In an early montage in “Call Me Lucky,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary that will play at Cinetopia, people attempt to describe the film’s subject, comedian and activist Barry Crimmins. “He’s like Noam Chomsky…and Bluto,” says one.
“Call Me Lucky” immediately grabs you by the throat with footage of Crimmins’ stand-up, an act filled with rage that would incinerate late-period Carlin without even leaving an ash. But right around the time that the audience wonders what could possibly fuel the fire, Goldthwait takes us into the wild, bruised and beautiful heart of Barry Crimmins, a survivor of horrific child abuse who has taken on AOL on the senate floor, and whose two wishes are to overthrow the US government and stop the Catholic Church. In between festival screenings, Goldthwait spoke with Current about the movie.
What prompted you to make the movie?
Bobcat Goldthwait: I’ve known Barry since I was 16. I knew the story of him taking on AOL on the floor of the senate [over child porn that the company was turning a blind eye to]. It was so powerful and Frank Capra-esque. It’s such a good story. And I saw the changes in Barry. I saw him go through all this pain to become someone who was doing this great work.
Originally, I was gonna make a movie about Barry that was a narrative. I tried to write a screenplay. But Robin Williams [Goldthwait’s best friend, also close to Crimmins] gave me the initial money to make the documentary. We started filming in February of 2014. That’s the whole origin of the movie and how it got going. I don’t really have a five-year plan. I write screenplays and make them when I find the people or have the money.
You are used to dealing with some very risky material, including “World’s Greatest Dad,” in which a father rebrands his obnoxious son, following the son’s accidental suicide, into a trouble sensitive teen. What are the difficulties inherent in the subjects you choose?
The big question for me is how do you balance the heaviness with laughs? And the other movies I made kind of helped me get ready to make this movie. The balance is something that really interests me. I think Barry’s a great man, and I set out to make this movie about my friend. But it’s even bigger than Barry’s story. I think it can help people, show them they’re not alone, and I’m seeing that in the responses that we get. It makes me glad that I cut the car chase.
Do you have documentary heroes? Has there been a particular documentary that you based this on?
That are certain documentaries that I do really like; “Brother’s Keeper” [by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky] is one. It’s funny that we’re talking and you’re based near Detroit, because in a weird way, this movie kind of reminds me of “Searching for Sugar Man,” the way Barry Crimmins is like this relatively unknown genius, similar to Sugar Man.
There’s a little foreshadowing, and we worked hard to weave in and out, and provide a hint that this wasn’t just going to be a laugh riot about a comedian you might or might not be familiar with.
I also wanted to be really careful that this wasn’t some weird sort of ego-surfing—you know, “I know this guy and you don’t.”
Was there a working title for the film before you settled on “Call Me Lucky”?
There was something very pretentious, like “Mr. Crimmins.” It’s funny; I’ve always had a soft spot for that clip of that guy in the McCarthy hearings who says, “Have you no decency, sir?” Every time I see that, I just love it so much, so I think that was kind of in the back of my head. But “Call Me Lucky” was completely unplanned—Barry said it at one point and we got it on film, even though he doesn’t remember it—and it just works.
Talk about revisiting the scene of the crime. How early did that occur in filming? Did you get resistance from Barry?
I knew I wanted to go in there and shoot it, at least so that when Barry brought it up you would see those shots. But I also knew I never wanted to do reenactments. He actually went into shock when he finally went in the basement. He told me, “I have no recollection of what I said in the basement.” So I told him I was gonna play “Yaketty Sax” over that part.
I know sometimes people are a little shocked at the humor we have with each other. But these are coping mechanisms. We need relief. Going to film festivals is really an emotional thing for us, and especially for Barry. Adult men will disclose their own experiences to us after the screenings. You have to have your arms open for that. I mean, we made the movie, and to not be open to people’s responses would be irresponsible.
One of the things that interesting to me is that the movie becomes much richer on a second viewing; you understand the anger when you watch it a second time.
His anger and passion are just part of him. When I met him, he had this rage in him. But one on one, he doesn’t rage at individuals. He’s very, very kind. Still, he was tough. As a kid, [in the movie, BG talks about meeting Crimmins as a teenager] I was nervous around him. But he was also the first adult who didn’t treat me as a kid, or think I was an idiot. He exposed me to counterculture not as a punchline, but as a way of saying, hey, wise up.
We probably won’t succeed in overthrowing either the government or the Catholic church, per Barry’s wishes. What are the smaller goals that people can accomplish that would be the big wins for this movie?
If the movie achieves anything, I hope it’s one more piece of the puzzle that makes it ok for victims to feel that they’re not alone. There shouldn’t be any shame involved. I would be happy if there were more documentaries discussing other people or other stories, that take the power away from the perpetrators.
Talk about your team.
Bradley Stonesifer, the dp [director of photography], did an amazing job. We kept the crew small crew, and the movie looks really good—I really love the way it looks—and he was pushing for that. He was also a producer and was involved in the whole movie. I collaborate with folks who make the movie more than just a job, and that’s how Bradley is. He wasn’t just concerned with how the movie looked, he also contributed as far as who we should be talking to, which cities should we be in.
