Interview: Crispin Glover

Matt Looker

25th April 2014

Stop everything people: Crispin Glover is embarking on a UK tour. That’s George McFly coming soon to a venue near you. And he’s bringing with him his very own passion projects – two feature films and a slide show that accompanies each one – which I promise are every bit as fascinating as anything you may have heard about the man himself.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Crispin Glover spends most of his time these days popping up in small, memorable roles in mainstream movies (Hot Tub Time Machine, Alice In Wonderland, etc) between generally just behaving rather eccentrically (his appearance on Late night With David Letterman in 1987 is still embedded firmly in the Internet’s consciousness).

But Glover has actually been extremely busy. In 2005, he finished his directorial debut What Is It?, a surrealistic film consisting of a cast who primarily all have Down’s Syndrome, which he describes as "being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home as tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche".

Two years later, Glover co-directed the second film in his proposed 'IT' trilogy: It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE, a semi-autobiographical film written by and starring cerebral palsy sufferer Steven C. Stewart in which he explores his own fetish for girls with long hair.

Never released in cinemas, Glover has spent several years touring with these films while also performing one of his two 'Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show' at each event. And now these shows are coming to the UK. For details and ticketing information on where you can catch them, you can visit Crispin Glover’s own website.

Here’s me talking to the man himself about his tour and his work as a filmmaker, all conducted over email, hence the extremely succinct answers.

First of all, it was your 50th birthday this week, wasn’t it? Happy birthday! Have you had to fit your celebrations in around this UK tour?

Crispin Glover: Thank you. I am not much of a birthday celebrator so often I have a simple dinner or if I am working on my birthday I do not celebrate it at all. In any case it was a good day.

So what can people expect from your shows?

CG: 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. These are taken from old books from the 1800s that have been changed in to different books from what they originally were. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs.

When I first started publishing the books in 1988, people said I should have book readings. But the books are so heavily illustrated, and the way the illustrations are used within the books 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 on the audience’s energy and my energy.

People sometimes get confused as to what Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show (Parts 1&2) 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 also has 8 books. Part 2 is 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 second slide show has been developed over the last several years and the content has changed as it has been developed, but I am very happy with the content of the second slide show now.

The fact that I tour with the films 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.

How important is the live aspect to you in presenting your projects?

CG: 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 [the costs of the films] is by charging for the live show and selling the books after the shows.

I definitely have been aware of the element of utilising 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 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.

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 discuss the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to be underestimated as a very important part of the show 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 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 utilise 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.

Crispin sporting some fetching hair on the poster for What Is It?

Why did you decide to expand What Is It? from a short film to a full-length film? How did you approach that process?

CG: Originally What is it? was shot as 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 realised it could be a feature with more work.

We shot the screenplay in four days. I edited that over a period of 6 months and the first edit came in at 84 minutes. The final feature length film of What is it? is 72 minutes. So the first version of the short film is longer than the final version of the feature film, and it was too long for the material I had at the time, but I could see with more work and more material I could turn it in to a feature film. 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.

What were the challenges you faced on the film as a first-time director?

CG: I locked the edit of the film about three years after the first day of shooting of what was supposed to be a short film. Then there were a number of years of very frustrating technical problems that mainly had to do with SMPTE time code.

Originally I was going to make the film the now old-fashioned way of a complete photochemical process and not digital intermediate. An optical house in New York that did not give me enough information to let me know that the SMPTE time code had not been properly put on when the film was telecined. During this time I worked patiently on the final sound edit of the film with a number of interns. Finally that sound edit was finished and it became apparent that the film optical house was not telling me the truth and prices had fallen during this time so I was able to make the film using a digital intermediate to ultimately go out to a 35mm print of the film. So from the first day of shooting of what was to be a short film to having a 35mm print for the film took 9.5 years.

How did you meet Steven C. Stewart, and how did you come to tell his story in It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE?

CG: When I was 19, I was acting in a film made at the AFI called The Orkly Kid. The character I was playing was based on a person the director had made a documentary about when he was working on a television show in Salt Lake Utah. He was friends with another filmmaker from Salt Lake named Larry Roberts who had made a documentary on Steven C. Stewart. When Steve got out of the nursing home he told Larry that he wanted to make a movie.

I had also been shown some of David Brother’s films by Larry and the director of the Orkly Kid. It was around this time that I had been wanting to make a movie from one of my books and I had very much liked David Brother’s movies he was making on video. So I met up with David Brothers and we started making a movie of one of my books called The Backward Swing. We started shooting this on video in 1987. Actually this will be the next movie I edit together as the films took over. In any case, while we were working on The Backward Swing, David showed me the script for Everything Is Fine! and as soon as I read it I knew it was a movie I had to produce.

Steven C. Stewart’s own true story was fascinating and then the beautiful story and the naivety of including his fascination with 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".

Steven C. Stewart providing nightmare fuel on the It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE poster.

How did you get that project started?

CG: 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 realised that the money I made from that film I could put straight in to 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 a 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 got 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.

So do you act in mainstream films purely to fund your own projects now?

CG: 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.

Filming for It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE must have been strained as a result of Steven C. Stewart's failing health. How did that affect your approach to the film?

CG: Steve was a very strong person. To be clear cerebral palsy is not a degenerative disease. There would not have been a proper film made if Steve were not in the film. Steve had to be the main actor. There would have been no point to making the film without him. He had written it with the concept of himself playing the main role and part of the fascination of the film is that it is a documentation of him living out this particular fantasy that he wrote for himself and psychological truths come out from the film that are completely about him.

