Crispin Glover on the Hero's Journey, the Warlock Pinchers and not repeating himself
Crispin Hellion Glover is many things. He's a cult figure, known for his baffling performance art-like appearance on David Letterman, as well as a decidedly outsider filmmaker who creates offbeat art films featuring actors with Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy. He's a musician who once did a spine-chillingly wondrous rendition of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking," and a creator of illustrated books that piece together portions of old, found books, which he performs live in Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show. He's also a commercially successful actor who portrayed George McFly in Back to the Future and has taken on roles in such high-profile blockbusters as Charlie's Angels and Hot Tub Time Machine. And he'll be at the Alamo Drafthouse this week, showing the first two films in his IT trilogy: It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine at 7 p.m. tonight and What Is it? at 7 p.m. tomorrow night. In short, he's a very busy guy.
The films are self-financed, and only screened when Glover is on hand to offer a book reading and slide show beforehand, and then conduct a lengthy Q&A afterward -- which Glover likens to old vaudeville performances. He stays late to answer every question, meet every fan and sign every autograph. And he's been doing this road show for eight years.
I saw Glover when he showed his first film, What is It?, at the old Starz FilmCenter at the Tivoli in 2008 and became fascinated with the enigmatic performer, who animatedly narrated the slideshow to his novels and answered fan questions in long, circling answers late into the night. So I was excited to get the chance to interview him in advance of his Alamo appearances, even though I had to conduct the interview over e-mail given his busy schedule. But when I got Glover's answers back, I noticed some striking similarities and even some word-for-word answers that he'd given in past earlier interviews. So I wrote Glover back, pointing out the repeats and asking if we could speak on the phone. Instead, he sent back a very diplomatic, thoughtful response detailing that "the reason you are seeing the same answers is that in year 8 of touring I now have a 1600 page word file of interviews that have been conducted by email. By far most of these pages are copied replies that have been perfected as response over the years," and that "even if you and I spoke on the phone regarding those topics I would be saying the same words that I have written to you. Those words at this point are literally memorized. If you see/hear some radio interviews on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet and listen carefully even when they sound candid I am saying the same words that you already have. After this many years of speaking about particular topics and honing the best way to make them work for, TV, radio and print I have perfected those particular responses." He implored me to e-mail more questions if I wished. I did.
What follows is a portion of my e-mail conversation with the totally fascinating Crispin Glover. During the e-mail conversations, I chatted with the filmmaker, artist, writer, actor and musician about everything from DIY film distribution to astrology, the Hero's Journey and his namesake Warlock Pinchers song. Fair warning: some of the answers here are Glover's pre-crafted responses that have appeared in other publications, others are not. But all are fascinating.
Westword: Why do you think it's important to show your films only in the theater and appear in person with them? Do you ever plan to release them on DVD?
Crispin Glover: There are no plans to release the films digitally. The live aspects 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.
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 U.S. 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.
You've spoken in the past about funding your art by taking roles in big budget films like Charlie's Angels. Is that still the way you function? Is it necessary to have a "day job" to make the work you want to make?
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!
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.
Touring itself is a difficult lifestyle and plays with sleep. The live show also has a lot of physicality to it. Last year I developed a very serious respiratory infection and had to continue to tour which of course worsened the infection. It took 6 months to recover fully. I worked for many years on the films with the idea I would be touring. So even though there are difficulties I am glad to be doing it!
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.
Your films often make people uncomfortable. Do you like to cultivate this response? What's the merit in challenging an audience?
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 20 to 30 years in film making. 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?" And that is the title of the film. 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 it's 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.