Christian Bale: Cinema's extremist
By Stephen Applebaum
This June, Christian Bale swoops into cinemas as the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. But little over a year ago, he wondered if he even had a career. "I wasn't in demand," he recalls, frankly. His last memorable role had been as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, way back in 2000. Since then, he'd been filling his CV with mediocre fare that included Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Shaft, Reign of Fire and Equilibrium.
Personally disappointed by some of his recent work, he was trying to raise his game. But he needed the right material and didn't like anything he was being offered. Though time was not on his side, he was determined to hang on. "I needed money because I had just bought a house, but I just kept saying, 'I really can't do another movie that I know is not going to turn out the way I want it to, and that I have to make a lot of concessions in my head for.'"
Bale attributes some of his mistakes to his risk-taking approach to work. However, not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a risk. While American Psycho was presented to him as one, he says he never saw it that way; same with Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's esoteric take on the Seventies British glam rock scene. "These are films I love," he enthuses. "For me, there's a bigger risk trying Batman.Ultimately, the big point was that Chris Nolan [ Memento], who you would not expect to be doing that kind of movie, was going to direct it, which is exactly what I was looking for, because you want to do something totally different from the other Batman movies."
It was not the man in the rubber batsuit that rescued Bale, though, but a skinny lathe operator named Trevor Reznik, and a little existential thriller called The Machinist. When he read Scott Kosar's script, Bale felt he had finally found something he could throw himself into, body and soul. Actually, he would throw a lot of his body out, shedding an incredible 63lb in order to transform his 6ft 2in frame into the living skeleton that Reznik, the film's haunted protagonist, has become after suffering insomnia for a year. The film arrived not a moment too soon.
"I had spent weeks staring at the wall in my house out of depression because of things that had gone wrong and the choices I had made," remembers Bale. "When I read The Machinist, I just went, 'Wow! This is perfect.' I was having dreams about the character and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt like this one was going to save my arse, and pull me out of the depressed state I had got into."
The idea of losing weight did not bother him - he'd gone through extreme physical transformations before. He pumped iron for weeks and went on a special diet to achieve Bateman's sculpted look, and has beefed up again for Batman. He thought the pain of becoming Reznik might even be good for him. "To me, it was a little bit of penance for bad movies I've made in the past," he laughs. "It was like, 'All right, I'll discipline myself and put myself through this miserable time.'"
Bale's reference for what he wanted Reznik to look like was a somewhat morbid photograph of the country singer Hank Williams, taken when he was 29 but he looked 50, says the 31-year-old Welshman. "It was a photograph of him getting released from jail just a few months before he died. He's shirtless and he looks a wreck, absolutely emaciated. So I stuck that on the front of the script to be my image of what Trevor should be, and then just kept going and going and trying to reach that."
He started losing weight under the supervision of a nutritionist, but when he got down to the weight she had set, he was still not satisfied. So he lost another 20lb. By the time he arrived on set in Barcelona, he was surviving on an apple and a café latte a day. He looks like a walking cadaver in the film; when he bends towards a sink, shirtless, you fear his vertebrae will tear through his paper-thin flesh. Bale's wife was worried.
"First of all, think of the tolerance she must have had just to have her husband walking around and coming out of the shower looking like that," says Bale. "It's not pretty. I did wake up a couple of times with her very close, putting a mirror under my nose to check if I was still breathing."
Brad Anderson, the director of The Machinist, also remembers a couple of occasions when he wondered if his star had gone too far. "I looked over at him and he was sitting on a chair, holding an apple with one bite out of it, and staring vacantly into space. He looked so withdrawn it kind of occurred to me, like, 'Man, is he going to make it?'"
On the positive side, Bale says he achieved a Zen-like calm; on the negative, the days seemed endless without meals to break them up. Moreover, when he started to put the weight back on, he discovered that he had the cholesterol level of an 80-year-old man (a strict diet and exercise has now put that right). So what drove him to put his long-term health on the line for a film, even one he felt passionately about? "I had the arrogance of thinking, 'You know what? I'm young. It ain't going to happen to me. I can build myself back up. I'll be fine.' But," he admits, "I would be worried if I was to do it again."
Bale stuck to his guns in Batman, too. "I decided in the screen test, 'I'm going to do it exactly how I want to do it and if they don't like that, I don't want to do the movie anyway,'" he says. He was concerned that, in previous films in the Warner franchise, the villains were always more interesting than Batman, whereas it should have been the other way round.
