Capone With Crispin Glover About WHAT IS IT? (Written & Directed By Glover)!! Zemeckis BEOWULF Ponderings, Too!!
Published at: Nov. 14, 2006, 12:03 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with what might be my favorite interview I’ve ever done for AICN. Not because it was kooky and weird, as I’m sure many of you might expect a 45-minute conversation with Crispin Glover might be, but because Mr. Glover is truly a delight to talk to. He was in town last week in advance of an upcoming two-night appearance he’ll be making here in Chicago at the legendary Music Box Theatre, where he will be presenting an entire evening inside his mind.
More specifically, he’ll be hosting Friday and Saturday night screenings of his directing effort WHAT IS IT?, as well as presenting a host of other events, including his Big Slide Show, a fantastic slide show/dramatic reading from several of his books (he previewed this, along with the film, for critics last week, and it’s wonderful), an extensive Q&A after the film, and he’ll introduce a hand-picked screening of Werner Herzog’s EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (I think this is still part of the festivities; check with the theatre HERE to be sure).
So what is WHAT IS IT? Just about the most mind-fuckingly, indescribable film I have ever seen. It’s both grotesque and elegant, a statement about the evil that men do and about the fragility of the human mind (personified by a cast almost entirely made up of actors with Downs Syndrome). It’s about pent up sexuality and the wholesale slaughter of snails. But above all other things, it’s about finding the things that make nearly all of us decidedly uncomfortable. This is as much of a review as you’re going to get out of me on this film, because simply describing and analyzing it will never do it justice. Unless you’ve had your mind bent almost to breaking by its eerie, sometimes stomach-churning visuals, or had your ears jolted by its expertly pieced together sound garden, WHAT IS IT?...well, you just won’t have the same experience. You need to see this to even begin to understand, and even then…
I only had about an hour between seeing the film and interviewing Crispin, which wasn’t nearly enough time to process the film. So rather than sit down with a list of questions, I decided (upon Harry’s recommendation) to just converse with this fascinating and intelligent man. Glover has had a spotty but largely successful run in and out of the Hollywood system, a streak that shows no signs of slowing down. And he's not shy about discussing his mixed feelings about some of the films he's made in the past. I also promised Crispin I’d plug his informative web site (www.crispinglover.com), where you should go to find out if and when WHAT IS IT? will be coming to a town near you in the near future.
Capone: I did take some notes during WHAT IS IT?, just so I wouldn’t forget things I wanted to touch upon, but if you don’t mind, let’s just talk.
Crispin Glover: Sure, that’s fine. Somebody from Ain’t It Cool interviewed me before that way and it was successful, and it was a good interview too.
C: Just reading about the film before I saw it and now having seen it myself, I’m wondering if you had in your head the portrait of an ideal audience member? That’s assuming that you cared one way or the other what audiences think of your work, but I suspect you do. But some of the filmmakers you mentioned were influential to you—Fassbinder, Herzog, Bunuel, and Kubrick—often stated quite clearly that they didn’t care sometimes whether audience “got” their films as long as their vision remained their own on the screen.
CG: I definitely do.
C: Before you even named those four filmmakers, I had written Bunuel’s name as a clear influence, using absurd imagery to convey a specific social commentary or criticism.
CG: There are different ways of thinking about it. One thing that’s very important is that I personally financed the film, so I need to recoup my investment. I always knew this wasn’t something I was going to make millions of dollar from, but all I need to do is recoup what I invested and put that into another movie and do other things. The way I’m able to float that is by acting in other people’s films, which is a good thing. I’m glad that’s able to work out. So there’s that level of what I need to satisfy for audience members.
I’ve always known that I need to have a core amount of people that would come in so I’m able to recoup the money. I’ve always been confident, and remain confident, that I will be able to do that. I will take some amount of time because of the way I’m distributing it: I’m personally touring with the film and performing what I call The Slide Show, which are book reading accompanied by slides because my books are not just words; they are heavily illustrated.
C: That was fantastic, by the way. Thank you for giving us a taste of that earlier.
CG: Thank you. It was a very abbreviated version of it, but I’m very proud of The Slide Show, and I’ve done it for many years. And it continues, for me as the performer of the show, to grow. After doing it for so long, it tends toward becoming more of an acting performance and less of a reading. Because I have toured around with the slide show…as I was editing the film, I had rough cuts that I had some showings of a long time ago.
