Interview: Crispin Glover

Interview: Crispin Glover. By Simon Miraudo.

You may recognise Crispin Glover as George McFly from Back to the Future, and you may even recognise him from Back to the Future Part 2 (though it isn’t him in the second instance, and he’ll tell you all about the lawsuit he filed against the makers for unlawfully using his likeness below). You may know him as the The Thin Man from Charlie’s Angels, or as the Knave of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, or as Willard from Willard, or as the one-armed bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine, or as the motion-captured Grendal from Beowulf, or even from his performances in Wild at Heart and Dead Man and countless other films.

More iconic than any of these characters, however, is Crispin Glover himself; director, author, musician, travelling showman, notorious David Letterman interview subject, and eccentric. Glover is in Australia to screen his films It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! and WHAT IS IT? as well as present Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Parts 1 and 2. Unfortunately, the original plan to speak with Glover in person was nixed, and I was asked to send my questions to him via email. The responses are certainly detailed, though I suspect they might be standard replies for all interviewers. Nonetheless, I appreciate his taking the time to write me back. As I discovered from the below Q&A, the mythology that surrounds the man is both unwarranted and self-perpetuated. His answers reveal a thoughtful, polite man who takes his art seriously, and hardly the unhinged renegade many would imagine. Then again, it takes a little bit of lovable lunacy to provide 5,000 word responses to just eight questions.

Michael J. Fox and Crispin Glover in BACK TO THE FUTURE

SM: You’re in Australia to screen your movies and perform your slide show. What was the original impetus for involving yourself in these presentations? How do you find the audience reaction?

CG: The live aspects of the shows are not to be underestimated. This is a large part of how I bring audiences in to the theatre 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 binding 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 now call Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Side Show Part 1. The content of that show has not changed since I first started performing it. But the performance of the show has become more dramatic as opposed to more of a reading. The books do not change but the performance of the show of course varies slightly from show to show based the audience’s energy and my energy.

People sometimes get confused as to what Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show (Parts 1&2) 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 also has 8 books. Part 2 is 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 second slide show has been developed over the last several years and the content has changed as it has been developed, but I am very happy with the content of the second slide show now.

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.

An image from WHAT IS IT?

SM: Do you remember watching any specific films when you were growing up that inspired you to get into acting and, ultimately, filmmaking?

CG: I always drew and wrote as a child. I always liked Bosch and Dali as painters when I was a child. I saw Tod Browning’s Freaks when I was a child and was quite favourably impressed by that. My father is an actor and my mother retired from her primary profession as a dancer and secondary profession as an actress when I was born. As I was growing up watching my father work in the film industry I did not necessarily equate the business of acting with art as much as seeing it as a business. I became a professional actor at age 13 by my own choice. I emphasize that because there is a large difference in that from when a child is forced in to acting by parents who choose that career for a child. I began studying in a professional acting class at age 15. At age 16 I viewed many revival films of the 1920’s through the 1970’s at the revival theatres that were popular in the early 1980’s before the advent of VHS competition that led to most of the revival houses closing. While watching many of the films and being in acting class I began to understand film and acting as art.

I had gotten two commercials at age 13. Then my first long term experience with professional job as an actor was in 1978 at age 14 for The Sound of Music with Florence Henderson at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I got that through a “Cattle Call/ Open Audition” where literally thousands of people would show up to audition for the cast of the show. My mother had seen the ad for it in Variety for “children who can act, sing and dance.” I was concerned about the dancing and singing in particular. My parents were both supportive. My mother had been familiar with the singing and dancing sort of “Cattle call” from work in New York and made me feel like it was not that big of a deal. So I went through the experience and it is something I will not forget. As the day went on more and more people getting cut and I kept getting called back in till there were very few at the end of the day. As I recall we were then called back for one more day of auditions and then the decision was made that day. Actually that kind of experience was really very confidence building because I was there physically with all the other people progressively getting cut.

I had already started to do good work as an actor in class by age 16 at the point that I went to yet another “Cattle call” audition for Best of Times that was advertised in Variety. It was similar sort of cutting out experience as for The Sound of Music except the audition was more based on a scene that you were supposed bring in. I had brought in an improvisational scene with someone trying to get their parent to listen to a certain song. The scene was later rewritten by the show writers and changed in to me getting a shop owner played by Jackie Mason to listen to the song. Being cast in that from yet another cattle call at age 16 was of course a good thing and yet by no mean did I think I had “Made it.” Nicolas Cage was also cast in it from the same “Cattle call” and he and I were the only two actors that were of the age that were still in school. So we had a tutor that we would have to be in a special room or trailer and do a certain amount of hours of school work each day. He and I shared a certain sense of humour of the absurd and became friends while making that show.

