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Interview: Actor And Filmmaker Crispin Glover

Actor and filmmaker Crispin Glover will be presenting his films on two consecutive nights at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.
Crispin Hellion Glover
Actor and filmmaker Crispin Glover will be presenting his films on two consecutive nights at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.

Glover To Present His Films This Weekend At La Paloma

Interview: Crispin Glover
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with actor and filmmaker Crispin Glover about his upcoming show at the La Paloma Theater this weekend.

ANCHOR INTRO: People may only know Crispin Glover as the actor who played Marty McFly’s dad in “Back to the Future.” KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says you might be surprised to find that he’s a serious artist who has been touring for almost a decade with his films. Crispin Glover’s film “What Is It?” wants audiences to ask precisely that question. CLIP I love you. CRISPIN GLOVER: In “What Is It?” most of the actors in the film have Down Syndrome but it’s not about Down Syndrome. What it is is my psychological reaction to the corporate constraints that have happened in the last 30 years of filmmaking where anything that can possibly make an audience member uncomfortable is necessarily excised. Glover says it can be damaging to remove that discomfort. CRISPIN GLOVER: It’s that moment when an audience member sits back in their chair, looks up at the screen and thinks to themselves is this right what I am watching, is this wrong what I’m watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this? What is it? The four hour evening includes Glover performing a dramatic narration to his books, then one of his feature films followed by a Q&A, and book signing. Glover has not released his films in any digital format because when dealing with taboos he says it’s important for people to see each other’s reactions. CRISPIN GLOVER: It’s almost a social not experiment but a thesis and you can’t get that if you’re alone at home. Crispin Glover’s Big Slide Shows take place Friday and Saturday at the La Paloma Theater. For the moment it is the only way to experience his films. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Crispin Glover’s film “What Is It?” wants audiences to ask precisely that question. And what better way to ask that question than in person with the filmmaker. That's precisely what you'll get this weekend with "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Shows" at the La Paloma Theater (March 7 and 8 at 7:00 p.m.)..

Crispin Glover has never fit into a neat little box. As an actor he's created a gallery of eccentric and memorable characters starting with George McFly in the 1985 film "Back to the Future" and continuing with roles in "River's Edge," "Wild at Heart," "The Doors," "Bartleby," "Crime and Punishment," "Charlie's Angels," and "Hot Tub Time Machine." He also gained a reputation for offscreen antics like appearing in character from his film "Rubin and Ed" on Letterman. So when he turned to directing would you expect him to be anything but controversial and provocative? Of course not.


His first feature film, "What Is It?" drew attention initially for its casting of people with Down's Syndrome. Some people complained that this was inappropriate and offensive but that's exactly the type of response Glover wanted to elicit. He didn't want people to sit complacently back in their seats and let another mindless Hollywood film wash over them. Instead, he wanted to jolt people out of their comfort zone and make them so uncomfortable that they would have no other option than to ask "What Is It?" Before you read any further you need to watch the trailer for Glover's 2005 film "What Is It?" so that you can have a sense of what it is.

Trailer: 'What Is It?'

Glover obviously wants to push people’s buttons. Something most mainstream movies don’t want to do. He also wants to provide people – whom he sees as very social animals – with a uniquely personal and interactive experience when watching his films (he created a kind of sequel to “What Is It?” in 2007 called “It Is Fine! “Everything is Fine”). That’s why he has never distributed the films in any digital format and created 35mm prints with which he tours around North America. But be prepared, each event is a four-hour-plus experience that includes a live dramatic narration by Glover to a slide show of his books, a screening of one of the films, a post-film 90 minute question and answer period, and finally a book signing. What Glover wants is to make sure there is plenty of time for discussion and interaction because he feels that’s a key component to understanding his films and his intent. He deliberately sets out to challenge taboos and when dealing with taboos he says it’s important for people to see each other’s reactions.

Glover is very serious about his art and about the role art should play in our culture. I had the chance to speak with Glover by phone and to conduct a lengthy interview by email. If all you can remember of Glover is his performance as Marty McFly’s dad or as the hair-sniffing Thin Man from “Charlie’s Angels” or the one-armed man from “Hot Tub Time Machine,” then Glover as filmmaker may surprise you with his passion and his serious dedication to art. Not all filmmakers have something meaningful to say about their work but I think Glover does. So I suggest reading his interview and making an effort to see his films in the only way they are currently available – on a big screen with the filmmaker present. But really, how can you resist such a unique experience and one that is different every time Glover presents his films.

Love between the minstrel and his concubine? Or is it betrayal? in Crispin Hellion Glover's "What Is It?" (Actors are Lynn Conley & Adam Parfrey)
Robbie Caponneto
Love between the minstrel and his concubine? Or is it betrayal? in Crispin Hellion Glover's "What Is It?" (Actors are Lynn Conley & Adam Parfrey)

Where did the idea for “What Is It?” come from?