Then after a time, I stopped because I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t do it again until I had a 35mm print, which took many, many years. It took about five or six years after it was locked to get the 35mm print. I knew from when I was touring that previously that I would get audiences to come, and that was a good way to market and distribute and that I wouldn’t necessarily have to be so concerned with the corporate distribution that people tend to make movies for, which I think is a damaging thing right now.
The way I’ve been describing it lately is that the films that are corporately funded at this time are those that sit in the realm of what is considered good and evil. That means that if there’s something that is evil in the film, it would necessarily be pointed to within the structure of that film as an evil thing. And it would need to be known by the audience from the filmmaker that this bad thing, and the audience would need to know about the evil thing. The audience is dictated to understand that. Sometimes it’s just a feeling; it’s not that it’s always necessarily that specific of a moral. Whereas films that go beyond the concepts of good and evil, and it’s pointed to being the evil thing, and the audience had to think for itself about what this thing is, I think that’s a more genuinely educations experience for an audience. That’s the kind of film that will not get corporately financed.
C: Have you found exceptions to that theory?
CG: I’m sure that there are, but it’s extremely difficult. I’m sure one could do a real social study and in 20 years time, there will be a point where people can see an idea. I’m sure there are people who want to in film and in other realms--especially ones that are not as expensive and reliant on corporate mechanism like film--but it’s still very expensive and more difficult to get that message across. I’m sure in 20 years time, it will be very evident that people are reacting to this very thing that I’m talking about.
C: It doesn’t sound like you’re knocking the corporate structure; you’re just providing an alternative.
CG: Yeah. It’s not necessarily true that the corporate thing is bad. Stanley Kubrick, one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about him a lot, worked very well within the corporate structure later. He started out not working in the corporate structure, and doing films that were financed in very individualized ways. But he was able to segue into the corporate structure and have complete control within those structures, which is ideal. And not a single one of his films lost money theatrically, which is quite inspirational. I really admire that. Even if it’s only $25, I’d like my film to make money theatrically. I don’t mind if I break even, basically.
There have been times when corporations have been able to point to…in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was the hippie counterculture that the media was able to point to and was a very visible group. So corporations were able to say, this is who we’re going to sell this more esoteric, unusual fare. It was a big group. The fact of the matter is, there are still millions of people that are interested in that sort of thing, but there isn’t a single group that is as readily pointed to by the media that corporations that are comfortable saying, This is who we’re going to sell this stuff to. What I was saying earlier about the multiplexes and the lawsuits that can occur if a minor walks into an NC-17 movie, that’s why multiplexes won’t show NC-17 movies, and that’s also why the major distributors won’t distribute those films. Therefore, the corporations won’t fund those types of movies. At this point, corporations won’t fund films that are strictly for adult thinking. Every single movie that is funded by a corporation has to be something for a minor, someone under 18. The implications of that are evident.
C: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to make a film that made the audience uncomfortable, that studios don’t make films that make audiences uncomfortable. Why is it important to make people uncomfortable?
CG: It’s not necessarily so important. I hesitate a little bit about how it’s phrased. Something I get accused of in the press is making a film of shock value, which to me is not interesting. I really don’t care about shock value, which is one of the reasons I really like Bunuel. I think Bunuel dealt with concepts about taboo, and sometimes taboo can make people uncomfortable.
But really what’s more important able delving into taboo is that you can understand the true psychology of a culture is by what they consider taboo. By asking the question What is it that’s taboo--like the title of film--within the culture? What does it mean when a culture cannot properly process those taboo elements? And what are the implications to the thought process of the culture itself when this most important form of education and discussion is excised all these elements ubiquitously. I think it’s apparent that it stupefies a culture. It’s a de-education, a non-education. Those areas of discomfort can be the area where certain realizations are made and thoughts come through that are truly educational.
C: One of the things I drew from the film was the idea that the human mind is very fragile, a theme you make clear by casting actors with Downs Syndrome. I’ve never seen it dealt with like this before.
