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What Is It? -- Q&A with Crispin Hellion Glover

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What can I say about a film where images of Shirley Temple are juxtaposed with swastikas? Where Fairuza Balk's voice comes wailing through a snail? Where there's a scene of a naked man with cerebral palsy lying in a giant clam as he appears to be masturbated by a woman who's wearing a rubber monkey mask while a racist folk song plays on an old record player? I'm not totally sure I didn't hallucinate all these things. The other option is that I did indeed see them in What Is It?, an esoteric, bizarre, unclassifiable film that marks the directorial debut of esoteric, unclassifiable actor Crispin Hellion Glover.

Yes, Hellion is his real middle name. It's a legacy from Glover's father, Bruce Herbert Glover, who as a struggling actor in New York, would often introduce himself by saying, “I'm Bruce H. Glover. I’m a hellion. A troublemaker.” When the elder Glover and his wife had a child (Crispin) they passed it on to him as his middle name. "I’ve always used it, since I was a kid, for writing and drawing," says Glover. "It's a continuation of things I’ve done since I was a kid. I chose to use Crispin Glover as my acting name because I just felt Crispin Hellion Glover was a long name for acting. But somehow to me it’s appropriate that I utilize my whole name for projects that emanate from my soul."

For 10 full years Glover has been working on What Is It?, a feature-length film with most of the roles played by actors with Down's Syndrome. But as Glover quickly points out, What Is It? Is not a film about Down's Syndrome. And in truth the fact that the actors in are mentally handicapped is the least weird thing about this film. To describe What Is It? as surreal would be the understatement of the year. Describing it at all is damn near impossible. Sure, I could string together a collection of images and scenes, but I couldn't being to convey the tone or the "plot" of the film. So I won’t bother. I'll just tell you that What Is It? -- the first film in a planned trilogy -- is playing Dec. 6-8 at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. The movie is preceeded by an hour-long slideshow narrated by Glover himself and followed by a Q&A.

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PS-My cat can eat a whole watermelon.

Q: A friend of mine told me he saw the film about 9 or 10 years ago. Have you been showing the same film for 10 years?
What he saw was a rough cut of the film, which was on video. And he didn’t see what you saw. I toured around with it a bit, while I was editing it, because I wanted to get feedback and see what audiences said. I probably wouldn’t ever do that again. It was valuable at the time for me, I’m glad I did it. But it does confuse people as to what has kind of transpired. What did your friend say?

Q: He said he saw it in the basement of some club in Boston packed with hipsters and 10 or 15 people walked out during the screening.
[Laughs]

Well, people will exaggerate things. I watch for how many people walk out, and I know exactly where the moment is that people generally walk out. [The walkouts have] actually decreased. When I first showed it, maybe about five, five or so people would walk out. But I’m sure I never had 15 people walked out. I mean, I suppose anything is possible. Somehow, there’s an excitement about things of controversy, and things will get easily exaggerated. But there are people who don’t like the film, and there are people that get upset by it. I’m not trying to get away from the truth of it.

I’ve really experienced a lot of positivity about the film. [He reads the pull quotes that are on the promotional cards for the film.] I actually expected to have very negative commentary from major publications. And to have any kind of sponsorship and positivity from both accredited film festivals and corporately-funded magazines, which this film is very much reaction to... I’m really proud of this. The review that really made me ecstatic, I have to admit, is the New York Times. I’m thinking business-wise, as well. Ultimately I am the producer of the film, and to have positivity that I can use for advertisements is a very good thing.

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Q: What's the point when most people walk out?
It’s usually around... Well, I hate to say it in print. What will tend to happen when I get aggressive responses in the press, is a list of things that occur in the film. And I avoid saying it now, because that isn’t how I’m selling the film. What I will get accused of is “shock cinema." And I have no interest in “shock cinema.” I think it’s genuinely important to be dealing with the taboo areas that are not being dealt with in corporately-funded and corporately-distributed cinema. The area where an audience member can sit back in their chair and think for a moment, “Is this the right thing? Is this the wrong thing? Should I be watching this?” That’s the very moment you can hear, even in those questions, the film itself is a question.

What is it? What is it that’s taboo in the culture right now? What is it that it means? What is it that it means that the culture is not able to properly process these things? Those very moments, when an audience sits back in their chairs and starts to ask those questions are the moments that true education occurs. And for this type of thing, these uncomfortable possibilities or these taboo areas, to be ubiquitously excised from the most important element of communication in our culture, is a negative thing.

Q: I imagine the sex scene featuring the mentally disabled actors made a lot of people squeamish.
I’m very careful about this, because I’ve had... There’s a... It is a film, and when you cut a film together, things appear as being something that isn't actually there. So I’ve had a certain amount of exaggeration written about particular scenes in the film. Even just calling any scene in the film a sex scene is really not an accuracy, because nobody has sex in the movie at any point.