I was not technically proficient enough of an actor at the age of 16 to take weak writing and make the intentions work in a strong or differentiated way. I saw the clip you refer to on you tube and I still see one moment that I was directed to do that I did not feel good about then or now. I saw it a few months ago and I was concerned about watching it because I had not watched it since it was on the air when I was 16. I did not like my performance in it. I learned a lot and was very careful after that experience to make certain to be very careful about the decisions as an actor to intensify or even change the intentions of the character as written so that it plays. I feel like in that show the lines for the most part are played as written and it makes me uncomfortable still to this day to have public record of a time where I am still learning the craft. In any case I am glad I did the show and learned a lot from doing it.

The sort of training that I had or acting focused on bringing portions of your own psychology to make those characters have an organic quality.

Something that is important to understand is that those who appear in corporately funded and distributed films and more importantly the content of are corporately funded and distributed films is not determined by the populace of the culture, but by the corporate interests that are funding and distributing the films. If an actor willingly cheerleads the corporate interests that actor will be rewarded with money, media backup/publicity and consequently more work that sustains the corporate interests.

Around the time I started acting in films in 1982 there was a shift in the kinds of films that were being corporately funded and distributed.

The film industry I had thought I had stepped in to was the spirit of when I was a teenager attending the various revival theatres that were so popular in Los Angeles in the 1980’s before home theatre business competition forced most 35 mm venues to close.  I did not realize at the time that I stepped in to working as an actor that the kinds of films that were being funded and distributed had changed.

As soon as I got my driver’s license when I was 16 in 1980 I attended screenings at revival theatres that were quite popular in LA before VHS competition cleared many of them away. Many of these revival theatres no longer exist such as, one of my favourites, the beautiful Fox Venice with a wide cinemascope screen on Lincoln Blvd.

The films I saw that played in these venues tended to question culturally accepted truths with performances that underscored these concepts.

Films played such as:

Ken Russel’s The Devils,
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Chinatown,
Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Casanova,
John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence,
Orson Wells’ F for Fake and Citizen Kane,
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Sunset Blvd,
John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living,
Todd Browning’s Freaks,
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove,
Werner Herzog’s Aguire Wrath of God, Even Dwarfs Started Small and Fata Morgana.

I was a regular attendee of David Lynch’s Eraserhead  at midnight on Fridays at the Nuart.

I studied actors giving performances like:

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider,
Timothy Carey in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden,
Charles Laughton in The Hunchaback of Notre Dame,
Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Wise Blood,
Peter Lorre in M,
Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh,
and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God.

These films and performances characterized the atmosphere of cinema and acting I believed I was stepping into as a young actor. By 1982, at age 18, I began to act in feature films. At this time I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our culture. I enthusiastically supported the idea of questioning our culture. To help support the idea, I also questioned the film industry’s and media’s messages.  Sometimes I felt scorned and isolated; other times I felt accepted and admired. Then, at one point, in the midst of my career, I realized that the types of films the industry was financing and distributing had changed almost diametrically from the types of films I had watched when I was 18.

Now, I have  put my artistic passions and questions in to my own filmmaking with films like What is it? and its sequel It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

Crispin Glover in CHARLIE’S ANGELS

SM: You’ve established for yourself a singular reputation over the years (notably with your Letterman appearances). Do you like to control the way you are perceived, or are you happy for your mythology to have a life of its own?

CG: I am all for any form of art that makes people question things. People ask about all aspects of my career during the question and answer portions of my shows. Both What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! end up having strong reactions from the audience and most of the questions naturally gravitate towards the films at these questions and answer sessions. I do not edit or pre-select the questions in any way and I answer all questions with equal consideration. Sometimes people do ask about the Letterman show. In all media I always have the same response which is “I neither confirm nor deny that I made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.” Of course one can search various appearances under my name and David Letterman on YouTube. My answers to questions about that query at my live shows are quite different than my response in corporate media and quite detailed. I like any form of art that brings questions from an audience.

Your question may lead towards a conclusion to something I prefer to leave as a mystery and let people ponder it on their own. To be helpful though viewing the below YouTube clips in chronological order may help one lead to one’s own conclusion about this. The dates are accurate below but may not be accurate on YouTube, please use the below dates for accurate reference.

