Interview: Crispin Glover, director of It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine

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interview by Jim Beckmann
photos of CHG by Gregory A. Perez

Just over a week ago, for four nights, actor and filmmaker Crispin Glover screened his latest directorial effort It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine at the Northwest Film Forum. The movie, the second in a proposed trilogy, vividly depicts the fantasy life of Paul, a man who, despite his severe case of cerebral palsy, charms and seduces a number of women who find him irresistible, even as, one by one, he begins to kill them. The film is not one to easily pass off as either torrid sensationalism or exploitive depravity, as the screenwriter and lead actor Steven C. Stewart also suffered from severe cerebral palsy. Glover, who prefers his given name, Crispin Hellion Glover, teamed up with co-director (and art director) David Brothers for this very stylized view of Stewart’s screenplay that often places the long hair-obsessed Paul in surreal 70’s period sets, which remind one of Wes Anderson, had he taken a deeper plunge into the depths of the psyche. Unlike Rushmore or The Life Aquatic, though, Glover’s movies are challenging, even for the art house crowds, and, as the director intends, will often make audiences ask themselves, “Should I really be watching this?” Certainly for It Is Fine, the answer is “Yes, you should.”

Across the country, Glover is touring with the film, opening each night with an hour-long dramatic presentation of his own books called the Big Slide Show and closing with an question and answer session.


This weekend, from Jan 25-28, Glover returns to the Northwest to screen both of his films and present the Big Slide Show at The Clinton Street Theater in Portland, OR.

While he was in Seattle, I had a chance to meet him at the NW Film Forum to talk about his movie:

KEXP: Could you talk about why you chose this particular screenplay, assuming you probably had choices of others, as I’m sure that people send you screenplays quite a bit. What drew you originally to Steven’s movie?

It’s not like I get a huge amount of them. I’ve read screenplays as an actor and things like that. I guess people do try to give me a lot of screenplays, but I don’t think of it that way because I never look at them. I really don’t. But this particular screenplay, even before I had read it all, I knew something about it and it sounded immediately intriguing to me. I remember years ago I was in an acting class, and there was somebody who had written a screenplay and there was something unusual about the person who had written the screenplay and there was something naïve about his screenplay, but I kind of liked it. I wish I had a copy of it, so I thought, oh that would actually be an interesting movie to make — I mean I wasn’t thinking about making films specifically at that time. I was like 16 or 17 when I read that script, but as soon as I heard about this screenplay, I thought, oh this could have this naïve element to it, and I do think it’s interesting. It’s like most screenplays that are produced are so polished and there’s a certain way that they’ve been written up almost — but there’s an interest to the non-polished that you can feel something about it that is actually quite compelling.

KEXP: I guess that’s what draws people to so-called outsider art of various media as well.

And I feel like this film fits in that realm.

KEXP: As well as your book artwork.

I suppose, but I don’t think of myself in that way — I don’t think of myself as an outsider artist because even though I have gone to some kind of art classes but not any formal art training, I was trained as an actor and this sort of thing and somehow having a training in one — even if it is an interpretive — art form leads toward having a certain kind of thought process about other art forms. Whereas I would say that Steven C. Stewart fit in that category. “Folk art ” — when I first read the screenplay, I think that was the term used, and then in the 90’s “outsider art” became the normal — so when I first read it, I thought of it as folk art, and I still think of it that way, which can be very potent.

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KEXP: It also seems like the artist plays as much of a role as the art itself, as in when you brought up the screenplay or story that you had read earlier and you were thinking in terms of the artist who had that naiveté rather than the story itself. That seems fairly important to you.

Oh, I think I see what you’re saying, that with the books there is found art, found images, and found work that’s re-worked. There is something to that, yeah.

KEXP: I noticed in some of the discussion last night [during the post-movie Q&A] that people have some difficulty in separating the character of Paul from Steven’s own life.

There is both a great differentiation in Paul and Steve and there is also almost no differentiation at the same time, but the great differentiation of course is that Paul is Steve’s fantasy-self but Paul is readily understood by everybody and the women in particular are immediately aroused and intrigued and sexually attracted to him or romantically attracted to Paul, but there are certain things that Paul and Steve have very much in common. There are things that didn’t necessarily happen with Steve but Paul and Steve both have cerebral palsy and Paul and Steve both had some kind of seeming hair fetish, so it is interesting what is and what is not fantasy in his screenplay.

KEXP: Do you think that played a role in your choosing it?

