Things to Do

Q&A With Crispin Glover

It’ll come as no surprise to most moviegoers that actor Crispin Glover is a rather odd fellow. But he’s also an intriguing one, as is clear from the following Q&A, conducted to promote the three days he’ll spend in Denver hosting screenings of his 2005 directorial debut, appropriately named What Is It? (Click here for event details, and here to visit his website.)

Glover, who participated in the interview while driving back home from a film shoot, has a fondness for certain phrases, and returns to them over and over again. Note, for example, how many times he talks about personal projects that he’s “so very passionate” about. This fervor comes through plainly as he describes What Is It? and the ways that the film has changed since he screened an early version in Denver way back in 1997; a profile of Glover conducted at the time reveals more. From there, he discusses what he characterizes as the unexpectedly positive reviews the movie garnered from mainstream reviewers; the process that led to the making of a What Is It? sequel, 2007’s It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.; the assist his filmmaking endeavors received from his villainous role in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels; his decision to finance his own movie ventures by acting in Hollywood fare, including projects whose pay is better than their artistic prospects; and the chances that he’ll someday be able to direct and distribute his own works fulltime.

Ready or not, here he comes:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand you’re working on a film right now. Where are you at?

Crispin Glover: I just finished. I’m driving back. I was in Truckee, California, and I’m driving back to Los Angeles right now.

WW:: What was the project?

CG: It’s called The Forlorn, and it’s about the Donner incident that happened in the 1840s.

WW:: Who’s the director?

CG: It’s a first-time director who’d written the screenplay. His name is T.J. Martin.

WW:: Do you have a sense of when it will be released?

CG: No. It’s an independent film, so you never know what the fate of those movies will be until it happens.

WW:: That brings us to What Is It?, which is also an independent film. For the uninitiated, how would you describe it?

CG: What I usually say is, being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home, as tormented by a hubristic, racist inner psyche. And of course, that sounds a bit confusing when you first hear it. But if one has seen it, on some level the film deals with those elements. But on another element, really… well, most of the actors in the film have Down syndrome, but the film is not about Down syndrome at all. What it is, it’s my psychological reaction to the corporate-film restraints that have happened in the last twenty and thirty years, wherein anything that can possibly make an audience member uncomfortable in any way whatsoever is necessarily excised or that film will not be corporately funded or distributed. And I think it’s a very damaging thing, because it’s the moment when an audience member sits back in their chair, looks up in the screen and thinks to themselves, “Is this right what I’m watching? Is this wrong what I’m watching? Should I be here? Should the director have done this? What is it?” And that’s the title of the film. And I think that it’s negative to the culture to not have these things be dealt with or be processed in any way, because the culture ends up becoming stupefied by having things that really don’t cause questioning, and that’s what this film deals with. It’s also why I have a question and answer afterward, and I perform a live show before the film as well, which is an hour-long dramatic narration of these eight different books that I’ve made over the years. Then they show the film, and then I have a Q&A that generally lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, and then I have a book signing.

WW:: Another writer at Westword, Amy Kiser, wrote a piece about you in 1997. At the time, you were calling your presentation The Big Slide Show.

CG: Right, and it’s funny. Denver is one of the cities I came to, and I showed a rough cut of the movie when I was working on it. It was just a video rough cut. But this is actually that very film, and now completed. It’s a 35 millimeter print of the film. But it is quite different from what I showed in ’97.

WW:: How did it evolve from 1997 until 2005, which is when most film websites list as its release date.

CG: And that is correct. It was not done at the time that I showed it in Denver. I was purposefully going around and getting feedback. There’s new footage, there’s different things in the film. It’s edited quite definitely. It’s definitely not what I showed back in 1995, and like I said, I was using primitive digital technology at the time. It was on videotape. This is a 35 millimeter print of the film, and I shot things in between that time and edited things. It’s quite a different thing.

WW:: You mentioned that you were getting feedback. What kind of changes did you make as a result of the feedback? Or did it only reinforce the ideas you already had prior to showing that early version around?

CG: Really, it didn’t have as much to do with feedback from audiences as it did with my own thoughts about things while I was editing. But during that time period, I was really trying to focus on strictly editing the film. There were a couple of years where I really didn’t go in on meetings and auditions, and there were almost two years where I didn’t act in anything, because I wanted to keep my concentration on editing and working on the film. In a certain way, it was a way of keeping my concentration on the film while being able to get some kind of income. I toured mostly in Canada. I never went to Los Angeles or New York, but I went to certain cities in the United States, and Denver happened to be one of them.

WW:: Upon finishing the film in 2005, what kind of response did audiences have – and was it the kind of response you were hoping for? Did you message, do you feel, come through to them?

CG: Yes, it’s interesting. The film has had precisely the kind of response that I had been thinking it should have. For the most part, that response is positive. But because it genuinely deals with these taboo areas, there are people who have a lot of questions about the film, and sometimes people feel an educated process has occurred and sometimes they don’t – and sometimes people get upset and then they’ll write things about it on the Internet. That kind of thing does happen. But really, the response has been right about the way I was hoping. One thing I was actually surprised about is that I got as many positive reviews from the larger corporate newspapers and entities. That was something I didn’t know if it would happen. So in a certain way, I’ve had more corporate positive feedback than I had actually predicted, which is good.

