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indieWIRE Interview: Crispin Hellion Glover, director of “What Is It?”

indieWIRE Interview: Crispin Hellion Glover, director of "What Is It?"

Winner of the best narrative film prize at last year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival, Crispin Hellion Glover‘s “What Is It?” debuted at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. A film that essentially began as a short, the project took a decade to create (overcoming many obstacles) and is not so simply described here. As Sundance senior programmer Trevor Groth explained in the festival’s catalog last year, Glover’s movie is, “an aptly titled film that defies easy summarization but is a triumph of cinematic irreverance and uncompromising creativity.” Continuing he added, “‘What Is It?’ is a Dadaist deconstruction of the hero’s journey as well as a hallucinogenic trip deep into the mind of its bizarre creator” and concluded, “Truly on of the most original films ever created, ‘What Is It?’ will shock, intrigue, confound, disturb, and amaze even the most jaded viewers.”

Through his company Volcanic Eruptions, Glover is distributing his film in a few cities around the country, including New York City, Chicago, Portland, OR and Los Angeles. The special events will include showings of the film, a Q & A session, a slide show of Glover’s work and booksignings.

Crispin Hellion Glover recently participated in indieWIRE’s email interview series and his answers to our standard set of questions are published below. He adapted parts of his answer to our first question from a director’s statement that he had previously written.

Please tell us about how the initial idea for this film came about?

I was approached by two young first time filmmaker writers to act in a film they had written. I had promised myself that the next first time filmmaker I worked with would be me. The script they sent me had some interesting things in it, but I felt like a major change was needed to to make it work. I told them I would be interested in being in it if I could direct it and do some re-writing. They said they wanted to hear what my ideas were. When I met with them I told them that if I directed it I would like to have a large majority of the characters be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. There were other things as well but, that was a big part of it. They felt that was OK and I went about re-writing it.

David Lynch got hold of the script and agreed to executive produce the film. I had some good actors that I knew would be right for some of the parts, that agreed to be in the film. Then I went to one of the larger corporate entities to see if I could get funding for the project. They initially seemed quite interested, but as time went on they finally said that they were concerned about the concept of having a majority of the characters be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome.

It was decided that the best thing for me to do was to make a short film that would promote having a majority of the cast played by actors with Down’s Syndrome to show it was a viable and doable idea. I wrote the script for “What Is It?” It was to be a short film of approximately ten minutes. I decided it would be best to comprise the entire cast of actors with Down’s Syndrome.


Crispin Hellion Glover in a scene from his film, “What Is It?” Image provided by the filmmaker

I started out going to art therapy groups that worked with people with Down’s Syndrome. But it was very difficult in terms of scope and I ended up working with a casting person I knew named Kim Davis. She brought in many great people and we met with more groups and I finished casting what was to be the short film that way. When it turned into a feature length film I added myself and Steven C. Stewart so to make his film later in to a sequel. At the very end I went to another group entity called the applied behavioral analysis center and cast a lot of people from there. I believe two of the actors with Down’s Syndrome had worked before. One of those two had worked a lot. Most of the actors had not worked in front of cameras before. Many people ask if it was difficult working with people with Down’s Syndrome, but it was not. One of the most important things about working with actors whether they have Down’s Syndrome or not is that they are enthusiastic. Every cast member was extremely enthusiastic and great to work with.

I put myself into the film as a different antagonistic character than was in the original film. I also put Steven C. Stewart, a man with a severe case of cerebral palsy, in the film. He had written a screenplay many years before, based on certain psychologies he had dealt with as a result his condition, throughout his life. It was a very different kind of film on many levels from “What is it?” But there were certain themes that somehow correlated, and I realized it would be good to make his film into a sequel and make the original screenplay that I had been approached with, into part three. In many ways all three screenplays are very different form one another, yet they all deal with certain themes that complement each other.


My technique in directing them sometimes depended on if the actor was particularly high functioning or not. Most of the actors I worked with were very high functioning and were able to memorize lines. Some of the actors were lower functioning and that was a bit different. But I always knew who I would be working with and they were always cast for a specific purpose so everyone always did exactly what was needed. I have used some of the same techniques I learned working with the actors with Down’s Syndrome with actors that do not have Down’s Syndrome, and it was helpful with the actors without Down’s Syndrome, so ultimately I would say it is not too different.

I truly do look back upon it with fondness. They are genuinely interesting people to work with. I will often be asked why I chose to work with people with Down’s Syndrome. I would say there are quite a few reasons but the one of the most important is that when I look in to the face of someone that has Down’s Syndrome I see the history of someone who has genuinely lived outside of the culture. When peopling an entire film with actors that innately have that quality it affects the world of the film. As far as interpersonal experiences the most interesting element that people who do not work with or know people that have Down’s Syndrome may not realize how perceptive they are about certain things. People with Down’s Syndrome often do not develop a certain social mask that most people develop. This can be both interesting as actors on film and in real life it can often take one in to a certain emotional sensibility that can be ultra perceptive. It really is an interesting thing to be around.

Who were your influences?

Four film directors I was specifically thinking of while working this film are Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I am sure there were others that had influence as well.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for (the movie?)

It became apparent that because of delving into taboo subject matter and themes that I would ultimately have to finance the project myself and distribute as well. I am currently touring with the film and a live dramatic narration of eight different books that have made over the years. The books are heavily illustrated and so they are projected as slides. The performance lasts an hour, then the film is shown (which is 72 minutes). Then I have a question and answer session with the audience which generally is about 45 minutes. Then I have a book signing which usually lasts for hours depending on the size of the audience. I have published four books. Some of these are part of the slide show.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

There were small donations of film and even small amounts of money and large donations of time for the original short film. Again, ultimately I financed the film myself and the cost of getting it to be a 35 mm print is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 US dollars.

What is your next project?

The sequel to the film has already been shot and is in the advanced to late stages of editing. It was written by one of the cast members of “What is it?” His name was Steven C. Stewart. He had a sever case of cerebral palsy and had been put in a nursing home after his parents died. He had a difficult time getting out of the nursing home and his screenplay is a fantastical psychosexual retelling of a certain point of view of his life. It has a naive quality to it and will probably be the best film I will have ever had anything to do with in my career. When we shot the film he was 65. He died within a month of the completion of filming. This is why his film was shot before “What is it?” was completed. He was having health problems and we know if we did not shoot the film soon that we may never get to shoot it at all.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

The term independent film does not make a lot of sense. What are generally called “Independents” are made by smaller corporations than studio corporations, but all film financing corporations at this point are fearful of making films that could possibly make audiences uncomfortable in any way. Corporately financed films must necessarily have content that sits within the bounds of that which is considered good and evil. If there is any content that goes beyond the realm of good and evil that content will either be excised, or the film will not get made. This ultimate homogenization that is happening in this culture’s most important form of communication is stupefying the culture.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

I implore people to make films that are inexpensive and do not rely on corporate financing. Corporate financing is unfortunately hurting true thought and expression at this point in time.

Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?

Right now I am most proud of these films that I have been working on for so many years. Part one is “What is it?” Part two will be “It is fine!” EVERYTHING IS FINE! There will be a part three, but I will wait to get to that for a bit.

[For more information on upcoming screenings, please visit Crispin Hellion Glover’s website.]

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