Crispin Glover has been an actor for over 30 years, most famously appearing in films like Back to the Future, Charlie’s Angels, Friday the 13: The Final Chapter, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, The River’s Edge, Bartleby, and Willard. He’s also currently working on directing his third film, preceded by his unique and beautiful first two features What Is It? and It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I recently had a chance to chat with Crispin about his role in new film The Bag Man, the touring of his directorial efforts, and many other aspects of his career.
Jason Howard: What initially drew you to your role in The Bag Man?
Crispin Glover: The dialogue, specifically, was well written. I immediately liked it. I saw how to play the character and what the character should be like. It was very clear from the initial reading, so it was relatively simple. It was an offer and the negotiation happened pretty quickly.
JH: Because you’ve been in the industry as long as you have and you are able to add your own unique spin to the roles that you take, do you find that you are often approached by screenwriters or directors who write with you in mind, based on what they’ve seen you do in the past, but get it completely wrong? Are they looking for more of a “Crispin Glover-type,” rather than Crispin Glover himself? Is Crispin Glover unwriteable?
CG: You know, I don’t normally think the characters I play are written specifically for me. I think I’ve had that happen maybe once in my career. It was a film called Rubin and Ed. And, for my own film, What is It?, I wrote a character for myself when expanding it from a short film to a feature. The third time will be my next personal film production that I’m shooting right now and developing for myself and my father (actor Bruce Glover) to act in together. It’s the first time that he and I have ever acted together.
On this film, The Bag Man, I was offered the part and then David Grovic, the writer/director wrote some stuff to expand the character in a way that felt like he had an idea of me playing that character, but I liked the way the character was initially written, as well. There were certain things that one could say were similar to characters I’ve played, but there were also things that were different that I quite liked. I wanted to keep them pristine, the way they were.
JH: You’ve also directed your own films.
CG: I self-distribute my films and am currently touring them. I’m on year nine of touring What is It?, and year seven of It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I have a show this weekend in Ottawa and then the weekend after that, I’ll be at the La Paloma Theatre, just outside of San Diego. For dates, you can go to crispinglover.com and sign up for my newsletter.
JH: Speaking of the tour, what is it about your directorial films that made you decide that a live, tour setting was the right context for them to be seen?
CG: Particularly with the first film I made, What Is It?, it’s a reaction to the constraints that have happened in the corporately funded and distributed film industry in the last 30 years. If there’s anything that could possibly make an audience member uncomfortable, it’s necessarily excised or that film will not be corporately funded or distributed. That’s a very damaging thing because that moment when an audience member looks up from their chair at 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 filmmaker have done this? What is it?” And, that’s the title of the first film. What is it that’s taboo in the culture? What does it mean when the taboo has been ubiquitously excised? When people are having genuine questions or having the etymological meaning of the word education, meaning to learn from within, removed like that, it’s damaging because it means the audience is essentially having the opposite of education. What is that? It’s propaganda. I do think that’s what’s happening in the corporately funded and distributed media.
I was just at an Alamo Drafthouse this past weekend in Yonkers and Tim League (founder) is doing a great thing. He started the Alamo in Austin and he’s a genuine cinephile and a filmmaker. He understands and wants to bring thoughtful and interesting things to people. He just happens to have been a good businessman, making money with food and beer. He doesn’t have to worry about the programming, which ultimately means he DOES worry about the programming. He programs things that he likes and that he’s interested in. Of course, he’s gone beyond just being a programmer. He was the first person to contact me about What Is It?. I realized I could tour with the films when I started doing the slideshow back in ’93. I was getting healthy interest in attendance and I could self-promote my own shows and features. I’m not against having my films, at some time, bought up by a corporation, but there would have to be a proper monetary element. Being that these films are very much reactions to the constraints that these types of corporations are involved with, it’s much better for me to self-distribute in this way. Plus, the audience gets a lot more out of it when that happens. It’s a very different experience than solely seeing the film on its own. The live aspect is an extremely important part of the show.
JH: With that live audience element, do you find that you lose any of your personal attachment to your films due to the instant and repeated analysis that you go through with the audience each night through the Q & A sessions?