Also even though this film is definitely not a documentary it does document this main actor/writer living out his fantasy that he wrote for himself to portray.

I personally financed the film and had taken out no insurance if Steve were to die. Steve was a strong person and I knew that he has an inner need to get this story out. He had already stayed alive by getting an operation to get this film made and I knew he would stay alive no matter what to get the film completed.

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 he 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.

With all the Q&As after each show, you must get asked the same kinds of questions all the time. How do you keep up your enthusiasm for these events?

I have many hours of material to speak about the films so the discussions change from evening to evening. Also the nature of the films makes it so that I have evolving thought processes about them.

I understand that you're adamant for these films to only be shown on 35mm. Why is that important to you?

CG: It took many years to get to the point of having the 35 mm prints of the films and the technology of 35mm negative and even 35 mm positive for projection has an aesthetic that I prefer.

Will there ever be any plans for a home entertainment release of these films?

CG: I have no plans for this.

Still from What Is It? entitled "The minstrel betrayed by his concubine?".

These two films make up two thirds of an eventual 'IT' trilogy, don't they? What can you tell us about the forthcoming third film in the trilogy?

CG: I should not go in to 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. 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.

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.

What about beyond the trilogy? Are there any other projects you have planned as a filmmaker?

CG: I have begun shooting a third feature film that is not part three of the trilogy. This is a feature that I have been developing for many years for myself and my father Bruce Glover to act in together. It will be the first time he and I have ever acted in a scene together in a film.

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. This will be the first role I have written for myself to act that will be written primarily 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. These films will be relatively affordable by utilising 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.

I have also acted in some other filmmaker’s productions that will be coming out over the next year or so.

Would you ever want to make the leap to directing mainstream movies with bigger budgets? Marvel always seem keen to take on different directors...

CG: I have nothing against working as a director on corporately funded and distributed films. I am however currently interested in working on my subject matter.

I know you have spoken out against this idea of you as a "mad, eccentric actor" before, but does it bother you that people might still think of you in that way?

CG: I have not spoken out against the idea of me being a "mad eccentric actor". I do not view eccentric as a negative term. I view it a poetic interpretation of a mathematical term meaning something that does not follow a centric course. Many of the characters I have played can be called eccentric. My own films and books can be called eccentric. I find all of this fine.

I publish my own books, produce, finance, direct, and edit, distribute my own films. Publishing, producing, financing, directing, editing and distribution all have extremely centric elements to them that have to be followed in order for results to happen. Because I spend a good amount of time performing those very centric tasks it means that I have very centric qualities in my day-to-day life even if the art I am interested in can be perceived as eccentric.

What do you look for when it comes to accepting new acting roles?

CG: Sometimes I am more selective about something I want to play or the quality of the film I am in and sometimes I simply need to have monetary support for my own filmmaking. It can be a difficult terrain to navigate but I am glad to do it.

What would you consider to be the highlights of your acting career?

CG: I’m not as concerned about the acting part of my career right now somehow. I am most proud of my filmmaking. I am grateful to work in the corporate film industry and I always want to do a good job as an actor, but the thing I am most grateful about it is to be able to continue to make my films and tour with them.

From your own experiences as a filmmaker, what was it like to work on such a massive CGI landscape in Alice In Wonderland? Would you ever want to use the same technology for your own films given the chance?

CG: I always enjoy watching an experienced and successful filmmaker such as Tim Burton practice his craft. I try to see what insights I can about a director that has worked as much as he, and as successfully as he. That being said I would prefer to work for myself as a filmmaker in the craft of standard two dimensional film capture as long as possible.

Scene from It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I'm not touching this one.

A lot has been spoken about your lawsuit against the Back To The Future filmmakers. After all these years, how do you view the whole experience now? Has it tainted your memory of working on the first film?

CG: There was never an agreement reached for me to appear in the sequels to Back to the Future. The producers hired another actor and with a false nose, chin and cheekbones made him up to look like me then inter-spliced a very small amount of footage of me from the original film in order to fool audiences in to believing it was me playing the character.

Because of my lawsuit there are laws in the Screen Actors Guild that make it so no producers, directors, or actors are ever able to do this again. I am proud of that. I have noticed however that Bob Gale who was the co-writer and one of the producers on the films and one of the chief architects of the concepts that led to the law suit has been stating false things about me to attempt to lessen his wrongdoing. I do not like his false statements would like to remind that what he did caused rules in the screen actors guild to be changed to protect actors from his kind of wrong doing.

I ended up having an excellent working relationship with Robert Zemeckis on Beowulf which was released in 2007. Despite the negative aspects of Bob Gale I am glad that I played the character in the original film.

Does it bother you that, after all your roles, most people will still best remember you as George McFly? Do you ever get people shouting "McFly!" at you?

CG: My experience in day-to-day life is that I am usually recognised either by my name or by people having seen me in various films. People are mostly very polite and say nice things. It is very rare that someone will shout out a character name to me.

Seeing as everyone else in the movie industry seems to have auditioned for it in some way, can you either confirm or deny your involvement in any forthcoming Star Wars film?

CG: I have never had any audition or call about being in a Star Wars film. I am a working actor and a realist about working. There are many films I would be happy to be in that I am never called in for. I am grateful to be working as an actor and directing my own films that I am passionate about.

Tour dates, ticket information and details about his films What Is It? and It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (including some incredible trailers) can all be found at CrispinGlover.com.

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