Interview: Crispin Hellion Glover on Back to the Future, working with his father and his 'It' trilogy
'The producers of Back to the Future punished a 20 year old actor in their film for asking questions'
Crispin Hellion Glover came to prominence playing George McFly in 1985's Back to the Future. More recently, he's commenced filming his 'It' trilogy, a critique of corporate restraints in modern filmmaking featuring actors with Down's Syndrome. Here, he talks at length about the trilogy, making Back to the Future and Charlie's Angels, and working with his father, Bruce Glover, for the first time.
How would you describe the content of your live touring show? What should audience members look forward to?
First I will perform Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1. Then I present the 35mm feature film What is it? Then there is a 1.5 hour questions and answer period. During the Q&A I will show the trailer for What is it? and 10 minutes of contiguous edited footage of my next feature film, which is a film I have developed for my father Bruce Glover and I to act in together for the first time. He has been seen in such films as Diamonds are Forever, Chinatown and Ghost World. Then there is a book signing till the last person in line has had their books signing. Below is more detail about these elements.
What would you like audiences to gain from the experience?
I am very careful to 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 looks up at the screen and thinks to themselves, '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 it’s media? It is a bad thing 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 towards 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 this culture’s media. I would like people to think for themselves.
Your acting roles in Back to the Future and Charlie’s Angels are perhaps your most famous. What did you gain from these experiences?
I had not been given a complete screenplay before I was hired for acting in Back to the Future. I analyzed the screenplay after I was hired and during production I asked questions as we approached certain scenes. My feeling is they did not want me to be in the film because during the original production when we got close to shooting the end alternate future scenes I asked questions about the characters getting a monetary reward at the end of the film. I said to Robert Zemeckis that I felt the reward should be that the characters were only in love and that if there was a monetary reward at the end such as the son character having a new car in the garage it tainted the message and the message turned to 'Money will bring you happiness' as opposed to 'Love will bring you happiness.' Please understand I was a 20 year old idealist who had been watching many films from the 60s and 70s that tended towards questioning these things so it did not seem outrageous to question this. Robert Zemeckis got angry with me and I do not think it was forgotten when the negotiations for the sequels came around or when they were writing the sequels for that matter. The illegal actions this led to on the part of the producers as a punishment for a 20 year old actor asking questions is not justifiable. It was not right to producers of Back to the Future to break the law to punish a 20 year old actor in their film for asking questions about the moral content of a screenplay they only allowed to be read after the deal was completed.
Bob Gale now makes matter worse because he is making up untrue things to take the focus off the fact that what he and his fellow producers did was illegal, by definition of the word. He does not want to face that fact. To skirt the issue Bob Gale has lied to millions of people on the Back to the Future DVD commentaries about how the negotiations were handled. I would not normally discuss this sort of thing, but people believe what he has stated as true. What people have to realize is that Bob Gale was involved with something that turned into illegal activity. People who wonder about if what Bob Gale has said is true or not, should understand even if they liked Back to the Future it still means that a creator like Bob Gale, who was a contributor to the illegal activity, has motivation to create lies to detract the attention from his wrongdoing.
Steven C Stewart wrote and is the main actor in part two of the 'It' trilogy, titled It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. I put Steve in to the cast of What is it? because he had written this screenplay which I read in 1987. When I turned What is it? from a short film in to a feature I realized there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven C Stewart’s screenplay dealt with. 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 he was very difficult to understand. People that were caring for him in the nursing home would derisively call him an 'MR', 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. As I have stated, I put Steven C Stewart in to What is it? when I turned What is it? into a feature film. Originally What is it? was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities of working with a cast wherein most characters are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. Steve had written his screenplay in in the late 1970s. I read it in 1987 and as soon as I had read it I knew I had to produce the film. Steven C Stewart died within a month after we finished shooting the film. Cerebral palsy is not generative 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 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 straight in to 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 C Stewart lived. I met with Steve and David Brothers with whom I co-directed the film. I went back to LA and acted in an 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 in 1987 I knew I had to produce the film. Steven C Stewart’s own true story was fascinating and then the beautiful story and the naïve elements, including his fascination of women with long hair, the graphic violence and sexuality and the revealing truth of his psyche from the screenplay, were all combined. There was a specific marriage proposal scene that was the scene I remember reading that made me say, 'I have to produce this film.'