There is graphic sexuality in the film. The reason that graphic sexuality is in the film, has to do with a man named Steven C. Stewart. He has a very severe case of cerebral palsy. He had written this screenplay many years ago, and he had been locked in a nursing home after his parents had died. He had a very difficult time getting out of the nursing home, because he was very difficult to understand, and they labeled him “M.R.” or “mental retard.” And of course, he was of normal intelligence. And this screenplay that he wrote was a reaction to among other things a denial of sexuality that he experienced, much because of his condition

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Q: That's the sequel to What Is It? That's playing at Sundance this year, right?
Right. It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. is the film that really goes into that. This film is actually far more graphic than What Is It? I could argue many different things, but ultimately, he’d written a script, and this was the point of view that I felt was very important to report. The graphic sexuality with his character in What Is It? is foreshadowing. I felt that it was important to bring that element in, because What Is It? on some levels is meant to open doors into these various areas that are considered taboo. It’s not that every film I want to make will necessarily be of this kind of graphicness, or this kind of strong reactiveness. But I do want to continue exploring unusual areas, and I think there are doors that are shut right now.

Q: [I asked some kind of question here -- maybe something about the taboo of showing mentally disabled people in sex scenes -- but it was hard to hear my voice on the tape recorder, and I can’t recall what I said.]
There’s nobody with Down’s Syndrome in the film who has sex. There’s no graphic sexuality with people who have Down’s Syndrome. It’s something that I have to be very, very specific about. There are two people in the film who have Down’s Syndrome who are romantically kissing and caressing each other. There are doubles for those people [for the more graphic part of the scene.]

People tend toward feeling righteous and making extreme exaggerations about things that really have not occurred, and do not exist in the film. It’s a film that has images that lead from one to the next, but the actuality of the situation is different from what people sometimes interpret. That’s why I have to be very, very careful about that. The two actors were actually boyfriend and girlfriend, who were romantically involved and were physically comfortable with each other. They were kissing and caressing each other in a romantic and sensuous fashion. And that’s a very different thing from two people having sex.

Part of what’s interesting about taboo is that the element of taboo becomes a label within people’s own heads. Taboo in one culture is not necessarily the same as taboo in another culture. So, what people can react to is something in their heads, something that has been conjured up. It doesn’t mean that it’s actually something that’s negative. That’s why I argue that this film is very positive. Because it is pointing out these very elements that are not being pointed out in the culture.

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Q: [Here's another question I couldn’t hear or remember.]
The subject matter isn’t Down's Syndrome. The subject matter is my reaction to corporate control of media. I was always very careful, when I was casting the film, to let people know that I would not promote the film as a film about Down’s Syndrome, because it isn’t. And I am very, very particular about that. But, being that the film is mostly comprised of actors who have Down’s Syndrome, and they’re not playing characters with Down’s Syndrome, there was no concern the right or wrong way to be portraying people with Down’s Syndrome. There is some element, perhaps, that deals with people who have Down’s Syndrome in a less condescending fashion than films that are supposedly about Down’s Syndrome. The film really isn’t about Down’s Syndrome. It just happens to star actors who have Down’s Syndrome. And, you know, they really were great to work with.

This film is part of a trilogy. In Part II there are no actors with Down’s Syndrome. Steve Stewart stars in it and Margit Carstensen.

Q: Yeah, she's great. I love her in all the old Fassbinder films.
I really love Fassbinder’s films. The ones I really think about of her, of course, are Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, Chinese Roulette, Martha. It was interesting. I asked her, what, when she worked with Fassbinder how he directed her. She told me he didn’t really direct her at all. And when I was working with her, I could see exactly why that was. When I was sitting watching her say Steve’s lines, on some level I just sat there thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m watching a Fassbinder movie.” He didn’t direct her because she really is genuinely a great actress who makes very intelligent choices, very strong choices.

Q: You said after the screening yesterday that one thing you wanted to do was to make a film starring Down's Syndrome actors that is commercially viable? Do you think you've done that?
Well, you’re saying a few things that are related, but I would state them differently. It isn’t that I didn’t want to do the film in a corporate way. I’m not really complaining about corporate elements. I’m more stating what I see as accurate about how corporations are making decisions on the funding and distribution of movies. I understand why those things are occurring at this point in time in the culture. I think it’s unfortunate at this point in time that this is happening. I think it would be better for the culture if other things were happening.

But I don’t have anything against the corporate way. I’m all for it. The trouble is the interference that happens with excising elements that are truly important and that tend to be discomforting. I suppose what I ultimately want to accomplish, as opposed to prove, is to make a movie that deals with these areas and make my money back theatrically. That to me is a very important thing to accomplish.