The film started production as a short film in 1996. It took nine and a half years from the first day of shooting on the short film to having a 35mm print of the feature film. I wrote it as a short film originally to promote the viability of having a majority of the characters that do not necessarily have Down’s Syndrome to be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome.

The way this came about was this. In 1996. I was approached by two young writers and aspiring filmmakers who were from Phoenix to act in a film they wanted to produce and direct. They made a monetary offer to my agents which they really should not have done as they did not actually have financing. Nonetheless it did get me to read the screenplay which I found to be interesting. This screenplay was not “What Is It?” I found interesting things about the screenplay and was interested in the project, but I thought there were things about the screenplay that did not work. I came up with solutions that needed reworking of the screenplay and I told them I would be interested in acting in the film if I directed it. They came to LA and met with me and wanted to know my thoughts. There were quite a few things but the main thing was that most of the characters were to be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. They were fine with this concept and I set about to rewriting the screenplay. David Lynch then agreed to executive produce the film for me to direct. This was very helpful and I went to one of the larger corporate entities in Los Angeles that finances films and met with them. They were interested in the project but after a number of meetings and conversations they let me know that the were concerned about financing a project wherein most of the characters were played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. The title of this screenplay at this point had become “It Is Mine.” And will become part three of the “IT” trilogy. It wasn’t known yet at this time that there would be a trilogy but it was decided that I should write a short screenplay to promote that concept of having a majority of the characters played by actors with Down’s Syndrome was a viable thing to do for corporate entities to invest in.

This is when I wrote a short screenplay entitled “What Is It?” We shot this short screenplay in four days. I edited that over a period of six months and the first edit came in at 84 minutes. Over approximately the next two years I shot 8 more days and edited this in to what is now the final version of the film. I locked the edit of the film about three years after the first day of shooting what was supposed to be a short film.

Sometimes people ask me if the length of time it took for me to make the film had to do with working with actors with Down’s Syndrome. This was not the case. Even though the film took many years to make much of the delay were technical issues. The most important thing about working with an actor whether they have Down’s Syndrome or not is if they have enthusiasm. Everyone I worked with had incredible enthusiasm so they were all great to work with.

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 filmmaking. 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 themself “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 this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.

Poster for "It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine."
Crispin Hellion Glover
Poster for "It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine."

Tell me about Steven C. Stewart and your work with him? I understand “Charlie's Angels” also played a role in getting your film to the screen?

“It is Fine. Everything Is Fine” [the second film in the “IT” Trilogy] is written by one of the actors who was in part one, his name is Steven C. Stewart. Steve was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. When his mother died he was put into a nursing home where he really did not want to be. It was difficult to understand his speech, Steve’s speech often times and the people that were taking care of him in this nursing home would derisively call him an MR, mental retard, which is not a nice thing to say to anybody but Steve was of normal intelligence and the emotional turmoil that he must have gone through for the decade that he was in that nursing home I can’t even begin to imagine. But when he got out, he wrote the screenplay in the style of a 1970s TV murder mystery movie of the week where in he’s the bad guy. And this was something that was very important to Steve. If you think about it in a corporately funded and distributed movie or a television show, if you see a character that has a disability, that character will basically be a benefactor to society and of course there’s nothing wrong with that, there are plenty of people with disabilities that are benefactors to society but Steve, what was important to Steve, what he talked and wrote about was that he was a person with a disability with an emphasis on person and people sometimes have dark thoughts and he wanted to play a bad guy with dark thoughts and there’s something about the way that he, because he wrote it in this genre style as opposed to a standard autobiography, there are certain truths that come forth in a dynamic against this genre that is really beautiful.

Steven C. Stewart’s own true story was fascinating and then this beautiful story including his fascination of women with long hair and the graphic violence and sexuality and the revealing truth of his psyche from the screenplay were all combined. There was a specific marriage proposal scene that was the scene I remember reading that made me say “I have to produce this film.”

There is an emotional catharsis that happens in “It Is Fine! Everything is Fine” that I find to be rare in film. So I hold that in particularly high regard. 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 1999, this was around the same time that the first “Charlie’s Angels” film was coming to me. I realized the money I made from that film I could put straight in to the Steven C. Stewart film. That is exactly what happened. 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. 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.

Steve was a genuinely great guy! It is hard to define what my relationship with Steve is/was. During the approximate 15 years I knew Steve from 1986 to his death in 2001, I would communicate with him in spurts. He started writing me short emails urging to make his film after we shot his portions of “What Is It?” in 1996. He would write simple things like “When are we going to make the film before I kick the bucket?”

