„For a truly educational experience with culture“ – Interview with Crispin Glover
For those of you readers who think they DON’T know Crispin Glover, think again: Back to the Future? The dad of Michael J. Fox’s character, George McFly? Since then, Glover has been playing typically smaller, but, owed to his excentric performance, memorable parts in films such as Rivers‘ Edge or, more recently, Charlie’s Angels or Alice in Wonderland. But the reason why Glover is a case apart in Hollywood is less in his acting career than in the uses to which he puts the money he makes in mainstream or – as he prefers to call them – corporately funded and distributed films.
Glover chose to not appear in the sequels to „Back to the Future“. Instead, he sued the producers (including Steven Spielberg) when they used previously shot footage of him without paying him for the performance, and won. „Because of Glover’s lawsuit,“, according to Wikipedia, „there are now clauses in The Screen Actors Guild (TV/Film performer labor union) collective bargaining agreements to the effect that producers and actors are not able to do such things.“
In 2005, he debuted as a director with the surrealistic Film „What is it?“, in which most parts were played by people with Down syndrome. Glover’s films are fully self-funded, and you won’t find a digital copy of them available anywhere, be it legally or illegaly: If you want to catch a Crispin Glover movie, you’ll have to wait until he comes to your town with his films, books and Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show. His second directing work, „It’s fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“, was recently presented at the Viennese Slashfilm Festival, starring Steven C. Stewart, described on Wikipedia as a man „born with a severe case of cerebral palsy [who] had been confined to a nursing home for about ten years. The second film is a fantastical psycho-sexual re-telling of life from Stewart’s point of view.“ His films are not about people with disabilities, Glover insists, but about film making and taboo in contemporary culture.
Austrian film scholar and film critic Alexandra Seibel led the following interview with Glover via email prior to meeting him in Vienna. Luckily, the web is not confined by the space restrictions of traditional media, so here is the full interview.
Seibel: Mr. Glover, you have a house in Los Angeles, and you also have a chateau in Prague where you spend a lot of your time and where you keep your films. Prague is probably a rather unusual place for a Hollywood actor to take residence. What is it that attracts you particularly to Prague and Eastern Europe?
Glover: My great grandparents were German, Swedish, English and Czech. I visited all those four countries that I heritage from over the years. The place I felt like I looked like the people most was in Czech.
I always intended to at some point in my life purchase property in Europe. I was looking to buy property in the US to utilise for building sets and continue making my own films on my own property. I was speaking with a film producer I was working on a screenplay with in Prague who mentioned that he knew a Czech realtor that specialised in Czech chateaus that were going for a very good price. As soon as he mentioned this I knew it was something I would do. I came out and saw three chateaus that were for sale. The one I own fit all the practical needs for setting up my own place to build sets, plus it has fascinating historical and aesthetic qualities. I did not really realise until I was analysing all the details as I prepared to make an offer on the property that property taxes in the Czech Republic happen to be much lower than in the US and much of Europe, which is also a very helpful thing for me.
Seibel: Do you enjoy being away from Hollywood, and, if so, why?
Glover: There are certainly cultural and architectural aspects to Europe that I enjoy. I don’t really know many people here so I can tend to get isolated. I have been here a lot in the past six years because I have been converting the former horse stables of the chateau into a shooting stage and refurbishing the chateau so I can continue my productions here. This is the main reason I have been spending much time here. It is of course good to have my second home here as I continue to expand touring in Europe as well.
Seibel: In Vienna at the Slash Filmfestival, you show your second film „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“. You tour with your films and you only want them to be shown to audiences when you are there yourself and can take questions after the screening. Why?
Glover: The live aspect of the shows are not to be underestimated. This is a large part of how I bring audiences into the theater and a majority of how I recoup is by what is charged for the live show and what I make from selling the books after the shows.
For “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show” I perform a one hour dramatic narration of eight different books I have made over the years. The books are taken from old books from the 1800’s that have been changed into different books from what they originally were. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs.
I started making my books in 1983 for my own enjoyment without the concept of publishing them. I had always written and drawn and the books came as an accidental outgrowth of that. I was in an acting class in 1982 and down the block was an art gallery that had a book store upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800’s and someone had put their art work inside the binding. I thought this was a good idea and set out to do the same thing.