"Is he nuts?" asks Bale. "What's going on with this man who thinks he can run around in a batsuit in the middle of the night? It's a funny, bizarre place you have to get to in your head for that to become acceptable to an individual. Of course, we're looking at fantasy. But Chris and I really wanted to attempt to answer these fantastical questions with as realistic a motivation as possible."
As any Batman fan will know, the event that tips Bruce Wayne over the edge is the murder of his parents. This had resonance for Bale, whose own father, the activist David Bale, died of brain lymphoma, aged just 62, in December 2003. However, he denies reports that he dedicated his performance in Batman to his late father. Nor did he draw on his own experience to enter Wayne's emotional and psychological space.
Breaking eye contact for the first time during our interview, and clearly having difficulty with the subject, Bale says: "I don't like to actively and specifically use my own life for scenes in movies, certainly when it comes to something as life-changing as my father's death." I begin to wish I hadn't asked the question. "For me, it's an abuse of our time together, as he was ill and as he was slowly fading. Those moments were just too special and a movie cannot compare to that for me, so I don't like to use that, ever.
"I was having a difficult time of knowing if I was actually going to be capable of making a movie because it obviously was so present in my mind that the film paled into insignificance. I just ceased to care, whereas normally I care intensely. I did manage to come around to that and to immerse myself in it. But I think that you cannot help but have everything in your life affect every choice you're making. Did I consciously think of that? No. I couldn't have done that and felt good about myself."
It will be interesting to see how Bale comes out the other side of the whole Batman experience. Following his still impressive debut 17 years ago in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, Bale found the press attention oppressive, and would frequently find excuses to duck out of interviews. Instead of basking in the limelight, he retreated from it. This perhaps explains why he has avoided the crash-and-burn trajectory of so many child stars. Even now, he admits that he is no fonder of the attention. How ready is he for the hoop-la that will inevitably surround the release of Batman Begins?
"Well, I don't know if this is naive, but I feel that the movie can kind of do it by itself. Because of the size of the film, my hope is that I won't have to put myself everywhere and become some sort of soulless, empty being by the end of it. Frankly, I also just get bored of seeing people who are around too often. And I certainly get bored of seeing myself if I'm around too much. But I have to wait and see exactly what changes may occur. Who the hell knows? I may detest it and run a mile, or maybe I will be able to deal with it."
Whatever happens, you can be sure that we will be seeing a lot more of Bale in the near future, on cinema screens at least. He is back in demand, and has just finished filming The New World, for Terrence Malick, after which he went straight on to the set of Harsh Times, a gritty, low-budget, urban drama directed by the Training Day screenwriter David Ayer.
After that, he says, "I'll be ready to sit back and take a bit of a break, because you start to feel yourself burning out after a while."
First published in The Independent, 2005
Columbine - a no go for Hollywood
Published at 12:00AM, January 18 2004
Hollywood won’t touch Columbine, but indie film-makers are finding unique ways to respond to the massacre, says Stephen Applebaum
Five years after the Columbine High School shooting, the subject of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’s murderous rampage remains virtually untouchable in Hollywood. Yet, despite the major studios’ reluctance to explore it, three Columbine-related films — Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Ben Coccio’s Zero Day and Paul F Ryan’s Home Room — did open in America last year.
Significantly, they were all independent features.
Hollywood’s problem is that, in the wake of the shooting in Littleton, Colorado, studio chiefs found themselves in the firing line from Congress. Politicians desperate for answers pointed the finger at the film industry and its role in marketing violence to children. After all, the 14-year-old gunman who killed three students at a school in West Paducah, Kentucky, had claimed that he was inspired by The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio shoots up his classroom; and the Columbine killers were practically addicted to violent films and video games like Doom, which they tailored to their fantasies.
Hollywood is now leery of anything involving children and guns, says Eli Roth, the director of last year’s horror hit Cabin Fever. “I wrote a script called High Noon High with a friend, and we basically wanted to make a film that would show the absurdity of kids bringing guns to school. It was set 100 years ago. But it went out around the time of Columbine, so nobody would touch it. I have since tried to resurrect the project, and I always get the same comment: ‘The subject is taboo.’”