Jeff Striker, the editor, went through so much footage; he was amazing as well. And in addition to the interviews we shot, there was a ton of archival footage.
One of the most exciting things was finding that footage of Barry testifying on the Senate floor. This was before CSpan, and we were told the footage didn’t exist. When we finally found it, it was such a huge deal. So I thought about animating it, not in a comedic way. Then our researchers found out that, at that point in time, hearings actually were filmed for the government’s purposes. So when we got that footage, there were angels singing, the whole scene was backlit. It was incredible.
Early in the movie, you interview Barry’s sister Mary Jo, who’s visibly very wary about speaking with you.
Unlike some of the survivors in the movie—they’ve discussed the abuse, one of the most horrendous topics you can bring up—Mary Jo hadn’t told her story to many people. My daughter wanted me to trim it out of the movie. She said, “Dad, you look like an asshole.” But I thought Mary Jo’s presence was really important.
It’s not the only argument I had; Barry and I had one about going in the basement [where the abuse took place]. He said, if you go in the house, I’m not gonna not go in the basement. But he did. You know, it’s going through the problem and not around it, which he talks about in the movie, and then he says this amazing thing, that the place is “not a shrine to demons.”
Were there any surprises for you in the filming?
No, because I know the man. He’s capable of great things. He’s an amazing example. He’s interested in solutions to this problem.
Are the screenings and the Q and A sessions difficult?
There’s an emotional toll. I hear people talk about fiction, how emotionally draining it was to play this character, and I roll my eyes. No matter what, it’s still a work of fiction. When you make a movie about real people, one of your closest friends, one that affects other people—I’m not someone who’s suffered like that. I can’t even wrap my brain around it. But Barry is completely committed to disclosing what happened to him. I mean, it doesn’t take long to make Barry want to punch someone in the head, but if you want to get there quick, use the word “confess.” There’s no confession here. This is disclosing.
You appear in the movie as an interview subject. Is it weird filming yourself?
I knew that I should be in it, and that I should interview myself, which is very weird. But I was part of Barry’s story, although I was in it less. I feel like I hit the right balance. There are guys, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and they’re great at being in their own movies. But honestly, they’ve spawned a lot of embarrassing documentaries with this “it’s all about me” protagonist.
You’re so different on camera in the movies than your acting persona. Do you get a lot of people who have a hard time connecting you the filmmaker with Bobcat Goldthwaite, the guy from “Police Academy”?
Oh yeah, I get that all the time. But I like being behind the scenes much more than being in front of the camera. I love my life: telling stories, making movies, working on other people’s TV shows. There are people who aren’t aware of what I’ve been doing behind the scenes, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ll always be happy I made this movie and “Sleeping Dogs,” and “World’s Greatest Dad.”
How did know this was the right time to make “Call Me Lucky”?
I listened to Barry’s interview on Mark Maron’s podcast, and when I heard it, I knew; he’s ready, he can talk about it, and it seems like he’s at a place where it’s not as painful.
How do you feel about introducing Barry Crimmins to so many people who might otherwise never hear of him?
It’s a double edged sword; this movie exposes Barry to new audiences, to people who will really like him, and also to more people needing help. Barry’s always the first person to help anyway. There’s so much stuff he does anonymously, that has nothing to do with his own story.
There’s a quote in the movie that friendship is Barry’s drug of choice, and the range of his friends—everyone from Margaret Cho and Steven Wright to guys he knew from his childhood—is pretty amazing.
Those four guys in the garage who’d known Barry from way back—they’re like the live action “King of the Hill.” There’s a real beauty in them. They get laughs just from busting each other’s balls. The people who aren’t famous, they’re so key to the movie. Without them, it would have been too glossy.
You mentioned Frank Capra as an inspiration.
All Capra movies and Preston Sturges, too; I love “All Hail the Conquering Hero.” Capra gets accused of being corny. My movies may be corny, too. My movies are very life-affirming. For me, the biggest challenge is to present tough things to people and not end them on a pessimistic note. People think of happy endings as a sellout, but I think that’s because we watch so many studio movies where the happy ending is tacked on to something that doesn’t work, and so you feel cheated at the end. But someone not just surviving but helping as many people as he can is genuine, it’s really positive.
Are you excited about visiting Ann Arbor for Cinetopia?
Actually, I have an Ann Arbor story. I played there a long time ago, and this kid, Kurt Cobain, was playing at—what is that club, the Brass Tack?
The Blind Pig?
Yeah, that must have been it. And this was before Nirvana got famous, like when they were right on the cusp, and Kurt interviewed me at the college radio station.
As far as Cinetopia goes, film festivals are emotionally draining. But I wouldn’t miss them for the world. There are certain places that are mostly about the parties, but there are film festivals where it’s people who love movies coming out to watch movies, people from all walks of life. I get to meet them, I get to meet other filmmakers. For me as a guy who runs into all these Starbelly Sneetches a lot of the time, I love just meeting people who had a great experience with the movie.
I’ll be thrilled the more people know about Barry. Of course, before long, I’ll probably be on to a talking duck movie.
To see the movie at Cinetopia, visit cinetopiafestival.org for complete scheduling information. As of this writing, Goldthwait and Crimmins are scheduled to attend a screening and be on hand for Q and A afterward.