The two films Crispin Glover made in the mid-aughts have long been the holy grail of midnight movies. The notoriously eccentric actor-director has kept a tight grip on their distribution, so the only way to see them is during the occasional screenings he hosts. During two of those screenings this week at IFC Center, the audience got an even more special treat. Dressed in a vest and tie a la PT Barnum, Glover broke out his laptop and showed a preview of his next film, which he wrote for his father Bruce Glover, an actor best known for playing a Bond villain in Diamonds Are Forever.
As with much of Crispin Hellion Glover’s work, the impressionistic trailer was hard to describe from memory; there was a veiled woman, top-hatted men, a baby doll floating down a river, and some tommy gun fights. The as-yet untitled work had the sort of noir tinge that you’d expect from something that was filmed in a 17th century Czewch castle.
The story of how Glover came to own a 20-acre estate in the Czech Republic dates back to It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine, the film he showed at IFC on Wednesday. Back in 1986, fresh off of playing George McFly in Back to the Future, Glover caught wind of a documentary about Steven C. Stewart, a man with severe cerebral palsy who, after the death of his mother, had been locked up in a Salt Lake City nursing home for a decade, even though he was in his 20s and had normal cognitive functions. Stewart had written a screenplay for a melodrama in which he played a wheelchair-bound serial killer with a hair-combing fetish. His disability slurred his speech to the point of near incomprehensibility (despite this, the film has no subtitles), yet he’s depicted as a playboy who manages to seduce women– only to strangle them during sex.
The movie, as Stewart imagined it, was not family fare. “If we had shot exactly what Steve had written, it would’ve been a triple X porn movie,” Glover recalled on Wednesday. Glover had nothing against making a porno—he delights in flouting taboos. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to convince high-caliber actresses to go for hardcore sex (the serial killer’s first victim is played by Margit Carstensen of Fassbinder fame). So he settled on a series of softcore scenes, with the exception of one that graphically depicts a blow job.
Glover said that part of the reason he ended up turning Stewart’s screenplay into a film (it was shot in 2000-2001 and premiered at Sundance in 2007) was to “make it a genuine experience for Steve,” who died just a month after it was made. Though some have criticized It Is Fine! as misogynist, Glover insisted that Stewart was actually a nice guy (he willed his money to an actress with whom he had fallen in love during shooting). He merely wanted to challenge Hollywood’s typically antiseptic depiction of people with disabilities and show that “a person with a disability could have dark thoughts.”
Stewart’s spirit of rebellion clicked with certain frustrations that Glover had developed about studio films, after his aborted role in the Back to the Future sequel ended in a lawsuit. In the mid-80s, before making It Is Fine!, Glover had pitched a movie that involved actors with Down syndrome. David Lynch had agreed to executive produce it, but the studio was wary of the casting choice. To help convince them it could work, Glover shot what was originally intended to be a short film. Instead it morphed into a feature, What Is It?.
What Is It?, which was screened on Thursday, employs people with Down syndrome in much the same way Werner Herzog used dwarves in Even Dwarfs Started Small. Then it adds a touch of psychedelia. One storyline deals with a young man who smashes snails, pours salt on them, and at one point graphically decapitates one with a straight-edge razor. (The end credits assure that Steven Spielberg wasn’t harmed in the making of the movie.) Meanwhile, during surrealist interludes, Glover, wearing a fur coat, sits on a throne emblazoned with swastikas and the face of Shirley Temple. On a set that looks like it was stolen from Fraggle Rock, he presides over Lynchian puppet shows as well as performances by a black-faced minstrel who believes he’s Michael Jackson. Stewart also appears naked in this film. He’s rolled into Glover’s lair in a giant scallop shell, a la Birth of Venus, by a naked woman in an elephant mask, and then his penis is fondled by a nude monkey woman while a record player emits a racist country western song by Johnny Rebel. (The music of Charlie Manson and Anton LaVey is also featured.)
According to Glover, his casting choices didn’t end up clicking with the studio. “Corporations get concerned that people could ask questions like, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you making fun of these people? Are you taking advantage of these people?’ Which I had no interest in. But then I recognized that corporations have concern about anybody asking any question about anything at all, because ultimately corporations know that if there’s a thoughtful, questioning culture, people will start questioning corporations themselves.”
Even organizations with liberal mission statements have been wary of his work, Glover said. One non-profit theater recently canceled his appearance when the booker’s higher-ups caught wind of the charged material, he revealed.
Partly as a result of his qualms about the corporate machine, Glover has self-funded his movies, and has spent twelve years showing them himself in theaters. He usually pairs the screenings with Q&As that can stretch to two hours, Kevin Smith-style, as well as slideshow-style readings of his surrealist books, which he sells and signs. The books are actually old texts (for instance an 1896 tome about the art of rat-catching) that he repurposes using his own text (there’s a line about a “pre-menstrual lobotomy”), disturbing illustrations, and something akin to William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method.
Famously, Glover has never released his films on video or online, which has made them golden unicorns of shock cinema. “I have no way to personally be able to digitally release without it essentially becoming public domain,” he explained. He hasn’t sold them to distributors or streaming platforms, either. “Every filmmaker that I’ve talked to that self-funded a film and sold it to a corporation, universally, they’ve lost money,” he reported.
This doesn’t mean Glover is against selling his next film to a big studio, so long as he gets enough money up front to recoup his production expenses. He says he has spent more on his forthcoming film, which he’s shooting in 35mm, than he spent on his two previous ones combined.
“I would prefer to work in standard corporate release,” Glover said, dismissing the idea that he’s religiously anti-establishment. “There was a time in the ’60s and ’70s when there were questioning films that were being corporately funded and distributed, and studio films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clockwork Orange. That isn’t the temperature right now.”
Add to that, Glover feels a major studio wouldn’t give him the time and space he needs. “I always shoot my films in multiple production segments and then if I feel like something isn’t quite working I’ll shoot more,” he said.
Even within a DIY context, it’s tricky to film over the course of years. Glover learned this the hard way. After filming It Is Fine!, he thought he might keep the stage sets—created by co-director David Brothers— for a future production. But when Brothers lost the lease on the warehouse in Salt Lake City where most of the film was shot, the sets had to be destroyed. That’s part of the reason Glover ended up buying the estate in the Czech Republic, where he’s using a new batch of stage sets for his latest film.
Of course, the new film, a family saga in which the characters have mythological names like Apollo and Brutus, has faced its own hurdles, starting with a photo lab in Prague that closed during the course of filming. Glover ended up starting a non-profit and buying the lab’s 35mm and 15mm equipment, so he wouldn’t have to send film to Germany and Poland to be developed. Then there’s the matter of his father, an actor and acting coach who appeared in movies like Chinatown and TV shows like Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible, The A-Team, and The Dukes of Hazzard. “My father ended up getting involved in the writing, which was actually difficult,” Glover said. “It’s easy for me to direct him but he and I had certain clashes about the writing.”
After several years of shooting, Glover finally has an 82-minute cut. You can see stills at his website, but don’t expect to see the film in theaters anytime soon. He plans to shoot more next month. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take [to finish],” Glover said.