Crispin Glover: The future's bright for cinema's enduring outsider

He made his name in the Eighties smash Back to the Future – but director and actor Crispin Glover will never bow to the mainstream, he tells Kaleem Aftab.

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The Independent Culture

American cinema would be a boring, homogenous place if it weren't for stars like Crispin Glover. Whether acting in Hollywood movies such as Back to the Future or directing movies in which most of the actors have Down's syndrome, Glover has a justifiable reputation as eccentric.

Except that the 48-year-old doesn't see it that way. And in the week before he rolls into London to talk about his iconic role in River's Edge, celebrating its 25th anniversary at the inaugural Sundance London, Glover posits, "I still have a reputation as an eccentric. But the fact is that audiences probably mix up my roles with me as a person."

It's an argument that would carry greater weight if the judgment were being made only on his acting performances. Glover has, in addition to his roles, released numerous books – not books that he's written, though, but out-of-print novels, mostly from the 1800s, which he re-edits, before blanking out pages and adding his own illustrations. He has recorded music albums. And he has directed two films. The first, What Is It? (2005), featured a cast that was comprised mainly of actors with Down's syndrome. His 2007 follow-up, It is Fine! Everything is Fine. is a fantastical, semi-autobiographical, psychosexual tale based on the life of Steven C Stewart, who has cerebral palsy and who wrote and starred in the movie.

Glover self-financed and distributed the two movies. He tours with the films and performs live excerpts of his books before the screenings. He maintains that were he as weird as he's often portrayed in the media, he'd never be able to organise the shows and promote them.

He'll be hosting a talk after the centrepiece Sundance London screening of River's Edge and given his career as actor and film-maker, he's perfectly positioned to talk about the current state of US independent cinema. But he makes the point that the term "independent film" is a misnomer. "I don't classify films by independent versus studio – but by corporately funded and distributed versus self-financed." According to Glover, the major difference is that corporately financed films are not allowed to be "questioning and thoughtful. They are not made for adults."

Glover cites the influence of the rating system, the desire to make movies multiplex friendly and a general aversion to adult subjects to back up his well-made argument.

River's Edge is a drama inspired by the real life incident of a high school teenager who killed his girlfriend and took his friends to see the body. For days no one reported the crime to the police. In director Tim Hunter's dramatic fiction the principal protagonists is surprising not the murderer but his rebellious best friend Layne, played by Glover, who encourages the murderer to hide the body and not report the crime. Eerie and disturbing, it's an eerie indictment of the warped thinking of American teenagers. He argues that works like River's Edge would struggle to get financed today. "River's Edge was shot in 1986. When I was growing up, there were quite a few revival theatres in Los Angeles, which were quite popular before they got wiped out by VHS. Many of the films I would go to see were from the Sixties and Seventies, films like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Five Easy Pieces. As a young actor, I thought that that was what film was about. I'm not even talking independent versus studio; 2001 was a studio film and far more questioning than most independent films. Something shifted diametrically just at the time I stepped into acting. River's Edge didn't seem like the anomaly it does today. In hindsight, I can see that there was a strong shift in the corporate controlled industry."

It's amazing to think that the pivotal point in Glover's career came when he was just 20. That was when he appeared in Back to the Future and put in a brilliant performance as George McFly, father of Michael J Fox's Marty. Glover refused to appear in the sequels, despite the money on offer, because, as he now reveals, he had moral problems with the way that the first film ended.

"There were things about the moral aspect of Back to the Future that frankly made me not want to do the sequels," he says. The film ends with Marty returning to 1985, and having changed the past, he discovers that his parents are now rich. "I said to [director] Robert Zemeckis that if the characters had a monetary reward, then the film had a bad moral to it. I felt that the characters should be happy with finding love at the end of the film, but it ended up that the moral of the story was that money can buy you happiness. Robert Zemeckis became very angry and that led to me not doing the sequels."

When Zemeckis used Jeffrey Weissman in the sequels, he was made to look and act exactly like Glover. So much so that Glover sued over the sequels abusing his image rights. Glover won the case and since then image rights have become an important component of participants in the entertainment business. He would later make up with Zemeckis and appeared in Beowulf.

From that point on, Glover decided that he should participate in films that reflected his own personal interests, only occasionally choosing roles because of the director or character.

This of course leads to dilemmas. The hardest choices of his career revolved around his second directorial effort, It is Fine! Everything is Fine. After the writer and star, Steven C Stewart, suffered from a collapsed lung, it became apparent that if they did not shoot quickly, then the opportunity might pass forever.

It was then that he got asked about appearing in Charlie's Angels. "My character doesn't say anything in it – but in the screenplay I received, my character had a lot of words and the dialogue was quite expositional. Three years before, I would have turned it down, but knowing that I needed the funds, I decided to meet with the director, McG, after they said that they were interested in listening to my ideas. I told him I wanted the character to be silent and McG got very excited... and said that that's how we were going to do it."

If that was a success, the most difficult day of his career came when he got a call from Stewart, who was on a life-support machine at the time, wanting to know if Glover had enough footage of him for the film. "It became apparent that Steve was asking for permission to turn off his life-support machine. Of course it was a sad day and a big responsibility to let Steve know that we had enough footage."

The actor models his film-making on the methods of John Cassavetes, making studio films to finance his own movies. Yet his system stopped working in 2010. "The way things work in the corporately funded film world is that if you are in films that make money, that is how you end up getting hired. You would think, in an ideal world, that if you were in a really good film and did a really good job, whether it was a big film or not, you would get hired a lot; but that is not my experience. In the decade from 2000-2010, I essentially did all the jobs that were offered to me. But something happened after Alice in Wonderland, the highest grossing film I've ever been in. I thought that I was going to get a lot more work, and I did, but there was a trend in the type of roles offered that I didn't really like – and so I didn't act in a film for 2 years."

Despite being pressed, he remains elusive about what that trend or problem was. He turned down four films before ending his self-imposed exile in Freaky Deaky, which saw him come to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. He went to high school with the film's director, Charles Matthau, son of the famed actor Walter.

Glover has bought a chateau in the Czech Republic to create a mini film studio where he will be able to build sets for his forthcoming films: "I'm building sets right there now. My father is an actor and we have never acted together, so we have been developing a screenplay for my father and myself to play a series of fathers and sons."

Having spent much of the past year touring, he admits that his personal life has suffered because of his desire to make films outside of the mainstream. "I have not had a steady girlfriend in about 3 or 4 years. I'm not complaining, it's just different."

Sundance London starts today at the O2, London SE10 (0844 856 0202). 'River's Edge' screens on Saturday at 7.30pm