I worked a lot with India ink at the time and was using the India ink on the original pages to make various art. I had always liked words in art and left some of the words on one of the pages. I did this again a few pages later and then when I turned the pages I noticed that a story started to naturally form and so I continued with this. When I was finished with the book I was pleased with the results and kept making more of them. I made most of the books in the 80’s and very early 90’s. Some of the books utilize text from the binding it was taken from and some of them are basically completely original text. Sometimes I would find images that I was inspired to create stories for or sometimes it was the binding or sometimes it was portions of the texts that were interesting. Altogether, I made about twenty of them.
When I was editing my first feature film “What is it?”, there was a reminiscent quality to the way I worked with the books because as I was expanding the film into a feature from what was originally going to be a short, I was taking film material that I had shot for a different purpose originally and re-purposed it for a different idea and I was writing and shooting and ultimately editing at the same time. Somehow I was comfortable with this because of similar experiences with making my books.
When I first started publishing the books in 1988 people said I should have book readings. But the book are so heavily illustrated and they way the illustrations are used within the books they help to tell the story so the only way for the books to make sense was to have visually representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while but in 1993 I started performing what I used to call „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Side Show“. People get confused as to what that is so now I always let it be known that it is a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books that I have made over the years. The illustrations from the books are projected behind me as I perform the show. There is a second slide show now that has 7 books and it performed if I have a show with Part 1 of the “IT” trilogy and then on the subsequent night I will perform the second slide show and Part 2 of the “IT” trilogy.
The fact that I tour with the film helps the distribution element. I consider what I am doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers. Vaudeville was the main form of entertainment for most of the history of the US. It has only relatively recently stopped being the main source of entertainment, but that does not mean this live element mixed with other media is no longer viable. In fact it is apparent that it is sorely missed.
I definitely have been aware of the element of utilizing the fact that I am known from work in the corporate media I have done in the last 30 years or so. This is something I rely on for when I go on tour with my films. It lets me go to various places and have the local media cover the fact that I will be performing a one hour live dramatic narration of eight different books which are profusely illustrated and projected as I go through them, then show the film either „What is it?“ being 72 minutes or „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ being 74 minutes. Then having a Q and A and then a book signing. As I funded the films I knew that this is how I would recoup my investment even if it a slow process.
Volcanic Eruptions was a business I started in Los Angeles in 1988 as Crispin Hellion Glover doing business as Volcanic Eruptions. It was a name to use for my book publishing company. About a year later I had a record/CD come out with a corporation called Restless Records. About when I had sold the same amount of books as CD/records it was very clear to me that because I had published my own books that I had a far greater profit margin. It made me very suspicious of working with corporations as a business model. Financing/Producing my own films is based on the basic business model of my own publishing company. There are benefits and drawbacks about self distributing my own films. In this economy it seems like a touring with the live show and showing the films with a book signing is a very good basic safety net for recouping the monies I have invested in the films.
There are other beneficial aspects of touring with the shows other than monetary elements.
There are benefits that I am in control of the distribution and personally supervise the monetary intake of the films that I am touring with. I also control piracy in this way because digital copy of this film is stolen material and highly prosecutable. It is enjoyable to travel and visit places, meet people, perform the shows and have interaction with the audiences and discussions about the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to be under-estimated as a very important part of the show for for the audience. This also makes me much more personally grateful to the individuals who come to my shows as there is no corporate intermediary. The drawbacks are that a significant amount of time and energy [goes] to promote and travel and perform the shows. Also the amount of people seeing the films is much smaller than if I were to distribute the films in a more traditional sense.
The way I distribute my films is certainly not traditional in the contemporary sense of film distribution but perhaps is very traditional when looking further back at vaudeville era film distribution. If there are any filmmakers that are able to utilize aspects of what I am doing then that is good. It has taken many years to organically develop what I am doing now as far as my distribution goes.
