Bobcat Goldthwait: Willow Creek, found footage, Bigfoot

With his found-footage horror Willow Creek at FrightFest this month, we spoke to director Bobcat Goldthwait about its Bigfoot premise...

Made popular by the release of The Blair Witch Project, found footage movies slid into an almost totally forgettable category after a slew of disappointing forays into the genre over the past few years. It is difficult to believe that something novel could come out of the genre, but surprisingly, if you team it with an equally well-used subject, namely the decades-old legend of Bigfoot, you might end up with a recipe for a good fright movie.

That’s what Bobcat Goldthwait set out to do with Willow Creek, the “mockumentary” account of a couple’s adventure in the town of Willow Creek and the surrounding wilds that made Bigfoot a household name over 40 years ago with the shooting of the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage.

Those of us who are old enough will remember Bobcat Goldthwait as the high-pitch voiced comedian from the 80s best known for his roles as criminal but loveable Zed in the Police Academy movies and shotgun totting, inept broadcast executive wannabee Eliot opposite Bill Murray in Scrooged (my favourite Bobcat performance). We haven’t seen much of him in front of the camera over the past few years, except for a brief appearance next to Robins Williams in a Snickers commercial earlier this year. Instead, Bobcat’s been busy on the other side of the camera, racking up some interesting directorial credits, including God Bless America (2011) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009), the latter starring Robin Williams.

Willow Creek screened on the 30th July during the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Fantasia, now in its 17th edition, hosts hundreds of genre movies from around the world every year, and it is one of the cultural and entertainment highlights that make Montreal such a great international destination in the summer, especially for genre film enthusiasts. I met Bobcat for a quick interview the day after the screening of Willow Creek to talk about his foray into the horror genre.

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What did you think of the audience’s response during the screening last evening?

It was a really nice response. Although it made me laugh that the biggest scream in the movie was [during] the proposal scene [laughter].

I thought I had lost all interest in found footage movies sometime after Blair Witch 2 or Paranormal Activity 3, I can’t remember which, but then I found myself intrigued by the idea of a found footage movie on Bigfoot. How did you come by the idea of using that genre to tell a Bigfoot story?

The movie is a lot about the Patterson-Gimlin footage shot in 67. I guess that’s the original found footage movie. So, I went out to Willow Creek [the town] and I actually felt that the story lent itself to making a found footage movie. I told my buddy that, and he said, “everybody is over found footage movies, but this would be your version. You want to do a western, and you want to do a musical, why don’t you make a found footage movie first?”

I’m not like a film critic or festival programmer; I haven’t had to sit through 900 bad ones. I’m not so over it. I always have a hard time with found footage movies because I feel like, “Who are these creeps who edit those movies together and who go:  ‘oh! I’m sorry your daughter got raped to death, but if I recut this footage, I think we’ve got a film here.’”

So my movie is different in that sense that there are only 67 edits in the whole movie, and your average movie is about 1200 to 1400 [cuts]. The actors are always turning on and off the camera, and it’s kind of justified. I think I do a pretty good job too, as I go, “Why are you still filming? You shouldn’t do that.” I think that the reasons the camera is still on are justified. 

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So your edit is very faithful to the traditions and standards of found footage movies?

It is. There are a couple of scenes where the guy [main character Jim Kessel, played by Bryce Johnson] is trying to make his YouTube Bigfoot thing. You see multiple takes of his narration. You see him trying to host his show. You see the camera being turned on and off as he keeps fucking up his interview.

You mentioned that there are very few cuts in the movie. How hard was that from a fiction filmmaking point of view? It’s a found footage film, but it’s still fiction…

It’s the same kind of energy as when you sit around and try to figure out the coverage of a scene. So you use that same energy to go “why is the camera on?” and “when would they turn it on?”

We were trying to figure all that stuff out. It was a challenge, but in every movie I made, there were challenges. I hope that the difference between this movie and other found footage movies is that the actors are really strong. I wanted them to feel like very real people. I think in a lot of genre pictures, we do not invest ourselves too much into the characters. It’s all about the money shots.

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Did it help to have both actors and actual people, residents of Willow Creek, participate in the movie? From a director’s perspective, how different was it to direct both professional actors and people off the streets?

There’s only really one resident of Willow Creek that I let in on the truth that I was shooting a horror picture. All the others, I did not talk to them too much. They really only talked to the actors that were filming.  They came off as a goofy guy and his girlfriend. We did not explain [to the townspeople] that this was a horror picture, because I thought they would act natural, and they do. If I had tried to explain to these people what it was, they would have been thinking about how they should be acting. They would not have been themselves. 

The scene in the tent is a 20-minute long take, and its one of the most tense moments in the movie. That must have been quite a challenge, from directing and acting points of view…

Bryce [Johnson] and Alexie [Gilmor], who star in the movie, had to do most of the heavy lifting in that scene. We shot that scene three times. It was kind of interesting because we shot it where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was filmed, which is 17 miles down a dirt road. It takes two-and-a-half hour to drive there. So we’re in the middle of nowhere, your cell phone doesn’t work, and planes don’t fly over. You’re really in the middle of nowhere. And we saw some mountain lions.  So, when it came time to film this scene, it wasn’t very hard for them to be scared.

In the first take, they both kind of broke down. I used the second take in the movie. It’s in the second take that Alexie’s character goes from believing to non-believing. In the earlier take where they both fell apart, it kind of made them the same person, so the tension between the two of them diminished. It was a challenge, I guess. Honestly, though, that’s how it felt it would really go down.

You shot that scene where the original Patterson-Gimlin footage was shot. How different would the movie have been if Bigfoot had actually walked in front of the camera during the shot?

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That was the thing I was thinking about. If we actually saw or filmed Bigfoot, no one would believe us because it’s me [Bobcat Goldthwait], you know? [Laughter]. But I always wondered about that. I imagined myself bursting through the tent and going “fuck the movie, Bigfoot’s out here.” Also, since I was outside the tent [during filming], I was thinking, “what’s protecting me? What if a bear comes around?” People think it’s scary being in a tent out in the woods. Really? Try being about 300 yards away from that tent, making noises in the dark.

Would you go back to get some actual footage of Bigfoot? I know Bigfoot is a subject of personal interest to you.

I’m going back to Willow Creek at the beginning of September. I’m going to be in the local Bigfoot parade. And then I am going back to the site. I am going back with some of the Sasquatch experts and researchers.

Would you do another found footage movie? And if so, what would it be about?

I don’t know if I would do another found footage movie, but if it’s a movie that just seemed like it would make sense… You know? What would justify it? I am interested in other cryptozoology subjects and that kind of stuff.

Like the Loch Ness monster, maybe?

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Yeah. Or the American version, Champ, out in Lake Champlain.

Talking about your other movies. You’ve jumped from genre to genre. Is that something you actually try to do, or did that just happen by chance?

It’s just what interests me. Filmmakers that I really admire are people like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Although, Preston Sturges didn’t really jump from genre to genre. Or I guess he did. He would make one that was more silly, more of a satire, and then make one that was more [serious].  Even guys like Stevens Soderbergh. He changes it up constantly. That’s what I do. 

So what is next for you? Are you working on anything now? Or is there something you would like to work on?

I have been trying to develop this musical for a while with Ray Davis of The Kinks. I’m trying to get that going, but that’s a movie with a larger scope than the movies I usually make. I also just finished a screenplay that’s kind of a companion piece to World’s Greatest Dad. It’s very similar. And then I wrote a gay western too. So I’m all over the place.

So when is Willow Creek being released?

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I don’t have a distributor yet. We just started the process. Fortunately, people are interested, so knock on wood. I’m sure it will be available to people, but I don’t know if it’s going to get a big release or a smaller release.

Bigfoot has always been popular, but do you think the movie will create a new surge of interest for him?

There is some sort of Bigfoot thing going on. There’s the TV show, Finding Bigfoot, and the fact that there are other Bigfoot movies coming out. It’s just some weird thing going on. I don’t know what the interest is.

Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes came out last year, and Blair Witch Project’s director Eduardo Sanchez is working on a Bigfoot movie…

He’s finishing that up right now. I don’t feel competitive. I just feel “the more the merrier.”

So you’re going back to Willow Creek this fall. How do you think people over there will feel about the movie?

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I’ve shown it up there already. A lot of them saw it, and they really liked it. I did not make a snarky movie where I’m making fun of them. I made a movie − sure it’s funny, and it shows the town − but it’s done with compassion, not snark.

If Bigfoot saw the movie, what do you think he would say about it? If he could talk, that is.

He would probably ask to get paid.

Willow Creek will be shown next during FrightFest 2013 in London later on this month.