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AUSTIN, Texas - When you live in a world filled with newscasts reporting terrible acts of inhumanity, reality television shows that celebrate terrible values and actual people who use their value system as a weapon against others who don’t share it, it feels like there’s plenty of motivation for almost any filmmaker to create a film like “God Bless America.” But if you ask writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, he said the idea was inspired by decidedly more mundane circumstances: “It was a Christmas present to my wife, so the catalyst was me being a cheap husband.”
Goldthwait, of course, has been working for decades in Hollywood creating iconic characterizations and hugely successful comedy routines with a singular, supremely distinct voice. (It helps that he actually used a fake one for so many years.) But as a filmmaker, he said that the ideas for films like his latest come from what he shares in common with others, not how they stand apart. “It kind of was like a love letter to her, because Roxy and Frank’s conversations are the same ones we have at home. And I always say that the key to a good relationship isn't liking the same things, it’s hating the same things, because that will make a very smooth road."
But the real catalyst for the film was Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," the director reveals. “I thought, this movie here was the counterculture revolting against authority. And I thought, who do we have to revolt against now? And then I started thinking about everything -- reality television and non-news and all that kind of stuff. And then it was just seeing things like a Tea Party guy with a sign that says, ‘We’re Unarmed, THIS Time.’ I was like, 'Oh, that's crazy. I see your crazy and I raise your crazy.”
The story follows an insurance salesman named Frank (Joel Murray) who loses his job at the same time he discovers that he has an inoperable brain tumor. While flipping channels at home trying to console himself, he finds a “My Super Sweet 16” show about a spoiled teenager throwing tantrums as her birthday approaches, and something snaps, setting in motion a nationwide killing spree that’s interrupted only long enough for Frank to pick up Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teenager whose misanthropic world view matches his own.
Unexpectedly, “God Bless America” manages not to be a purely unhappy moviegoing experience, as righteously angry as it is. Goldthwait said that the point of it was not purely to exorcise some of his frustrations about our current culture, but to challenge people to think more about what they watch, and even more importantly, how they behave. “I am exasperated," he says, "but the hopeful part is the part that I throw back on people's laps and you say, am I going to be part of this? Have I had enough?”
“It is a call to kindness,” he insistes. “It’s a violent movie that’s asking for kindness. And that's why when people go, ‘What are you going to do if people copycatted this movie?’ I’d [say,] I don't want them to kill. But if people actually took the message away, that would be pretty rad.”
Although the film certainly takes aim at groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests outside the funerals of dead soldiers returning from Afghanistan, Goldthwait indicated the film wasn’t meant to express a specific political viewpoint. “The thing I’m attacking there is their cruelty, I’m not attacking their ideology,” he explains. “Like the West Baptist people said, ‘You would love to kill Reverend Phelps,’ and I was like, 'Oh, no, no, I would love it if you guys were nice and kind and actually read [the Bible].”
At the same time, the filmmaker suggested that to be perfectly even-handed in his takedown of cultural demagogues would have diluted his message, and more importantly, a cop out. “Because what you're saying is, look, the progressive movement and the liberal movement have a lot of flaws, and one is that they're always victims and they're whiny,” he says. “But the real hardcore right is very nasty right now, and if anybody wants to argue that with me, look at what’s happened with Rush Limbaugh in the past few weeks. That's the reality."
Meanwhile, Goldthwait said that he drew upon a number of 1960s and ‘70s films for inspiration, including “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network.” When asked whether he felt like this movie might be misunderstood as a call for vigilantism or a fascist screed a la “Dirty Harry,” he indicated that the public criticism of Clint Eastwood’s film helped him get a sense of perspective on the possible reactions audiences and critics might have to his own. “I thought about that with this,” he said. “Like I knew that there was a possibility for me of taking some heat for this movie, and I used that as an example. People would say his movie is reactionary and it wasn’t -- it actually was humanistic. That's funny you brought that up. I actually thought about that, when I’m putting on my flack jacket getting ready for the shit storm that's going to come from this movie.”
Given how violent and bitter the film often is, it’s surprising to discover that it wraps up in an almost upbeat way. Goldthwait says he found his ending by uncovering the essential human truth that his characters were looking for, and then giving them that, even in the face of any variety of potential tragedies. “I think in life the only thing we really want is somebody that gets you, and at that last moment, [Frank and Roxy] get each other,” he says.
For him, on the other hand, the experience didn’t simply allow him to exorcise his frustrations, it opened new doors and allowed him to ask questions not just about what’s wrong now, but what’s in store for us – and if we can change direction. “During [shooting] it was very cathartic,” he admits. “But afterwards, I don't find it as cathartic, because it is asking some questions about who are we and where are we going. So I don't find it as rewarding as just a straightforward vigilante movie, but when we were actually shooting people on set, yeah, that's cathartic. I’m not going to lie.”
“But look, man, we all play guns, you know what I mean? That's what this movie is. There is a good portion of that. You know -- ‘Hey, you have to take two spots?’ ‘Fuck you.’ ‘No, fuck you.’ Come on, we’ve all thought of that."
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @mtgilchrist on Twitter.
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