Yeah. Because there was always something odd about it no matter what. If he had just written a screenplay that was a standard autobiography about his struggle in the nursing home and that he wanted to meet a woman and he was lonely, I would have not been interested at all. But the fact that he came up with these kind of creative ways of telling a story and that they were genuinely compelling and entertaining, that he did it in this genre fashion that did separate it from his real life — somehow through that genre separation that you know is a fantasy, the reality actually comes much more in focus than if it had been done as a simple autobiography. I should really analyze why that is because I feel like there is a lesson to be learned in it and I haven’t quite analyzed that yet. It feels like it is related to music or sound being used in differentiation to that which is put forth. Like there’s a sad moment that is actually sad that has been captured visually or with audio. You don’t need to put sad music on it. Or you can use music that has a different dynamic to it, maybe happy or angry, or fast-paced, or creepy or something, and it gives a different spin or dynamic. Maybe it is related in that there is some very obvious pathos with what his existence was and that somehow he was making it with non-pathos with the fact that he was making himself into a bad guy — that’s part of what’s really interesting.

KEXP: And that sort of lends to that idea of empowerment that he’s getting through the fantasy, though manifesting in a false or a misguided way. The music, though, that is something we’re always concerned with, being that we are a radio station. I’m curious about your choices of music. I mean, you were the music editor.

Supervisor, yeah.

KEXP: How did you make your choices in regard to the music?

Well, originally when I was thinking about scoring it, I did listen to specifically a lot of Beethoven and post-Beethoven Romantic era music. I tend toward liking Baroque and Classical and even some Modern. I don’t mean Modern like contemporary but Modern era starting in the late 1800’s. I do like some Mozart and such, which is strictly Classical era music, but the strict Classical era isn’t actually my favorite. And most of what is in here is Beethoven/post-Beethoven Romantic era music.

I listened to a lot of college courses about different subjects, and one of them is about music and various composers. There’s a really good course of Tchaikovsky’s life that I was listening to and it went into a lot of detail about the emotionalism of both his life and the music in his life, and you can feel a certain amount of emotional energy in Tchaikovsky’s music. That was something I was always thinking about. With Steven’s movie or screenplay, immediately when I read it, there was an emotional aspect to it that was immediately apparent.

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When you’re editing, of course, like what I was saying about sound before, it’s like the rule is to use only the sound which is not illustrated previously, and on some level when reading the screenplay, it was apparent what the emotional aspects were. But sometimes even if it’s apparent in some ways, it does help to be supported by musical elements. Some things are very apparent and some things not so much, and initially I was just thinking all that emotional aspect of the Tchaikovsky’s music would really serve, completely, as the music for the film.

So initially, I was thinking about him, but then I tend toward listening to a lot of Beethoven — he really is pretty much my favorite, but there are a lot of people I like, and Bach is pretty great too. And one could argue that Bach is greater, but for me there are a lot of things that I relate to or that I enjoy with Beethoven. And there’s a different sort of emotional aspect to Beethoven’s music. I was listening to Beethoven’s 7th and it really made sense to me — I realized there was something about the stoic nature of that particular piece — a kind of journey element that really made sense for Steve. We were talking about the difference between Steve and Paul. And to me, for Steve himself, this is his theme — in the movie there are those bookend elements when he is in the nursing home and that to me is Steve’s theme, Beethoven, which segways then into the fantasy element where there’s the dance going on with the Margi Parstesson’s character.

What I tried to do was have themes for certain thought processes or for certain characters and Karma (the daughter character) tended toward having the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Tchaikovsky and the detectives had to serve a refrain that was slowed down from one of piece of The Nutcracker. I think it was the “Waltz of the Flowers.” And then the hair itself. Any time there was the hair, it was a Beethoven piano concerto #5 or refrain. I would tend towards using refrains that were not necessarily the most famous part, but really the pretty parts at the same time.

Then there are three beats at the end of the death of the swan in “Swan Lake” and they are percussive beats that happen relatively rapidly. I knew there were three moments at the end of that last scene [of Everything Is Fine] with the girl [in the nursing home] where he punches her in the stomach, rolls over her neck, and falls back on the ground, and it hadn’t yet been edited. I thought about it before it was edited, and then waited until it was edited together and, while there might have been a small tweak of the pace, it fell into place basically perfectly and that’s one of my favorite parts about it.

Editing is my favorite part of the whole thing. I like writing a lot, but editing is probably my very favorite, and a lot of the editing is working with the music. What I’ll find is that somehow I get a lot of visual references when I’m listening to a lot of non-lingual music and that one gave me a very specific visual and I realized that’s the perfect piece of music for that moment, and then you can place it for that moment, and then you can drag it forward, which is easy to do with digital editing, drag it all the way forward to see how it works before it all breaks apart and then look at the same thing backwards.

