CRISPIN HELLION GLOVER has finished his long-awaited, legend-surrounded, controversial, stunning debut feature film WHAT IS IT? Glover plans on personally touring with the film across the country, then following it with parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy. I guarantee a set of images and sounds you have not experienced before. Glover is easy to talk to, intelligent and cheerful.
CINEMAD: I saw the film many years ago; you came through Tucson and showed a rough cut. I’ve noticed some sort of changes.
CRISPIN GLOVER: That was a long time ago. What did you notice most changed?
It seemed to be much more structured. I did show it in various stages. That might have been an earlier cut. It was always approximately the same length it is right now [72 minutes]. It was never a shorter film than this. There was less information at certain points. When I was touring around with it I had almost everything I have now in it. There are two sequences in a graveyard, one is a graveyard set that has a lot of actors in it. That was the last thing I shot. And I did tour around without that bit. There’s a lot of information in that section. I put a lot of subplot elements in that sequence. It could feel more structured now.
I read things that say, “This is the weirdest movie…” or whatever. And yet really there is a very simple, basic structure that has been there since it was a short film. There is somebody that gets locked out of their house and they go on an adventure trying to get back home, various things happen and then he gets back home. But there has been more added on since that basic structure.
How long has the film been in production? It’s been 9 ½ years. This summer it will have been 10 years since I started shooting.
Did the film or your plans for it change over the long production? Yes, very much. It started out as a short film. After I’d done the first edit of the short film, it came together longer than it is now, I think 80-something minutes. I knew that was too long for the film. I also knew that I could make a feature film by adding some more depth to it. I knew I could put myself in it as an antagonistic character.
How do you know it is finished now? I had locked the film about six years ago. It really hasn’t been a problem about me finishing it in terms of the artistic conception of it, as much as it has been about the material elements of finishing and working with people that could really help me as opposed to hinder. The worst thing of all for the film that really delayed it for five years was it got stuck at an optical house in New York. They gave me so many excuses. I was afraid to pull the negative away because the element of responsibility of it. If there was anything wrong with the negative and I paid money already, something wrong could happen. The fact of it is, they did damage my negative. As soon as the sound edit was absolutely completed, I went to New York, I saw that the lab had not told me the truth and taken advantage. I brought the negative back to Los Angeles. There was a lot of restoration work that had to be done. A lot of damage had been done by the negative sitting around. A lot of dust, which digitally is a very extensive thing to get rid of. I had a hair in the gate [in one sequence] and that was digitally removed. The damage that the optical house in New York did was they cut the negative too close to where the cut was supposed to be. So when I telecined it the image jumps and ripples. It still is in the film, there are some small jump elements, I’ve had to live with it. Much of it has been restored and corrected.
Of course it was frustrating to talk to people about it because nobody really… you get the feeling that people end up thinking you’re being flakey about it. It really wasn’t the case. There were other issues as well, other technical problems but that was the culmination. I got caught between the optical house and the negative cutter who kept pointing fingers at each other, they’ve got to do this and they’ve got to do this. I didn’t live in New York. And then I’m working and away some of the time as well.
Were the actors friends or professional actors? There is one actor, the fellow doing the Michael Jackson stuff. He had done some films before and some television earlier on. He was really good at matching. The reason that all of the Michael Jackson stuff is in the movie is because he was just doing that on the set naturally, I didn’t tell him to do it. So I shot that and then I worked the other stuff around him.
A lot of the way the film is made is like that, where there are happenstances. There are things that were brought in because they looked good. They had an interesting image quality or color or something. Then things were made around those elements. A lot of the outtakes end up becoming part of the dialogue.
Were there traditional auditions for the rest of the actors? There was when it was a short film. I’ve done other projects and I haven’t always auditioned [the actors]. This time mainly I wanted to see the level of functioning of each of the people. Most of the actors with Down’s syndrome I worked with were very high-functioning people. Because Down’s syndrome is extremely varied in terms of functionability. In the short film much of the actors were very able to remember dialogue. In the last thing I shot, in the graveyard with the woman who has that repetitive element and they are interviewing the minstrel, there are people that are more around that section that aren’t verbal. They are more low-functioning people.
You know, the length of time the film is so irrelevant. A lot of people will think that had a lot to do with working with people with Down’s syndrome. But that isn’t the fact at all. I shot the film in 12 days all together, over a period of two and a half years.
Really the most important thing about the actors is I wrote it for them. I knew what they would be like in front of the camera. The most important thing for any kind of casting whether somebody has Down’s syndrome or not is if somebody is enthusiastic. If they are enthusiastic and into the concept and enjoying themselves with it then really good things could happen. Every single person that I worked with was extremely enthusiastic.