For the live performance aspect of my shows I have been performing „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1“ since 1993. I started performing „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 2“ three years ago. „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1“ has stayed the exact same show since the first time I ever performed it. „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 2“ has taken a few years to develop and it is finally working extremely well. It is working well to the point that I think I am getting even better response to „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 2“ than „Part 1“ and I always have had excellent response with „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1“. Much of „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 2“ finally working very well was the addition of a book that was made specifically for the show.
Both „Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1“ and „2“ are now set shows that do not vary. That being said there is an element of my own energy that will play a part on how either show is performed from night to night. So there are relatively small energetic differentiations from myself and from the audience that to me make a bit of a difference, but to the audience I do not think make as much of a difference. The key is if the structure of the show itself works. Now both the shows work very well and I and the audience always enjoy them. Every once in a while there can be a technical problem that has to be dealt with and the audience actually always enjoys the aspect of “the show must go on!”
With “What is it?” in particular I feel is very important to have Q and A forum after the film, but both films are helped by being put into a certain context which happens with the Q and A forums.
Seibel: From what I know about your first film, „What is it?“ a lot of parts are played by people with down syndrome. What is your interest in working with them?
Glover: I am very careful to make it quite clear that „What is it?“ is not a film about Down’s Syndrome but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in film making. Specifically anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair looks up at the screen and thinks to their self “Is this right what I am watching? Is this wrong what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” -and that is the title of the film.
What is it that is taboo in the culture? What does it mean that taboo has been ubiquitously excised in this culture’s media? What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? It is a bad thing because when questions are not being asked because these kinds of questions are when people are having a truly educational experience. For the culture to not be able to ask questions leads towards a non educational experience and that is what is happening in this culture. This stupefies this culture and that is of course a bad thing. So „What is it?“ is a direct reaction to the contents [of] this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.
Seibel: The script of „It is fine! Everything is fine.“ – the film you present in Vienna – was written by Steven Stewart who also plays „Paul Baker“ in the film. Mr. Stewart suffers from cerebral palsy and – from what I know about „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ – he acts out his erotic fantasies as a womanizer and serial killer. Typically, handicapped people are portrayed as sensitive or benign. Were you interested in confronting these clichés with fantasies of erotic perversion and murder?
Glover: Steven C. Stewart wrote and is the main actor in part two of the trilogy titled „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ I put Steve into the cast of „What is it?“ because he had written this screenplay which I read in 1987. When I turned „What is it?“ from a short film into a feature I realized there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven C. Stewart’s screenplay dealt with.
Steve had been locked in a nursing home for about ten years when his mother died. He had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy and his speech was very difficult to understand. People that were caring for him in the nursing home would derisively call him an “M.R.” short for “Mental Retard”. This is not a nice thing to say to anyone, but Steve was of normal intelligence. When he did get out he wrote his screenplay. Although it is written in the genre of a U.S. 1970‘s TV murder mystery movie of the week detective thriller, truths of his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography.
It was also very important to Steve that he was playing the bad guy. He wrote about this issue and he wanted it to be understood that people with disabilities were people, and that all people including people with disabilities can have dark thoughts.
As I have stated, I put Steven C. Stewart into „What is it?“ when I turned „What is it?“ into a feature film. Originally „What is it?“ was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities that working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome [was a viable idea]. Steve had written his screenplay in in the late 1970’s. I read it in 1987 and as soon as I had read it I knew I had to produce the film. Steven C. Stewart died within a month after we finished shooting the film. Cerebral palsy is not generative but Steve was 62 when we shot the film. One of Steve’s lungs had collapsed because he had started choking on his own saliva and he got pneumonia.
I specifically started funding my own films with the money I make from the films I act in when Steven C. Stewart’s lung collapsed in the year 2000. This was around the same time that the first „Charlie’s Angels“ film was coming to me. I realized with the money I made from that film I could put straight into the Steven C. Stewart film. That is exactly what happened. I finished acting in „Charlie’s Angels“ and then went to Salt Lake City where Steven C. Stewart lived. I met with Steve and David Brothers with whom I co-directed the film. I went back to LA and acted in an lower budget film for about five weeks and David Brothers started building the sets. Then I went straight back to Salt Lake and we completed shooting the film within about six months in three separate smaller productions. Then Steve died within a month after we finished shooting.