And sometimes you’re lucky and that moment will work, and it will work for other things earlier or later and sometimes it will blow apart, but there are particular times, like one of my favorite scenes, when it falls into place and works all the way through — there’s a scene where he [Paul] first meets that character [the girl]. It’s also from Tchaikovsky but they meet, and the way it falls into place — it’s just a solid piece of music that lasts throughout the whole scene. It just worked perfectly. The levels are changed to go down and up in order to support the dialogue, but it ended up emotionally working perfectly. Often things fall apart, but that one really worked well. And Margit Carstensen and Paul have the theme, or the character she plays of Linda Barnes, had the theme.

KEXP: It’s interesting that you saw Beethoven being more like Steve and Tchaikovsky being more involved with Paul’s fantasy, but with the hair it’s always Beethoven.

And yet at the time the hair… well, you’re right, that’s funny. I hadn’t thought of that.

KEXP: Maybe he’s kind of filtering through in that.

It would make sense. There’s a more bombastic kind of emotionalism with Tchaikovsky and there’s a more stoic emotionalism with Beethoven so maybe that stoic reality somehow seems more fitting for Steve and the bombastic element seems more fitting for the fantasy. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s often how I’ll arrive at things, is emotionally first, and then it takes a bit of analyzing and you realize that those things really do make sense.

KEXP: It sort of falls in with the aesthetic, for instance with the books that sort of draw from a kind of Dadaistic, impulsive nature. And I was wondering about that in terms of when you’re creating books. When you are erasing or subtracting from them, and then writing over them, how much do you think about it?

Well, it evolved. I made my first book when I was 18 I think (or 19 at the latest) and I had been going to an acting class, and down the street from the acting class, was on LaBrea [Boulevard] in Los Angeles, and there was an art gallery, and I actually remember the address, it said “Art 170″ on the front of the place (it was an art gallery). I guess the address was 170 LaBrea and the bookstore above had manufactured readily published books but also had some hand-made books. And somebody had taken an old binding from the 1800’s and put artwork in it, and I thought it was nice and I had always drawn, and I set out to put artwork in it, just that. I had always written; I had liked words in art and I used the India ink a lot, and used the India ink to make drawings, and then I realized, well, I needed to put the words in this because I liked words in art, and I did that on a few pages and I looked back and realized those words of course naturally flowed into some kind of other story. I liked it, so I kind of went with that. I had already put illustrations in it.

Then I finished that book (that book was called Villa and the Rock, I have not published it or put it in the slide show) and it has qualities to it that I like a lot. Then I set out to do another one straight from the beginning, and there’s another book called Baltic to Vesuvius. I had found a book that specifically had a lot of words in it to work with and then I started making a lot of them. And some of them I started finding bindings and sometimes it was about the words that were in it, but by-and-large it was more about the bindings. I was finding illustrations, and then a lot of them I would just write that didn’t use any of the words at all, like Round My House, which is in my show — that one really uses almost no words from any other source. That one is pretty much just my writing.

KEXP: Rat Catching seems to use a lot of text.

That one uses quite a lot of an original source. You can see when something for the most part is type-written from the original source, although Concrete Inspection is the first book that does have kind of a standard-type set — that one wasn’t from a book, that was stuff I wrote out, except for the Introduction and the Appendix. Those were the only two things that were in the original book. In Rat Catching, in the original book there were no illustrations and this one is extremely heavily illustrated.

KEXP: Does anybody ever come back and say, “Hey, that’s my book!”?

No, the books were published in the 1800’s and it’s also in copyright laws — it’s legal to do that because they are over 100 years old. I would be interested to know, though. When I made them, I wasn’t really thinking about it so much. I just kind of went with it, but I’d be interested to see some of the differentiations. I don’t even know what some of the books were originally. I know basically what the books were: some of them were children’s books, some of them were religious kind of teaching books. I think I know what Rat Catching was, but I’m a little bit confused by it, actually.

KEXP: That was odd — it was a bit of education as well as a personal narrative mixed in very strangely. Did you think about that when you chose it or was it more of a visual cover?

That one was visual, yeah. I started collecting a lot of animal husbandry books and veterinary taxidermy books and was utilizing it. The story [now] is quite different from what was in that book, but it does utilize a lot of the text from the original at the same time.

KEXP: Do you see that tendency following through in your films as well?

