He might consider himself a “small footnote in pop culture,” but comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, 47, is doing everything he possibly can to write a meaningful chapter for his often misunderstood career.
Whether you know him for his skittish stand-up acts in the ’80s, the roles in three “Police Academy” sequels that followed, or for his controversial 1994 visit to “The Tonight Show,” where he lit the guest chair on fire, Goldthwait would be the first to tell you he’s done playing the sore thumb. All he wants to do now is make movies.
After two full years directing the late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” Goldthwait, who made his feature writing and directing debut with 1991’s “Shakes the Clown,” decided it was the right time to try filmmaking again. In 2006, Goldthwait’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” the story of a girl who doesn’t know how to tell her fiancé that she once fellated a dog (hey, it was college!), was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
In his newest film “World’s Greatest Dad,” Goldthwait pens the script and directs Academy Award winner and longtime friend Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”) in what Goldthwait is calling the second film of his “Boo-Hoo Trilogy.” In “Dad,” Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school poetry teacher who becomes overwhelmed by his own disturbing lies after he experiences a major tragedy in his life.
During a stop in Austin, Goldthwait sat down with me to talk about why he doesn’t want to be a celebrity, what his relationship was like with his dad growing up, and why capitalism is the root of all evil.
Since most people probably recognize you from your stand-up and the movies you did in the ’80s, do you feel like you’re starting on a clean slate by going back to directing and writing?
It’s funny because I was doing an interview and talking about the persona people knew me as – the character versus how I make movies now – and finally the girl interviewing me goes, “I’m 19. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (Laughs) And I liked it. It was like a clean slate. She only knew me from “Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “World’s Greatest Dad” and that’s about it.
So, is the work more rewarding now?
I’m enjoying [directing and writing] a lot more than other things I’ve done in show business. I hope I can keep making movies. Hopefully, I’ll keep making small ones and keep them on a personal level.
Making small movies is fine, but I’m sure you want more people to see your movies, too. I mean, “World’s Greatest Dad” has to be your most accessible one to date so…
…It’s true that no one wants to make a movie that nobody is going to see. It would be nice if [“World’s Greatest Dad”] had a bigger audience, but I’m not really expecting it to (laughs).
I don’t know if you would consider yourself “famous,” but some people might think since you already have a name in the industry it might be easier for someone like you to make a movie.
I’m not famous. I would consider myself a small footnote in pop culture (laughs). [“World’s Greatest Dad”] is the second film I had at Sundance. I’m sure it was easier. I’m sure people did look at my movie when it was submitted with the 4,000 other Sundance movies. But I’m sure Sundance wasn’t in a big hurry to put a movie by the guy from “Police Academy” on their roster. I think they actually liked the movie. I don’t think my body of work really helps. I think there are a lot of people with preconceived notions of me. I think some things might be easier, but I also think there is a lot of baggage. If I was an anonymous filmmaker and I made a movie that starred Robin Williams, I think people would go to the movie without any preconceived notions. But the real question is, if I was an anonymous filmmaker, would I be making a movie with Robin Williams?
You said you wanted to keep making small movies. Have you noticed the bigger the movie, the more people want to put in their two cents?
Well, once Robin came on board, there were two different companies offering to finance the film. In fact, they had paperwork drawn up already. But then they started giving me notes and stuff so I walked away and turned down the deal. I’d rather not make a movie than listen to other people’s notes. It doesn’t interest me. I don’t do this to get rich, and I’m not doing this to become a celebrity. In order to be a celebrity in America, you have to have the ability to stand in line.
It sounds like filmmaking is an intimate process for you and you like things your way and don’t want anyone to ruin your vision.
Well, I mean, I collaborated with Robin and I collaborated with the folks at Darko [Entertainment] who financed the movie. I collaborated a lot with my girlfriend, Sarah [de Sa Rego]. So, I’m all for collaborating, but I’m not interested in listening to somebody who makes movies that I wouldn’t go to. All these characters [in “World’s Greatest Dad”] are based on people I know, so I wouldn’t listen to a stranger tell me how they think my brother would react in a scene. That’s why I make movies really small by Hollywood standards.
Are some of those pet names Lance (Williams) and Claire (Alexie Gilmore) call each other throughout the movie ones you and your girlfriend use with each other?
No, those are based on a couple of narcissistic women I went out with. Both of them will think it’s about them, which is pretty funny (laughs).
I was actually quite surprised how after a while it really got annoying.
(Laughs) Yeah, I think that’s probably what I was going for. The few times I got caught up in that world of cutesy talk I was going, “I’m running out [of pet names]. I don’t even know what this is.”
I know you have a long history with Robin, but what was it about him as an actor that make you want to cast him in the lead?
Well, I didn’t write it with him in mind. He’s my friend, and he really liked “Sleeping Dogs Lie.” I didn’t know this until a couple of days ago, but he read the script thinking that he would help me get it financed by having a small part in it. When he called me back he’s like, “I want to be the lead.” I was like, “Whoa.” So, that changed everything.
Since Robin is your friend, would it have been hard to tell him no if you really didn’t want him for the role?
No, I would have told him that it wouldn’t have made sense. We’re friend friends. I’ve told him things that he probably didn’t want to hear and vice versa.