Although there had been school shootings before Columbine, none shocked America in the same way, partly because of the scale of the event (15 died, including the shooters), and partly thanks to the live news coverage from outside the school on the day of the attack. Primarily, though, it was the location that made Americans sit up and take notice. “The event occurred in a middle-class, suburban context, whereas most had grown to assume that this, in America, was an urban problem, a problem with poor communities, and often a problem with young men of colour,” says Deborah
Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School of Public Health, co-author of the book Murder Is No Accident. “So it became the pivotal event that made it clear, even if people were ignoring it, that this was a bigger issue.”
Van Sant and Coccio knew immediately that they wanted to make films exploring what had happened at Columbine. Ryan was a little more hesitant. He was already working on a script about a hostage situation in a suburban high school, in reaction to shootings in Paducah and Jonesboro, Arkansas. After Columbine, he no longer felt it did justice to the subject. Nor could he imagine trying to move forward with a movie about a shooting in the immediate fallout. He was, more-over, made queasy by the revelation that Harris and Klebold had made tapes in which they boasted about how their action would inspire film-makers.
“I thought, ‘F*** you. I’m not going to tell your story. You don’t even have a story that’s worth telling,’” recalls Ryan. “That’s why Home Room, in a large degree, changed from being a story about the shooters to being one about two survivors. The shooter in Home Room isn’t even given a name, and he is completely absent from the whole story.”
While Ryan says it was easy for him to raise the money to make his film from independent backers, Van Sant, despite his standing in the industry, struggled to find someone who would support his project, which he wanted to do for television. “There’s so much journalistic coverage with an event like that, but I think there are other types of treatments that could also address the issue, and not so much in an entertaining way, but in an informational way,” he says. “People tend to consider any movie that’s not a documentary an entertainment. That’s the reason I wanted to do it, because of that thing in people’s heads. So I wanted to make a television movie in the sense of a CBS, NBC or ABC television movie, because that is the mainstream forum where the journalistic articles are as well.”
Unfortunately for Van Sant, at the same time as he was pitching his idea, studio chiefs were flying to Washington in the fear that there would be actions against television violence. It was a while before HBO, the risk-taking cable channel, finally agreed to do something on the subject, and then it was a different movie from the straight re-creation Van Sant had initially envisioned. Instead, Elephant is a languid immersion in the quotidian details of high- school life on the day of a massacre. Inspired by playing Tomb Raider, which he encountered after learning computer games supposedly influenced the Columbine killers, and by watching the work of experimental European film-makers such as Bela Tarr, Van Sant shoots in long, flowing takes, replaying the same moments from different characters’ perspectives. The result is like a waking dream that gradually becomes a nightmare.
Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. However, its success proved highly controversial, with some (mostly American) critics arguing the film was exploitative because it failed to explain the massacre. Actually, the clues are there. It is just that Van Sant leaves it up to us to decide what impact an environment containing drugs, violent computer games, television violence (represented by a documentary about Nazis), bullying, an impersonal school setting, access to guns and so on might have on children at a time when they are arguably at their most vulnerable.
“It’s the style of the film to have the conclusions emerge from the audience, collectively,” explains Van Sant. “It’s like a group mourning, or a group investigation.”
Elephant is not an attempt to “pinpoint why these particular kids did this particular thing, because then I would be leaving out all the other wicked things that go on in the world. It’s really about why violence happens”.
He partly blames his own generation for tragedies such as Columbine, although he says he may change his mind if and when the shooters’ tapes are released. “When I went to high school it was the late 1960s, and conformity was suspect, at least in my circle. People battled against it. But those same people, the hippie generation, for some reason became ultraconservative when they grew up. Now they drive sports utility vehicles and they want children to succeed beyond all expectations. They make their children feel that anybody who doesn’t exist like they exist is somehow cancerous — to the point that they’d probably be proud of their children if they picked on classmates who are ‘losers’.”
Coccio, who funded Zero Day with credit cards and loans and, like Van Sant, employed non-professional actors, says he does not have any answers either. “As a film-maker I get inspired by things I haven’t made up my mind on yet. I have that luxury because I am an independent film-maker, and I definitely wasn’t answering to anyone making this film. I just went off and did it.”
Shot in the form of a video diary by two friends as they plan a school shooting, Zero Day creates a compelling feeling of intimacy with its subjects, Andre and Cal, who address us both as confidants and sometimes, chillingly, as potential victims. We watch them with their families, who are blissfully ignorant of the small arsenal, including guns and bombs, their sons are amassing. We think we know the boys, but when we watch them in the final school- massacre scene through the dispassionate lens of a CCTV camera, the disturbing realisation dawns that, like their families and friends, we do not know them at all.