What Is It particularly is much more similar to my books than the films that I have acted in. Probably Everything Is Fine is less similar to my books as I didn’t write Everything Is Fine. But there might be — somebody pointed that out to me recently and you’re noticing it too — that there is a found object quality to everything, as an existing object that has been re-worked to a certain extent although that existing object is less re-worked than my books are, but the process of making What Is It was similar in a way to my books. Although I had originated the story line, I re-worked it very extensively — it was going to be a short film and it turned into a long film, so I was working with blocks of images that were originally intended for one use and re-worked and used in a different use with different writing, voiceovers, and sound, which is essentially what I have done with my books.

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KEXP: In Everything Is Fine, there is definitely a difference in your interaction with the movie as far as you’re not acting in it, not even a cameo or anything. While you are directing it, it’s not your story although obviously you shaped it as a director. How is that different? Did you feel more removed from the story or did you come at it from a different angle?

Well, it’s a funny thing because I am both very possessive of the film as I co-directed it with somebody, I co-edited it with somebody, and I financed it, and of course Steve wrote it, but I definitely feel like it is my film at the same time. That is not to say that other people didn’t have huge amounts of involvement and of course Steve more than anybody. But at the same time there’s a funny duality in that. It’s ultimately Steven C. Stewart’s film, but I’m at least as possessive of the film as What Is It. I don’t really like to play favorites because What Is It has certain things that Everything Is Fine. does not have and they are very positive things and they are good things and I am proud of those things. I have talked to people who have seen both of the films and there are some people that prefer Everything Is Fine and there are some people that prefer What Is It and then there are people that see them as different kinds of movies and love both of them. And some people obviously don’t like either of them or one or the other, I don’t know. But the thing is that because I hold emotional catharsis in very high regard, and I think that the Steven C. Stewart film has a strong emotional catharsis, I feel like that film will be the best film in the trilogy, but I also feel like it probably will be the best film that will have anything to do with my career and I feel very strongly about that movie.

KEXP: I couldn’t tell what the crowd’s reaction was last night. It seemed like many of them had been to the screening of the first movie when you were here in Seattle before. The question was brought up about how this one didn’t address as many taboos as the first one.

That was interesting and like I said to him — I said that was the perfect question. I saw one review like that as well where it was interesting to me because I almost feel that was a setup that somebody walked into. I didn’t want to say that specifically, but I really do feel like that. There’s no way that, especially if it’s the first film that someone saw, nobody would say that the Steven C. Stewart film doesn’t lurk around the realm of taboo because it absolutely does. But in comparison, if you haven’t seen What Is It (and I say that to people that haven’t seen it), when I walk in front of the audience it’s a very very different feeling afterwards than when I walk in front of the audience with Everything Is Fine. Everything Is Fine is a much easier film for audiences because of that emotional catharsis. There’s a kind of an intellectual removedness in What Is It that you don’t necessarily have a catharsis with any of the characters. There’s a certain amount of emotionalism in it, but it is a very different kind of film. When I walk in front of the audience, I can feel a great differentiation in how I have to answer the questions, I definitely get much more aggressive kind of questioning with What Is It than with Everything Is Fine.

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KEXP [Greg – photographer]: In hearing you talk about What Is It in the past versus this film and Jim’s experience with the film last night, you mention a lot about the uncomfortable nature of some things, not necessarily good or bad, but just the fact with people are uncomfortable with the work you do and you’re not seeing either one of them but hearing you talk about it you feel that people are more uncomfortable with What Is It than they are with that emotional catharsis they have.

There’s a juxtaposition of many different taboo elements. There is graphic sexuality in What Is It; there’s less of it than there is in Everything Is Fine, but it’s graphic. It’s juxtaposed with other things that are also taboo which makes it even more genuinely uncomfortable, and I can just tell that people truly feel like that question comes up looking up at the screen and asking, “Is this right what I’m watching, is this wrong what I’m watching, should I be here, should the director have done this, what is it?” and that’s the title of the film. What is it that is taboo in the culture, what does it mean that the taboo has been ubiquitously excised? When people are asking those questions that there is an educational experience. I don’t mean to say that is the only way somebody can have an educational experience because there are other ways, but I do feel there is a domino effect that is happening in anything that is causing these questions or even the questions of questioning something are taken away so that it gets to the point where there’s nothing being said or nothing is being questioned at all and that is bad.

Whatever film I make next — in fact I know it won’t be part 3 of the trilogy, but part 3 doesn’t have graphic sexuality in it — I probably won’t make a film again that does have graphic sexuality in it. And it’s not like I had a bad experience with it or anything, but just because it really served the Steven C. Stewart film and was an integral part. I’m actually not that fascinated by graphic sexuality — it was good to do it in these films and it especially served a very important purpose in the Steven C. Stewart film. I would never say never if something really became pertinent, and for some reason graphic sexuality made sense in something I wouldn’t shy away from it, but I probably won’t ever make a film again that will have graphic sexuality which will be much easier to distribute. That’s something that makes these films particularly difficult in a certain way.