You already knew Steven C. Stewart, the actor with cerebral palsy, right? Yes. I had known him already because he had written a screenplay. I had done an AFI film in 1982, THE ORKLY KID. That’s a very good movie, I’m proud of that performance and the film. Its only 35 minutes but its still one of the few movies that I’m in that I think is an excellent film. That filmmaker, Trent Harris, was from Salt Lake, Utah, and knew a community of filmmakers including Steve Stewart. Steve had written a letter to the news station that Harris worked at. Another filmmaker named Larry Roberts worked there and did a news story about Steve’s situation.
What happened was Steve was a man of normal intelligence but he was very difficult to understand, he had severe cerebral palsy. They called him an MR, a mental retard, and he was imprisoned in this hospital for at least 12 years. They did a news story on him and consequently Steve was able to get out of the nursing home and was able to live a relatively free life. He was still in a place for people with disabilities but it was much better.
The story [Steve Stewart wrote] has to do with, I like to say a psychosexual retelling of his point of view of life. But his point of view is naïve. So there’s an almost folk artist element to it. They also call it “outsider artist” element. But its fantastical as well, its not just a straight-forward retelling. Its very unique and I’m glad we shot it. The money I made from the first CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2000) film I put straight into making the Steve Stewart film.
The minstrel betrayed by his concubine?
That was originally going to be a completely separate movie that was his own story basically. But there were concepts I realized in all these screenplays that worked together. Commercially it made sense for me to put him into the feature version [of WHAT IS IT?] and make his film a sequel. So then this dueling demigod auteur element comes between us. The second film is absolutely Steve’s story. The third film is more my story. I co-wrote it with people but it’s very pertinent to my own psychology. But Steve’s film is 100% him. I co-directed that film and produced it. It’s still ultimately his movie. I am very excited about it. It probably will be the best film I ever have anything to do with in my career.
That was another delay on WHAT IS IT? There was at least a year where I was just concentrating on Steve’s film. He was 62 and even though cerebral palsy is not degenerative he was starting to choke on his own saliva and one of his lungs had collapsed. So it became pretty apparent that if we didn’t shoot soon it wouldn’t happen. We shot it and then he died within a month of us finishing.
If the third film in the trilogy is about you, how much of WHAT IS IT? would you say is you? That I would say is 100% [laughs]. It’s hard to say, I won’t say that everything is about me personally. There are things that come in, like I said, because they look interesting or because there is something amusing about it or something like that. In a very organic fashion I wrote it with the film blocks that I was editing with. There aren’t too many films made like that. It has to come from your psyche somehow.
You have talked about how everyone is making pro-culture films now and not too many filmmakers are creating counter-culture work. I’ve been able to analyze what my interests are since I was quite young. You can call things various art movements or counter-cultural movements. But I realize that a lot of the things I’ve had interest in throughout my life are usually some kind of media that has to do with countering the culture that is at hand. Not necessarily this culture but other cultures when they’ve been reactive to certain things. Like the surrealists being reactive to the culture surrounding them. Right now there is a very different culture than what the surrealists or the hippies were reacting to.
I think it is very bad for the culture itself when there is only one point of view about things. That is what’s happening today. If there’s not discussion it turns into stupidity. It sounds a little bit overly polysyllabic but it’s simple: There’s a totalitarian esthetic of corporate pro-culturism. That infuses itself ubiquitously. [laughs] The thing of it is, when there’s a generation or more of people that have grown up with only one point of view of what is considered right and how to think and what should be published and what shouldn’t be published… then if anyone does anything about that at all, that person is really thought of in a bad way and very bad things will be said about that person.
I’ve written a lot of screenplays before I’ve finally made this movie. Its really just been a feat of getting the film made inexpensively. This doesn’t really resemble the type of screenplays I’ve written previously. I’ve written much more structured screenplays that were to be shot in a certain time period and the film was to represent that screenplay. This was a different way of making a movie than I had planned to make it originally. I’m not upset about it, I’m happy to have taken this and made it work. I’m proud of that.
But I’ve noticed something while I’ve taken meetings or talked to people about concepts. I’ve written screenplays that I wanted to be what I would call a commercial type of movie. But there is always something in them here or there. They weren’t necessarily as overtly counter-cultural as this particular film. But the was always something in it that had a concept or an idea. What I noticed in meetings was you’ll get people saying, “We wouldn’t want to say that.” A very seemingly innocent thing to say. But if you think about it, well, why not? [laughs] Why not say whatever that is? Why be afraid of saying anything at all? I’m funding this [personally] because corporate kinds of entities were questioning the concept of funding a film that had a majority of people with Down’s syndrome as the cast. It isn’t just that they were concerned about working with those actors. It was the concept of a majority of actors in a film having Down’s syndrome and the film not being about Down’s syndrome. That is a counter-cultural concept. There was no interest.
So I thought I should explore that sensibility. Go 100% in that direction. Find the things that you are not supposed to talk about, you’re not supposed to deal with, you’re not supposed to say at all. It doesn’t even necessarily have to delve into it, just have it be part of the fabric of the texture of the universe that the film exists in. Its funny to me. I personally don’t find these things [in the film] offensive. I’ve seen some reviews where people say it is made to shock. I don’t find anything in the film shocking in the least. Why are none of the elements of the film even delved into for an iota of a second anywhere in the media in the United States at all? The pro-cultural media state has become so ubiquitous that people don’t realize that there is a whole universe of thought that is being kind of wiped out by the fact that corporate interests aren’t allowing people to think on many different levels than they should.
