A veteran Hollywood character actor and established cult figure, Crispin Hellion Glover is an obsession to some and an enigma to all. Having built a career on small roles in big movies, such as his unforgettable part as George McFly in ‘Back To The Future’, Crispin has used his blockbuster earnings to fund a cavalcade of independent, subversive art-house projects that have landed him in the Controversy Hall of Fame (if such a hall actually existed… which it should). He has made over twenty books since 1983, recorded an album, personally funded, directed and produced two feature-length films, ‘What Is It?’ and ‘It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.’ and created the ‘Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show’, parts 1 & 2. He will be at Bíó Paradís on September 17 and 18 showing his films and slide shows, as well as conversing with the crowd. We got in touch with the man who once almost (but not quite) kicked David Letterman in the head to talk about his work.
IT IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK
Both movies you’ve directed have included or been created by people with apparent disabilities. How does this figure into your work? Is there a message you want to get across?
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 twenty to thirty years in filmmaking. Specifically, anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. 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?”
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 its 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. I believe humans are a naturally curious species and when it comes to it anything that has questions or that can cause questions is something that humans in general will be attracted to. My interest is to make films that cause questions or thoughts.
Your second movie, ‘It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.’ was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart. Who is he and how did you come to make this film?
I put Steve in to the cast of ‘What Is It?’ because of his screenplay for ‘It Is Fine!’ that I read in 1987. ‘What Is It?’ was going to be a short film to promote the concept of working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome to corporate film funding entities. When I turned it from a short film into a feature, I realised there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven’s screenplay dealt with.
Steve had been locked in a nursing home for about ten years when his mother died. He was 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. It is written in the genre of a murder detective thriller, but truths about his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography.
Steve wrote his screenplay in the late 1970s, 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 ‘It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE’. Cerebral palsy is not degenerative, but Steve was 62 when we shot the film. One of his lungs had collapsed because he had started choking on his own saliva and he got pneumonia. All of this happened in the year 2000, specifically when I started funding my own films with the money I make from the films I act in. This was around the same time that the first ‘Charlie’s Angels’ film was coming to me. I realised I could put the money I made from that film straight into his movie. That is exactly what happened.
I am relieved to have gotten this film finally completed because 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 and 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 the latter took a long time to complete. I feel that ‘It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.’ will probably be the best film I will have anything to do with in my entire career.
AND AS FOR THE ART
What is your ‘Big Slide Show’, and what can viewers expect? If people can only make it to one or the other, will they be left massively confused?
I have been performing ‘Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1’ since 1993. I started performing ‘Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 2’ three years ago. Both ‘Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show’ Part 1 and 2 are now set shows that do not vary. The slide shows contain different selection of books, so there is not a continuum that is disturbed by seeing one or the other.
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.
Tell us about your books. What are they about and why did you start making them?
I started making my books 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 bookstore upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800s and someone had put their artwork 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 it 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. 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.
When I first started publishing the books, people said I should have book readings. But the book are so heavily illustrated and the 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.
BUCKING THE SYSTEM
You have a fairly unique way of presenting your work, in that you do not distribute screeners and only show your films by touring with them. Why is this?
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 utilising 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 it. Since I funded the films myself, I knew that this is how I would recoup my investment even if it a slow process. 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.
You run your own production company, Volcanic Eruptions. What all do you do there?
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, 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 and 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.
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 utilise 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.
You have largely made it a point in your career to work outside of the traditional Hollywood system, working outside of distribution deals and only holding select screenings, which you are present at. You’re a pretty big rule breaker. Is the rejection of the status quo a driving force for you artistically?
The point of touring in the way that I have has not been to break rules but to recoup. Most art-house filmmakers do not recoup on their investment and it has been very important for me to recoup. This has been the driving force and not breaking rules. In the last six years the most important thing for me was to have enough people come to the shows in order for me recoup in the amounts of money I had put in the two feature films. This has essentially happened.
Because I currently tour with my films for distribution I see it as slow growth business model. It is possible that my interests will correlate at some point with the corporately funded and distributed film industry and at that time perhaps the rapidity of my own film’s distribution will increase.
That being said, you have also worked within the Hollywood system as well throughout your career, in some pretty huge blockbusters one might add. Do you see yourself as an outsider or a card-carrying member of both clubs?
Within the corporately funded and distributed film world, I see myself as an actor for hire and am grateful to that system to have made a living in it for about thirty years. 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.
Both individualised systems of work and working within organised structures can have benefits. Corporate entities can have good reasons for existing. Right now corporatism seems to be having a lot of negative impact on the global culture at large, but this could change.
To find out more about Crispin’s films, art and touring schedule visit CrispinGlover.com.