Sundance London: An Exclusive Q&A with Crispin Glover on River's Edge and Questioning the Status Quo
"At age 18, I began to act in feature films," says Crispin Glover "At this time I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our culture."
The pack of feral teenagers at the center of the 1987 cult thriller, River’s Edge inhabited a very different world, where 'text' had yet to become a verb and Facebook was what happened after nodding off while pulling an all-nighter cramming for finals. But in the twenty-five years since the release of director Tim Hunter’s amorality tale (which is screening in the Special Events section of Sundance London) about a group of high school students torn between self-interest and disinterest in the wake of a murder, the film’s stark portrait of suburban disaffected youth remains as resonant as it is relevant to the spate of tragedies caused by angry, affectless teens (from Columbine to last month’s Ohio school shooting) that continue to capture headlines with alarming and increasing frequency.
Still, for all its prescient insight into the dark heart of the modern teenage soul, River’s Edge ignited equal parts passion and derision among audiences and critics. “It’s the best analytical film about a crime since In Cold Blood,” rhapsodized Roger Ebert; while The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson dismissed the film’s premise as “crackpot sociology…hackneyed and sloppy.” Consequently, Rivers Edge has been relegated to cult status and denied its place among the classics of the teenage wasteland canon alongside the best work by Gus Van Sant, Greg Araki and Harmony Korine.
Now that the film has taken its place among Sundance London’s lineup of iconic musicians and audacious feats of filmmaking, River’s Edge is poised emerge from the fringes, poised to receive the long-overdue props acknowledging its position among the few 80’s films to offer an alternative to John Hughes’ sentimentalization of adolescence with its unblinking look at the dark underbelly of the teen psyche. If the film's teen anomie was embodied in any one character, it was Lane, the group's cunning and charismatic alpha dog who lead the charge to cover up the killing. Crispin Glover, who played Lane with a chilling affectless pragmatism, has generously agreed to revisit his thoughts on the film's take on the teenage wasteland, his disappointment in mainstream media's toothlessness, his innovative approach to taking the films he directs on the road as a kind of travelling performance art, and a riveting and revealing memory of a dinner party with Dennis Hopper and Allen Ginsberg.
Sundance Institute: As an actor and as a filmmaker, you’ve generally played and made films about outsiders and misfits. How did your interest in outsiders and fringe characters come into play in River’s Edge?
Crispin Glover: I have not necessarily thought of myself as having a large interest in outsiders or fringe characters, but I can see why it might seem like that. In a certain way I would not think of Layne as a fringe character. If you analyze the original screenplay for River’s Edge really Layne was written as kind of the popular center of that particular group of friends.
SI: There is still something so subversive and raw and honest about the clannish, transgressive teens in River’s Edge. Did the process of making the film feel like a subversive act in and of itself?
CG: No the making the film did not seem like it was subversive. Making it felt like it was the proper sort of questioning filmmaking that I had believed would be the standard in the industry at that time. It was a relatively fast four week shoot and it was an excellent screenplay so it was good to work on that film.
SI: What was your first response to the story and our character?
CG: When I first read the screenplay and heard what it was about a high school student who killed his girlfriend my inclination was to want to play that killer character Samson. I read the screenplay focusing on that character, but somehow it was not something I was that interested in. The filmmakers had wanted me to look at Layne. I had put the screenplay down after looking at the role of Samson. My girlfriend at the time was an actress and she read the screenplay and said I would be really good as Layne and that it was a really good role. So I read the screenplay with that character in mind and realized there was a certain sound of the dialogue that I was familiar with and had grown up hearing and knowing and that if Layne’s dialogue was spoken in the particular dialect it would have a good humor and dynamic for the character specifically and the film generally.
SI: What excited (or scared) you most about playing such a morally ambiguous character?
CG: The way Layne was written on the original screen page was not morally ambiguous at all. On the page it seemed apparent that Layne’s primary motivation was to save his friend from the police. In that sense on the page Layne has a strict moral sense that his friend should be stood up for. Actually the element that probably makes the character feel morally ambiguous was an intentions switch I made on the character. The intention switch I made was that what Layne actually wanted was the attention saving his friend would cause himself. That intention switch is probably what comes off as selfish and perhaps morally ambiguous. The character could have been played as someone who’s genuine main intention was to save his friend and the actions of playing the character with that intention as written on the page would give a radically different performance that as you put it would feel less morally ambiguous.
SI: Did it feel like a particular stretch at the time to play someone with so much social influence and power as opposed to the fringe-dwellers you’ve often gravitated toward?
CG: No. When you say that I have gravitated towards fringe dwelling characters it is not quite accurate. Perhaps I have been offered more of that type of character and not necessarily that I have sought them out. I am very comfortable playing characters that have social influence, but I am not often offered those roles.
SI: What themes and ideas about the secret lives of the teenagers in River’s Edge do you think most account for its enduring resonance with audiences and its cult film status?
