Last week I got the chance to "interview" Crispin Glover before he comes to Cinema 21 next week (click here for show details and booking)! I put "interview" in quotes because it was more like a short answer test. Glover prefers to do this kind of thing over email so he can answer the questions at his leisure (the real truth, I believe, is that reporters like me are a total drag to talk to on the phone all day).
Anyways, it's pretty clear from my piece in the film section this week that I'm a big Glover fan/apologetic and I really enjoyed getting a chance to ask some of the shit I was afraid to when I saw What Is It? in 2008 (mainly "Hey man, I really liked your album - Oh! I just spooged myself in front of a whole auditorium of people!") It was much better than the Q&A that happened after that screening when a dude in the audience tried to publicly shame my girlfriend and I for laughing during Glover's "Big Slide Show". Cuz this shit's serious, maaaaan.
As you will see below the jump, Crispin started our interview with a huge block of text concerning his two films. It's the same text I've seen in a bunch of other interviews so if you've been following this press junket over the last two years you're probably familiar with it, too. If you haven't, it's a good read that explains some of the impetus behind making What Is It? and describes the absolutely fascinating story behind It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. The actual interview starts with my first question (in bold). I'm pretty sure some of those answers were copied and pasted from other interviews he's done, too - sometimes they don't even relate to what I asked but... yeah. As they said in elementary school: you get what you get and you don't throw a fit. (Warning: a couple of pictures are NSFW)
CG: There are a few things about the films I should say about both the films before [I answer your questions].
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.
Steven C. Stewart wrote and is the main actor in part two of the trilogy titled It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I put Steve in to the cast of What is it? because he had written this screenplay which I read in 1987. When I turned What is it? from a short film in to a feature I realized there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven C. Stewart’s screenplay dealt with.
Steve had been locked in a nursing home for about ten years when his mother died. He had been 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. 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.
As I have stated, I put Steven C. Stewart into What is it? when I turned What is it? into a feature film. Originally What is it? was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities that working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. Steve had written his screenplay in in the late 1970’s. I read it in 1987 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 the film. Cerebral palsy is not generative but Steve was 62 when we shot the film. One of Steve’s lungs had collapsed because he had started choking on his own saliva and he got pneumonia. I specifically started funding my own films with the money I make from the films I act in when Steven C. Stewart’s lung collapsed in the year 2000 - this was around the same time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was coming to me. I realized with the money I made from that film I could put straight in to the Steven C. Stewart film. That is exactly what happened.
I finished acting in Charlie’s Angels and then went to Salt Lake City where Steven C. Stewart lived. I met with Steve and David Brothers with whom I co-directed the film. I went back to LA and acted in a lower budget film for about five weeks and David Brothers started building the sets. Then I went straight back to Salt Lake and we completed shooting the film within about six months in three separate smaller productions. Then Steve died within a month after we finished shooting. I am relieved to have gotten this film finally completed because ever since I read the screenplay in 1987 I knew I had to produce the film and also produce it correctly. 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 to have completed it especially since I am 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 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 they will be emailed with information as to where I will be with whatever film I tour with. It is by far the best way to know how to see the films.
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've read quite a few interviews talking about It is Fine. Everything is Fine! but one thing I haven't seen touched on is the distinctive look of the film (especially in contrast with What Is It?) - a sort of magical realism mixed with film noir. Can you talk about the visual tone you tried to set. What influenced you and [co-director] David Brothers in that regard, either that other directors had done or from Steven's script?
The most expensive part of making this film were the sets. I had worked with David physically building the sets for The Backward Swing and knew what kind of design he was capable of from a very large set that was made for What is it? There were specific discussions we had about colors and types of sets, but I also knew David knew what he was doing with set design so I trusted him about many things. The sets are a huge part of what I am proud of about the film but in that they support the emotional content very well.
Interestingly, Margit Carstenen was not who I was initially thinking of for the role. In the film you can see there is a certain kind of casting of perfectly beautiful women and the sets although beautiful are built in such a way that it is understood they are sets. Because Steve wrote it as a fantasy David and I wanted to make certain that we supported it in the most opulent way and to look closest to a corporately funded and distributed film. I had initially thought of the role to be played by a well known perfectly beautiful actress that had done a lot of television work in the 70’s and 80’s. I had met her in the mid 80’s. I spoke with her about the screenplay and I could tell she was uncomfortable that there was graphic sexuality in it.
So I started to rethink it. I was watching a lot of Fassbinder and I thought really I should approach one of the greatest living actresses - Margit Carstensen. I got hold of her through the Goethe Institute in LA. They got hold of her agent in Germany and I sent her the script and she liked it immediately. I flew her to Salt Lake for the shoot for one week. I am proud to say that it was her first American film!
Can you share anything about [proposed follow-up to What is it? and It is fine!] IT IS MINE. especially in regards to the previous two films. I assume they share some thematic similarity?
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. 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 am in the process of writing a screenplay for myself and my father to act in together. He is also an actor and that will be the next film I 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 is another project that I may make before that I am currently working on the screenplay that may be even more affordable.
Is it fair to say that both What Is It? and It Is Fine! deal deeply with obsession? I've noticed that theme in both your books and some of the roles you take. Can you speak to that?
Obsession for completing art can be a very good thing, and probably not so good for many other things in life. I have not consciously set out to make books or films about obsession, but it certainly can be a good subject!
What books will be available to buy at the showing? I assume Oak Mot and Rat Catching. Any others? I know you have quite a few that have yet to be published.
