Crispin Glover: Making art from a corporate film world

By Rachel Knight

How does one play the Hollywood fame game in order to challenge everything that Hollywood stands for? Actor/writer/director Crispin Glover may be the only celebrity who knows the secret, writes Rachel Knight.

Writer/Director Crispin Hellion Glover in his film What is it?. Photo / supplied
Writer/Director Crispin Hellion Glover in his film What is it?. Photo / supplied

Crispin Glover, who financed his directorial work by acting in such box office hits as Charlie's Angels, will be showing his unconventional films What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE in Dunedin and Auckland this month, with an accompanying book reading and Q&A session.

Controversy has surrounded the films' use of disabled cast members, which Glover maintains is respectful and misunderstood. While his films have been accused of being purely intended for shock value, due to their open use of taboo themes, those who have had the rare chance of seeing them often find Glover's daring films are unique and enlightening works of art.

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Your shows include a Q&A session and you've said that you spend an especially long time addressing the concerns of people that have been upset by your films. How do you deal with that?

There are patterns that happen. If someone is belligerent with an aggressive questioning pattern I will let them speak or yell as much as they want. When the questioner is belligerent the rest of the paying audience will pick up on this and the audience at large may start to turn on that person as they begin to vocally disagree with what the person is saying.

This does not happen often, but when it does, I don't let it go too long, and usually urge the audience to let the belligerent questioner speak. It becomes very evident that the belligerent questioner has hung themselves with questions born out of emotionally propagandized knee-jerk reactions, which when analyzed with proper questioning make it evident that there is not a logic to the belligerent reaction they experience. Even if the audience member who is having that reaction does not realize what is happening, the rest of the audience does.

Then there are the questioners that have legitimate thoughtful questions. Some can be aggressive and many are not aggressive. In any case I answer them thoroughly.

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Hear Herald Online's audio interview with Crispin Glover here

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Do you find that audience members laugh at portions of your films that you don't consider humorous? How does this affect the experience of the audience as a whole?

Laughter is not necessarily an indication of what is standardly called comedy. Laughter can also be classified as a civilized growl. This civilized growl can, in a civilized fashion, with the use of laughter, castigate the sick or the foolish ones, or the foolish part of oneself.

This is what laughter actually indicates. People think of laughter as something that brings people together. It does. It brings people together against something else.

This is why laughter is an excellent indicator of taboo in both What is it? and It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE. If someone is laughing at one end of the row of seats, someone may look down that row of seats and at the person who is laughing and think to themselves "What is wrong with that person?" This is because many areas of both films exist in the in-between plane of that which is considered funny by one person and decidedly not funny by the next person.

It is a big reason why I continue to tour with the films in a group situation. Group situations can illustrate very clearly by means of laughter what is taboo. This sort of unsettled audience reaction happens quite a lot in both films. This is something that I was quite aware would happen when making both the films, and the fact that it happens is a satisfying experience for me as a filmmaker. This is true even if I know some elements are bound to be misunderstood by some.

I also know that many have a visceral, educational illustration of a portion of how propaganda has a direct effect on human moral conditioning. Taboo is the grey area that is not clearly defined by the moral codes within the culture and it makes for fascinating group discomfort when properly applied, which then can be interpreted in an educational fashion.

Where are you while audience members watch the films? Are you able to observe audience reactions?

It depends on the venue and what my diet is at the moment. Sometimes when the film plays after I perform the shows, I am at dinner. Sometimes I am sitting in a green room replying to interviews or sleeping. Sometimes I am behind the screen and watching the reverse image of the film projected, sometimes if the auditorium has a balcony that is closed off I will sit above the audience and watch the films or portions of the films.

Sometimes I am dealing with business in the office with the theater owner or manager. I avoid sitting in the audience to be seen by the attendees of the show. Over the years I have been able to see the relative consistency of the reactions of the audience, although as described elsewhere different people react differently within the same audience due to the nature of the films.

You've said before that at a certain point in an actor's career, it is good to ask oneself "What am I?" and determine an answer. Having done this with yourself, what have you found out? How does it affect the way you go about your career, as an actor and otherwise?

I still make a great majority of my income from acting in corporate films. I am most passionate about my own filmmaking. I continue to tour with my films and shows to make my own filmmaking viable. It has essentially worked.