Four filmmakers I continually referred to while I was making the film were Luis Bunuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Stanley Kubrick. They would both return to making films the way that I’ve been describing it. Films that go beyond the realm of that which is good and evil. And yet particularly Stanley Kubrick never once made a film that didn’t make its money back theatrically. That’s an incredible accomplishment for someone that went into such fascinating and extreme areas of thought as Stanley Kubrick. And I want to do that. I want to make films that will make their money theatrically. If it takes releasing a film in a different fashion than corporations normally release their films theatrically, I’m very willing to do that.

That’s precisely what I’m doing by taking the film around personally and touring with it and performing the slideshow with dramatic narration. And I will do this for a number of years. It’s not the usual model that is followed for releasing the film, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I go and release it theatrically and make money back. It will take a long time to do it. But, I’m confident I can recoup my investment.

Q: How exactly does that work?
Initially I’m really recouping my money by performing the slideshow and selling my books, which I make more money on, than I do from the box office with the film itself. The way I have generally been doing it is, I do a 50/50 split on the box office, for what the theatrical venue normally charges for the ticket price. And the overage that I charge for the slideshow, I take 100%. For example, if their normal ticket price is $8, they get $4, I get $4. If I charge $18 for the show, I get $10 for the overage, and $4 for the ticket. So for each ticket, at that point, I get $14. And then I sell books after the show, and make up for that.

Q: What was the film's budget?
Somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 dollars, which is small for a 35mm movie. But for me that’s very expensive. I haven’t made it back yet, but I’m on my way. It will take at least 2-3 years of touring for me to recoup the money.

Q: Tell me about the books.
The books, I’ve made over a period of years, mainly since the 1980s and the very early ‘90s. And some of the same kinds of themes and thought processes that started the books also go into the films. People generally really enjoy the slideshow particularly. It’s eight different books and lasts an hour. I’ve been doing the same show since 1992.

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Q: Aside from making money what is the intent of the slideshow?
Somehow there’s something less discomforting to audiences than when the film just plays by itself. Something about the film itself, even if there are similar themes and ideas, it has flesh and blood and real human beings involved. If people are going to become discomforted by things, they become more discomforted generally by the film than by the books. So I think it’s important for me to do the books first, show the film, and then immediately come out after the film and do a Q&A. I don’t like to explain to people what certain things symbolize, but I do think it’s important to put the film in context of what is being reacted to. Without that context, sometimes people feel that there is no reason for the film to exist.

Q: So you're committed to touring with the film for a while?
Oh yeah, yeah. It will be intermittent, as I continue acting in other people’s films, which is how I am support doing these things. It won’t be a solid two-year tour, but I think this is going to be an indefinite thing. It will take me. If I want to go all of those, it will take 5 to 6 years.

Q: I see you're going to be in Beowulf next year. I guess you've patched things up with Robert Zemeckis. How did that happen?
It was very interesting. It’s actually a very long and involved explanation. I did Charlie’s Angels, ultimately it was to fund the Steve Stewart film. One of his lungs had collapsed, and I thought if we didn’t shoot something soon, we may never get to shoot anything at all. Around the same time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was interested in meeting with me. I did not like the dialogue that my character originally had. I went in to meet with them, and they asked what I thought about characters. I said I thought it would be better if the character didn’t speak, and he was just a silent, fighting, antagonistic character. The director McG stood up and said, “That is exactly how we are going to do it. That’s great.”

Charlie’s Angels made a lot of money. It was very good for me. I was consequently offered Willard, which I’m sure I wouldn’t have been offered if I hadn’t been in that film. That was a great part. And since then, I’ve been offered a lot of very interesting roles. My decision for how to choose films has changed quite drastically.

Years before, I would try to find films that had a psychological reflection of what some of my interests were. But it was always really frustrating, and they weren’t films that would make much money. The films that I'm in to make money so I can finance my own film tend to be more aggressive than the types of movies that perhaps I am having a reaction to with my own film. But at the same time, I’m utilizing those moneys to put into films I’m very passionate about.

I’ve been able to do dissect my sensibility about it. And I don’t go into working on these films with a negative attitude. The best way for me to think about it is as an actor, as an interpreter I am somebody who is there to help the director do what they want as best as possible. If I can help them do that and bring something to it that I find interesting, that’s great. And if it doesn’t work out, ultimately that’s okay. Because I know the money that I’m making for the film is genuinely helping these films that I’m so passionate about.

So when the Robert Zemeckis film came to me, I was very surprised and really quite questioning of it. Because of the lawsuit. So when I heard that Robert Zemeckis was interested in me for the role of Grendel, I really had to think about it. But I realized, “Well, right now I'm really working wholeheartedly to do the best job I can, and make the money that I can use to finance the films that I’m passionate about.” And ultimately, it was a great part. Angelina Jolie played my mother, Anthony Hopkins played my father, Ray Winstone plays Beowulf, and I have an excellent working relationship with all of them. And ultimately, I have an excellent working relationship with Robert Zemeckis. It really has been a good, holistic thing for me. I’m enjoying being able to act in these films, and I’m not feeling guilty about them as I have years before.