CG: Well, something that I’m very careful not to do is to analyze the film. That isn’t what I’m doing when I do the Q & A. What I do is to put the film into context with what it is reacting to. It’s different than, for example, analyzing the symbolism might be. I’ll get asked, maybe, what something means and I’ll be careful not to do that kind of specificity. But, particularly with What Is It?, it’s not entirely clear, within the framework of the film, what the film is reacting to. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to let be known. There’s a part of me that says, “it’s okay to have a film be totally on its own and let people react to it however they will.” But, What Is It? deals in taboo. The title itself is a question and there are things that people can highly question within the film. I kind of feel like it would be cowardly if I didn’t go and address some of those questions.
JH: Your second film as director (It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE) is a very beautiful film.
CG: Thank you. I’m very proud of that film.
JH: Because your lead character in that film is mentally disabled and yet there was no clear line drawn as to whether he is good or evil, do you find that audiences have a hard time accepting it? It seems that most Hollywood films portray the disabled as either victims or even “magical” in some way. Was that dichotomy perhaps what drew you to the script?
CG: I read Steve’s (Steven C. Stewart – writer/star) script way back in 1986. It was a very old screenplay and a project that I’ve been fascinated by for a long time. As soon as I read it, I knew that it was something that I would have to fund it myself to get it made because it is so evidently outside any kind of realm that corporate interests would work in. There’s no question that part of what was compelling about it was his kind of outrage and reaction. Steve had been locked into a nursing home when he was in his early twenties, when his mother died. It was difficult to necessarily understand Steve’s speaking. You could, ultimately, understand it if you sat and listened and talked to him, but for many people, it was very difficult. The people who were taking care of him at this nursing home would derisively call him an “M.R.” or “Mental Retard.” That’s not a nice thing to say to anybody, but Steve was of normal intelligence and the emotional turmoil that he must have gone through for that decade, I can’t even begin to imagine. He did get out, and he wrote this screenplay in the style of a 1970s TV murder/mystery movie-of-the-week, and he’s the bad guy.
Something that was very important to Steve, and he didn’t say this exactly, but if you think about it, and you mentioned this a moment ago, if you see a corporately funded or distributed film and there’s a character that has a disability, basically, that character will be a benefactor to society. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of people with disabilities that are benefactors to society. But, Steve’s point was that he was a person with a disability, but with an emphasis on ‘person.’ People can have dark thoughts. He wanted to play a character with dark thoughts. He does dark things and it’s really compelling. It gets into a certain element of psychology and that’s quite fascinating. Like you said, I agree that it’s a beautiful film. When the whole trilogy is done, I feel like it’ll be the best film of the trilogy. Not only that, I feel like it’ll be the best film I’ll ever have anything to do with in my entire career. I feel very passionately about it. It’s also why I feel very comfortable continuing to tour with What Is It? and Everything Is Fine – they are very different kinds of films from one another. I don’t mean to be dismissing What Is It? when I talk so glowingly about Everything Is Fine. What Is It? has some things that the other doesn’t have. But, there’s an emotional catharsis in Steve’s film that I put on a very high realm. I’m proud of these movies.
I’m also touring with ten minutes of the next feature that I’m currently in the middle of shooting. This is the film I’ve been developing for many years for my father and me to act in together. It’s not part of the trilogy. I need to step away from the trilogy because I’ve been working on it since 1996. That’s a long time. There are thematic elements that will continue in the third part, but I need to step away from it and work on other themes and films.
JH: You’ve also written quite a few books that play a large part in your tour. Have you always written them, or have you ever written them, with the mindset that they will eventually be a part of a performance piece? Or, does that aspect come in later?
CG: Well, I have two different shows now. The original show, which I call Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, Part 1, consists of eight different books, which were made in the 80s and very early 90s. All of these books were made by taking old bindings from the 1800s and re-working them into different books than what they originally were and are heavily illustrated. The images of the pages, because they are so heavily illustrated, are projected behind me as I dramatically narrate the books. I have a book signing at the end of the show, as well with the books I’ve published.
