Crispin Glover on the Hero's Journey, the Warlock Pinchers and not repeating himself
Crispin Hellion Glover is many things. He's a cult figure, known for his baffling performance art-like appearance on David Letterman, as well as a decidedly outsider filmmaker who creates offbeat art films featuring actors with Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy. He's a musician who once did a spine-chillingly wondrous rendition of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking," and a creator of illustrated books that piece together portions of old, found books, which he performs live in Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show. He's also a commercially successful actor who portrayed George McFly in Back to the Future and has taken on roles in such high-profile blockbusters as Charlie's Angels and Hot Tub Time Machine. And he'll be at the Alamo Drafthouse this week, showing the first two films in his IT trilogy: It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine at 7 p.m. tonight and What Is it? at 7 p.m. tomorrow night. In short, he's a very busy guy.
The films are self-financed, and only screened when Glover is on hand to offer a book reading and slide show beforehand, and then conduct a lengthy Q&A afterward -- which Glover likens to old vaudeville performances. He stays late to answer every question, meet every fan and sign every autograph. And he's been doing this road show for eight years.
I saw Glover when he showed his first film, What is It?, at the old Starz FilmCenter at the Tivoli in 2008 and became fascinated with the enigmatic performer, who animatedly narrated the slideshow to his novels and answered fan questions in long, circling answers late into the night. So I was excited to get the chance to interview him in advance of his Alamo appearances, even though I had to conduct the interview over e-mail given his busy schedule. But when I got Glover's answers back, I noticed some striking similarities and even some word-for-word answers that he'd given in past earlier interviews. So I wrote Glover back, pointing out the repeats and asking if we could speak on the phone. Instead, he sent back a very diplomatic, thoughtful response detailing that "the reason you are seeing the same answers is that in year 8 of touring I now have a 1600 page word file of interviews that have been conducted by email. By far most of these pages are copied replies that have been perfected as response over the years," and that "even if you and I spoke on the phone regarding those topics I would be saying the same words that I have written to you. Those words at this point are literally memorized. If you see/hear some radio interviews on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet and listen carefully even when they sound candid I am saying the same words that you already have. After this many years of speaking about particular topics and honing the best way to make them work for, TV, radio and print I have perfected those particular responses." He implored me to e-mail more questions if I wished. I did.
What follows is a portion of my e-mail conversation with the totally fascinating Crispin Glover. During the e-mail conversations, I chatted with the filmmaker, artist, writer, actor and musician about everything from DIY film distribution to astrology, the Hero's Journey and his namesake Warlock Pinchers song. Fair warning: some of the answers here are Glover's pre-crafted responses that have appeared in other publications, others are not. But all are fascinating.
Westword: Why do you think it's important to show your films only in the theater and appear in person with them? Do you ever plan to release them on DVD?
Crispin Glover: There are no plans to release the films digitally. 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.
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.
You've spoken in the past about funding your art by taking roles in big budget films like Charlie's Angels. Is that still the way you function? Is it necessary to have a "day job" to make the work you want to make?
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!
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 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 a touring with the live show and showing the films with a book signing is a very good basic safety net for recouping the monies I have invested in the films.
There are other beneficial aspects of touring with the shows other than monetary elements.
There are benefits that I am in control of the distribution and personally supervise the monetary intake of the films that I am touring with. I also control piracy in this way because digital copy of this film is stolen material and highly prosecutable. It is enjoyable to travel and visit places, meet people, perform the shows and have interaction with the audiences and discussions about the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to under-estimated 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 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.
Touring itself is a difficult lifestyle and plays with sleep. The live show also has a lot of physicality to it. Last year I developed a very serious respiratory infection and had to continue to tour which of course worsened the infection. It took 6 months to recover fully. I worked for many years on the films with the idea I would be touring. So even though there are difficulties I am glad to be doing it!
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.
Your films often make people uncomfortable. Do you like to cultivate this response? What's the merit in challenging an audience?
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 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.
In your films you tend to work with actors and artists that other filmmakers choose not to work with. What Is It? includes a cast of actors with Down's syndrome, and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart, who had cerebral palsy. What made you want to work with these artists?
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. Steven C. Stewart's own true story was fascinating and then the beautiful story and the naïve 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. 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 in to What Is It? when I turned What Is 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 that working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down's Syndrome. Steve had written his screenplay in in the late 1970s. 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 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. 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.
Why do you think that it will be the best film you have anything to do with in your entire career?
There is a specific 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.
Steven C. Stewart's own true story was fascinating and then his beautiful naïve story telling including his fascination of women with long hair and the graphic violence and sexuality and the revealing truth of his psyche from the screenplay. 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."
What was a specific audience response to the film that was surprising to you?
There can be slight differences regionally. I have actually found that the areas traditionally thought of as being "liberal" can be more vocal about their upset specifically with What Is It? than audiences in areas that are traditionally though of as being "conservative." There is actually a larger difference with people outside the borders of the U.S. People in the U.S. tend towards getting more upset with What is it? than people living outside the U.S. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. Gets a more universally approved response worldwide. That has to do with an emotional catharsis that it operates in. That being said sometimes people can get upset with It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. as well. All of these responses can vary from individual to individual regardless of area of the world. Often people that come to my shows are looking to see something unusual.
Do you think about how your art is going to affect an audience before you create it and does that influence what you make?
Yes. I do think about how the audience will be affected when I am creating the films. The books I created mostly in the 1980s without the concept that it would be shared in the way I am currently performing them and publishing them. Ultimately I do make the films and books so they please myself.
What was an early film or piece of art that you remember having an impact on you?
There are many works that I saw at a young age that I liked. I know I liked Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosh under the age of ten and I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out at a drive in move theater in Los Angeles so I would have been under the age of five, I think. I recall it and liked it. I listened to a lot of classical music at a young age as well. There are a lot of works that affected me early on but they were so early it is hard to even think of it as affecting my work as a filmmaker and more just as early life experience.
Filmmaker Trent Harris recently came through town along with a screening of Rubin and Ed, which you are featured in. How do you feel about The Beaver Trilogy and Rubin and Ed?
I have never seen The Beaver Trilogy as edited by Trent Harris. I had seen all the footage that he used to make it when I was playing the character in the second year project of the film that was hot as AFI. Right now there is a trouble with the way the films are being distributed as the person who is making copies of them does not own the copyright is taking them from video duplications and not from the original negatives. This is stopping the films from being properly distributed because having the low grade copies available make the demand for them low. Sony told me they would make Rubin and Ed available as on demand DVDs but because the unauthorized low quality duplications are being made and sold it lowers the demands. The films are of quality and I wish there were better legal copies of them being made. But there are so many things to concentrate with my own film-making that it is not something I can concentrate on right now.
What artists who are working currently are you excited about?
Werner Herzog still makes great films and I very much like what Gaspar Noe is doing. There are many fine painters that are currently doing interesting work as well.
This is the first time that It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. will be screened in Denver. What's going on with the third installment of the IT trilogy, It Is Mine? Will it be shown in Denver anytime soon?
I should not go in to too much detail for part 3 of the "IT" trilogy yet as It Is Mine. will not be the film I shoot next. There are other projects outside of the trilogy that I will shoot next. The Czech Republic is where I own a chateau built in the 1600s. I have converted its former horse stables in to film shooting stages. Czech 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 the previous two films put together, so it will be a while yet for that production. I will step outside of the trilogy for a number of films that deal with different thematic elements from the "IT" trilogy.
The sets for my next film productions have been in construction for over one year and six months now. At the same time the sets are being built I am in the process of continuing to develop the screenplay for myself and my father to act in together on these very 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 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.
What made you want to buy property in the Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic is a beautiful country with tremendous history with accomplishments in art, architecture and music. I have Czech heritage but the main reason that I purchased my chateau was because it was an ideal place economically to do what I needed to do. I had visited all the countries that my great grandparents were from. Germany, Sweden, England and Czech. So I had visited Prague previously. I always intended to at some point in my life purchase property in Europe. I was looking to buy property in the US to utilize for building sets and continue making my own films on my own property. I was speaking with a film producer I was working on a screenplay with in Prague who mentioned that he knew a Czech realtor that specialized in Czech chateaus that were going for a very good price. As soon as he mentioned this I knew it was something I would do. I came out and saw three chateaus that were for sale. The one I own fit all the practical needs for setting up my own place to build sets, plus it has fascinating historical and aesthetic qualities. I did not really realize until I was analyzing all the details as I prepared to make an offer on the property that property taxes in the Czech Republic happen to be much lower than in the US, which is also a very helpful thing for me.
In an interview with Dossier Journal, you spoke about the story structure of the Hero's Journey and the morality conveyed in Back to the Future versus Beowulf. Do you think art should convey morals? Do you feel that your films ever try to instruct your audience?
Hero's Journey by its nature has a moral as an element of the structure. If there is not a moral in a Hero's Journey story structure then it would not actually be a Hero's Journey structure. It is always interesting to analyze what the actual moral of a film is whether it was intentional or not by utilizing Hero's Journey structure values.
The word art of course is more general. There are many forms of art graphic, music, story and more. Graphic art and non lingual music do not always have morals although they may have allegories, but the allegory would generally have to relate to a hero's journey structure with a moral.
By the nature of being a student of Hero's Journey Structure and applying this to my own film- making, the films innately have moral structure to them. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. would be a more clearly definable moral structure than What Is It? as What Is It? works in a filmic syntax that is influenced from Buñuel's earliest films, in particular L'Age d'Or.