WW:: Does that tell you that critics for those kind of corporate entities are hungry for film that’s not homogenized and watered down?

CG: Well, this isn’t 100 percent true, because not every single review was that way. I got corporate reviews that criticism as well. But yes, I think even more than that, generally speaking, people who are involved working in the media, and specifically to the reviewing media, they certainly know exactly what it is that I’m talking about and reacting to. So yes, I think it reflected universally on people who are living in this culture right now. I think people really can see that there is a certain type of corporate restraint that has happened, so that the media that’s coming forth isn’t something that’s truly thoughtful and helpful to the culture, really. It’s something that’s making people less thoughtful, and people who are thoughtful who are working with the media can appreciate that.

WW:: Given the way you described the film at the outset of our conversation, I gather that you never expected it to get traditional theatrical distribution.

CG: No, no.

WW:: Is that something you aspire to?

CG: No, I don’t aspire to it with this film nor the sequel [It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.], which I’ll come back with sometime after at least a period of six months. I’ve already completed part two of what will be a trilogy, but I have to release them for various reasons one at a time in proper sequence. It’s not as if people have to see part one before they see part two. But in part one, it’s almost as if there’s a thesis statement being made, because part two does deal with taboo subjects. But I want by the time people come to see part two… It’s a very different kind of movie than part one, and it was written by one of the people that acted in part one. His story – there’s a strong cathartic element that happens with his character. What Is It? doesn’t necessarily have any character that one has a strong emotional catharsis with, but part two is written by Steven C. Stewart, it’s all about that. Both of the films I’m extremely proud of for very different reasons. But I knew that when I was making both of them, that these were films that I would tour around with in the way I came to Denver. That was something I also was learning when I was touring around at that time, is that this really was a legitimate way of me releasing a movie, and if I kept my overhead low, I could at least recoup on these films. And that’s really why I’m needing to do them one at a time. Because conceptually I could come, now that I’ve finished both of them, and release both of them at the same time. But what would happen is people would come to whichever film they could come to on that particular night, and it’s not fair to basically myself, since I’ve invested in the films. And in this way that I’m releasing the films, it’s a very limited release as it is, but it’s basically putting competition to myself if I do it that way. There are other films I intend to make that… Both of these films, specifically having to do with what Steven C. Stewart’s storyline – they required graphic sexuality. Especially part two, but it’s foreshadowed in part one. And that makes it more difficult for mainstream distribution. It’s not impossible, but it’s at a point just business-wise where I know how those things work with the smaller corporate entities that will do distribution like that. You would only get a deal that’s not fair to the investor, being myself. I know how it works, so there’s no point for me to do it, and I can have a better theatrical distribution, and I’d have more wherewithal than any distributor would have. So that’s why I do it in this way.

WW:: Have you toured with It Is Fine! Everything is Fine?

CG: Yes. I started doing that last year, and I went to all of the big cities with it. I mainly did it at that time because Beowulf came out and I knew I could kind of ride on the tailcoat of the publicity wave. And it was helpful for the film for those reasons. But I will come back to Denver with It Is Fine! One of the things that happens that is unfortunate is that if I don’t wait a fair amount of time, media outlets will not cover the film. Even though it’s a completely different film, the sequel, they think, “Well, he was just here.” So I have to wait a fair amount of time. It could even be as much as two years before I would come back.

WW:: You mentioned the period of time when you didn’t work on films to concentrate on the making of What Is It? But in recent years, you’ve made quite a few films, and it’s been an incredibly eclectic filmography, to put it mildly…

CG: Well, what happened in the year 2000, the man who wrote part two of the series… Well, he’d actually written his screenplay in the 1970s, and I’d read it in 1986. I put him into part one of the film in order to make his screenplay a sequel of sorts. It was sort of marketing idea, but it works well. I realized that my film was dealing with taboo subject matter, and even though they were very different, there were related thematic elements that made sense for me to do it that way, and I’ve glad I did it that way. Anyway, in the year 2000 – he was 62 when we shot the film, which we shot in 2001… And he had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, and he was very difficult to understand, and he’d been locked into a nursing home… I shouldn’t go into that too much, because that’s what I talk about more when I show that film. But what did happen was, cerebral palsy isn’t a degenerative disease. Sometimes people think it’s like multiple sclerosis, which is degenerative. But cerebral palsy is not. One is born with cerebral palsy, and it can be severe or minor, and they stay with the amount of cerebral palsy that they have and it never gets any worse. But in any case, he had a very severe case of cerebral palsy, and as he was getting older, he did start to choke on his own saliva, and in the year 2000, one of his lungs collapsed, and it became apparent that if we didn’t shoot anything soon, we might not get to shoot anything at all. It was right around the time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was coming to me, and I realized that the money I made from that film, I could put it straight into making this film, and that’s exactly what I did. And since then, Charlie’s Angels ended up being a very good film for my career, because it made a lot of money, and I ended up getting more interesting roles, like Willard and that sort of thing. And I realized that previous to that, I was not choosing films to make money. I was attempting to find films that somehow would psychologically reflect what my own interests were, but that didn’t really work, because I wasn’t writing them or directing them. And they were not necessarily that good for my career, because they didn’t necessarily make a lot of money. So it’s been extremely helpful now: By changing the way I’ve chosen to act in movies, specifically to fund my own films, I have been able to fund these films that I’m so very passionate about, and it’s led toward much more interesting roles. Really, that’s how I’ve been ultimately selecting how to be in films. If they meet my quote, which is a fair and reasonable quote, then that’s something I’ll do. Not always. There was a film last year I didn’t do for various reasons. But by and large if there’s even a possibility that I can make it work, and if they’ll meet my quote, at this point in time I’m needing to do that to continue to fund these projects that I’m so passionate about.

