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

American cinema would be a boring, homogenous place if it weren't for stars like Crispin Glover. Whether acting in Hollywood films 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 an 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 role in River's Edge, celebrating its 25th anniversary at the inaugural Sundance London, Glover posits: "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. 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."

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 indictment of the warped thinking of American teenagers.

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. But Glover refused to appear in the sequels, despite the money on offer.

"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. The characters should be happy with finding love, 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 abuse of his image rights. Glover won the case and since then image rights have become an important component of 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, 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."

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."

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