Crispin Glover: Taboo, Or Not Taboo?

Actor-director Crispin Glover talks about his controversial filmmaking debut and his eccentric Hollywood career.

“I suppose there is a misconception of me in general,” says Crispin Hellion Glover, an actor best known for his peculiar character creations that lurk on Hollywood’s commercial fringe. “There can be a misconception of anyone that has a ‘persona’ in the media. People may very readily believe that the person behind the ‘persona’ is the same as that very ‘persona’, whereas the truth of it may be that the person behind that ‘persona’ is quite different.”

In many ways, he’s right. As an actor, Glover’s performances are unmistakable: eccentric to the point of being unhinged, his gallery of peripheral freaks — George McFly in Back to the Future, Andy Warhol in The Doors, Layne in River’s Edge — is the stuff of movie myth. According to director Robert Zemeckis, Glover performed one of his Back to the Future scenes with tears in his eyes, having been denied an outlandish science-fiction hairstyle. He once tried to high-kick talk-show host David Letterman. Wearing platform heels and a fright wig.

Unlike his on-screen characters, however, in person Glover is almost grimly serious. He’s fond of repeating phrases like “I would like people to think for themselves”, until they become virtual mantras of his artistic intent. “I always take the roles that I play seriously,” he states matter-of-factly — be they singing to giant rats or squaring off against Charlie’s Angels.

Glover’s acting in commercial films, which he likens to a craft, has given him freedom to pursue his passion — namely, making art that challenges the cultural status quo.

Something of an outré renaissance man, he’s published books, recorded music and set-up a fledgling movie studio in the Czech Republic, and is currently touring his first two films as director — What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE — as part of Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show. Filmmaker as cult ringmaster, he tirelessly spruiks projects like a carnival salesman in mortician’s attire.

What is it? is my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking,” goes Glover’s pitch. Born some 13 years ago as a short film, What is it? became a feature length sideshow of the outer-mind, a taboo-busting opus haunted by the spectres of Buñuel and Tod Browning’s Freaks. Glover describes the movie, whose cast primarily comprises actors with Down’s Syndrome, as “being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home as tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche.”

The film is a direct reaction to what Glover says — and not for the last time — is the “corporately funded” content of film culture. “Anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed,” he offers.

In a culture where the prevailing cinema model is target audience-driven Hollywood entertainment, Glover says he wants to open a dialogue on elements traditionally considered taboo in film; to wake a passive audience from its commercially induced coma.

“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,” he explains. “What is it that is taboo in the culture? What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media?”

The film has acquired some notoriety for its cast of Down’s Syndrome actors, which might seem risqué at a time when people are flailing their arms over the “retard” satire in Tropic Thunder. Glover is conscious of the potential for his movie to be misconstrued, and is quick to address the issue.

“I have not consciously made these films to be a part of a disabled rights movement,” he replies. “In fact I make it quite clear that What is it? is not a film about Down’s Syndrome.”

The second film in his proposed trilogy, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE, is a psychosexual noir based on a screenplay by the late writer Steven C. Stewart, who suffered from cerebral palsy and also stars. “Stewart’s own true story was fascinating,” Glover says of his interest in making the film.

Response to the films has thus far, says Glover, been excellent. Touring them personally means the director has the opportunity to gauge an immediate reaction from his audiences. “I have seen people upset and I have seen people emotionally moved and I have seen people feel inspired,” he says. “All of these things can be considered good for different reasons.”

One man Glover was flattered to hear liked the picture was his Wild At Heart director, David Lynch. “He saw a relatively early rough cut of What is it?,” Glover recalls. “At the end he said, ‘I dig, I dig it, I dig it!’ Eraserhead was a very important film to me when I was 16. I saw it over and over.”

If Crispin Glover’s personal work finds him questioning corporate media, he has — by his own admission — no problem working within the studio system to finance his creative endeavours. “I just cannot be concerned about the content of the film other than how it affects the character I am playing,” he says of the mainstream career that has seen him take roles in the likes of Charlie’s Angels. “This is especially true when I am working to be funding my own projects.”

The son of actor Bruce, Glover grew up in Los Angeles, which, he says, gave him a “pretty realistic” view of the movie business. “I had always drawn and written and I made super 8 films as a teenager,” he reflects, though his professional career would initially follow that of his father’s. Glover took his first acting job at 16 and worked steadily on TV and in film, including small guest roles on Happy Days and Family Ties.

“For the most part up ’til about 18 I was very much just needing to get as much work as I could to keep my career as an actor going,” he says. “When Back to the Future came out, the film was so financially successful it made me feel a certain obligation towards finding material that somehow reflected my psychological interests. The first film I acted in after Back to the Future came out was River’s Edge. I am still proud of River’s Edge.”

That on-edge performance — Glover’s palpable mania near-wipes everyone else, Dennis Hopper included, off the screen — would be a turning point for the actor. A string of interesting parts in films by Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch would follow. When it came time for producers to cast the sequel to Back to the Future, Glover’s agenda had changed. The situation that arose has gone down as one of the more infamous disputes between star and studio.

“Crispin decided that he wanted all kinds of things that were way out of line for an actor at this point in his career,” the sequel’s writer-producer Bob Gale once said, after he and director Zemeckis had asked Glover to return. As a result, they were forced to write around the George McFly character, which led to the creation of the movie’s ingenious parallel dimension; the “alternate” 1985. Unhappily, however, their decision to fit another performer with Crispin-like make-up to play an older version of his character brought a lawsuit from Glover.

“Not only did the actor impersonate mannerisms, but prosthetics were put on him in order to make him look like me to fool audiences in to believing that was me in the sequel,” argues Glover, who sued the producers for using his likeness — and won. “Actually my own lawsuit set certain precedents that would make anything—even with digital work based on the digital banking of my or any other actor’s body and face and movements — highly restricted. There are laws in the Screen Actors Guild that make it so no producers, directors, or actors are ever able to do this again. I am proud of that.”

Ironically, when Zemeckis approached his old star to perform the digital monster Grendel in last year’s motion-capture version of Beowulf, Glover agreed to participate.

“I was surprised when I heard there was interest from Robert Zemeckis for me to play Grendel in Beowulf,” he says. “I ended up having an excellent working relationship and like both my performance and the film.”

And so it is that Glover continues to strike a balance between these mainstream roles and his personal projects. He remains committed to the performances, knowing they will help fund his filmmaking.

“I do not divorce myself from the working on the character or doing a good job,” he says.

“Right now completing 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.

September 2008

Originally published on Empire online

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