Right now I have Rat Catching, Oak Mot, and Concrete Inspection in print and will be available at the show. What it is, and how it is done is currently not in print, but I hope to print up some new editions soon!
- Oak Mot
You've spoken before about having no desire to put the slide show on DVD going on to say that film essentially killed vaudeville (and some would say it is killing theater). Is live performance still valued today in the way that it was? If not, why do you think that is?
Live theater is still greatly valued in certain cultures of the world. Film can be extremely powerful when it is well done. Business wise good actors, writers and directors tend to gravitate towards money. If someone is making money in the film profession it can be difficult to keep open to a theatrical world when there is far less money involved. Consequently the more driven writers, actors and directors will often tend to move towards film projects as there is a chance of being involved in a lucrative career. So that can take a lot of talent and energy away from live productions. Right now live productions tend towards being very expensive productions that have similar corporate values as corporately financed and distributed films. This means that live theater is not an alternative viewpoint to corporate film and it becomes just a super expensive corporate live spectacle.
Speaking generally, what separates art from provocation? Is there a line to be drawn between the two?
Someone can provoke another person on the street and call it art and perhaps they would be right, but other people may not agree that it is art. One could say the thing about any sort of provocation or and sort of art. This means the definition of art is certainly subjective.
Just to be clear art can evoke something just as much as provoke something. As long as the audience for the intended audience gets something from it then the artist has done their job.
Similarly, when you are directing a film or presenting a slide show of your books how does the audience factor into your thought process? I am imagining a sliding scale between 1. aiming for provoking a specific reaction 2. aiming to provoke thought/feeling at all to and 3. not worrying about it, the audience will react as they will. Perhaps a better way to put the question is: What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from your work?
It is true that if I were the last person in the world there would be no purpose for me to make an kind of art. I would probably be very concerned about gathering food and taking care of myself. I do not think the communication of art would be pertinent any longer being the only person. That being said when I am working on a project it is often about reacting to something and making that thing work/become beautiful for my own sensibilities. I am less concerned at that point about other people and more concerned with what I like. Again still follows with the concept that art is something that is communicated to other people.
Working seriously in several different artistic fields can get one accused of being a dabbler. Where do you draw the inspiration to do so? [This wasn't meant to sound so dickish - ed.]
I have written, drawn and even made films since a young age. Acting is the profession I chose professionally at age 13. I have continued to pursue all interests.
I'm curious, too, what other artists working today you feel a kinship with (if any)? Perhaps some that you'd like to see get some more exposure.
Do you mean artists with who I am friends? Or do you mean artists that admire? Here are some artists whose work I admire and talk with about art sometimes, David Brothers, Joe Coleman, Adam Parfrey, Gaspar Noe.
I did a commentary with Werner Herzog and the DVD producer Norm Hill on the Anchor Bay DVD for Even Dwarves Started Small and Fata Morgana. The way the commentary with Herzog on both of those films came about was while I was editing What is it? I had toured with with my Big Slide Show one hour dramatic narration of eight different books and a rough cut of the film. Norm Hill had organized my show in Seattle. I spoke with him about my interest in Herzog’s work. I had also met Herzog in 1990 at the Venice film festival because the publicist for the film he was there with was the same publicist for a Jersey Skolimowski film I had acted in that was only released in Poland and France. I had told the publicist how much I admired Herzog’s films and he arranged a dinner that was just me and Herzog and the publicist and a woman the publicist knew. Herzog was very easy to talk to and it was a great dinner.
Years later Norm Hill was producing the DVD of Herzog’s films for Anchor Bay and he invited me to do a number of commentaries for the DVDs with himself and Herzog and I chose to do Fata Morgana and Even Dwarves Started Small because those two had influence on What is it? in different ways. I had already locked What is it? when we recorded those commentaries. It something I am very proud of in my career to have done.
Years later in 2005 when I premiered What is it? at Sundance coincidentally Herzog was premiering Grizzly Man and I went and saw his premiere and he came and saw What is it? and was incredibly supportive and has been very kind. I am very grateful to him for that and in relation to that I am also very grateful to David Lynch who had years before I made What is it? had agreed to executive produce IT IS MINE. Which ended up leading to me making What is it? I have also run in to Herzog on numerous occasions and he will share interesting tidbits of information on his directing and producing thoughts. It really has meant a lot to me!
Being able to speak with artists I admire about art and the business of how to accomplish good art is extremely important to me. Practitioners of art I can relate to and/or admire really can have insight that is very useful and I am extremely grateful for when that happens.
Speaking personally, The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. is one of my favorite albums ever. It really meant a lot to me when I first discovered it and it still does. Any chance you will ever record another album?
There is another album’s worth of material recorded that needs a little work done to it to release it, but it is not where my mind has been.
I know you have described it as a “novelty album”. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. Is “novelty” a pejorative when it comes to music? How seriously do you take that album?
We worked on The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. for a couple of years. A lot of work was put in to it, and I am proud of the album. I think novelty album is probably the best way to describe it because you would really not call it a rock album, nor a poetry album. I do not think of “novelty album” as a pejorative.
Like your reluctance to do DVDs of the slide show, do you regret recording readings from Oak Mot or is the sound recording of those books something else entirely?
I have no regrets with the Oak Mot readings or anything on the album. The book readings on the album have a very different quality than the show because the show has images that I perform in front of live, with no music. The readings work on the album and they are good to use when I am doing publicity for the show on the radio, because even though it is different from the live slide show it gives some kind of concept for what the live slide show will be.