Everything Is Fine 

An email correspondence with Crispin Hellion Glover, actor, author and director of What is it?

An email correspondence with Crispin Hellion Glover, actor, author and director of What is it?

Not since John Cassavetes subsidized his intensely personal, idiosyncratic films by acting in drive-in schlock like Incubus has an actor-filmmaker played both ends against the middle like Crispin Hellion Glover. After his film-stealing role as Michael J. Fox's endearingly nerdy dad in 1985's Back to the Future, Glover could easily have ridden the role to a cushy mainstream career (and a lucrative payday in Parts II and III). Instead, he opted out of the sequels—wisely, as history shows—and defied the movie's studio when it tried to use his likeness without him, preferring to stretch his abilities in offbeat films like River's Edge, Wild at Heart and Rubin and Ed.

Today Glover surfaces in the mainstream typically as a specialty act—either in showy supporting roles that call for a soupçon of crazy, as with his memorable mute villain in the Charlie's Angels movies or his chilling, pathetic turn as a CGI Grendel in Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf, or in horror remakes like Willard and The Wizard of Gore. On his own, though, he has made two defiantly strange, obsessive and taboo-shattering features, installments in a planned trilogy. Now touring the country with each film in a combination slide show, staged reading, Q&A and book signing, Glover will be at the Belcourt this Friday and Saturday night to show his first feature, What is it?—immortally synopsized by Slant critic Ed Gonzales as "the story of a community of people with Down's syndrome whose bipolar relationship to snails is linked to an underworld where Glover reigns supreme as a Caligula-esque 'auteur' with castration anxiety and one of many naked monkey women (!) sits on a watermelon (!!) while slowly stroking the cock (!!!) of a man with cerebral palsy (!!!!) who lies in the fetal position inside a big oyster (!!!!!)."

Glover courteously agreed to answer some questions about his films via email in advance of his Nashville appearance.

SCENE: You've said that you made What is it? to open a dialogue with the audience about taboos, and to confront their rejection of material that makes them uncomfortable. Has any of the taboo material become more or less provocative as time has gone by? Do different areas of the country react differently?

CG: I have not noticed a great shift in the audience reaction between 2005 and now in 2008. I have noticed that the way that I talk about the film shifts in certain ways. I have noticed that the response shifts from audience to audience really depending more on the mood of the audience than on the city that the audience is in. If I get more aggressive questioning...then the Q&A session will tend toward having more of that tone, and if the first questions are more what I call easy questions then that tends to be the mood of the questioning session. I have noticed outside of the U.S. I get easier questions and inside the U.S. I get more aggressive questioning.

I should let people know what happens before the Q&A session and after the film. 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 1800s that have been changed into different books from what they originally were. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs. When I first started publishing the books in 1987 people said I should have book readings. But the books 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 visual representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while but in 1993 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 books I have made over the years.

After the dramatic narration of the eight different books I will present the film What is it? which is 72 minutes. After the film I will have a Q&A. This generally lasts 45 minutes to an hour. After that I have a book signing in the lobby. My books are available and I stay until everyone has had their books signed or additional questions answered.

On the subsequent night the pattern of the show is the same but I will perform a new slide show with different books that I have started performing before the sequel. I will show the preview for the sequel to What is it? titled It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. so on the second night I will show the sequel and then have a Q&A and a book signing. So it is a completely different evening of entertainment.

I will be touring with the films for many years to come so if people want to know where I will be with what films they should sign up at CrispinGlover.com and it will email them when I play anywhere.

SCENE: What differences do you see between the audience response to What is it? and the response to It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.? And how do you account for it?

CG: With What is it? I get more aggressive questioning and with It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I usually get easier questioning, but not always. I would say this is because What is it? does not necessarily have the kind of emotional catharsis that It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. has.

SCENE: One of the discomfort zones What is it? addresses is our squeamishness about any kind of handicap or infirmity. How did you set your cast members with Down's syndrome at ease or help them get into the spirit of filming? And what did they think of the finished film?

CG: I have not consciously made these films to be a part of a disabled rights movement or specifically about any kind of disability. In fact I make it quite clear that What is it? is not a film about Down's syndrome at all but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking. Whether an actor has Down's syndrome or not, the most important thing for a director is if the performer has enthusiasm. Everyone that performs in What is it? had incredible enthusiasm. So they were all great to work with.

SCENE: How closely did the movie follow your script?

CG: The screenplay was written specifically for the actors in the film and they all did a great job. Sometimes improvisational elements were used with the actors and often the organic elements that were brought by the actors were incorporated into the texture of the film. Some of the best parts of the film are these organic parts.

SCENE: Should a viewer see the movies in order? How do they relate to each other?

CG: I will show the trailer for It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. The film is completed and I will come back to Nashville with it in a while. It is important to show What is it? first because it sets up going into taboo subject matter to the extent that when people view It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. the taboo element is not what becomes important but the emotional content of the film. The two films have thematic similarities but are very different kinds of film. It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. very much deals with the emotional catharsis of the main character played by the author of the screenplay, Steven C. Stewart, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy.

SCENE: Could you talk a little about Stewart, who figures prominently in your films?

CG: I put Steven C. Stewart into What is it? when I turned What is it? into a feature from what was originally going to be a short film. Steve had written his screenplay in the late 1970s. I read it in 1986 and as soon as I had read it I knew I had to produce the film. Steve had been locked in a nursing home for about 10 years when his mother died. As previously stated he had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy and 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. We shot It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. while I was still completing What is 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 it will mail them when I will be where with whatever film I tour with. It is by far the best way to know how to see the films.

SCENE: Were any snails harmed in the making of this movie? And if so, how did you feel about harming them?

CG: Yes there were. I do not advocate animal cruelty.

SCENE: Are there any places you won't let yourself go, as either filmmaker, actor or viewer? Are you often confused with your characters, and do people react to you differently after they've seen the movies you've made yourself?

CG: As a filmmaker it is important to go in to thoughtful and interesting territory so those places are places I would like to go. People do believe that what they have seen is a greater reflection of one's self than it necessarily is. Some people particularly have strong questions about What is it? However for the most part people really get a lot out of that film and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

SCENE: Have you started IT IS MINE.? And once you've finished the trilogy, have you thought about what comes next?

CG: I should not go into detail for IT IS MINE. yet and I will not shoot that film 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 would say at least a few years if not many more than that. We had to shoot It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. because of Steve's health. He died within a month after we finished shooting the film. Cerebral palsy is not generative but Steve was 62 [and] one of Steve's lungs had collapsed because he had started choking on his own saliva and he got pneumonia.

SCENE: A co-worker of mine who's a huge fan of Rubin and Ed wants to know if you still have a cat that can eat a whole watermelon.

CG: No. I do not own any pets. I travel a lot and it would be difficult. I do have bonsai though!

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