Zero Day, the most subversive of the three films — and, given the amount of apparently accurate detail about making bombs and reconfiguring guns in it, also the most worrying — Coccio agrees, could never have been made in Hollywood. “Not before. Not after Columbine.”
“There’s only one thing that will change their minds,” suggests Roth about the big studios, “and that’s the box office. A $100m box office for Elephant will send a message that it’s okay to talk about these subjects, because people will pay money to hear what the film-makers have to say about it. But the reality is that these films are very small releases, and with so many movies crowding the multiplexes, it’s a real long shot for any of them to break out.”
World's Greatest Dad is the second film you've had at Sundance. How did it feel going there again?
"Oh I don't take it for granted. I wish I could actually give a lecture to people who get movies into Sundance, because everybody thinks they're going to be the next Tarantino and the reality is, as a film-maker, you're just lucky to get your film shown."
Does being a film-maker feel like a fresh start or is there still a connection with the stand-up work?
"You know, I retired from acting, and I try to retire from stand-up but it's like Godfather III, I keep getting drawn back in. I go out and do stand-up so I can pay the bills so I can keep making small, indie kind of movies. But it's weird to be almost 50 and to get a second shot. I don't take that for granted either."
You started doing stand-up when you were 15 but you don't seem to have enjoyed it much. Why?
"When I first started doing stand up I was making fun of it. I would just read a Dear John letter on stage and cry and go, 'And you people want to hear jokes?' or gut fish and have entrails all over the stage. I then started getting work because I got on Letterman when I was 20, and had to become a comedian because people's expectations was to see a comedy show. I was no longer allowed to do my whole show from inside a box, and all these weird things I used to do. So I ended up becoming the very thing I was trying to parody originally.
"I think it's funny that I retired from comedy - well I never do, because I always to go out and do the alimony tour - but I retired from acting the same time people stopped hiring me, so it worked out really well. But getting behind the cameras, I didn't realise how happy I would be, you know? When I wanted to be a comedian, I was eight when I decided. But I think if people were held to the decisions they made at eight years old, there would be a lot more astronauts and firemen."
Why were you drawn to it at such an early age?
"When I was a boy I was home from school sick one day and I saw George Carlin on television. I asked my mother, 'What does he do to make a living?' and she said, 'That's what he does.' I thought, 'Wow, that's the greatest scam in the world.' So I was in."
In World's Greatest Dad, when Robin Wiilliams's character, Lance, gets what he wants, he deliberately saboutages it. Did you do that with your career when you set light to a sofa on Jay's Leno's show, and smashed up the set of the Arsenio Hall Show?
"Oh sure. But I don't see Lance as sabotaging it. Well he does saboutage it but he saboutages it for the right reasons. It's him being honest with himself and being able to say, 'Hey, man, I'm going to make a decision and I will probably be completely alone when I do it. And will I be okay with that? Am I strong enough?' His reward for that is obviously the end of the movie. But I think he saboutages in a healthy way, and I saboutaged in an unhealthy way."
But did you ever think in career terms or about the consequences?
"No, I never did. And I still try not to now that I have this new career. I'm developing with Ray Davis this movie based on The Kinks, and that wasn't, like, me sitting at home going, 'What is really popular now? All these kids' dancing musicals.' This is something I have wanted to do since I was 13. So being honest with myself is really paying off. The other side of it is, am I willing to rent instead of own? And the reality of it is, yeah, I am willing to rent instead of own. I've done all that other side of the Hollywood dream and I was so unhappy."
You do touch on this idea in World's Greatest Dad that when Lance achieves the notoriety he sought, he becomes even more isolated. Other people have told me that fame made them feel lonely and I wonder if that was your experience?
"Yeah, I feel that like Lance is - and it's done in a jokey way at the beginning of the movie - trying to connect with people for the wrong reasons. He's not trying to write to write, he's trying to write for the results instead of doing it for why you should create. Early on I stopped creating for the wrong reasons. If I did a persona that people were expecting, it could pay. And it paid well there for a while in the 80s."
Did that make you feel more alienated from who you were?
"Sure. Completely, yeah. I just became something I resented."
When did you decide to try and turn that around?
"About seven years ago. I changed everything in my life. I just downsized my whole life and asked my daughter if she was cool living in an apartment and she said, 'Yeah, let's do it', and only wrote what came out of me instead of what I thought might get made in Hollywood. That changed everything.