KEXP: It’s interesting what makes this movie difficult. I was thinking before about the title — “What Is It?” is sort of an anxiety-inducing question whereas “Everything Is Fine” is a calming statement, but the thing is that you’re showing this high-tension situation and saying “everything is fine.” Also, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Steven had cerebral palsy, the violence wouldn’t seem so unlike what you’d see in a movie today necessarily.

I don’t know about that. It depends on the genre. If you see a horror film — yes, violence is in there, or an action film — you’ll see violence having to do with people getting shot. But violence against women, you may only see that in a horror film. You don’t see that in mainstream corporately funded films; there’s a certain type of sensitivity that has to be adhered to. Maybe you could put this in the category of psychological terror, maybe, but you wouldn’t call it a horror film. So there is that kind of violence within the film but it’s not quite in the category of violence. We’re not used to seeing that kind of violence and there’s something a little bit unsettling about it.

KEXP: Sure, I think a lot of people are responding to that. Like the one question where the woman asked “Why is he killing these women?” And there’s an underlying misogyny that comes through there.

I don’t even think it’s underlying! It’s very apparent that there is something going on with frustration and anger. Even women, though, I think can really see a sympathetic element in it because it’s very evident that there is a frustration he’s dealt with in this real world situation and not just somebody that would readily be able to do that kind of violence. Whereas it was a fantasy that he could do it. I don’t think Steve would have been capable of that kind of violence. Not even mentally; he was a nice, refined, charming fellow. I didn’t see him as being somebody that would do that. He had written a letter that was originally shot; there were just a few sentences from the beginning that was kind of a financing letter. It says:

“And like most children of that time, I was born in 1956 with a severe case of cerebral palsy and like many children at the time I went to public school. I was always most attracted to the most popular ones, the ones with blonde hair.”

It was part of a letter he had written to help get financing for the film. It wasn’t part of the script originally, but I thought this was something that was important. And we shot him sitting, speaking that letter out and conceptually that might have been the only thing originally that was going to have some kind of tie with him where you have this kind of contraption where you can see his finger going into these holes and maybe you’d see the words. I had edited it in at one point, but it didn’t work so it isn’t in the film now. And then there was an Outtro as well which we asked him to write. We didn’t tell him exactly what to write but gave him a kind of a guideline of what it was supposed to be about. What he ended up writing was something — one of the sentences which is always kind of funny to me, “I’ve never killed anybody nor do I intend to.” That was the truth; he was not a violent type. What is also interesting is that you can feel something brewing in his psychology.

KEXP: And that sort of brings back that whole blurring of the fiction and non-fiction again, which I think people will sometimes struggle with that when they watch it, trying to separate him and his character.

Yeah, exactly. I don’t know Steve 100% but I would tend toward believing — it would be hard for me to imagine that Steve would ever hit or was physically violent with anybody including women. It was a 100% fantasy.

Find out more about It Is Fine!, and the first film What Is It?, at Crispin Hellion Glover’s website, where you can also read an interview with David Brothers and view the trailer (warning: it’s explicit!) for It Is Fine!.

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3 Comments

  1. Rich
    Posted January 22, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    We went to see the premiere of this at Sundance and walked out after after the first 20 minutes. I’m a huge fan of indie and art house film, however, this movie was not only disturbing, but extemely boring and incomprehensible. I’ve never walked out of a movie, especially at a film festival past the director and his parents, but we were the first and about 20 people followed.

    I commend Mr. Glover for tackling such interesting and difficult subject matter, but be warned if you decide to see it.

  2. Posted January 22, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Hopefully others won’t be scared off so quickly. I admit that I had the same initial reaction — for those of you wondering, due to his cerebral palsy, Steven (aka Paul) is quite difficult to understand — but then I realized that such a reaction was intentional and critical to the story. That every woman understands Paul effortlessly (and I don’t) is a big part of the fantasy. There is, as Glover says, a catharsis here, but don’t expect it 20 minutes into a 74 minute movie. I should note that not one person left the movie when I viewed it in Seattle, save for the guy behind me who went out for a smoke.

  3. jackie
    Posted January 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    i must admit i fell asleep during his big slide show presentation (as did one of my friends)…but the movie made up for it…albeit very slow and hard to understand at first, i paid good money to see it so i stuck it out and was not disappointed…

    i am not sure if anyone walked out when i saw it in new york because i was too busy watching it, and if they did i chalked it up to it being late and them being old

    if crispin hellion glover was not already married, i would want to mother his children

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