David Letterman Show 1986:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALapHYNSmoA
Clowny Clown Clown video1989:
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=clowny+clown+clown&aq=0
Rubin and Ed 1991:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaNf-A_3fC4
Little Loca 2005:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSia1vr1PJM
Little Loca 2005:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJW_7fhUx2w&feature=channel

Anything that lets people question media seems like a positive thing to me!

SM: What do people most recognize you for when they see you on the street?

CG: People usually recognize me for having seen me in multiple films and not just one film. It always surprises me when people know me from a much more obscure film, but it actually happens a fair amount.

SM: You worked with your Back to the Future director, Robert Zemeckis, on Beowulf. Was there any remaining tension from the BTTF lawsuit?

CG: Interviewers actually do not usually ask me about this subject in a detailed way so I am very glad to have the opportunity to get certain things straight. To be clear I was not “cut” from the sequels because the word “cut” would indicate that I had been involved in the sequels at one point and then later taken away from them. I was only contracted to be in the first film. There were no sequels in existence at that time.  A lawsuit is or 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 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 self-ownership infringement. In other words the producers of the sequels to Back to the Future illegally stole my image to help enrich themselves. 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. To skirt the issue Bob Gale 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 he and his fellow producers 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 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 Robert Zemeckis again playing Grendel in his Beowulf. When working together the subject of the lawsuit was never brought up. 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

SM: I understand you’re working on the new thriller Motel. Can you tell us about your role in that?

CG: I just shot that about two months ago and enjoyed working on it. The dialogue was well written. I had worked with John Cusack before so it was good to work with him again and I liked the director as well. I am looking forward to seeing the film.

SM: When will we get to see the final instalment of the ‘IT’ trilogy?

CG: 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. The Czech Republic 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 will step outside of the trilogy for a number of films that deal with different thematic elements.

The sets for my next film productions have started construction. 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. He is also an actor and that is the next film I am planning 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 am currently developing to shoot on sets at my property in the Czech Republic. The cost of the set building will determine which one I actually shoot next. They are will all be relatively affordable yet still cinematically pleasing.

SM: Is there anything you wish more people knew about you?

CG: My interests artistically may be called eccentric and there is a truth in that, but I am also a very centric as opposed to eccentric business person.

I do not view eccentric as a negative term. I view it a poetic interpretation of a mathematical term meaning something that does not follow a centric course. Many of the characters I have played can be called eccentric. My own films and books can be called eccentric.  I find all of this fine. I publish my own books, produce, finance, direct, and edit, distribute my own films.  Publishing, producing, financing, directing, editing and distribution all have extremely centric elements to them that have to be followed in order for results to happen. Because I spend a good amount of time performing those very centric tasks it means that I have very centric qualities in my day to day life even if the art I am interested in can be perceived as eccentric.

I have not always played eccentric or unbalanced characters, but I definitely have often played eccentric characters. I enjoy acting when there is a good concept for the film or a good character arc or psychological understating in the writing and by the director. Finding this sort of combination can be difficult.

There is definitely a complexity in how roles are chosen. It can be a combination of enthusiasm for the role or project, or the necessity of bringing in money, or maintaining visibility, or if the will be enjoyable to work on for some reason.

Usually a successful actor associated with a particular thought or perception in people’s minds. Often the way someone is cast in something has to do with that perception that people have about that actor. This to me is a positive thing and to be able to get in to the truth of the psychology of the character is what is important to me. The best philosophy for feeling good about oneself is to not compare one’s self to others. Someone could always compare their self to someone who is doing something that they wish they were doing and feel bad about their self. Or conversely someone can always compare their self to someone who is not doing well and then falsely feel great about their self. Either of these ways of thinking is not healthy. It is best to realize if one is accomplishing what one wants to accomplish. If one is accomplishing what one wants to accomplish that is all that matters. Right now completing both What is it? And its sequel It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. And touring with these films are things that I have been wanting to accomplish for a long time so I feel great about these things.

Crispin Glover presents Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Parts 1 and 2 and his films It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! and WHAT IS IT? at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on July 9 and 10, 2012. He takes the show to Melbourne on July 13 and 14, followed by Sydney on July 20 and 21. You can find all details at CrispinGlover.com

3 Responses to “Interview: Crispin Glover”

  1. Such an amazing actor. I love his roles in Simon Says the most.

  2. Love his detailed answer about the Back To The Future lawsuit. I’ve got tickets to both screenings at Rev tonight and tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

  3. Having seen Crispin last night, I can safely say that answering questions with 5000 word answers is pretty usual for him. 🙂

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