I also knew I had to 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. 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. I am very proud of the film as I am of What is it? 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 email list at CrispinGlover.com as they will be emailed 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.
After Charlie’s Angels came out it did very well financially and was good for my acting career. I started getting better roles that also paid better and I could continue using that money to finance my films that I am so truly passionate about. I have been able to divorce myself from the content of the films that I act in and look at acting as a craft that I am helping other filmmakers to accomplish what it is that they want to do. Usually filmmakers have hired me because there is something they have felt would be interesting to accomplish by using me in their film and usually I can try to do something interesting as an actor. If for some reason the director is not truly interested in doing something that I personally find interesting with the character then I can console myself that, with the money I am making to be in their production, I can help to fund my own films that I am so truly passionate about. Usually though I feel as though I am able to get something across as an actor that I feel good about. It has worked out well.
Do you see mainstream acting solely as a means to an end?
I look at acting as a craft that I learned at a relatively young age. I separate the craft of acting from the art of my own personal film making. I am grateful to all the tremendous individuals I have had the opportunity to work with as an actor in the corporately funded and distributed film world.
What Is It? was the last film where you performed multiple roles: writing, producing, directing and acting. Which part of the process is your favourite?
My favorite part ultimately is the editing. Shooting is like war. Editing is like the peace process and then it is where the final art of the film takes place.
You've already mentioned that your next film will involve you acting alongside your father. How does the father/son working relationship play out on and off set?
It is relatively easy to direct my father. But it was more difficult when I let him get involved with some of the writing.
I have owned a chateau in the Czech Republic for many years now and it has been in a state of work to get both the chateau ready for housing the crew members and cast when I am shooting my own productions, and the 14,000 square feet of former horse stables that are now the areas for the shooting stages where the sets have been built.
There has been an enormous amount of work here. When people hear I am coming to my chateau they always say 'Have a great time!' as though I am going on vacation. But I actually have way more difficult work here than at my house in LA. In the last two years I have been at my property in Czech more than LA, but also on the road with my shows and films or acting in other people’s films, more than either of my homes.
I should not go into too much detail for part three of the 'It' trilogy yet, as IT IS MINE. will not be the film I shoot next. There are other projects outside of the trilogy that I will shoot next. The Czech Republic is where I own a chateau built in the 1600s. I have converted its former horse stables in to film shooting stages. Czech is another culture and another language and I need to build up to complex productions like What is it? and the existing sequel It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. IT IS MINE. is an even more complex project than the previous two films put together, so it will be a while yet for that production. I will step outside of the trilogy for a number of films that deal with different thematic elements from the 'It' trilogy.
The sets for my next film productions were in construction for over two years now. At the same time the sets were being built I was in the process of continuing to develop the screenplay for myself and my father to act in together on these sets. My father, Bruce Glover, is also an actor who has appeared in such films as Chinatown and Diamonds Are Forever and he and I have not yet acted together on film. The project with my father is the next film I am currently preparing to make as a director/producer. This will be the first role I have written for myself to act that will be written primarily as an acting role, as opposed to a role that was written for the character I play to merely serve the structure. But even still on some level I am writing the screenplay to be something that I can afford to make. There are two other projects I am currently developing to shoot on sets at my property in the Czech Republic. These films will be relatively affordable by utilizing the basic set structures that can be slightly re-worked for variations and yet each film will feel separate from one another in look and style yet still cinematically pleasing so they will be worth projecting in various cinemas.
I have now started shooting my next feature at my property in Czech. The crew and cast stayed at my chateau in Czech.
You are an author, actor and musician as well as a filmmaker. Which do you enjoy the most?
I spend most of my life now involved with the production of my own film making.
Finally, who is your favorite contemporary actor?
I do not have single contemporary or non contemporary favorite film actor but when I was a teenager studying acting I studied actors giving performances like:
Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider,
Timothy Carey in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden,
Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Wise Blood,
Peter Lorre in M,
Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh
and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God.