By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Left, Crispin Hellion Glover; below, “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” Volcanic Eruptions, 2007]
Hoping to leverage some hype from his role as the monstrous Grendel in “Beowulf,” the irrefutably eccentric Crispin Hellion Glover (“Willard,” “Wild at Heart”) timed it so that his second directorial feature, “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” would be released the very same week. While it’s unlikely that the collective audience who shelled out over $28 million this past weekend for that CGI-animated epic will repeat that business for the second leg of Glover’s “It” trilogy (following “What Is It?” with its all-Down syndrome cast), he seems astutely aware that his loyal cult following only grows with each unusual new career step. Co-directed by David Brothers and written by its late star, a cerebral palsy sufferer named Steven C. Stewart, “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” is a hallucinatory, psychosexually violent, avant-garde fantasy that explores a disturbing theme: even the physically handicapped can act like tyrants. Deeply concerned about piracy, Glover was frequently seen at this year’s Sundance carrying his 35mm print of the film wherever he went, so I wasn’t at all surprised when he requested I only watch it on his laptop before our interview.
My first exposure to “What Is It?” was a time-coded rough cut you brought along with your slideshow tour in the late ’90s. I watched that version of the film in Tempe, Arizona with a non-festival crowd, who were squirming and nervously laughing throughout. Have the crowd reactions been different for “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.”?
Yes. They’re very different kinds of movies, I think. “What Is It?” is specifically my psychological reaction to corporately funded and distributed cinema, and the fact that anything that could possibly make an audience feel uncomfortable is necessarily excised. There’s entertainment to it, but on some level, it works almost like a thesis. Whereas “EVERYTHING IS FINE,” there’s a purposeful reason in making that film second because I feel like the thesis has been stated in “What Is It?”: What is it that we’re not able to explore? What does it mean to the culture that we’re not able to explore these things? Certainly, there will be people who see “EVERYTHING IS FINE” who haven’t seen “What Is It?”, and if they’re uncomfortable with the graphic sexuality that is in both films, yes, there will be concern. But other than that, I feel that [the new film] has a fair amount of universal interest. More precisely, “EVERYTHING IS FINE” has a very strong, emotional experience, concentrating on Steven C. Stewart’s catharsis. “What Is It?” is a more distanced, intellectual view of the characters.
Stewart was clearly not a professional screenwriter. What attracted you to his script?
Well, I read it many years ago in the mid-’80s, and there was the central scene where he asks Linda Barnes the character played by [Fassbinder regular] Margit Carstensen to marry him. There were other peripheral things that were all interesting, but to me, that was the central emotional crux of the whole movie. I could see that there was an emotional reality. I never asked Steve, but I assume this was something that happened, maybe more than once. As soon as I read that, I just knew this was a film I had to produce.
Besides being personal, how did you recognize the experience as cathartic for him?
Essentially, the film [is bookended] with him in the nursing home. That was the only thing shot on location, not on soundstages, and coincidentally, it was in the nursing home that he’d been locked in for 10 years when his mother died. He couldn’t get out, and people would derisively call him an M.R., a mental retard, which is not a nice thing to say to anybody. We found out when we got to the location that it was actually the place, so that footage is very powerful. That was his experience, his life, during his 20s. Steve was a pretty tough guy. We were involved in other things all the time while we working, so I never had an opportunity to sit down and say “Well, Steve, what’s it like to be here?”
What was the last time you spoke with him?
I got a call one morning. I found out he was on life support; his lung had collapsed. Cerebral palsy is not degenerative, but he was choking on his own saliva. We’d finished shooting about a month before, and he was basically asking us permission to take himself off life support, to make sure we had enough footage. Of course, that was a very sad day, and a heavy responsibility to let him know that, yes, we did have enough footage. I knew that if I had said “No, Steve, we don’t have enough. You need to keep yourself alive,” he would have done it. But if he had gotten that operation on time, he would’ve had to live in a nursing home. I know he didn’t want to do that again. That says it there how he felt about that nursing home it was when he got out that he wrote this screenplay. It was a very particular kind of imprisonment that was a central element of his life.
Are you ever concerned that producing a film so far outside of the mainstream is commercial suicide?
No, this is why I tour with the film. It’s a guarantee. Because I’ve toured with my slideshow, I personally know what my market is. I have to be careful, and it’s not a huge amount of money. If I spent a million dollars, I would have trouble. These films are made for somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000. And it takes time, but over time, I can recoup that money. I’m not going to make money on these films, but that isn’t what’s important. What the films ultimately do is enable me to recoup by performing my slideshow and selling my books. I split the box office with the theater, 50/50, so if it’s an $8 ticket, I get $4. [For] the slideshow, the question and answer, and book signing, I generally charge $10 and I take that 100%. So that’s $14, plus the money I make on the books, which I publish myself.
I still own an album you recorded in 1989 entitled “The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution = Let It Be.” On the back cover, there was a puzzle where listeners had to figure out what the lyrics to all nine songs had in common, and there was a phone number to call when you knew the answer. Did you ever call anyone back?
No, I never did. I think if people figured it out, that’s the accomplishment. They don’t have to know they’re right. [laughs] But there were people who got it. There was a phone number at the time, but I’ve since changed it to CrispinGlover.com. This was pre-Internet, so really it was a way for people to get information on where the books were available. But I did have many people call, not just a small amount, and leave messages to what they thought the Big Problem was. I never say what it is because it would spoil the question. There are certain things that I leave mysteries. The question of the film is “What is It?” The appearance on David Letterman, I’ve never really explained what that is, and so people question me.
What needs to be explained? It looked like you tried to roundhouse kick him in the face.
Well, some people think one thing, and other people think other things. It has life on YouTube. I’ve never confirmed nor denied that I was on the show. [laughs] But just in general, I like to leave things a mystery. There are people that are naturally thoughtful who think they are being condescended to when things are really explained. I mean, yes, there are people who can misinterpret things or whatever in a negative fashion. When I go and do the questions and answers for “What Is It?”, I’m very careful to not explain symbolism, but I do feel with that film that it’s helpful to put it in context of what it’s reacting to. I’m going to do the same thing with the Steve Stewart film, and I know people will have questions about that as well, and it’ll be valuable, but it’s even more imperative for “What Is It?”.
Are there any major misconceptions about you or your work that bother you?
It’s going away in general, but there have been conceptions and you see it written on the internet that people think I’m insane or psychotic. It felt for a while that that was almost a majority of opinion. But I mean, I’ve been in the business professionally since I was 13. Is that almost 30 years? Is that possible? I’m 42, or 43? I can’t even remember how old I am. What year is this? [laughs] I was born in ’64, and this is 2007, so yeah, 43. I started in film when I was 18, so that’s a long time to have been around. I’ve now published four books, I’ve had a record out, and I’ve produced, directed and edited two different films that I’m proud of. It’s like, at a certain point, how genuinely insane can someone who’s done all that be? [laughs] So it has to be going away. I’ve never really fought it because I’ve always felt the truth comes out. But when you start reading things that aren’t true repeated over and over again, that does become truth no matter what. It doesn’t necessarily hurt my audience for going around and touring with the films; there’s an interest in somebody who is passionate about unusual and thoughtful things. So I’m not really concerned about rectifying so much, but it can be a bit irritating. It’s really so, so off the mark, but I understand what it’s about. I’ve had something to do with it being there, so I can’t really complain because that would be silly.
“It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” opens in New York in November 21st.