Is Everything Fine? An Interview With Crispin Glover
If your only memories of Crispin Hellion Glover are as George McFly in Back to the Future or "the Thin Man" in Charlie's Angels, you've barely scratched the surface.
Glover has continued to appear in mainstream Hollywood films (Willard, Hot Tub Time Machine), but his greatest passion for the last ten years has been touring the country with his Big Slide Show (described by his web site as "a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books he has made over the years") and the first two films in his It? trilogy, What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. Both films combine confrontational and sometimes shocking subject matter (actors with Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy, imagery reminiscent of Buñuel and Fellini) with the feel of classic Hollywood films, and are sure to elicit a wide spectrum of reactions.
Glover will bring his cinematic/vaudeville/live action production to the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park Saturday night. I welcomed the opportunity to ask him about his work, and he is...a very thorough interview subject.
HOUSTON PRESS: The film you're presenting here in Houston - It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE! - is the second in your It? trilogy. But I understand you won't be filming the third for a while. Are you still making a movie with your father first?
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CRISPIN GLOVER: Yes I am doing all in my effort to shoot the film with my father next. I should not go in to 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 a while yet for that production.
I have been working on three screenplays to work within the constraints of shooting on sets at my property. One of them is a screenplay for myself and my father to act in together. He is also an actor and that is the next film I would like to 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 are two other projects I could make before that depending on set costs. I am currently working on two screenplays that may be more affordable to make first.
HP: It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE! was written by and stars Stewart C. Stewart, who suffered from cerebral palsy. He died shortly after you finished shooting. Did he get to see any of the finished film? If so, what did he think?
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 Steve 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 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 [de]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 Steve'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 Steve 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 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 email list at CrispinGlover.com as they will be emailed with information as to where I will be where 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 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!
HP: Last year you simultaneously appeared in two big studio films (Alice in Wonderland and Hot Tub Time Machine) for the first time. Since you're using appearances in mainstream movies to fund your own works, are you feeling more a pull to do more big Hollywood pictures?
CG: I assume you mean that it was the first time I appeared in two big studio films that came out in the same month (PVH: That is what I meant), which is accurate. I have never been opposed to working in studio films.
HP: Now that you've enjoying greater success as an actor, are there certain types of movies you'd prefer not to appear in? Or are you pretty much amenable to anything, since - as you've said in the past - you're using that paycheck to make the films you're truly passionate about?
CG: I started acting professionally when I was 13 in 1977. My mother was primarily a dancer and then later an actress as well and toured with musicals on and off Broadway. She retired when I was born. My father has been an actor and taught acting since before I was born. They both act in It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I never formally studied acting with my father. I studied full time with other teachers between the ages of 15 and 20. There is no question that I of course heard things about acting being discussed from a young age. I witnessed how the business worked, as opposed to getting sit down advice or being told about it. I realized at a young age at about 11 or 12 that it would be a good business for me to get in to. I was not placed in to the business by my parent's interest. I requested to meet with a specific agent at age 13 and they were supportive of that.
Children who are pushed in to the business can have enormous troubles. As described above the decision to get in to the business came from myself and then my parents were supportive. It may seem funny but starting acting at 13 is actually a late start for an actor under 18. I did not work that much under the age of 18 and always wanted to work more than I did. Once I turned 18 and the child labor laws worked in my favor instead of against me then I started working a lot particularly in film. I have always had a good attitude about work and am more grateful than ever since I have started funding my own films that I am so passionate about.
Since I have been working professionally now for 34 years I see it as a continuum. The continuum varies. Sometimes I work more as an actor and sometimes I work less and it can be for varying reasons. Sometimes I need to work for making money and sometimes I am more selective. It all depends. I have become increasingly busy since completing What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. and touring with them and "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Parts 1 & 2." It makes the time between acting in other people's films go much more rapidly. I am not in any way closing the door on the corporately funded and distributed film industry that I have been grateful to have been involved with for so many years now, but I do have a lot of things now that vie for my attentions.
HP: Your distribution approach is rather unique for this day and age: a dramatic narration from your books, followed by a screening, followed by a Q&A session. How do your audiences generally respond? And has that changed since you started back in the early 1990s?
CG: "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show" has remained the exact same show in terms of content since the first day I performed it. The live aspect 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.