When I toured around with the film I got positive reviews. Now I’ve gotten a few positive reviews but I feel I’ve gotten more negative reviews recently. I’m not certain what it is. I know the film hasn’t gotten worse. [laughs] I know the film has gotten better. A lot has happened in the last six years since the film has been locked. I’ll be curious about it. I do expect good reviews. I did get some from big magazines and newspapers before. Are people afraid they’ll lose their job if they say something positive?
Think of the type of reviewer that the big paper would hire in the first place. They are not going to like the film. There isn’t even groundwork there for you to deal with. Yes, yes. What is it that, if there is a generation or so raised in this thinking… But I know that’s not 100% true because when I go on tour and show the film I have people coming up to me and get positive reaction and response. I would say from Sundance I’ve seen the most negative reviews for the film. I saw three separate reviews that all watched the same film and they even came up with some of the same references but they were references to things that were not in the film at all!
Blood ... Is it satisfying?[laughs] I don’t know if they were referencing each other or if they were genuinely thinking that they’d seen things that aren’t in the movie. It’s bizarre to me.
I think that ends up being a positive. Sure. Part of the film is to not dictate to what people think. I corrected one person because they said something that was so outrageous to the point that it would make it seem as though I was doing something that was illegal. They wrote that there were kids with Down’s syndrome having sex with each other. That’s just not the case! There are no children in the film at all. And nobody has sex in the film. There are definitely graphic elements in it. Strong imagery…
The real issue is handicapped persons are not allowed to be actors in this society, they are expected to play themselves and that’s it. I always stress that this isn’t a film about Down’s syndrome at all. What I very much wanted to do is treat these individuals as competent actors exploring interesting things. I didn’t want to point to the people as people with Down’s syndrome particularly. Just as people in [the film’s] particular universe and they are trying to accomplish certain things. I do not consider this film a ‘cause’ film at all. But if one goes into that level of it, I consider that much more of a positive outlook on the people than putting them in these cutified, puppetized, muppetized non-realistic elements that happens so much in movies dealing with people with handicaps. That to me is very irritating.
Did you know Adam Parfrey before the filming? [The writer and boss of underground publisher Feral House books plays a key role in the film.] Yes. I had known Adam quite a few years already. Of course he wasn’t originally in the short film. That was another thing that grew separately. I knew I wanted him to be somebody that wanted to become like a snail and that he was jealous of certain things. A jealous type of character. I didn’t know what he should look like. Everybody in the movie has kind of a look, including myself. Arbitrarily I had him in blackface. Then there’s the fellow on the set doing the Michael Jackson thing. It didn’t come in til much later that Parfrey’s character was going to want to become Michael Jackson. One might think that these things were designed from the beginning but it’s more that I’m open to, ok, these things can be connected together, that’s fine. I wasn’t connecting them together myself. Sometimes I did in my own mind. Often they were just things that happened and they correlated. A lot of that had to do with not censoring it.
Because of the surface level issues people have, I think audiences are going to miss the film’s subtext of fame and celebrity. Part three deals with it even more specifically but this deals with it in a poetic fashion. No question, to me, what I am reacting to in this film, is growing up within this world. My father’s an actor, my Mother’s a dancer and an actor, I’ve grown up around the media and Hollywood and I’ve seen how people treat that and think about that. What it means within the culture. How there can be a certain kind of sensibility that I find disturbing. This film deals with that. It’s hard to pick that out on some
Love between the minstrel and his concubine? Or is it betrayel?
levels but more than anything that is exactly what this film is reacting to. When I’m saying pro-cultural media, that is what I’ve grown up in. I’ve always wanted to be part of a counter-cultural film movement but there hasn’t been one the whole time I’ve been acting. I started when I was 14, in 1978. My first film role wasn’t until 1982. It’s been frustrating for me.
Celebrity is another icon for people, a symbol, to the point where you can’t walk down the street. When you say “you”, what do you mean?
I mean a person who is a celebrity, whether it’s literally you, or anybody that is in a movie that is recognizable. Personally I don’t have a difficulty with that. I get recognized a lot. There’s a way that people act about celebrity where they are both getting attention by pretending that they’re not wanting to get the attention [laughs]. It has a hypocritical element to it. It’s not like I wrote down ten sentences of what I was reacting to and then tried to visualize those sentences. If it fit in then to something, I was open to it existing. If it was on my mind, then some of those things come through. The minstrel character being jealous and wanting to be a special person that is recognized, it deals with that element, that is a big part of what people do in any art form. There can be a healthy element about that and there can be an unhealthy, neurotic element as well. Probably in this film it’s dealing with it in the less healthy aspect [laughs].