Bobcat Goldthwait is most widely known for his irreverent stand-up character: the awkward fellow with the self-described “Grover voice,” which he reluctantly carried over into several film roles. (He doesn’t actually talk like that. Really.) The indie film fan may also know him from cult film favorite “Shakes the Clown,” which he wrote, directed and starred in.
But these days, Bobcat has shed the Andy Kaufman-esque persona completely and resides behind the camera, directing his own scripts. 2006’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie” is a twisted, hilarious, yet extremely moving account of the repercussions of one woman’s youthful indiscretion. It also deals with family relationships and the idea that secrets are sometimes not only convenient, but completely necessary. The film was critically lauded but largely ignored.
Goldthwait followed up with the similarly themed “World’s Greatest Dad,” about a sad-sack poetry teacher (Robin Williams, a far cry from his “Dead Poet’s Society” character) named Lance. A single father, he plods through his day finding minimal consolation in his own writing and a secret affair with another teacher (Alexie Gilmore). Despite consistent failure, Lance unflinchingly attempts to reach out to his demonic son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara, “Spy Kids”), a porn-obsessed social reject with nothing but hate for everything and everyone around him. So Lance’s deceitful actions in the wake of tragedy make a kind of sense. No one could have predicted how badly his good intentions would miscarry. What follows is a witty reflection on how the general public deals with personal tragedy and how milking sympathy can backfire. This time, audiences are listening to the critics and awarding Goldthwait with long-overdue buzz.
I recently spoke with the pleasantly droll and endearingly self-deprecating Bobcat about his films, Catholic school, working with friends, teenagers and coming-of-age as a middle-aged man.
Because I live in Seattle, I love seeing the city on screen and I think it’s the perfect backdrop to a lot of stories. What made you decide to shoot “World’s Greatest Dad” in Seattle?
Um…it was cheap.
You know it’s weird. It’s like usually people, when they make a movie and it’s supposed to be Seattle, they film in Vancouver and then they come to Seattle for a couple days….
Yeah. To shoot the Space Needle.
Yeah, exactly. So I was really tempted at the end of this shoot to shoot a couple exteriors in Vancouver.
But you know I’m not from Seattle or anything so I wasn’t going to pretend that I was making the quintessential Seattle movie. It’s funny you said “Space Needle” because that’s one of the things I said when we were scouting the movie. I was like “I don’t want to see any shots…you’re not gonna see the Space Needle and there’s gonna be no shots of people throwing fish or shots of ferries going by and stuff like that.” Robin has fond memories of Seattle. You know, that’s, like, where he goes to work out material actually. Like at the Shoebox [cute nickname for the Showbox]. I just like the idea of making movies not in L.A. And a little bit in the back of mind was the movie “Harold and Maude.” But then I found out later on, that “Harold and Maude” was filmed in Northern California. I always thought it was filmed up in Washington or Oregon because of all the big pine trees.
Yeah. Our coastline is a little different.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So I was confused.
Well, I definitely appreciate you not putting any of the cliché Seattle images in there. I think most audiences wouldn’t really notice [it was Seattle] unless they live here but [for locals] it’s easy to recognize the Guild 45th and Wallingford and places like that so it’s kind of exciting.
Well, it’s funny because that was something I thought about. Like I hoped the folks that lived there would get excited because for an outsider like me to go try and make, like, you know, “Singles 2” would be a mistake. You know what’s funny is that it played at the Guild so like you’re sitting there….
Can you describe your writing process for “World’s Greatest Dad” and also for “Sleeping Dogs Lie”?
Yeah, the last two movies were kind of written the same way although I think “Sleeping Dogs Lie” was written…um…I was probably on the road doing standup. But that one was really fast. Like, I wrote that in 3 days and then “World’s Greatest Dad” was written in about 5 days. But each time I…I kind of have these ideas for different movies germinating in my head and then I go to a chain quality hotel and I try to write, like, a 2 page short story version of the movie and then I just sit down and write the movie. I write them really fast. But my detractors would probably say they wished I spent an extra day or two on ‘em.
[Laughs] As someone whose been working on the same screenplay for the last 2 years, I’m really impressed that you can crank something that great out in 5 days.