Corporate media control waxes and wanes in terms of discussion of taboo and genuine questioning. The last 30 years has had a particular constriction on the kind of discussions that are able to happen in the corporately controlled media. It is possible that constriction could loosen, but that is hard to tell.

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 he 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 murder detective thriller, truths of his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography. Steven C. Stewart's own true story was fascinating, and then the beautiful story and the naïve including of 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. A specific marriage proposal scene was the scene I remember reading that made me think "I will have to be the person to produce/finance this film."

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 of working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down's Syndrome. Steve had written his screenplay 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 degenerative 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 that I could put the money I made from that film 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 we 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. As proud 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.

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 use to help other filmmakers 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.

You seem to have had a very close relationship with Steven C. Stewart, who wrote and starred in It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE. Can you speak to how you felt about him, personally?

Steve was a genuinely great guy! It is hard to define what my relationship with Steve is/was. During the approximately 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 me 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.

In what way has your willingness to ask questions of the film industry affected your career? What was the backlash against you from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale following your lawsuit against methods used to recreate your image in the second two Back to the Future films?

My asking questions led to me not being in the sequel to Back to the Future.

I am glad to be in the original film and that people still like it. I have noticed that Bob Gale, a writer and producer on Back to the Future, has been stating consistent untruths about me in order to obfuscate something he did that was illegal. People should understand that Bob Gale is continuously attempting to throw attention away from his wrong doing by stating untrue things about me and that people should not believe him.

I am glad that I was in Back the Future. The character of George McFly was an excellent role and I feel good about the final results in that film. I need to clarify that I did not play the character in the sequels to the film.

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 into 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 lawsuit, has been stating false things about me to attempt to lessen his wrongdoing. I do not like his false statements and would like to reiterate that what he did caused laws 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.

When asked what attracts you to playing "outsider" characters, you've expressed that such roles are not necessarily something you gravitate towards more than something you are offered. Can you speak more to this?

Within the corporately funded and distributed film world I see myself as an actor for hire and am grateful to that system to have made a living in it for more than thirty years.

I do not really think of myself as an "outsider artist." I do not really know exactly what I am outside of. But if people want to classify me as that I don't find anything wrong with it. When I have my shows my personal experience is that by far most of the audience that comes to the shows gets something out of the whole experience. That is a good thing. I definitely am interested in continuing to expand my distribution. I am very serious about the business aspects of the distribution of my films and I feel that taking the slow and sure way of distribution in the best way to do it in the long run.

I don't necessarily think of [my acting] in that way. Usually what I'm trying to do is to find the psychological truth of the characters I'm playing. Perhaps "outsiderness" is present but it usually manifests from what seems appropriate for the psychology of the character.

I see myself as someone who has been raised with the understanding of how the corporately funded and distributed film business works. I have had a certain amount of acceptance within that business. While I am grateful to that system to have made a living in it for about thirty-five years I have also had a certain amount of question about how to make the corporately funded and distributed film business more truly educational. There may be reasons why the corporately funded and distributed film business does not want to be truly educational and anyone who does that may be questioned back in multiple ways.

I do not mind playing unusual characters and in fact I tend towards being drawn to them. Playing a certain type of character repeatedly is a pattern that can have adverse effects in the long run on business. I have a feeling it will be important for me in my own next films to play characters that will respond to that concern in my own way, as opposed to attempting to rectify this by utilizing the corporately funded and distributed film industry to figure out what will be best for me to play. It is probably the best policy for me to act in the films that are offered to me and fund my own films with that money.

I have not necessarily thought of myself as having a large interest in outsiders or fringe characters, but I can see why it might seem like that. In a certain way I would not think of Layne as a fringe character. If you analyze the original screenplay for River's Edge, really Layne was written as kind of the popular center of that particular group of friends.

In the last decade I have been specifically funding my films with the money I make as an actor. So I almost think of the roles I am offered as acting assignments. I mean that in a positive way and I am grateful to get those assignments.

I do not try to and I never have tried to make a perception of being an outsider in the corporately funded and distributed film world. I don't feel like an outsider in the corporately funded and distributed film world. I understand why there is the perception of me being an outsider but it is not a perception I am attempting to have.

Your films are intended to pose questions. Are you comfortable speaking about what questions your films may inspire in people?

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 that 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 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.

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To find out more about the films, visit CrispinGlover.com. Tickets for each show can be purchased online:

Tickets:

Dunedin: Saturday March 16 and Sunday March 17
Auckland: Tuesday March 19

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