Well, I don’t want this interview to sound like its becoming a therapy session with the next question, but I wanted to know what you’re relationship was like with your father since that’s a big theme in this movie.
It was good. My dad was kind of a hardworking, blue-collar guy, but at the same time he had this offbeat sense of humor. He probably influenced a lot of the stuff I do. He would just do really silly stunts. He would say he was going to jump out of a giant tree into a backyard swimming pool. But he would never do it. He would say he was going to jump off the top of the refrigerator into an open jar of mayonnaise. He did this weird stuff and would always do it serious. He would always play his comedy very straight. My mom on the other hand was really sarcastic. My dad and I didn’t really have a strained relationship when I was growing up. I think my personality was like Bobby Hill from “King of the Hill.” I was this little fat kid who wanted to be popular and be this comedian.
What did your dad say when you told him you wanted to be a comedian?
This was like in the ’70s when I told my dad I wanted to be a comedian. I might as well have said I was going to be an astronaut. He was like, “What are you talking about?”
Is he still living?
No, actually, he just passed away. After I wrapped the movie I went back to Syracuse where I’m from and spent sometime with him, and then he passed away. I’m glad I got to say goodbye to him.
My condolences. Does a movie like this mean more to you because of everything you’ve gone through this year?
Well, I’ve been through a lot of loss in recent years. I lost my older brother recently, my mom, and my dad. I think when you become this middle-aged dude you start thinking about what’s important in life.
How old is your kid?
So, 22 years ago, when you became a father, was there a period of enlightenment where you realized things were never going to be the same?
I don’t think any chemical reaction kicked in, but when you have a kid – and I don’t know if you have a kid – but when you have a kid, everything changes. It’s pretty funny. Robin said this movie is a little bit about why some parents eat their young.
Yeah, at first I thought Kyle (Lance’s disrespectful son) was just going to be a brat, but after a while I was hoping someone would backhand him.
Yeah, he has no imagination. He loathes everything. I’d rather have a child that’s a drug addict than one that didn’t have an imagination. There’s no hope if you have a child that’s void of imagination.
Now, I’ve heard “World’s Greatest Dad” is the second movie of your “Boo-Hoo trilogy.” What is the third?
I’m finishing up another screenplay that doesn’t have anything to do with my perception of relationships. I think the new one has more to do with my perception on our culture. There’s no shame in America, and everybody seems to think that they deserve everything now. The worst of our behavior is made into TV shows.
A lot of people think they are entitled to stuff…
…Everybody does. I believe capitalism and the internet have made us believe that every product they find was made for them. I don’t want to sound negative, but you make a movie that’s small and personal and try to reach people that would enjoy this movie, but what happens in the meantime? There are some people in the media that this movie was never intended for, and there they are weighing in on it. “I don’t like this movie because there’s too much cursing.” It’s like, “Well, I didn’t make it for you.” There are other people like, “Ah, there’s not jokes. This isn’t a comedy.” And I really hate comedies where everybody talks in punch lines. I hate that.
I know what you mean. The other day I was at Blockbuster and this older couple in line in front of me had rented “The Royal Tenenbaums” and they were bringing it back and wanted to get something else instead. The woman was like, “We only saw 20 minutes of it, but it wasn’t funny. Does it get funnier?” And the guy in behind the counter was just puzzled.
(Laughs) Yeah, he was probably like, “Lady, why are renting ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’? Why don’t you just sit down and watch ‘Two and a Half Men?'” There’s tons of crap for those people. You can get a big spoon and eat it up.
So, what makes you laugh? Who do you like to watch?
I have a lot of friends that make me laugh. My friend Morgan Murphy makes me laugh. She’s in the movie. Then there are people like Patton Oswalt that make me laugh. I’m not so cynical that I don’t laugh at people, but I tend to lean towards things like “The Office.” I like Ricky Gervais. I love the show – it just started to play on Cartoon Network, but was on the BBC before that – “The Mighty Boosh.”
What about Alexander Payne? I sensed a bit of him in your movie.
Yeah, I love his movies. I think “Citizen Ruth” was something that really affected me. It probably put me on the path where I wanted to make movies. Now, these last two movies (“Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “World’s Greatest Dad”) – and I don’t know if anyone will pick up on it or not – but in the back of my mind, even if the first one was kind of down and dirty, I was trying to do my version of a Woody Allen movie. And then on [“World’s Greatest Dad”], I was really thinking of a Wes Anderson movie. I wish I had the money for those anamorphic lenses [he uses] to have that big framing. But I don’t even know if people catch onto those things. I guess it kind of goes through my own filter.
Well, I caught the slow motion at the end so…
…Yes, that’s exactly a rip on Wes Anderson! I’m amazed more people don’t catch that. You take a British rock song and put it in slow motion.
Well, they’re wrapping us up, but I wanted to quickly ask you since you were part of the late-night circuit for so long, what do you think about the recent changes in the late-night ranks? Do you think Jay Leno coming on earlier in the evening later this season is going to work?
I think every time something like that happens it’s just more scripted television hitting the floor and I feel bad about that. Late night television is really weird because you have people saying, “I love this guy, but I don’t love that guy.” It’s like, “Just pick a white guy already.”