I am relieved to have gotten this film finally completed because ever since I read the screenplay in 1987 I knew I had to produce the film and also produce it correctly. I would not have felt right about myself if I had not gotten Steve’s film made, I would have felt that I had done something wrong and that I had actually done a bad thing if I had not gotten it made. So I am greatly relieved to have completed it especially since I am very pleased with how well the film has turned out. We shot „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ while I was still completing „What is it?“ and this is partly why „What is it?“ took a long time to complete. I am very proud of the film as I am of „What is it?“. I feel „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ will probably be the best film I will have anything to do with in my entire career.
People who are interested in when I will be back should join up on the e-mail list at CrispinGlover.com as they will be emailed with information as to where I will be where with whatever film I tour with. It is by far the best way to know how to see the films.
After „Charlie’s Angels“ came out it did very well financially and was good for my acting career. I started getting better roles that also paid better and I could continue using that money to finance my films that I am so truly passionate about. I have been able to divorce myself from the content of the films that I act in and look at acting as a craft that I am helping other filmmakers to accomplish what it is that they want to do.
Usually filmmakers have hired me because there is something they have felt would be interesting to accomplish with using me in their film and usually I can try to do something interesting as an actor. If for some reason the director is not truly interested in doing something that I personally find interesting with the character then I can console myself that with the money I am making to be in their production I can help to fund my own films that I am so truly passionate about. Usually though I feel as though I am able to get something across as an actor that I feel good about. It has worked out well.
Seibel: Your first two films are part of a trilogy called “It”. Can you describe the main motifs and themes that inspire you in making these films?
Glover: I should not go into detail for „IT IS MINE“ yet and I will not shoot that film next. There are other projects outside of the trilogy that I will shoot next. I own property in the Czech Republic and am making a small soundstage out there to continue making my own films. The Czech Republic is another culture and another language and I need to build up to complex productions like „What is it?“ and „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ when filming there. „IT IS MINE“ is an even more complex project than those two films were so it will be a while yet for that production.
I would say at least a few years if not many more than that. We had to shoot „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ because of Steve’s health. „IT IS MINE“ was written much later than „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.“ and was not initially connected to Steven C. Stewart’s screenplay. It was written before „What is it?“. Originally „What is it?“ was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities that working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome was a viable idea.
When I edited the original short film it came in long and I realized it could be a feature with more work. „IT IS MINE“ is much more pointed than „What is it?“ and specifically has to do with things in my life. „It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE“ is Steven C. Stewart’s story and there is a very strong emotional catharsis with his character in the film and will be the best film in the trilogy. „IT IS MINE“ I am very much looking forward to making and will also feel quite different from the other two films, but it will be a while yet.
Seibel: On a more general level: Are you interested in breaking, or at least, testing taboos, and pushing narrative cinema to certain boundaries?
Glover: I prefer films that cause people to ask questions or have questions within the films. “What is it?” and “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” contain elements that would be considered taboo. It is not mandatory for every film that I will make to contain taboo. There are many ways of questions being asked or caused to be asked. I am a student of Hero’s Journey story structure and I aspire toward making films that contain good solid Hero’s Journey structure wether that pushed narrative cinema to its boundaries or not.
Seibel: Margit Carstensen stars in your film “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” She worked with Fassbinder, of course, and, more recently, with the German film- and theater director Christoph Schlingensief who passed away last summer. Schlingensief also worked with handicapped people. Were you aware of his work? Is someone like him (or Fassbinder) a reference point of your own filmmaking?
Glover: Margit Carstensen was fantastic to work with and she mentioned working with Schlingensief whose films I have not seen.
While I was working on „What is it?“ there were four film makers that I was quite consciously thinking about: Louis Buñuel, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Stanly Kubrick. Buñuel, I was thinking about his use of psychological free association and the deeper elements that can emanate from the psyche with this technique. With Herzog, „Fata Morgana“ and „Even Dwarfs Started Small“ had great influence for different reasons and I am proud to have asked him questions on the DVD commentary tracks for these two films. For Fassbinder, I was starting to watch his films towards the completion of editing and I was quite impressed by the in-depth illustrations of the cause and effect interactivity between the socio-economic-political and psychological aspects of the human condition.