CG: For me River’s Edge has less to do with teenagers and more to do with good solid story structure. It was a good screenplay and then Tim Hunter cast all of the characters well.
SI: What were the films you watched growing up that most truthfully captured the intensity and casual cruelty and loyalty particular to teen relationships and social dynamics?
CG: I never focused on films specifically about teenagers as a film goer and student of film while I was professionally studying acting between the ages of 15 and 20. The film industry I had thought I was stepping in to at those ages was the spirit of when I was a teenager attending the various revival theaters that were so popular in Los Angeles in the 1980’s before home theater business competition forced most 35 mm venues to close. I did not realize at the time that I stepped in to working as an actor that the kinds of films that were being funded and distributed were starting to change.
As soon as I got my driver’s license when I was 16 in 1980 I attended screenings at revival theaters that were quite popular in LA before VHS competition cleared many of them away. Many of these revival theaters no longer exist such as, one of my favorites, the beautiful Fox Venice with a wide cinemascope screen on Lincoln Blvd.
Some of my favorite memories of these days spent in the arthouse include:
Ken Russel’s The Devils
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Chinatown
Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Cassanova
John Cassavete’s A Woman Under the Influence
Orson Wells’ F is for Fake and Citizen Kane
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Sunset Blvd
John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living
Todd Browning’s Freaks
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove
Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God, Even Dwarves Small and Fata Morgana.
I was a regular attendee of David Lynch’s Eraserhead at midnight on Fridays at the Nuart
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 Cuckoos Nest and Wise Blood,
Peter Lorre in M
Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh
and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God
These films and performances characterized the atmosphere of cinema and acting I believed I was stepping into as a young actor. By 1982, at age 18, I began to act in feature films. At this time I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our culture. I enthusiastically supported the idea of questioning our culture. To help support the idea, I also questioned the film industry’s and media’s messages. Sometimes I felt scorned and isolated; other times I felt accepted and admired. Then, at one point, in the midst of my career, I realized that the types of films the industry was financing and distributing had changed almost diametrically from the types of films I had watched when I was 18. The films I saw that played in these venues tended to question culturally accepted truths with performances that underscored these concepts.
SI: How did the dynamics at play in the script carry over to the dynamics between you and your co-stars off camera?
CG: Shooting River’s Edge was a relatively fast shoot but everyone got along and liked the screenplay and everyone seemed to enjoy making the film.
SI: Were there any enduring friendships or relationships that came out of this experience?
CG: Yes I think fondly of everyone involved in making River’s Edge and am alway glad when there is a retrospective of the film and when I see people that were involved in the production.
SI: What’s your most vivid Denis Hopper memory?
CG: Not too long after it was known that Allen Ginsburg was diagnosed with a terminal disease Dennis Hopper had a dinner/poetry reading at his home in Venice CA that he invited me to. I had already been performing my slide shows of my profusely illustrated books with which I currently tour and distribute my personal films. Dennis Hopper had seen my books and everyone was supposed to perform some poetry. I did end up performing a couple of my books with slides from my shows and Allen Ginsburg was very nice about it. I will never forget an image of Dennis Hopper and Allen Ginsburg sitting across from each other both holding cameras and taking photos of each other taking photos of each other. There was a certain humor to that. I am of course sad that Dennis Hopper died too young.
SI: This film was among the first to capture the sense of ennui, disenchantment, disconnection associated with Gen X. Did you feel like you were making a film that had a lot to say about your generation in particular?
CG: I do not really relate to a particular generation of people so I can not say. I think of Luis Buñuel as a contemporary because he was alive at the same time as me, so the subsections of generation w,x,y, or z seem a little overly particular.
SI: You appeared on Letterman to promote River’s Edge dressed as a character named Rubin from Rubin and Ed. Was that your most Warhol-esque moment promoting a film?
CG: I can see why you might say that, but in media I have never confirmed or denied that I appeared on the Late Night with David Letterman to promote River’s Edge.
SI: In the years since, you’ve directed several independent films and taken a very creative and hands-on approach to distributing those films, essentially going on tour with them and presenting them to audiences. Can you talk about how and why you decided to go on the road with your films?
CG: Yes. The live aspect of the shows I perform before the films I tour with are not to be underestimated. This is a large part of how I bring audiences in to the theater and a majority of how I recoup is by what is charged for the live show and what I make from selling the books after the shows.
For “Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show” I perform a one hour dramatic narration of eight different books I have made over the years. The books are taken from old books from the 1800's that have been changed in to different books from what they originally were. They are heavily illustrated with original drawings and reworked images and photographs.