Oh, thanks. That’s really sweet. But you know I have plenty that I am very frustrated with, you know? I think these are easier to write fast because they’re kind of personal stories and then these other movies that I have…it’s been harder to finish em, you know? I’ve been working on a spree killer movie for a while and trying to get that finished. And I’ve been writing a musical based on a Kinks album.
Wow! Can you tell me more about that? That sounds amazing.
Uh…it’s a Kinks album that was in the 70’s. I don’t know Ray Davies and I had a meeting with him. And I really sweated a whole bunch when I was talking to him because I was such an idiot. And then he went and watched “World’s Greatest Dad” and he gave me the thumbs up to make it. He said, “Who would go see this?” because it’s an album and…it is a concept album. And it’s set in a high school and he said, “Who would go see this movie?” and I said “Well, all the kids that fuckin’ hate High School Musical” and he kind of smiled and I think that won him over.
I don’t think anyone in actual high school watches “High School Musical.”
Yeah I think its kids that aren’t in high school and creepy pederasts…I like to think it’s a creepy pederast as if there’s other kinds of pederasts.
[Laughs] The really sweet, amiable ones.
Yeah…the charitable pederasts.
So both “World’s Greatest Dad” and “Sleeping Dogs Lie” deal with secrets and their repercussions. And you’d mentioned that they’re personal stories. Does that mean you have a lot of experience dealing with the repercussions of secrets?
You know, I didn’t realize that either of these movies were so close to me until after I finished them. In fact some things about them I didn’t notice until I was watching ‘em or had other people point out who the people are in the movie. But um…you would think that I’m like this really…I think I am really nervous about people and things which is really strange because when you meet me I’m somewhat social. But I don’t have any deep dark secrets. I don’t know why I’m so terrified. I don’t know. I think it goes all the way back to…it’s almost like the fear of being called on in school. It’s almost like the same fear that these characters have. I don’t know.
Did you always sit in the back row?
Yeah, man. I never had my homework and if I did it was pretty poorly done.
So you went to Catholic school. Is that where your fascination with taboo subjects stems?
I think it really helped. It’s funny, you know, I brought up school and then you brought it up. Um…I think that, yeah, it’s a really weird thing to put into a kid that, you know, your thoughts can send you to hell, which is really crazy if you have an imagination. So, yeah I’m sure that’s where some of the stuff stems from.
Catholicism is pretty imaginative in and of itself. But I guess you’re not really allowed to deviate from that story.
Now, were you raised Catholic?
I was. And I also went to Catholic School.
Did you go the whole time?
Um…From 6th to 12th grade so a pretty long time.
Oh my god! Wow. Wow. Yeah…Tom Kenney whose Sponge Bob and I went to Catholic school together. Like, we met when we were 6 and we graduated high school together.
So he must have felt a bit of catharsis from being on “Mr. Show” after that.
Who, Tommy? You know Jill, his wife, too was on “Mr. Show.” They both showed up in little tiny roles in “World’s Greatest Dad.” But being around them and filming with them, because I do see Tom and Jill a lot now, made me want to work [with them] on a bigger scale.
You used a lot of great supporting actors like Toby Huss (“King of the Hill,” “Carnivàle”). Are they all your friends or are they people you admired and wanted to work with?
Most of ‘em are my friends. Like Toby…I just got off the phone with him. But most of ‘em are my friends. Like, Morgan Murphy is another friend of mine and she shows up in the movie. I work with a lot of friends who are talented. Cause I do have friends that don’t have talent so I don’t put them in the movie. But I wish someday I could write like a really big Robert Altman movie so everybody could be in it together. Because I really think Alexie’s really great who was playing against Robin and I also think Melinda [Page Hamilton, “Sleeping Dogs Lie”] was really great in the last movie. I wish I could write a bigger movie and be able to work with everybody.
You mentioned that people had pointed out similarities between the characters in your movies and people in your actual family. So are any of your family members mad at you right now?
No…during “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” it was actually at the Toronto Film Festival, my older brother Tommy actually passed away since then…but we were watching “Sleeping Dogs Lie” at the Toronto Film Festival and my sisters were there with me and in the middle of the movie my sister leans down and she goes “Tommy’s gonna kill you”. I do borrow a lot from people I know and sometimes from my own life but not necessarily the events. Like I don’t know anyone that experimented with b********y or auto-erotic asphyxiation. It’s more like I kind of write with people that I know in mind and how they would react to certain situations.