"But I thought I hated stand up and then recently when I was on the road I went, 'Oh no, clearly I just hated this persona.' So once I jetisoned that, I actually started having a little fun up there."
How does the audience react? Do they still want Zed from Police Academy?
"It depends what cities I'm in. There's plenty of cities where that is the expectation, but I couldn't do it anymore."
I read that you'd start out doing the Grover voice, as you call it, and then gradually drop it as the show went on.
"Yeah, that's what it used to be and now I just start off saying, 'This is how I talk and I'm sorry if you came to hear me scream for 45 minutes. That would be a dick in all of our asses.'"
You've said that if you could go back in time you'd tell yourself not to do the Police Academy films. Was it fun at the time though?
"You know what it is, really the first time I was in one it was exciting to be in a movie and see it and stuff. And I know that there's certain people that really have a fondness for that, and I don't mean to sour them, because they're not the same people that necessarily enjoy the movies I make. It's really weird because there's people that come to see my stand up that aren't aware of the movies I make, and vice versa. There's some people that think making arthouse movies for Sundance is a very lucrative profession and can't believe [I'd do stand up].
Which is the real you?
"Oh the movies. They're 100% me. Even when I'm being like interviewed on a radio show or a television show, that's not the real me. But I think if you really wanted to understand who I am as a person, if you watched the last two movies I made [Sleeping Dogs Lie, World's Greatest Dad] they'd give you a really good idea. And some people think that I'm a perverted, twisted guy, because of the last two movies, but, you know, that's not my goal. I'm not trying to shock people. I think when people hear what goes on in my movies they think they're like slob comedies or shock comedies, but they're not. That would be much more lucrative for me to pursue."
How has the internet and the shocking stuff online impacted on stand up?
"Well, as a stand up, it's like how are you going to shock the next group of people that grows up? How do you shock kids that were raised on Two Girls and One Cup?"
Have you ever watched that?
I've only seen the reaction videos.
"I wish my friends had told me. It's horrible. Why do people do that to each other? Now I've got this image in my head and I know that when Alzheimer's finally kicks in, that will be the only goddam thing left in my head."
It seems to me, though, that it's more subversive to put something like the idea of bestiality, as in Sleeping Dogs Lie, in an emotionally involving narrative with characters we care about.
"Yeah, well that's the thing to me. That's not a movie that's an exploration of bestility. That's a movie that's an exploration of honesty. Sometimes people say these are the inciting incidents. They're not. I don't know what film school language you'd use to describe these things ..."
They're almost like McGuffins.
"Yeah, it is the McGuffin. That's what it is. That's how I see it."
When you write a film you begin with the ending. So is World's Greatest Dad a conscious subversion of the message of Sleeping Dogs Lie, which ended with the idea that it's often best to lie in relationships?
"Yeah, it is. It was like, 'Okay, now I'm going to write the flipside of being honest.' Because I don't know what is the truth. When are we supposed to be honest and when are we not? I am obsessed with the lies that I tell myself to get through the day. Every time I pass somebody begging on the street and I don't give them money, I make up some lie: 'Oh well he was high, so I shouldn't have given him money.' It's all these lies we tell ourselves.
"I started pitching my wife another script idea and I go, 'You know, it's about those lies that we tell.' She goes, 'Well that's a fresh one. That's all you keep writing about.' But I guess everyone makes the same movie over and over again."
There's also the school aspect. Amy in Sleeping Dogs Lie and Lance in World's Greatest Dad are both teachers, though the latter film is set more within the school environment.
"It's funny and now I'm going to do Schoolboys in Disgrace [the Kinks film]. I tell yer, I think by the time eighth grade rolled around I was completely damaged. I think I'm still mad trying to figure out what the nuns did to me. It's time to move past it."
You went to a religious school?
"Yeah, I went to a Catholic school in central New York, where I grew up. It was all nuns. My friend Tom Kenney [voice of Spongebob Squarepants] said they were nuns that went to the convent on wrestling scholarships, because they were these big, Amazon-looking women."
So is that where your humour comes from? Is it rebellion?
"Sure. And the opression and the constant being beaten down. When you're a kid, you don't know the difference [between reality and lies]. You don't say, 'Hey, this is a work of fiction,' you just blurt out something. So I was always told I was a bad kid. It's good that I decided to go on stage and not rob banks."
Can you see yourself having gone the other way?
