Crispin Glover comes to the Northwest Film Forum - An Imaginary Interview
Crispin Glover is an actor with a flair for creating memorable characters. From Back to the Future to last year's Hot Tub Time Machine, he can make even a small role stand out. This weekend he'll be front and center at the Northwest Film Forum to screen the first two films in his "It" trilogy, What is it? and It is Fine! Everything is Fine. These are by every account unusual films representing a personal vision uncompromised by having to rely on the time and money of others. I can't provide a personal opinion of the films though as I haven't seen them - something I plan to correct over this weekend.
Speaking with friends who have seen the two films, I've gleaned the following; What is It? is the solidly more "experimental" of the two, nonlinear, cast largely with actors who have Down Syndrome, and described famously by Glover as "It's about the adventures of a young man whose principal interest are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home. He's tormented by a hubristic, racist inner psyche."
I've been told that the second in the series: It is Fine! Everything Is Fine - while not Hollywood fare, has something more along the lines of a linear/traditional story. Well…perhaps traditional isn't quite the right term. The screenwriter, Steven C. Stewart, doubles as the film's star as the picture delves (perhaps) autobiographically into his psycho-sexual fantasies. Stewart, having suffered from cerebral palsy, may have not in reality been the (murderous) ladies man portrayed. Though one can easily imagine how a lifetime of frustrations could make their way into his screenplay. Definitely sounds a bit more unsettling and/or compelling than this weekend's release of No Strings Attached…
You can certainly be forgiven for not having heard of either of these films. They're "you can't see them without being in the same room with Crispin" hard to see.
You get a lot of Glover's time for a not excessive amount of money ($20 each screening, or $17 each for NWFF members). Each screening is almost like a vaudeville event of old including:
- A presentation of "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show" - described as a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books he has made over the years
- A screening of one of the two films
- A Q&A session with Mr. Glover
- A book signing
I've heard both strongly positive and negative feedback on the films. Suffice it to say, it doesn't appear to be a presentation that results in a lot of mild opinions one way or the other. I was lucky enough to have chance to virtually sit down and chat with Crispin Glover ahead of his arrival. I steered clear of anything too specific about the films, both from my own ignorance of them, and a desire to see them unimpeded by too much information. Instead, I tried to cover some background on his intent and his future plans.
Info about the screenings and ticket purchase can be found via the Northwest Film Forum Website. Further descriptions of the shows, along with his tour's trajectory, may be found at CrispinGlover.com.
TIG: How would you describe this series of films, especially in terms of the themes you wanted to explore?
Crispin 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 it’s 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 of this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.
With respect to corporate/commercial constraints on uncomfortable material - do you see positive changes in the last 5 years as online distribution makes it easier for artists to speak directly to their audiences while the cost of pro level production tools (cameras, editing, etc) falls? I myself feel that I'm seeing more unusual material I see (or miss) at festivals showing up through at least some online channel, more quickly than I ever have. Whether it's something like Sita Sings the Blues or Dogtooth - my sense is that finding and watching outside the corporate mainstream content has improved, even if there's still a long way to go.
CG: Yes, it seems that the price of producing films has fallen - but it is currently still murky as to how online distribution will help to recoup the finances of even the lowest cost films, especially as film piracy increases.
The way things are scheduled, I'll be seeing It is Fine. Everything is Fine! first. Given that it's written by Steven C. Stewart in what's been described as an autobiographical approach, I was curious how you became involved in bringing the script to screen. I realize he appears in What is it? Was the script for the second film something you'd planned to do all along, or did it evolve out of the first film after meeting Stewart?
CG: 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 in to 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 in to 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. As I have stated, I put Steven C. Stewart in to What is it? When I turned it in to a feature film. Originally What is it? was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities - working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. 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 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 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 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 so 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!
Who do you see as the audience for these films - who are you hoping will attend?
CG: Anyone above the age of 18 is ideal to attend the films, although it is probably best if there is a certain amount of openness to thoughts that are not normally explored in corporately funded and distributed films.
From talking to friends who've seen both films I think it's safe to say that few people have a neutral reaction to them. Having presumably been present for all the screenings yourself - what are the most surprising reactions/response you've seen?
CG: I would not say I have been surprised by any reactions during the Q and A forum, but following are some observations I have had about regional differences. When I show What is it? outside of the United States, I get a much different reaction than when I show it in the Untied States. People become much more aggressive in the US in the Q and A session. I would attribute this to the fact that What is it? is 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.
I think the control of the US media is more stringent by corporate interests than it is in other countries. Therefore What is it? feels more alien and more questionable in the US than it does in most of the other parts of the world I have shown. Strangely, the only other countries that I have had similar kind of aggressive questions as the US are Ireland and Germany. My experiences in Canada, Norway, Spain, Japan, Australia, and Finland were that the audiences were far less aggressive about the material that they witnessed. It could have just been the mood of the particular questioners in the audience though. I have had very aggressive questioning in the US and less aggressive questioning in the US as well. I did notice that cities in the US that would be often considered liberal cities had the more aggressive questions, and that cities that may be considered more conservative in the US would have less aggressive questions. I would not consider What is it? either a liberal or conservative film, but I do not think either films would be appropriate for anyone under the age of 18.
Is it true that these films won't be it ever available in DVD? If so, can you talk about your choice to only screen them with yourself in attendance?
CG: The live aspect of the shows is 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 in to 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 biding 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 in 1988, people said I should have book readings. But the books are so heavily illustrated, and they 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 awhile, but in 1992 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's 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 25 years or so. This is something I rely on 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 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 touring with the live show and showing the films with a book signing is a very good basic safetynet 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 supervising 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 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 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.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask the #1 question I hear from folks who've seen and enjoyed the first two films: What are your plans/timeline for the concluding film of the trilogy?
CG: I should not go into detail for IT IS MINE. yet, and I will not shoot that 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. It is another culture and another language and I need to build up to complex productions like What is it? and the existing sequel It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. IT IS MINE. is an even more complex project than those two films were, so it will be awhile yet for that production.
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 will be the next film I 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 is another project that I may make before that I am currently working on the screenplay for that may be even more affordable, yet still cinematically pleasing.
You've personally appeared in an extremely diverse range of films. I'm curious about your own personal tastes in movies. What have you particularly enjoyed in 2010 and what are you looking forward to in 2012?
CG: My favorite film lists go in to the hundreds, and there are a lot of my very favorite films that are just one-offs - where the director only made one film that I like. Many of the below directors have made multiple films that I admire. Some of them are still making films and I look forward to their work:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Wong Kar Wei
I know it's unfair to ask for a favorite film in the last year. :-) I myself bristle at the question of choosing one of the 250+ films I saw. All are different and may suit my mood on a given day more than anything else. So to rephrase, does anything you saw in 2010 stand out as a noteworthy cinema event for you?
CG: There are two films I saw projected last year that I was extremely impressed by. At the LA County Art Museum, I saw the 1972 Ingmar Bergman film Cries and Whispers. I was extremely impressed by that film. It was by far my favorite Bergman film I have seen and it was truly incredible. I also loved Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. I saw both the longer version that premiered at Sundance last year, and the shorter release version at the Nuart in LA. I was extremely impressed by both versions. Usually I will favor a shorter version of a film, but in this case because of the excellence of Gaspar Noe's work, I preferred the longer version of Enter the Void. I have also had the pleasure of conversing with him as well, and he is definitely doing great work.