Steve was definitely gracious and had a genuinely rebellious sense of humor. If he had only had one of those qualities I probably would not have related to him as much, but the fact that he had both a sense of humor and a sense of rebellion made it so I could very much relate to him.

About a month after we finished shooting I got a telephone call one morning and it became apparent that Steve was in the hospital with a collapsed lung again and that he was basically asking permission to take himself off life support and he wanted to know if we had enough footage to finish the film. I know that if I had said “No Steve. We do not have enough footage. You need to get better and we have to finish the film,” he would have gotten whatever operation needed to get better and been happy to come back to the set and shoot. As it was we did have enough footage and it was a sad day and heavy responsibility to let him know that we would be able to complete the film.

In retrospect Steven C. Stewart was a great communicator. Steve has had great positive influence on my life and as much as I did like and enjoy Steve when he was alive, I realize even more how much he was important to me. It may sound sappy, but if Steve were here today I would be very happy to tell him how much he ultimately, positively has affected my life.

Crispin Glover famously played Michael J. Fox's dad in "Back to the Future."
Crispin Glover famously played Michael J. Fox's dad in "Back to the Future."

John Houseman used to do those Smith Barney commercials to finance his Acting Company, is that how you look at your work with Hollywood? As a means of funding projects closer to your heart?

I don’t want people to think that I am only acting in other people’s films to satisfy my own filmmaking as I take the work seriously and always want to do a good job as an actor in those films and have a good attitude when I work on those films. Both “Charlie's Angels” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” were studio films and I had a good time working on both of them utilizing the craft of acting which I have learned a long time ago. It is satisfying to have an assignment as an actor, accomplish it and then if it comes out that is rewarding. On top of when I am paid for it I am able to fund my own 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.

Crispin Glover as the Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels."
Crispin Glover as the Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels."

Why do you feel the live component is important in presenting your work? It is obviously a lot more work to have to travel and tour with the show but is that something you enjoy and think is vital?

The live aspects of the shows are not to be underestimated. This is a large part of how I bring audiences in to 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 made most of the books in the 80s and very early 90s. 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 in to 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 people said I should have book readings. But the book are so heavily illustrated and the 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 1992 I started performing what I now call “Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Side Show Part 1.” The content of that show has not changed since I first started performing it. But the performance of the show has become more dramatic as opposed to more of a reading. The books do not change but the performance of the show of course varies slightly from show to show based the audience’s energy and my energy.

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 U.S. 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 25 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 .

Writer/director/actor Crispin Hellion Glover in "What Is It?"
Rocky Schenck
Writer/director/actor Crispin Hellion Glover in "What Is It?"

What prompted you to set up your own company?

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 had sold 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. 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 it takes a significant amount of time and energy 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.

You don't fit into a neat box (a good thing for an artist I think) but that's what people tend to want these days, so how would you describe the show that's coming up to convey what it's like and what people might expect?

I disagree that people want a neat box. I am certain, however, that it is ideal for corporations to package things in to neat boxes so this is what people become accustomed/corporately propagandized to see.

Do you see all your personal work -- the films, the books, the live performance -- as part of one big work, as a kind of single narrative?

They of course can all be looked at as something together and I do think that they work together well as an evening of interactive entertainment. Of course each of the works, books, and films are complete on there own.

Although the more I tour with the live shows and films I see it at one huge project. In a certain way the discussion after the film with the audience is the most important part of the shows, but that discussion would not take place without the live performance and the feature films so the whole thing has to happen in the single evening. I get offered to break the shows up and present them in various ways, but I do not show the films without the live shows and Q&A, and I do not perform the live shows without the films and Q&A. In a certain way the book signing is a more personal extension of the Q&A.

I interviewed David Cronenberg and he said he was not interested in "comfortable cinema." It seems that could be said about you too, that you don't want to do what's safe. Do you agree?

I am not sure if I would always define it that way, but I do think that it is best when the audience is left with questions and thoughts going through their mind.

What do you hope people take away from your art?

For people to ask questions and think for themselves.

What are you most proud of?

Probably “It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.”

What is coming up next for you?

The sets for my next film productions were in construction for over two years now. At the same time the sets were being built I was in the process of continuing to develop the screenplay for myself and my father to act in together on these sets. My father, Bruce Glover, is also an actor who has appeared in such films as “Chinatown” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” and he and I have not yet acted together on film. The project with my father is the next film I am currently preparing to make as a director/producer. There are two other projects I am currently developing to shoot on sets at my property in the Czech Republic. These films will be relatively affordable by utilizing the basic set structures that can be slightly re-worked for variations and yet each film will feel separate from one another in look and style yet still cinematically pleasing so they will be worth to project in various cinemas.

You can find more information about Glover and his projects at his website. Tickets for this weekend's show can be purchased at the door at the La Paloma Theater or online at Brown Paper Tickets. The event is put on by A Ship in the Woods.