’s really nasty. Technology isn’t connecting us, and what we’ve lost is civil discourse and conversation. It’s just people reacting. And I don’t have any answers: I have no idea where we’re going in five or ten years.”
God Bless America had its debut on Friday at the Edinburgh Film Festival and immediately divided audiences, making it another successful provocation for Goldthwait. He has been testing the boundaries of laughter since the 1980s when he started out as an unhinged stand-up act with a voice like Grover from Sesame Street and an unpredictability that included setting his seat on fire during a chat show.
Mainstream Hollywood struggled to make use of him beyond appearances in three Police Academy films, and a comedy about a talking horse.
“Virginia Madsen was in Hot To Trot as well,” says Goldthwait. “I remember she was very friendly but when we met years later, she wasn’t so friendly any more. It was understandable because all we had in common was acting with a horse. It was like me going, ‘Hey Virginia, remember that porno we did?’”
Goldthwait’s has been a career of remarkable risk and tiny budgets, supplemented by going on the road to do stand-up “anyplace where it is still the 1980s”. He made Sleeping Dogs Lie for £10,000 with a crew hired through craigslist. God Bless America was funded by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly through his production company for a slightly larger sum, but still required some guerrilla tactics.
“Joel driving into New York was filmed on the fly,” he admits. “At one point he said, ‘Bobcat, I’m in a car heading for Manhattan with an underage teen and an illegal firearm – what if I get stopped?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll still be rolling, so stay in character’.”
Goldthwait’s leading men tend to be old friends, and loyal ones too. Robin Williams had a heart valve replaced shortly after filming World’s Greatest Dad but still accompanied Goldthwait on a promotional tour once he was well enough to travel. His latest leading man is Bill Murray’s brother – the deadpan style runs in the family – but the friendship goes back to when they worked on a 1986 John Cusack film called One Crazy Summer.
“Joel was just reminding me that we were in John Cusack’s room one day and he’d left his American Express card out. So I wrote the number down and started ordering things we saw on late-night TV. Every day there would be these parcels for him – bamboo steamers, ThighMasters. And John would say, ‘Another package? The film company must be sending this stuff’. And we’d go, ‘Yeah, that must be it.’”
Since he took up directing, Goldthwait has focused on discomfiting comedies, but he is keen to branch out and direct a rock opera based on the Kinks’ Schoolboys in Disgrace. A long-time fan, he says it took several meetings before he could talk to Ray Davies about the project without feeling self-conscious.
The Kinks’ I’m Not Like Everybody Else also soundtracks a key sequence in God Bless America, where Frank prepares to get some obnoxious people in his crosshairs.
Before deciding whether to release the rights, Davies asked to see the intended scene.
“Afterwards he said to me, ‘I’m a bit concerned: what happens next in the movie?’ So I told him that someone who is a lot like Simon Cowell gets shot in the chest four times.”
“He e-mailed me straight back, saying, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’”
• God Bless America is on selected release from 4 July