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 book are so heavily illustrated and they way the illustrations are used within the books they 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 a while 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 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 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.
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.
For the live performance aspect of my shows I have been performing "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Part 1" since 1993. I started performing "Part 2" three years ago. "Part 1" has stayed the exact same show since the first time I ever performed it. "Part 2" has taken a few years to develop and it is finally working extremely well. It is working well to the point that I think I am getting even better response [with] "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Part 2" than "Part 1" and I always have had excellent response with "Part 1." Much of "Part 2" finally working very well was the addition of a book that was made specifically for the show.
Both "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Part 1 and 2" are now set shows that do not vary. That being said there is an element of my own energy that will play a part on how either show is performed from night to night. So there are relatively small energetic differentiations from myself and from the audience that to me make a bit of a difference, but to the audience I do not think make as much of a difference. They key is if the structure of the show itself works. Now both the shows work very well and I and the audience always enjoy them. Every once in a while there can be a technical problem that has to be dealt with and the audience actually always enjoys the aspect of "the show must go on!"
HP: The controversy around the casting of people with Down Syndrome in What Is It? appears to have died down. Is that simply the passage of time or have audiences come to better understand that you're exploring societal taboos and not just going for shock value?
CG: Just to be clear there was never really any controversy over casting actors with Down's Syndrome. One can see television shows and corporately funded and distributed films with actors with Down's syndrome in them, and although it may be rare there has not been controversy about that. The main difference in What is it? which of course is not corporately financed or distributed is that the characters the actors with Down's Syndrome play do not necessarily have Down's syndrome. Although there on the surface should be nothing wrong with that, somehow it can bring up questions of whether the actors are being exploited. The more important issue really is aren't the actors with Down's Syndrome simply people who happen to be acting? Isn't the job of an actor to play other people? If that is so, then it follows that there is nothing wrong or exploitative of having actors with Down's Syndrome play characters that do not have Down's Syndrome. Perhaps there is a settling in that. After all I have been touring with What is it? for six years now. That being said people can still become upset by that film. When they do it really has to do with other elements and not having actors with Down's Syndrome in the film. While we are on the subject all the actors with Down's Syndrome were great to work with and they all come off great in the film. I think in the long run the true intent of What is it? comes through and the positive aspects of the films come through even if there are elements that cause questions.
HP: Forgive me for saying this, but I was pleasantly surprised to see you in an episode of "Drunk History," in which you played Thomas Edison opposite John C. Reilly's Nikola Tesla. How did that come about?
CG: No forgiveness is necessary. I appreciate the compliment. I enjoyed working on that project. I was contacted by the creators of "Drunk History" through my agent. I had not seen any episodes before that. I had worked with John C. Reilly years ago on What's Eating Gilbert Grape? John is an excellent actor and we are friends. Seeing his involvement gave credence to a short film. I think it may have been coincidental that the creators placed us together in this episode. I did not ask them about that.
I watched the episodes and that had been made to that date and thought they were well done and it was an excellent concept. What I particularly like about it is that it concedes that what people are reading in standard history books must be biased and inaccurate. By having someone who is genuinely intoxicated to the point of illness it becomes clear that when that person is recounting the story from history it will have the point of view of someone who is inebriated therefore giving the story a particular slant. That being said an emotional truth comes through in the stories and that emotional truth is probably about as accurate or inaccurate as any standard history book. I love that point of view and concept and am very glad to be part of that.
HP: In the era of FunnyOrDie.com and YouTube, you've gone against the grain both by sticking with live performances and refusing to release your It? films on DVD. Have you considered upgrading your online presence?
I would not be opposed to more online/DVD distribution if I felt there was a good model for the self-funded filmmaker as opposed to corporate film distribution. The trouble is there is not a good existing business model for online-DVD distribution for recoupment right now. Perhaps that will change in the future. For now by keeping it off the Internet or digital it makes any digital copies of the film distributed stolen material and highly prosecutable. That keeps the exclusivity of my shows valuable for continued recoupment. I of course went in to some detail about this above.
HP: A friend of mine said the easiest way to end this interview would be to tell you, "You're my density." I won't do that, but I will ask if the lawsuit over the use of your likeness in Back to the Future Part II has had any negative repercussions on your career?