Seibel: I understand that you greatly admire the work of Werner Herzog. In November, Klaus Kinski has his twentieth anniversary of his death. Do you feel that eccentric actors like him are not “possible” these days anymore? In other words: Is our culture today less “willing” to accept people who don’t go by the rules and, thus, are quickly labeled “freaks”
Glover: Something that is important to understand is that those who appear in corporately funded and distributed films and more importantly the content of corporately funded and distributed films is not determined by the populace of the culture, but by the corporate interests that are funding and distributing the films. If an actor willingly cheerleads the corporate interests that actor will be rewarded with money, media backup/publicity and consequently more work that sustains the corporate interests.
Around the time I started acting in films in 1982 there was a shift in the kinds of films that were being corporately funded and distributed.
The film industry I had thought I had stepped into was the spirit of when I was a teenager attending the various revival theaters that were so popular in Los Angeles in the 1980’s before home theater business competition forced most 35 mm venues to close. I did not realize at the time that I stepped into working as an actor that the kinds of films that were being funded and distributed had changed.
As soon as I got my driver’s license when I was 16 in 1980 I attended screenings at revival theaters that were quite popular in LA before VHS competition cleared many of them away. Many of these revival theaters no longer exist such as, one of my favorites, the beautiful Fox Venice with a wide cinemascope screen on Lincoln Blvd.
The films I saw that played in these venues tended to question culturally accepted truths with performances that underscored these concepts.
Films played such as: Ken Russel’s The Devils, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Chinatown, Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Casanova, John Cassavetes‘ A woman under the influence, Orson Wells’ F is for Fake and Citizen Kane, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Sunset Blvd, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living, Todd Browning’s Freaks, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Small and Fata Morgana. I was a regular attendee of David Lynch’s Eraserhead at midnight on Fridays at the Nuart.
I studied actors giving performances like: Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider, Timothy Carey in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, Charles Laughton in The Hunchaback of Notre Dame, Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Wise Blood, Peter Lorre in M, Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God.
These films and performances characterized the atmosphere of cinema and acting I believed I was stepping into as a young actor. By 1982, at age 18, I began to act in feature films. At this time I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our culture. I enthusiastically supported the idea of questioning our culture. To help support the idea, I also questioned the film industry’s and media’s messages. Sometimes I felt scorned and isolated; other times I felt accepted and admired. Then, at one point, in the midst of my career, I realized that the types of films the industry was financing and distributing had changed almost diametrically from the types of films I had watched when I was 18.
Now, I have put my artistic passions and questions into my own filmmaking with films like “What is it?“ and its sequel “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.”
Seibel: Looking at your acting career, you divide you work between mainstream films such as „Back to the future“ or, more recently, „Alice in Wonderland“ and smaller films and your own projects. Is it difficult for you to shift gears between mainstream and subculture?
Glover: I have been working professionally in the corporate media industry since 1977 when I was 13 years old. That is almost 35 years of learning how that works. It is very easy for me to step into that world as a professional actor even if I have questions about what much of the content is saying. I consider “smaller films” or so called “independent films“ the same as the studio films. I put it all under the category of corporately funded and distributed films.
My own film projects I put in a different category because I fund and distribute them myself. The difficulty is really in the sheer amount of time and stamina it takes to write-produce-direct-edit-technically finish to a 35 mm print-publicize-and-personally-distribute the films.
Seibel: What is your next project?
Glover: I am in the process of writing a screenplay for myself and my father to act in together. He is also an actor and that is the next film I am planning to make as a director/producer. This will be the first role I write for myself to act in that will be written as an acting role as opposed to a role that was written for the character I play to merely serve the structure. But even still on some level I am writing the screenplay to be something that I can afford to make. There are two other projects I am currently developing to shoot on sets at my property in the Czech Republic. The cost of the set building will determine which one I actually shoot next. They are will all be relatively affordable yet still cinematically pleasing.
Thank you, Alexandra Seibel, for doing the interview and thank you, Crispin Glover, for responding in detail!