Actor/filmmaker Crispin Hellion Glover has gained a reputation for eccentricity, both in his choice of roles and in his personal life. But maybe Glover is just more uncompromising than eccentric, an attitude that's made him an odd fit in Hollywood. Glover recently left Hollywood behind, hitting the road with his surreal debut feature What Is It?, attending each screening and holding question-and-answer sessions afterward, as well as doing a slide presentation based on his books. The A.V. Club spoke to Glover about audience expectations, the movie business, and the real meaning of the phrase "independent film."
The A.V. Club: The reactions to What Is It? have ranged from confusion to high praise. How do you describe the film?
Crispin Glover: There's no question that What Is It? is a narrative movie. It may not be the type of narrative that many people in a standard movie audience are used to, but nonetheless I would say that it's a straightforward drama. I also understand that the cinematic vocabulary I'm using—while it has been used by other filmmakers—is not a common vocabulary. I have a very specific story, and a very specific idea of what the imagery and the elements within the film mean to me, but I've also made it mandatory to myself not to be dictatorial as far as what other people are to get out of it. So I don't explain it or demand of people exactly what is supposed to be gotten out of it. I see a lot of variation in what people have gotten out of the film. Some of it is similar to what I think, but some of it is quite far from it.
AVC: Is that why you're taking the film around the country in person?
CG: Yes. When I do the question-and-answer sessions, I never say, "This is the right way to think about it, and this is the wrong way," merely that it is something to have thoughts about. One of the reasons I made the film in this fashion is that films right now sit within the boundaries of what's considered good and evil. And if a filmmaker wants to make or distribute a film which has elements in it that go beyond good and evil, where there is not a commentary on those elements, those films will not get funded or distributed. And I think that's a problem right now, because that realm is really where more interpretive thinking comes about, where people can get into conceptual ideas. Essentially, there's a very narrow point of view coming across in filmmaking, and in media in general, and it does affect the culture negatively.
AVC: It's interesting that what people refer to as "independent" films are nothing of the sort.
CG: Werner Herzog saw the film—there are influences from some of his work in this film, especially Even Dwarfs Started Small and Fata Morgana—and he's said that there's no such thing as independent film. And of course that's true. Unless somebody sits with a camera by themselves, and then develops it themselves and projects it themselves. But this is coming from someone who you would consider to be an independent filmmaker, an individual who's really doing something completely unique and on their own. He's just pointing out that it's this concept that's not a reality. But especially with things like the Independent Spirit Awards I see the kind of movies that win those and it's like, the Academy Awards are the "large corporate film awards" and the Independent Spirit awards would be the "smaller corporate film awards." They called me and said that they could screen my movie, and how the system worked was exactly the same way as the Academy Awards works: They have a large list of voters, and you have to send each one of those people DVDs and hold screenings for them, and it's expensive, ultimately. What you need to do for this independent celebration takes dependence on some kind of corporate entity. So these terms have nothing to do with anything, really; what it comes down to is, is the film interesting or not? But human beings like to categorize things, and I guess that's understandable.
AVC: Looking at your career as a whole, it seems as if you alternate between smaller and larger films.
CG: I know that sort of back-and-forth thing is what a lot of actors tend to do, but I'm not actually doing that so much. Years ago, I was trying to find movies that I would think of as a reflection of my psychological interests in something, but I would ultimately end up finding it frustrating. I wasn't looking for things that would make me cash, basically. I'm glad I did it in one way, because it's important to forge an identity at one point in your career. But now, I've just been focusing on acting in films that I can use to fund my own work with, and strangely, what's happened is that as I've focused on increasing my cash value, the roles have become more interesting and I can finance my own work. I've divorced my want of trying to demonstrate my artistic expression through other people's films, which never was really that good an idea. It really makes more sense for me to be doing that with my own films.
AVC: It's unusual for someone to open themselves up to their public in this way, isn't it?
CG: I think the reason it's unusual is that there's not a monetary reason for people to do it. A film is bought up by a corporation, and then it's up to that corporation to advertise the film and get people to come see it. The reason that I'm going around like this—beside the fact that I actually enjoy it—is that I know that this will help to get people to come out to the theater and see it, because I'm not planning to put it out on DVD. I want the film to be a theater-viewing experience that people come together and see properly projected. And by doing it that way, I know it makes the screening a special event, something I'd like to continue doing with other movies. If I can continue to do things by taking it directly to the audience, and cut out the middleman altogether, it seems like a much better situation.
AVC: That should make it harder for it to get lost in the shuffle.
CG: Exactly. I have much more interest in the movie than any other distributor would, and I also know my audience better than any other corporate entity would know it. If I didn't go around with the film in this way, it would be harder to get people into the theater, but there is a cap on how many people will see the film. Ultimately, I know that by going around and doing this I will make my money back; maybe I'll make a little bit of money with it, but if I do—considering the amount of hours I put into it—it'll be far less than minimum wage.