CG: There are definitely moments of fragility of multiple areas and illustrated in multiple ways. When people get upset about any of the taboo elements, the most upset people get are with the snail elements. People get really, really mad about that. There are racial elements, the graphic sexuality, working with people with Downs Syndrome, but it’s the one I actually with which I will ultimately agree.
There are a lot of things in the film I don’t advocate, and one of those things is snail killings. But I did feel there was a visceral element that could be felt by the audience that I felt was right for this. And, yeah, of course, people feel bad for the snails, and they should, and it was meant to evoke that element and fragility. There’s shell and this very fragile creature inside of it. And you see it absolutely violated. There are other elements of non-sensitivity, and that works within the realm of taboo, so it deals with fragility and going across a boundary. That’s definitely a theme that runs through it.
A lot of the elements of the movie came about organically and were emotional reactions that I have since intellectualized and self-analyzed. The nature of the film is such that people can react so strongly.
C: I know that you’re a fan of silent films, but the use of sound in this movie is crucial. It feels like you spent a great deal of time on sound editing and construction.
CG: It’s a big part, absolutely. In the five years it was in the optical house, I had done a rough, relatively intricate sound mix on my own when I was toying around with the film, and it got the point across. But I knew there was a lot of work to be done. At a certain point, I was physically burned out working on this film. I’d done all the editing by myself, done all the sound editing, but I knew there were some technical things I wanted to do with ProTools that I couldn’t do, so I wanted to get interns that could work with me. I got quite a few interns to come in, but there was one intern in particular who really stuck with it and put in a hell of a lot of work into helping me finish the sound mix. And I’ve tapped her to help me edit the [WHAT IS IT? sequel IT IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS FINE!]. When it was at the optical house and I was having so many troubles getting the optical done, I was slowly getting together the final sound edit.
C: Now that you’ve finished filming the second movie…
CG: I’m actually almost finished with the final edit on it.
C: How would you rate yourself as a director?
CG: WHAT IS IT? is not a perfect movie, which doesn’t bother of me. I’m very proud of the film. Even the imperfections are much more interesting…I find the majority of what’s coming out right now not so interesting, so I’m glad to be doing these things. And, yes, I’m learning things as a director, editor, filmmaker. Once you start doing those things, you want to continue to do more. And I have a lot of different interests about things I want to get across.
Part of what’s important as a director is to go with what is working. Accidents in editing, that’s where depth can occur, especially in this kind of organic element of the process. Editing is such a crucial part of making a good movie, and I’m certainly learning a lot of editing. That’s my favorite part of the filmmaking process, absolutely. I like this film very much. Of all of the films I’ve acted in in my career, there are really only…there are filmmakers whose films I’ve acted in whose films I’ve loved but not necessarily the films that I’m in. But I wanted to work with certain really good directors, but there are only three films in my career that I look at and say these are three films that I like in their entirety. One is called THE ORKLY KID, a shorter film made at the AFI, about 35 minutes long. RIVER’S EDGE I liked. And this film. Those are really the only three films, in total, that are aesthetically appealing to me and I think they’re strong movies. So that’s a small percentage of my films.
There can be good characters I’ve played, interesting roles, or elements about films. I feel like WHAT IS IT? is a film that I like as a movie. But at the same time, I will say it isn’t a perfect movie.
C: How soon do you think you’ll begin a tour with IT IS FINE?
CG: It’s hard to know exactly. I’m hoping it will be relatively soon. I have certain plans I want that I hesitate to say in the press because it’s hard to know, especially the way the internet is. I don’t want to start rumors, but I’m hoping it will be relatively soon because the edit of it is almost done.
C: I did want to talk about some upcoming work I’ve heard about. You are in the WIZARD OF GORE remake playing Montag the Magnificent? That’s pretty great. How did that come to be?
CG: It was a really fun part, actually. They approached me…actually about a year before we made it, there was some sort of funding thing that happened where it didn’t happen. That type of thing happens with independents. Then it came about. Yeah, it was a pretty enjoyable character.
C: Is it hideously bloody?