"If I hadn't channelled all my anger at that into some other field yeah, definitely."
You were pretty angry when you were 19, weren't you?
"Oh I've always been angry. You're talking to me and I seem pretty mellow, but I feel that I'm not angry anymore at showbusiness. Because when you're young and you're angry at showbusiness, what you're saying is, 'I should be more famous.' I look at myself and I think of myself as being very happy, because I just pursue these things that come up. My wife has a tattoo that says, 'Get greedy, get hurt.' I believe that.
"But it was work for me. I found it was very lucrative to be very angry. You know, to rip people a new asshole and crowds would cheer and stuff. But the toll it paid on me, I said: 'No, if this means I'm done, I want to walk away from it.'
I spoke to a director of very dark dramas and he said one reason he wouldn't do a comedy is because the comedy geniuses he had met were all dark, angry, scary people. Is there a darkness that accompanies comedy and was that what you were getting at with your directorial debut, Shakes the Clown, in which almost everyone seems angry and bitter?
"That was the idea behind Shakes. I was trying to make fun of comedians who are really humourless and angry. You know what's funny, the amount of anger in comedians. And then you see these guys on television and they're just friendly and they're universally accepted and loved. And then you spend a little time with them and you still don't see the anger, but you really scratch deep and all of a sudden you go, 'Holy shit you're angry!' I think people have been frightened of me over the years but I've never been quite sure why. Because the musical acts I was drawn to, I didn't think of them as being angry. I just thought of them as expressing themselves."
Talking of which you supported Nirvana on their last tour. How did the audience react to you?
"Well about every third show they liked me. And then the other two they hated me. And I would then make it worse. Getting laughs from 5000 people is a really awesome thing. But to have 5000 people hate you, that's really awesome. They go, 'How was Nirvana last night?' and they go, 'Oh, it was the greatest show. But this fucking comedian opened up for it and I want to punch that guy in the face.' I'm like, 'Wow, man. You're talking about me and you got to see Nirvana.'"
You knew Kurt Cobain. Did you see anything in him that would have suggested he'd end his life?
"Oh sure. Like people say, 'Why doesn't someone stop someone doing something like that?' But, you know, I made a few jokes with him that, in hindsight, you go, 'Wow, that was real dark'. But I truly believe that he died from - and this is just my own feelings - a chemical imbalance. He certainly, maybe, abused substances and all that stuff, but I think they didn't work for thim. I think he really was unbalanced. I think that was what killed him. Everybody can have all these other theories but, you know, I wasn't shocked when he died."
About the casting of Robin Williams: when you put him in a film called World's Greatest Dad, people are going to have certain expectations, aren't they?
"Yeah, well there's a dad right now at the screening who brought an eight or 10-year-old girl. I just introduced the movie and I said, 'You know, you might not want her to watch it.' He said, 'Oh, it'll be okay.' I'm like, 'Alright then ...'"
It's a double-edged thing because on the one hand the title makes it seem like it could seemingly sit happily on a shelf alongside Father's Day and Bicentennial Man and ...
"Sure it's World's Greatest Dad, stars Robin Williams, and is directed by the dude from Police Academy. That's a lot of hurdles to get to the audience that would appreciate this movie. But I didn't write the movie with Robin in mind. I had written it with another actor in mind [Philip Seymour Hoffman], and he [Williams] read the script hoping he could do a cameo to help me get the movie made, and then he asked to be the lead and that changed everything. I was really happy to have him, not only because he's such a good friend but because he's such an amazing actor. But I never thought in those terms of, will people be able to get past that? Because I see him much like myself, but I see him as two people: there's this brilliant comedian and there's this amazing actor. I just thought this would make great sense. Because I do think this is the first time he got to be funny in a movie and it didn't rely on him having to do all the lifting. He could be funny by being his stripped away persona."
The film touches on this idea of the pornification of teenage sexual desire and the infleunce of the internet. Is that something that concerns you? Larry Clark made a short film called Impaled and the boys he interviewed in it were not unlike Lance's son, Kyle.
"I haven't seen that but, you know, to me the villain in this movie is the lack of imagination. I think the instantaneous nature of the internet and Twitter and all this stuff is there's no thought behind anything, it's all reaction: I like this so I'm going to watch more of this. I see something I comment on it. But I never stop and go, 'Hm, you know what? Maybe I don't need to watch a horrible clip.' It's just mind-numbing. There's no creativity involved. I've spent a lot of time on the internet and it's like gambling in a casino. I spent three hours online, I got nothing done, and I was just waiting for three ducks to show up."
