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Q&A: Crispin Hellion Glover

Alex Fine

By Ed Schrader | Posted 11/18/2009

Crispin Hellion Glover presents his Big Slide Show

Charles Theatre, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m.

Blessed be the forces that bring Crispin Hellion Glover to Baltimore with his Big Slide Show, a one-night-only performance event. Best known to mainstream audiences as a movie actor, Glover brings his narrated slide show to the Charles Theatre Nov. 19, followed by a screening of It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!, part two of his It trilogy--the first of which, 2005's What Is It?, in part featured a cast of performers with Down's syndrome--followed by a Q&A session and book signing. For the uninitiated to Glover's work outside the realm of late-night talk show high kicks, time-traveling DeLoreans, and the Charlie's Angels reboot, the event offers the ideal opportunity to enter his lesser-known aesthetic universe as a filmmaker, author, and musician stretching over two decades. City Paper recently caught up with Glover via e-mail to discuss his latest film, which he calls the best he will have anything to do with in his entire career.

City Paper: When watching What Is It? I cannot help but wonder if, in fact, your canvas is more a meditation on the canvas itself and less about racism or Down's syndrome. Have you taken any criticism as a result of taking this approach--i.e., using a film as a Trojan horse whose aim is to open up a broader territory, more than that which can be explored in a "normal" film?

Crispin Hellion Glover: Initially, What Is It? was going to be a short film to promote the concept for a different screenplay of having a majority of characters in the film played by actors who had Down's syndrome. This was done in order to attain corporate financing with that concept in it. I realized as I was turning this short film into a feature film that the concept of having actors with Down's syndrome playing characters that did not necessarily have Down's syndrome was something that could cause corporate entities to be concerned about the questions that such a film might raise. In other words, the concept itself was taboo. I simultaneously realized that anything taboo at this point in time in corporate filmmaking is necessarily excised or that film will not be corporately financed or distributed. After I had this realization, What is it? then became an exploration of this motif. Every film will have criticism no matter what the subject matter is.

CP: What is the primary nexus between the film, It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!, and the slide show, given that the two pieces are--correct me if I'm wrong--separated by a good number of years? Do the motifs present in the sideshow parallel the aspects of the film in a readily noticeable way, or is this something you want us to dig for in afterthought, or am I completely off the mark here?

CHG: The slide show will precede the film. I definitely have been aware of the element of utilizing the fact that I am known from work in the corporate media I have done in the last 25 years or so. This is something I rely on for when I go on tour with my films. It lets me go to various places and have the local media cover the fact that I will be performing a one-hour live dramatic narration of eight different books, which are profusely illustrated and projected as I go through them, then show the film, either What Is It?, being 72 minutes, or It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!, being 74 minutes, then having a Q&A and a book signing. As I funded the films, I knew that this is how I would recoup my investment, even if it is a slow process.

The books are taken from old books from the 1800s that have been changed into different books from what they originally were. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs. When I first started publishing the books in 1987 people said I should have book readings. But the book are so heavily illustrated, and the way the illustrations are used within the books, they help to tell the story, so the only way for the books to make sense was to have visual representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while, but in 1992 I started performing what I used to call Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show. People get confused as to what that is, so now I always let it be known that it is a one-hour dramatic narration of eight different books that I have made over the years.

Also after I show the film, I have a Q&A session with the audience. This has become an extremely important part of the show, particularly after showing What Is It?. What Is It? deals with many taboo elements, and audiences can have very strong questions after the film, and it is important to not explain the film to people in terms of symbols and meaning. But it is important to put the film in context of what it is reacting to and let people know that this is not just an exercise in something random, but there are specific reasons why what is being reacted to with these films is important. I 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 filmmaking.

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 [and] 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 its 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 toward 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 of this culture's media. I would like for people to think for themselves.

CP: In the first film of the trilogy, it seemed to be the case that it was not your intent to focus on a one symbol, or idea, but rather you wanted us to be shaken more by a raw path that took us to a strange new place. In the second film, written by the late Steven C. Stewart, we find, within the folds of dark fantasy and enhancement of reality, a tangible translation of Stewart's struggle with cerebral palsy based in actual experience. Why the more, dare I say, straightforward approach for this second installment?

CHG: The taboo element is not what is important when people view It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!, but the emotional content of the film [is]. That's part of [the] point in What Is It? . . . that taboo should not be a boundary. There is no sense to let that happen. Everything in the universe, taboo or not, should be able to be explored in film.

The two films have thematic similarities but are very different kinds of film. It is Fine! Everything Is Fine very much deals with the emotional catharsis of the main character, played by the author of the screenplay Steven C. Stewart, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. I put Steven C. Stewart into What Is It? when I turned [it] into a feature. Steve had written his screenplay in the late 1970s. I read it in 1986, and as soon as I had read it, I knew I had to produce the film. 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 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. 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.

CP: In terms of where the second film has taken the trilogy, did you initially intend to go in this direction?

CHG: When I turned What Is It? from a short film into a feature, I realized there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven C. Stewart's screenplay dealt with. . . . Steven died within a month after we finished shooting [Everything Is Fine!]. Cerebral palsy is not [degenerative] 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, [and] 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 it straight into 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 lived. I met with Steve and David Brothers, with whom I co-directed the film. I went back to [Los Angeles] 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 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. 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 e-mail list at as they will be e-mailed with information as to where I will be where with whatever film I tour with. It is by far the best way to know how to see the films.

CP: What did Steven himself do to convince you to shake up the DNA of the trilogy?

CHG: Without Steve's DNA there would not have been a trilogy, period. At best, there would have been two films.

CP: In terms of Steven's choice to use the murder/detective approach, what do you feel were the benefits of taking on the subject matter--his struggle--this way versus the more commonly treaded biographical path?

CHG: 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.

CP: Are there secrets that you will not reveal in the after film Q&A, be them personal or about your work?

CHG: There are certain things that if I elaborate would spoil the fun of thinking about them. I am careful to answer things so that more can be contemplated and not that I merely dictate to the audience.

CP: What draws you to Baltimore, as a place to show your work?

CHG: Usually, it is the organic quality, schedule-wise, of how something works out for my shows. I have wanted to show in Baltimore for a while, and it just happened to work out now. I wanted to spend more time in Baltimore than I will be able to this time. I also wanted to go over to Washington, D.C., to go again to the Smithsonian museums, but I will have to wait till a later date. I do know, of course, that John Waters is from Baltimore, and he has certainly courageously dealt with taboo in his excellent work over the years.

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