CG:Interviewers actually do not usually ask me about this subject in such a detailed way so I am very glad to have the opportunity to get it straight. A lawsuit is of course a reaction to an unfortunate negative situation. I would not enter in to a lawsuit unless there was an egregious and unlawful wrongdoing. It just so happens that was the situation with Back to the Future Part II. If something wrong is done you have to stick up for yourself and ultimately others so that that sort of illegal activity can not recur.
What happened was that there was no agreement reached for me to appear in the sequels to Back to the Future. The producers hired another actor and put prosthetic false nose, chin and cheekbones on him in order to make 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 in to believing it was me. My lawsuit set certain precedent in the US for the understanding of an actor's innate ownership of their own self and their own image. To make what my lawsuit was about exceedingly clear what the producers did was use casts of my face from the original film to put my features on to another actor's face with prosthetics. Had they only used original clips from the first film and not attempted to fool audiences in to believing I was in the film there would not have been a lawsuit. Or had the producers only hired another actor to play the role and not used my features on the other actor there would not have been a lawsuit. The producers owned the name and the character, but they did not own me or my facial features. They did not come to an agreement with me to appear in the film and so they decided to test the boundaries of an actor's ownership rights erroneously. What my lawsuit was about was copyright infringement. Because of my lawsuit there are rules in the Screen Actors Guild that make it so no producers, directors, or actors in the US are ever able to do this again. I am proud of standing up for actor's rights in that situation.
Probably the most negative aspect about it is that Bob Gale who was a co-producer and co-writer and one of the main architects of the illegal activity has decided that it serves him best to lie about what happened in order to justify partaking in something that led to the producer's illegal activity. He has falsely stated that I asked the same amount of money that Michael J. Fox was getting. This statement by him is complete fabrication. He is doing this to take the focus off the fact that what he and his fellow producers did was illegal, by definition of the word. He does not want to face that fact, and so to skirt the issue he has lied to millions of people on the Back to the Future DVD commentaries about how the negotiations were handled. I would not normally discuss this sort of thing, but people believe what he has stated as true. What people have to realize is that Bob Gale was involved with something that turned in to illegal activity. People who wonder about if what Bob Gale has said is true or not, should understand even if they liked Back to the Future it still means that the a creator like Bob Gale who was a contributor to the illegal activity has motivation to create lies to detract the attention from his wrong doing.
I wonder if Bob Gale were asked if he would help produce a film with the same specific illegal activity if he would say he would do it again. For one thing the new laws in SAG that my lawsuit helped to create would not allow an actor to be hired to fool audiences in to believing they are another performer with the use of prosthetics or otherwise. Still putting that specific questions to Bob Gale I wonder what he would answer. If he would answer that he would help to do something illegal again I hope people would understand the lack of integrity that would indicate on his part. I would hope he would answer that what he/they did was wrong, and illegal and if they had to make the film without me playing the role they would simply cast another actor in the role like they did with re-casting Claudia Wells with Elizabeth Shue as Jennifer character in the same film. In the very same film they re-cast an actress with a different actress, but they did not put prosthetics on Elizabeth Shue to make her look like Claudia Wells. For whatever what feels to me like being mean spirited, they decided it was good idea to put another actor in prosthetics and inter-splice a very small portion of me from the original film to fool audiences in to believing I was in it. There has not been another situation like this preceding it, and because of my lawsuit there has not been another time that another actor has been subjected to this particular sort of illegal activity.
Again I am proud of the lawsuit and standing up against illegal activity that caused proper precedents and bylaws in to be set in the Screen Actors Guild. It is unfortunate that the producers of the Back to the Future films decided it was a good idea to perform an illegal action, which led to a lawsuit. In 2005-2007 I had a very positive experience working with [Back to the Future director] Robert Zemeckis again playing Grendel in his Beowulf. I am enjoying my life, making my films, touring with them, publishing my books and acting in other people's films. If I were put in the exact same situation today I would react in the exact same way. Thank you for asking about it in that detailed way. I am glad to help clarify.
People can find out about my films and shows and where I will be with them on CrispinGlover.com
Crispin Glover will present It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. and "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show Part 2" at the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park, Saturday, July 7 at 7:00 PM, followed by a Q&A and a book signing.
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