The second slide show, which I play before It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE does have one book in it which was actually not ever made as a book. I had collected many of the images and done many of the images in probably the late 80s/early 90s, but I never ended up making that into a book because I knew that it would serve as a good performance. There are some books that I made in that period that aren’t in the shows because they were more like art objects. They were not really narrative stories. This book, however, I just knew that it would work to perform in the show. It took me awhile with the second slide show because I had chosen, in a certain way, the best books to perform in the first slide show. I needed to make things different for the second one. It took me awhile before I put things together and made it work as a big part of Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, Part 2. That one was not made as a binding, but it works as a performance.
JH: It seems from an outside perspective that you might have the ideal career. Not necessarily on the financial side, but along the lines of artistic fulfillment – you appear in mainstream movies, adding your own unique flair, but still are able to work on your more personal pieces as well. I would think that anyone getting into the business would strive for something along those lines. Is that your perspective on your career as well?
CG: (laughs) The way you describe it certainly sounds good!
JH: That was my concern with the question – whether the way I’m describing it falls in line with the reality.
CG: I don’t mind – I like it for a press release kind of thing. The actuality of doing it, though, is that there are struggles with that. It’s not like you wake up and everybody says, “hey, you can be influential in making movies.” You have to try to do it. Sometimes you are met with conflict. Sometimes you don’t work as much as you’d like to work or bring in the money that you need to fund your own films. It’s a continuing process. But, in the long run, like being able to tour with my shows and films is really important to me. I feel much better about my life and career since I’ve been able to tour.
Somebody asked Stanley Kubrick how you become a director and he said, “by directing films.” I don’t think he was being facetious. It’s actual. You have to do it. Nobody else will make it happen. You’ve got to make it happen yourself. Werner Herzog said something that was essentially the same answer, but in a different way. He said, “if you want to direct films, steal a camera.” I think he didn’t have enough funds to make his initial film, so he stole a 35mm camera from somewhere and made a film. It’s essentially the same answer. How do you become a director? You do what you need to do to make it happen. I certainly found that’s the case with my own filmmaking. Making my third feature is not too different from making the first two. I’m financing these movies. On a positive point, I do have people who volunteer and that’s an extremely important part of it. Even with having volunteers, with every single film, you go broke. That’s just the nature of it. Then, you make more money and continue. But, it’s worth it.
In terms of what you’re saying, I’m glad if it comes off like that. It doesn’t necessarily feel like that. But, it sounds good to my ear!
JH: Lastly, can you give us a little insight as to how your lawsuit against the creators of Back to the Future has impacted your career or the field of acting, in general?
CG: Well, just to be clear, the producers took the mold of my face that was used to make the old-aged makeup for the first film and put those prosthetics on another actor with false nose, chin, and cheekbones, in order to fool the audience into believing that I was in the second film by splicing a very small amount of footage, and I mean a VERY small amount – just some close-ups. People think that it’s me dancing and stuff, but it’s a different actor. Of course, that’s not a comfortable thing to have happen. To have people believe that you are doing something that you are not doing and attribute that to you is stealing. That’s what the lawsuit is about. I’m proud of the lawsuit and standing up for that. The reason that I had the lawsuit wasn’t initially for that. It was just to let people know that it was not me in that movie. It was a gross misuse of something. I do not like the idea of being involved in a lawsuit, but the only thing I could do at the time was do nothing and let everyone believe I was in the movie.
If I had never had the lawsuit and never said anything, I’ll bet you most people would believe that was me in that movie. I still have people come up to me and say that. What’s unfortunate is that, of course, anytime you have a lawsuit in the industry, it’s going to have negative effects. I knew that going into it. But, it was such an extreme case of producers stealing something, that it had to be addressed, and I had to do it. I would much prefer that the producers had not done that and just hired a different actor. That would have been fine. Just get a different person, use their face, and there would have been no problem. I would have been very happy today and still have very good feelings about the first film. But, by fooling people into believing that I was in that second film with my facial features in it, and even portions of me, it’s still disturbing. It’s unfortunate that it happened, but what can you do? You’ve got to do something about it. I would much prefer that it never happened.
The Bag Man is opening in theaters on February 28, 2014. Also, you should definitely check out Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show when it comes into your town. I’ve attended myself and can assure you that you are in for an entertaining, original, challenging, fascinating, moving, one-of-a-kind show. We definitely need to support more unique films along these lines, especially when presented in the context of a live, touring show. Be sure to visit crispinglover.com where you can find tour dates, purchase his books, and sign up for his newsletter.