You’ve said that you didn’t have Robin Williams in mind when you wrote “World’s Greatest Dad” but that when he read it he told you he wanted to play Lance. What specifically drew him to that role?
You know what I did find out that I didn’t know initially was that he was reading it because he thought he’d help me out and play a small role. Like he would play a small role and help me get the movie financed. But…I don’t know what drew him to it. I do know that he liked the other movie a lot. I do think that the character is very similar to both he and I where as middle-aged men we kinda had to grow some balls and change our lives a lot. And this movie is a coming-of-age story, for me, of a middle-aged man. You know, usually when you see a coming-of-age story…usually the cut-off point is mid-twenties. But sometimes it takes some of us a lot longer to grow up.
Kyle is kind of a nightmare kid with no redeeming qualities. Where did the inspiration for his character come from or was that just necessary to make the plot work?
I think a lot of it was necessary to make the plot work, that there was nothing redeemable about him at all. It was exactly what you hit on. It was to make the plot work. But the funny thing is that even though the character is so horrible, I think Daryl is such a strong actor that people still were kind of drawn to him. Kinda just before he uh…well, at this point people know what the movie is about…Just before he dies I think people start warming up to Daryl’s character which is pretty funny.
Yeah, that definitely happened to me. When he’s giving his dad the pep talk to hit that s**t.
But also, he’s kind of right when he calls out Miss Reed as being a phony. Is there purposefully a little Holden Caulfield in there or was that a lucky guess on his part?
You know, I don’t know why I wrote that. But it is a little Holden Caulfield. I don’t know why we wrote it and I don’t know why it’s in the movie but for some reason it actually kind of works. It’s kind of weird that he is perceptive. I think when I wrote it I kind of thought of it as he hates everything. But for some reason it does work when he is that perceptive about that.
A lot of people had friends in high school that they didn’t particularly like but they hung out with anyway. How did Kyle and Andrew become friends?
I think Kyle is horrible and invisible to most of the school. Like if they did know him they hated him. But I think Andrew actually has no friends because he’s really kind of shy. That’s what I had in mind in my head. I don’t think he’s, like, a bad kid. I just think he’s super painfully shy. So I think that it’s almost out of necessity that he hangs out with Kyle because he is the only person that will give him the time of day.
Would he have stayed friends with Kyle or eventually moved on?
I hope other people would learn to appreciate Andrew and he would start getting different friends.
When you first became a father, did you worry that your kid would grow up to be someone that you didn’t like?
Sure. Yeah. You know, your biggest fears…[laughs]…I don’t know. Uh…none of the things that I worried about with my daughter came true. Your biggest fears are that they’re going to be a drug addict mess or some kind of w***e or something like that.
And then the things you never see coming are the things that come true. But it all ended up OK. I think the biggest mistake people make…and I’m not breaking any ground by saying this…but I think the biggest mistake is people who…well, it’s really common in L.A. where people want to be considered the cool parent or the hip mom or the friend of the kid. And I never, never wanted that. My only expectation was I was trying to be a good dad, hopefully. And now the bi-product of that is my daughter and I are actually really good friends. She shot the making-of behind the scenes of the movie and stuff so…I was really happy that they came out well and Magnolia bought it and put it on the DVD. Cuz I didn’t give her any notes. It’s very cool. It’s kinda DIY. It captures the feeling of what it was like to be on the set.
Is she working on becoming a filmmaker too?
Yeah, yeah! She just got a job. She’s in Massachusetts working with an Irish television company and they’re doing a series on the Kennedys so she’s working in the camera department on that.
Do you think you’ll work together again and maybe collaborate on a bigger project?
Oh, of course. Yeah, yeah.
You’ve said that you’re most comfortable when you’re making people feel awkward but your last two movies seem to be about finding the relatable in uncomfortable situations. Do you perhaps have a secret desire to make people comfortable with the taboo or would you be disappointed if you could no longer make people feel weird?
[Laughs] Well, I’m not trying to make people feel comfortable with the taboo because I don’t want…I’m not asking for acceptance of b********y or these topics. I think they’re just tiny things in the story. And what I’m really asking of people is…these movies are really about kindness and acceptance. Although I do think everything is pretty dark. And the older I get I realize I have less and less in common with people. I used to think I had a lot in common with everybody. And then I realized I have less and less in common with people. I don’t know why I’m being so honest right now, but yeah. It’s funny…in our culture athletes are really considered more important and I was thinking about how, like, if a kid dies in school and he was on a team, they’ll go, “It’s such a shame he died. He was such a good student. He was a really great athlete.” And they never go, “It’s such a shame he died. He was a really good student and he was great in drama.” As if your kid is into anything other than sports they’re less than, you know? So the older I get, I think the audience I’m reaching out to is a lot smaller.
As someone who feels pretty much alone in not following organized sports I completely relate. I’ve had to learn to tolerate some sports just because they’re always on and my husband and friends are really into it.
I know. It’s a really weird thing about our culture. Here I am now a middle-aged guy and I’m identifying the different things in my life that I don’t…I’m like, “Oh boy, jocks really do ruin everything.” It’s just weird because as a comedian I had popularity and now I’m realizing that I didn’t have a lot in common with a lot of people who have been paying my bills all these years.
So, I absolutely loved “Sleeping Dogs Lie” but I’ve had a hard time selling it to other people just based on the plot description. And it seems like the marketing department had similar difficulties in light of the title change [from “Stay”] and the misleading cover art. How would you have marketed it differently?
Well, the title had to change because there was a Mark Forrester film named “Stay.” And I wish it stayed the other name. But there’s two different covers. And one makes it look like a porn movie.
Yeah, I think that’s the one I have.
There’s like, a hot piece of a*s and a drooling dog and every time I see that I get so upset. I have one fantasy, which is that if I ever was a successful filmmaker that people would go back and try to put a more accurate DVD cover on that box. And what I think is funny is that image, the shot between the woman’s legs, is on a million DVD covers. It’s the equivalent of the guy peaking over the sunglasses in the 80’s. There’s a ton of people with that artwork. But I do believe it’s hard selling these products. There’s two things…Well, there’s a couple things. One: it’s got my name involved, so I come with some baggage. The people who are familiar with me think “Police Academy” and all that kind of crap. And then if you hear about these topics I think you think they’re gonna be broad and silly comedies or outrageous slob comedies and then they’re not so it’s really hard.
I think that’ll change with all the buzz that “World’s Greatest Dad” is getting.
Well, I hope people go back and give “Stay” a shot. That would make me happy.
Do you think that people are responding more to “World’s Greatest Dad” because of the themes or because of Robin Williams? What do you think they’re responding to as opposed to “Sleeping Dogs Lie” which was well reviewed but definitely didn’t get the same kind of buzz.
Of course I think Robin’s attachment helps make it more accessible for folks. I think it’s funny that Alexie, who was in “World’s Greatest Dad,” didn’t see “Sleeping Dogs Lie” and then she called me up crying. She was like [mock sobs] “I just watched that movie…”
You’ve indicated that you’re kind of over acting and stand-up and have referred to them as more of a paycheck than an artistic outlet at this point. Do you think you’ll ever find a passion for them again?
I will say that I do have an interest in stand-up again which has to do with the fact that I just kind of told myself that even though it’s a very dependable crutch that I had to jettison the character and the persona that people know me for. So I’ve been doing sets going up as myself and that makes it a little more interesting again. Because it’s the first time that I’m nervous and working on it so that’s exciting. Acting? No. I think I’m a pretty bad actor. I think I’m pretty corny. So I really want to concentrate on writing and directing and those two things…That’s really what excites me a lot right now…I was really phoning it in for many years is what I’m saying.
You’ve often joked about giving up on creativity and making movies with Kate Hudson. Is her brand of romantic comedy the pinnacle of bad cinema for you?
It’s just like…her as my go-to bunt of what I consider everything wrong in movies is that…I don’t know what it is. There’s just something that’s super insincere about it that drives me crazy. I’ve always been waiting to hear from her people. Or to run into her in a Whole Foods grocery store and have her pissed off and say, “Why do you make fun of me?”
Well, that’s all the questions I have, actually.
I’m sorry I couldn’t think of anything better to end on.
Well, I’m really trying to just finish up some more screenplays and get up and started all over again. That’s what my goal is.
I’m excited about the Kinks movie. That sounds terrific. I think there’s a need for more edgy musicals.
Yeah, I’ll see if I can pull it off. I really hope I can con somebody into giving me money to make it.