CG: You never know what will happen with films until they’re done. I don’t know. I know that the amount of gore that was wanted by the director was a lot, but you hear directors say things like that but when it comes down to how things are distributed, the producers’ points of view, it’s impossible to know what will come about. It wasn’t what I was focused on as an actor. But it was apparent that there were effects in that realm. But I did enjoy playing that role. I had not seen the [original] film until they had first come to me with it. The film has…there are actually interesting ideas there. I get the feeling that it was something Cronenberg watched as either a young filmmaker. Some of the same playing with reality elements are in VIDEODROME, which I really do like.
C: You’ve also re-teamed with Robert Zemeckis playing Grendel is his BEOWULF movie.
CG: It’s an interesting thins that’s happened since making the decision to start acting to make the money to fund my films. Before that, I was looking to find films that were somehow psychologically reflecting what I was interested in, and that never really worked; it was really frustrating. And it wasn’t good for my acting career; the films tended to be ones that wouldn’t make a lot of money, and that doesn’t help you make money. But when I needed to be funding IT IS FINE, and the CHARLIE’S ANGELS film came around, which made a lot of money.
And what’s happened is that I’ve started getting offered a lot of roles, WILLARD. And BEOWULF was a part of that, which surprised me because there had been the lawsuits [in connection with BACK TO THE FUTURE II] about the filmmakers who had taken another actor and given him a false nose, which was supposed to make him look like me. Then they took a small amount of footage of me from the original film into that film. Because of the lawsuit, there are laws in the Screen Actors Guild so that producers and directors can’t do that anymore. So it was surprising to me because I assume those are people I’m never going to work with again.
They actually altered that actors facial features to look like me, which was the nature of the lawsuit. I only saw the film once. There’s very little footage of me, maybe less than 10 seconds from the first film. Most of it is another actor in prosthetics made to look like me, and that’s what’s very annoying to me. People think I’m not fond of the actor, I just don’t think he did a good job. And it’s very frustrating to me that people think that it’s me acting, because I thought he was not a good actor. If I’d played it, I definitely would not have played it that way. I still don’t like that.
But because of my genuine need to get funding for my films, I feel better about acting in films that I can make good money on. Things come into correlation with people like your agents, who say, “Oh, you want to make money! That’s great!” They love that. When I played BARTLEBY, I feel that there’s a metaphor that’s very apparent that Melville was dealing with that I could relate to, where the books he was making were very lucrative. But then he started writing books on other subject matters, and he wasn’t making as much money.
And I have a feeling people were starting to think, “What’s wrong with you? That’s crazy.” And I think that that representation of Bartleby saying “I prefer not to” and being thought of as crazy, I understand that element. If someone is not working in this very finite idea of this capitalist society where you do things to make money, the society will look at that person and say, “What’s wrong with you?” They are sometimes nice about it, “Oh, yes. Here’s an artist doing art for art’s sake. How nice.” But if it isn’t about money making, people look at it as crazy. Bartleby is not out and out stating it, but there’s a poetic representation that you can feel in there.
Now, maybe there’s an element of that now that I’m making my own films dealing with more esoteric things. But in terms of the acting, I have a quote for independent films, I have a quote for studio films, and I stick with those things. But the things is, yes I’m getting paid better but the parts are actually getting quite interesting. In BEOWULF, Angelina Jolie plays my mother, Anthony Hopkins plays my father, Ray Winstone plays Beowulf, and I had an excellent working situation with those three actors and I have an excellent working relationship with Robert Zemeckis as well. It’s a good thing.
C: I did want to ask you briefly about the slide show. When you performed the excerpts for us earlier, people were laughing at points. It doesn’t seem like you design the program and perform it to emphasize some of the humorous aspects of your writings. Do you mind that people are laughing, not at you, but with you…I think.
CG: How people laugh and how laughter works in a group dynamic is very…people don’t necessarily laugh as individuals at the same thing a group will laugh at. And there’s a definitely group dynamic when I’m doing the slide show. I know what places people tend toward laughing. It has to do with pattern elements, group dynamics, communication that happen with laughter. I know it’s a good thing for the show. This group seemed to be quite vocal [laughs]. I’ve noticed that when I do Friday, Saturday, Sunday shows that Friday seems to be the most vocal, generally. Very loud, lots of big loud applause through the film and slide show. Saturday will be a bit quieter. Sunday quieter yet, and that doesn’t mean it’s a bad show.
C: I think a paying crowd is going to eat it up.