Did you research online porn and its effect?
"No, not at all. And then I made a reference to Doom, which, apparently, just showed how old I was. All the people on IMDB are like, 'Doom is an old game. I can't believe Bobcat Goldthwait could write Doom into his screenplay.'"
How personal are these films? You dedicated Sleeping Dogs Lie to your mother and you said the brother was based on your own older brother.
"Yeah and then I did a short. My brother passed away and I dedicated it to the same brother. They're all very, very personal to me. It started on Sleeping Dogs Lie, as kind of like a sick joke, when I said, 'For mom'. The more it sunk in I thought, 'This is the one she would've liked, even though it might seem shocking to people.' I know she would've liked that one. And the same thing here. My dad passed away before he got to see World's Greatest Dad. He was really sweet. He was like, 'You know, I think this is going to be the one.' These movies are extremely personal. Like I said, if you want to get an idea about me, this is what they are."
What about Shakes the Clown?
"No, Shakes is a very sarcastic movie."
"Very, very angry. I know there's a small world of people that really like that movie, but I just watched it the other night with a group of people who're fans of it and I wanted to say, 'It's not that good.' But I can't do that to them because they have actually memorised the dialogue. It's like that Saturday Night Live sketch with William Shatner at a Star Trek convention, and he just goes, 'Get a life!' A little bit of me, there's like people dressed up as their favourite clown, I want to go, 'What is this fucking monster I made?'"
It felt like a big leap from Shakes to Sleeping Dogs Lie.
"Yeah, but I would say Shakes was my student film. It's really where I learned, or started to think about, making a movie, and started to see if I could even do it."
As you say, Shakes has become a cult now. But when it was released critics trashed it.
"Oh it was loathed."
Was it tough having your film hated that way when you're putting yourself out there like that?
"It hurt, but it hurt then for the wrong reasons. I just wanted people to go see it and then it would make money. Now I'm someone who doesn't like these movies, it doesn't hurt as much. I'm not like Lance trying to connect with people; I don't know who I make these movies for. So when people do like them, that's really awesome. But I think I make these movies for myself first. Which sounds horrible, seeing that you use other people's money to do it."
Is it difficult to get the funding for films like this which are truthful and which do often take extreme subject matter to explore their themes? And is it getting harder?
"I don't know. The other one [Sleeping Dogs Lie] we shot in two weeks with a crew from Craigslist, and then I did another movie I worked on [Windy City Heat] and it was just on television, and I directed that but that's not like these movies that I write/direct. Once Robin came on board it was easy to get money, but not for the right reasons. So Sarah [my wife/producer] and I kind of held out until we found people that we respected and were going to let us make the movie we wanted to."
The other people would have asked for changes?
"Yeah, and I'm not really interested in that. It's all subjective: either you're in or you're not."
There is this idea of re-invention in World's Greatest Dad. Is it a reflection of your own experience, and maybe Robin's as well?
"Yeah, yeah, and again, you know, my wife had to clearly point out who these people [characters] were in my own life. I was like, 'Oh my God.' I mean I really was that dumb. 'Oh really? Oh my God, she's going to be so pissed when she sees this.' There's people even saying the exact things they said. There's a couple of lines like when the guy's talking about his son and he goes, 'His mother and I were supposed to make a baby together, we just weren't supposed to live together.' That's just this pompous, fucking asshole I know that said that for real, and I just thought, 'Wow, that's the dumbest fucking thing I ever heard.' So I put it in the script.'"
Do you think he'll recognise himself?
"Well he can go fuck himself. I hope he does. What are you going to say if you're sitting in a theatre and people are laughing at some asinine thing you said? Are you gonna say, 'He stole that line from me'?"
At the end of the movie, it's a happy ending for Lance – and everyone says it's upbeat - but what about the people like the football jock whose lives he's probably ruined by revealing the truth?
"Yeah, they're totally fucked up. That kid may go jump off a bridge at the end. And in spite of it, you've got to be willing to say, 'Am I going to be okay?'"
Is it ultimately a selfish act on Lance's part?
"You know, being honest with yourself is a selfish act but I don't think he's being cruel when he does it. That's the most scary thing to say to someone, you know, 'This is really who I am. I'm not waiting around to see if you're okay with that.' And maybe that's what my movies are."