WW:: So when you agree to be in something like Epic Movie, you’re looking at it as a means to funding your own films…

CG: Right. But at the same time, I don’t go in with a bitter attitude. I don’t go in thinking, “This is stupid, and I’m only doing it for the money.” I genuinely try to make something work and do the best job possible, and if there’s something I feel I can do, I try for that. If for some reason, I feel that the director, while we’re doing it, isn’t really getting in to that element, then all I can do at that point is know that the money I’m making is something that will help fund these films I’m so very passionate about. For the most part, though, directors do want to work with me for some kind of interesting thing, and that can be good. Sometimes it isn’t like that, but you never really know, and it’s best to go in and work with the very best attitude possible. And that’s what I try to do.

WW:: Looking at your IMDB page, there were three films at the top listed for 2008 that haven’t been released, at least here. One was called Freezer Burn, one was called 9, and the third one was called The I Scream Man.

CG: Yes. The I Scream Man is something that did not go into production. Freezer Burn is something I did late last year, and 9 is something I did earlier in the year – and that’s just a voice in an animated film, which is quite different from what Beowulf was. That wasn’t just a voice in an animated film. It’s a different technology, and actually a very interesting technology. But all of these projects, I enjoyed working on them. It’s a funny thing. I don’t mean to say bad things about projects I’m in. People put in a lot of time and effort, and they want to make good movies and good entertainment. I don’t mean to be not supporting those things. But at the same time, I am very much utilizing the money I’m making these movies into things that I’m so very passionate about.

WW:: Do you envision a day when you might be able to work on your own films full-time?

CG: It’s possible. It’s something I’m coming toward. I’m figuring all sorts of ways toward lowering my costs. All of the money I make, really that’s what it goes into. I own property in the Czech Republic, not too far outside of Prague. It’s a historical piece of property built in the 1600s, and next to it is a horse stable that I’m making into a small sound stage. I just purchased a lot of equipment, so I can stop having to utilize the film laboratories and film digitization companies, because those corporations also are catering towards larger corporations, and there’s a plateau of money that needs to be spent on those things. Whereas if I’m truly able to do these things on my own, I can save enough money so that at a certain point, I could feasibly be producing my own films and keeping them at a low enough cost that by touring with them, I could recoup more rapidly than on these first two films that I spent more money on. And even these films were done relatively inexpensively. For me, it’s a lot of money. It’s somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 each, and it takes a long time to recoup on those. At the same time, though, I’m also quite aware that if I were to do that, I would need to start having distribution – more of a widespread distribution, like the kind of films I normally act in. I think it’s a possibility, because the films that I will heretofore work on will most likely not have graphic sexuality in them. For very specific reasons, it was extremely mandatory that it be especially in the Steven C. Stewart film. But the first film has it in there in a certain way, basically to foreshadow what’s happening in the second film. But everything I make in the future – I’d never say never, but it’s most likely that I wouldn’t have graphic sexuality in them, because it actually isn’t that great of an interest of mine for cinema. It just happened to make sense in those films. In any case, that will make a more ready form of distribution more feasible. But at the same time, I’m also very well educated on how these corporate entities work in terms of purchasing films, and I would not give myself a raw deal. Really, what it is by touring around with my own films, it gives me a safety net of knowing I don’t have to deal with the kind of power that is being wielded currently in corporate distribution and film-funding elements, and that’s important to me. It’s possible that I could do that – I could just start making my own films and have those distributed. But also, on some level, now that I’ve made the decision to act in other people’s films to really fund these things that I’m so very passionate about – if it should be that I need to continue touring with my own films because of the way corporate distribution entities work, perhaps then at that point it would still be very important for me to continue acting in other people’s films. If not for the money, then just for the advertising purposes of them. And I definitely realize the benefit of it. Even though my films are reacting to that corporate entity, the situations that exist, I have to admit, or I have to say, that part of the reason that I’m able to recoup on these films I’m making is because I’ve worked in these types of corporately funded and distributed types of films. I’m very clear on that, and you know, in a certain way, it’s actually made me more grateful for having been involved in those films in my past than I ever have been.

WW:: Is there any satisfaction in realizing that in some ways, the corporate film business is funding your films, because they’re paying you a salary for acting, and you’re putting them into your own movies?

CG: Absolutely. Yeah. Yes. (Laughs.) One-hundred percent.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts