Bobcat Goldthwait, the Surprisingly Sweet Director of Sleeping Dogs Lie
(from Timessquare.com October 23, 2006)
Here’s an attention grabber: On a whim one dateless night, Amy, a pretty, intelligent, and practical coed, performs fellatio on her pet dog. She never does it again and it is her dark, dark secret until her boyfriend coaxes it out of her and soon he and her family has turned their backs on her. That’s the uniquely outrageous premise of “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” and considering the original wild man Bobcat Goldthwait is the director, everyone was expecting this indie to be an outlandish, over-the-top, and beyond-offensive comedy. Instead, as critics discovered at film festivals, Goldthwaite wrote and directed what he reluctantly admits is a sweet, gentle, and sometimes serious comedy, and leading lady Melinda Page Hamilton turned Amy into one of the most appealing and sympathetic female characters in memory. Let sleeping dogs lie, but, film lovers, wake up to a real sleeper, a minor gem that is not only sweet but also is surprisingly profound. For seventeen minutes, I tried to let Bobcat in on this secret
Melinda Page Hamilton and Bobcat Goldthwait
Danny Peary: In the production notes for “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” it comes across to me as if your film was almost a guerilla production, with crew members even sleeping on your DP’s floor. You are a well-known, established commodity who directed two previous films, so was it really so hard for you to get financing?
Bobcat Goldthwait: The reality is that I showed the script around a little, but when someone would ask, “Can the girl just jerk off the dog?” I would think, “This is insane, I’m not going to rewrite it to get backing.” I made it because Sarah de Sa Rego, who was one of the co-producers, said, “This is a good script, we should shoot it.” I said, “We don’t have any money.” But we just started and really it became stone soup. There was no money, no ingredients. Half the crew was college kids from Craigslist, and the other half was people my age or older who I knew from TV shows I’d worked on. We shot in sixteen days, working sixteen to eighteen hours a day. We didn’t have permits and we were stealing things from other shows. That’s how we did it.
DP: Melinda Page Hamilton gives a terrific even tender performance as Amy. She had done mostly regional theater and television before you gave her the part. Did you see her play the sexy nun on “Desperate Housewives?”
BG: No, I didn’t.
DP: I don’t think she did either because she claims not to have a television.
BG: I believe that because while we were working together she’d hear stories about me and go, “What is this about your setting a fire on the set of the “Tonight Show?’” She would hear all kinds of things about what I’d done on television and she’d say, “How can that be true? Bob is so quiet and nice.” When Melinda came in and auditioned, that was the first time I felt, “Maybe this will be okay, maybe this will work.” Then I got freaked out because I worried a family member would tell her not to do the movie or that an agent would get to her.
DP: Was she queasy about the premise when she auditioned for the film?
BG: Not at all. I don’t want to bum out anyone who auditioned, but what happened was that people would come in and for some reason—and maybe it was because I was attached—they’d play it for the wrong kind of laughs. Melinda came in and made it really realistic. I’m so happy she did the movie. If someone didn’t do as well as she did as Amy, I know the movie would never have gotten to Sundance and never would have gotten released. I really credit her a lot for the small amount of success we’ve already had with the movie.
DP: In the press notes, you give a lot of credit to Melinda and the rest of your cast and your cinematographer Ian Takahashi for the tone of the film. Are you giving yourself enough credit? Because when you started writing the script, didn’t you know that there would be a balance between comic and somewhat serious moments?
BG: The challenge when I wrote this was keeping things small by not adding comedic elements that didn’t seem realistic just to get a laugh. It would have been easy to add slapstick and shock elements, but I didn’t do it. That was different for me.
DP: That‘s like when Woody Allen made “Annie Hall” and forced himself to cut funny stuff that didn’t fit.
BG: I didn’t know that, but, yeah, I had to fight the impulse to deliver punch lines all the time and make the humor too broad. The goal was to make a movie with an outrageous subject but what she did, her secret, is kind of a McGuffin that is there all the time causing discomfort but is rarely a source for comedy.
DP: Right, the discomfort everyone feels is where much of the humor and the darker stuff comes from instead. When you first thought about writing the script did you think you wanted to make a movie in which a girl has a secret of sucking off a dog? Or did you first come up with the premise that a girl has any extreme sexual secret and then try to come up with the worst secret imaginable?
BG: It was more like the second case. I think I decided on the dog idea for the simple reason it wouldn’t involve another human being. Because then there would have been this other character that I would have had to deal with, if you know what I mean. Sooner or later he or she would have to show up. I just wanted the secret to be about Amy, no one else.
Melinda Page Hamilton
DP: Amy has a line at the beginning of the film that I assume you thought was needed by viewers: “I’m not into bestiality in any way.”
BG: Right. I wanted it clear that she’s not into dogs despite her one act. What she did was just a lapse of judgment. It’s like when you know something is hot and touch it anyway. You get burned and then you wonder, “Why did I do that?” You don’t know the reason. She is alone and maybe she’s lonely, but I believe it’s still just curiosity that causes her to suck the dog. I certainly do things when I’m all alone that I wouldn’t do or even discuss in front of other people.
DP: She’s a school teacher of young kids. Is that your way of showing that despite being someone who once committed an act society would frown upon, she’s an ideal teacher?
BG: No, I wasn’t making any statement. I made her a teacher because I wanted her to be altruistic.
DP: Amy is altruistic, pretty, loyal, and nonjudgmental, and even has a healthy sexuality. She seems like the PERFECT girlfriend or wife. So, is what she did with the dog a “flaw?”
BG: I think it’s almost just human nature to do one thing in your life that everyone else would be shocked by. Not necessarily bestiality, but something.
DP: I think she sees it as a lapse in judgment, as you call it, nothing more. She needs people to accept what she did, not forgive it. Maybe she regrets doing it, kind of, and perhaps thinks of it her as her one “flaw” or mild trespass, but I don’t think she ever condemns herself for doing it, does she?.
BG: No, and that was important. She is not wrapped in emotional guilt because she thinks she did anything wrong. It’s more like she thinks she did something really dumb and can’t explain why she did it to herself or anyone else. Unfortunately, in our society we’re pressured to be completely honest with the person we’re in a serious relationship with. Which is ridiculous.
DP: I mentioned the word “flaw” because I think your film is a lot about the idea of: What is perfection and what is a flaw? I think of the scene where Ed and Amy are being intimate and he worries about his stomach. He does have that “flaw,” and he’s older, too, which might be another “flaw,” yet we see that he’s still “perfect: for her. And with Amy, too—she might have done what some people perceive as a flaw, yet still be perfect.
BG: I didn’t realize it before, but I think that’s true about the film. Wow. In a weird way, it’s about accepting our “flaws.” It took you to spell it out to me two years later. It’s kind of funny I didn’t think about that as a theme because the various people I had in my head when I was writing the script were hung up with their “flaws.” So it’s funny you say this.
DP: Simply, human beings are flawed. But I think the film says that doesn’t keep them from being perfect. Ed is so lucky to get Amy when John exiles her. And I think one of the keys to the film is that by not accepting what’s done, John risks losing out on who you must believe is the best girl in the world.
BG: I think he’s ruining his life. He is totally blowing it. I also think that she is possibly sabotaging their relationship subconsciously by telling him her secret. Maybe deep down she knows that he’s not the right guy for her. I don’t know if that works for anyone else but that was way back in my head.
DP: At first I thought that what she says to John, that she sucked off a dog in college, is the worst thing a girl could say to a guy. But is it? If she would say, “I had sex with a foreign terrorist” or “I sucked off a two-headed midget,” John probably would have, in time, the same reaction. He’s going to be unreasonably jealous no matter who or what she had sex with, don’t you think?
BG: The dog may be the worst scenario, but in all cases he is going to be jealous. From my personal experience, women seem to deal with past lovers better than men do. It seems men are jealous of who you’ve been with and, I think, women are jealous of who you might be with. If your eyes are wandering as you’re walking together on the street, you’re going to get a rolling pin to the head when you get home.
DP: It’s interesting that Amy doesn’t have any problem with John’s darkest secret.
BG: Yeah, and his secret is…really gross.
DP: She barely reacts and accepts it as an innocent one-time thing. But if she had said the same thing to John—that she had done that exact thing he did with a bunch of guys—how would he have reacted?
BG: If he hadn’t done it himself, he probably would have had the same problem as with the dog confession.
DP: Which leads to the conclusion, which I guess the film agrees with, that women shouldn’t tell their boyfriends or husbands anything about their sexual pasts.
BG: I think a woman could probably tell a mature guy… No?
DP: I don’t think you think so either because in your film Amy has learned her lesson and refuses to tell her new boyfriend Ed, who is a mature guy, even though he asks.
BG: That’s true. I just know me. I know the older I get that stuff bothers me less. Then again, I’m dating older women now and I can’t get as jealous. They have more baggage because forty-year-old virgins don’t really exist.
DP: You say you’re dating. Do you ask these women their secrets, or do you know better?
BG: No, I would never get into that--because as a young man I would. It would happen while joking around or as pillow talk, as it comes out in the film. Although I may have acted pleasant or not phased by any of those kernels of information I got, they were all being Rollerdexed.
DP: And that is the equivalent of John becoming jealous about a potentially more exciting canine lover and finally wondering how sex was for her with the dog.
BG: Sure. That does happen in the movie. I thought it probably would come around to John wanting to see her do it again.
DP: After John’s hostile reaction, Amy thinks it’s wise not to tell Ed. Do you think he could have handled it? I don’t think so.
BG: I don’t think he could have. She’s right. I think she’s learning unconditional love with Ed. And without sounding too pretentious, I’d say her sacrifice is actually keeping her mouth shut and not feeling that relief you get when you tell someone a big secret.
DP: “Sleeping Dogs Lie” isn’t made by a neurotic person like Amy’s brother, but by someone as clear-headed as Ed. So: Were you at all relating to Ed as your stand-in?
BG: Yeah. I think that made it harder on Colby French, who played the part. On occasion, he would say something and I’d say, “No, you’d say it more like this.” I’d never done that before with a character. He finally said, “I’m playing you, aren’t I?” And I admitted he was.
DP: Ed might have unconditional love for Amy, but she’s reluctant to confirm this by telling him her secret. So what’s interesting is that the person who comes through, unexpectedly, is her father. By finally accepting what she did, he the one who it turns out to have unconditional love.
BG: That’s true, though her mother comes around, too. Both parents are shocked but do love her unconditionally. Geoff Pierson does such a great job as her father. He is the only actor in the movie that I actually had in mind when I was writing the script. There are others who are friends, but he’s the only one who I really saw saying a character’s lines, even though he’s not like the father at all. I really love working with him and if I keep making films I hope to cast him again.
DP: What about Amy’s line, “I need you to love me, daddy.” It is a great tear-making line, showing her heartbreak about being rejected by everyone, and it’s my guess that you had a hard time writing it.
BG: That’s true. I really wondered about it. I went back and forth on it. But we ended up shooting it and that’s a scene I’m really happy with.
DP: Because of such screen moments, I’m sure people have told you or written that the film is sweet, which--because you directed it--surprised them.
BG: People do say it’s sweet and I guess I’m not totally comfortable with that. I was really nervous about making a movie that could be perceived as sweet. I think that’s why it’s based in offensive subject matter. I think I was afraid of people saying it’s sweet.
DP: So you want viewers to go through the offensive stuff before they reach the sweetness. And is it only those people who do this that get your permission to call it sweet?
BG: That’s right!