I started making my books in 1983 for my own enjoyment without the concept of publishing them. I had always written and drawn and the books came as an accidental outgrowth of that. I was in an acting class in 1982 and down the block was an art gallery that had a book store upstairs. In the book store there was a book for sale that was an old binding taken from the 1800's and someone had put their art work inside the binding. I thought this was a good idea and set out to do the same thing. I worked a lot with India ink at the time and was using the India ink on the original pages to make various art. I had always liked words in art and left some of the words on one of the pages. I did this again a few pages later and then when I turned the pages I noticed that a story started to naturally form and so I continued with this. When I was finished with the book I was pleased with the results and kept making more of them. I made most of the books in the 80's and very early 90's. Some of the books utilize text from the biding it was taken from and some of them are basically completely original text. Sometimes I would find images that I was inspired to create stories for or sometimes it was the binding or sometimes it was portions of the texts that were interesting.
All together, I made about twenty of them. When I was editing my first feature film What is it? There was a reminiscent quality to the way I worked with the books because as I was expanding the film in to a feature from what was originally going to be a short, I was taking film material that I had shot for a different purpose originally and re-purposed it for a different idea and I was writing and shooting and ultimately editing at the same time. Somehow I was comfortable with this because of similar experiences with making my books.
When I first started publishing the books in 1988 people said I should have book readings. But the book are so heavily illustrated and they way the illustrations are used within the books they help to tell the story so the only way for the books to make sense was to have visually representations of the images. This is why I knew a slide show was necessary. It took a while but in 1992 I started performing what I now call Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Side Show Part 1. The content of that show has not changed since I first started performing it. But the performance of the show has become more dramatic as opposed to more of a reading.
People sometimes get confused as to what “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show (Parts 1&2)” is so now I always let it be known that it is a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books that I have made over the years. The illustrations from the books are projected behind me as I perform the show. There is a second slide show now that also has 8 books. Part 2 is performed if I have a show with Part 1 of the “IT” trilogy and then on the subsequent night I will perform the second slide show and Part 2 of the “IT” trilogy. The second slide show has been developed over the last several years and the content has changed as it has been developed, but I am very happy with the content of the second slide show now.
The fact that I tour with the film helps the distribution element. I consider what I am doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers. Vaudeville was the main form of entertainment for most of the history of the US. It has only relatively recently stopped being the main source of entertainment, but that does not mean this live element mixed with other media is no longer viable. In fact it is apparent that it is sorely missed.
I definitely have been aware of the element of utilizing the fact that I am known from work in the corporate media I have done in the last 25 years or so. This is something I rely on for when I go on tour with my films. It lets me go to various places and have the local media cover the fact that I will be performing a one hour live dramatic narration of eight different books which are profusely illustrated and projected as I go through them, then show the film either What is it? Being 72 minutes or It is fine! Everything is Fine being 74 minutes. Then having a Q&A and then a book signing. As I funded the films I knew that this is how I would recoup my investment even if it a slow process.
Volcanic Eruptions was a business I started in Los Angeles in 1988 as Crispin Hellion Glover doing business as Volcanic Eruptions. It was a name to use for my book publishing company. About a year later I had a record/CD come out with a corporation called Restless Records. About when I had sold the same amount of books as CD/records had sold it was very clear to me that because I had published my own books that I had a far greater profit margin. It made me very suspicious of working with corporations as a business model. Financing/Producing my own films is based on the basic business model of my own publishing company. There are benefits and drawbacks about self distributing my own films. In this economy it seems like a touring with the live show and showing the films with a book signing is a very good basic safety net for recouping the monies I have invested in the films
There are other beneficial aspects of touring with the shows other than monetary elements.
There are benefits that I am in control of the distribution and personally supervise the monetary intake of the films that I am touring with. I also control piracy in this way because digital copy of this film is stolen material and highly prosecutable. It is enjoyable to travel and visit places, meet people, perform the shows and have interaction with the audiences and discussions about the films afterwards. The forum after the show is also not to under-estimated as a very important part of the show for for the audience. This also makes me much more personally grateful to the individuals who come to my shows as there is no corporate intermediary. The drawbacks are that a significant amount of time and energy to promote and travel and perform the shows. Also the amount of people seeing the films is much smaller than if I were to distribute the films in a more traditional sense.
The way I distribute my films is certainly not traditional in the contemporary sense of film distribution but perhaps is very traditional when looking further back at vaudeville era film distribution. If there are any filmmakers that are able to utilize aspects of what I am doing then that is good. It has taken many years to organically develop what I am doing now as far as my distribution goes.
SI: What experimental filmmakers and performers do you most admire?
CG: I would not necessarily categorize these filmmakers and performers as experimental but here are some favorites:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Wong Kar Wei
Musician - Ludwig Van Beethoven
Author - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Photographer - Diane Arbus
Comedian -Andy Kaufman
Actor- There are too many actors I admire to say a single favorite but when I was a teenager I studied performances like
Timothy Carey in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden
Charles Laughton in The Hunchaback of Notre Dame
Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Wise Blood
Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces andeEasy Rider
Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
Bud Court in Harold and Maude
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula
Peter Lorre in M
Vannesa Redgrave in The Devils
Bridgitte Helm in Metropolis
Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh
Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God.