"Avant-garde" means "advanced edge" or "cutting edge" or "forward guard" in French. There are a lot of definitions that people come up with for films and art movements. Sometimes these definitions are helpful for delineating certain concepts that people may be interested in working with or challenging. What is it? won "Best Narrative Film" at the 2005 Ann Arbor film festival which I am very happy about. I like that award specifically because of the title "Best Narrative Film." The reason that film festival delineates one of its awards with that title is because the Ann Arbor film festival is the oldest "experimental" film festival in the US. Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage premiered their films there. He made many films. IMDB.com has 373 listed. The films of his I have seen are very different kinds from What is it? Those films I have seen of Stan Brakhage I would classify as "non-narrative." They are beautiful non-narrative films. The fact that the Ann Arbor film festival deals with certain kinds of films that need this kind of classification for award differentiations is a good example of why that kind of classification can be helpful.
If What Is It? is to be classified for various reasons then it is classified as a narrative film. The more broad classification of drama, and a drama that has humor sits well with me. The kind of narrative that it is uses a cinematic syntax that has been used before by various filmmakers and it is not a new syntax, but it is not the same syntax that is usually used by corporately funded and distributed filmmakers. Buñuel is definitely a filmmaker that had influence on What is it? Formally he was a "Surrealist" with a capital "S". The Surrealists being a "political" group as Buñuel described it in his beautiful autobiography My Last Sigh. Now "surrealism" with a small "s" has come to mean something to do with art, and to me the most valuable thing I know about the surrealism is using free association to get the subconscious levels for artistic expression. That element of surrealism is extremely valuable!
As far as ascertaining the moral within the structure of What Is It? could be an academic adventure that could prove to be quite long. I have my own thoughts about how it is interpreted and although I do not analyze it in that fashion when I speak about it at the questions and answer portion after the film at the shows, I do put it in to a context of what the film is reacting to.
Writer Joseph Campbell coined the term Hero's Journey, and you list him as an influence on your website. How did you first come across Campbell's work and how has it influenced you?
I saw the interviews with Joseph Campbell that Bill Moyers did back in about 1983. I had heard about this kind of structure. I could tell when working on Back to the Future that the writers had followed certain aspects of Hero's Journey structure and it also informed me as to what the specific moral of that that film was.
Studying Hero's Journey structure archetypal patterns and characters leads to many interesting studies including Freud, Jung and, of course, Joseph Campbell. I would say there is also a relation to surrealism's understanding of the human subconscious through Freud's understanding of the human subconscious via free association. There is a great clip of Jung speaking about alchemy that one can view on YouTube that I have watched over and over. It is evident that Jung's understanding of archetypes that he applied to his theories of human psyche were deeply influenced by patterns of the tarot. The tarot has a fascinating mixture of the patterns that both Jung and Joseph Campbell recognized, but that utilizes a kind of free association which can cause the human subconscious to get in to territories of its own truth that in Freudian analysis would require the analyst to be present. The Tarot can get in to some of the analytical areas with the same kind of free association that a Freudian analyst would encourage. It is apparent that Jung is recognizing this when he is speaking about alchemy in this excellent filmed interview with him from the 1960s.
Joseph Campbell, of course, came up with the now famous phrase "Follow your bliss." He was correct about that simple phrase. He followed his bliss by recognizing the patterns that he ended up calling Hero's Journey structure. Hero's Journey structure is truly an endless study and one of the most fascinating ones that can be gotten in to.
Do you believe in astrology?
I was purposefully raised by my parents without any religion. I have also grown up with a genuine respect for the scientific method. That being said science is ever expanding in its understanding of what are the proper questions to be asked to formulate a proper hypothesis that can then be put through the regimen of scientific testing to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Various elements in the universe form in patterns. It may or may not be true that humans form in patterns that could be recognized utilizing the clockwork type patterns that are arranged every evening stemming back to the ancient eyes of humans. These ancient people may have had time to notice nuanced shifts in human patterns. These ancient people may have attributed those patterns utilizing anthropomorphism and hero's journey structure to pass down from generation to generation important noticed patterns of humans births.
In a 1992 talk with Interview magazine, you spoke about enjoying frequenting strip clubs. Do you still like to go to strip clubs? What about them appeals to you? Yes back in 1992 there was something appealing about that specific dimly lit atmosphere that was appealing. I have not been to a strip club in years.
Denver band The Warlock Pinchers, wrote a song called "Where the Hell is Crispin Glover?" Are you aware of the song? What do you think of it?
Yes. I have heard the song and I am always glad when there are songs that feature my name. It is good publicity and shows a certain amount of dedication that is flattering. I think that song in particular is well done.
What artist working now would you most like to collaborate with?
Imagine if a filmmaker could collaborate with Dostoyevsky as a screenwriter and Beethoven as a film score composer.
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