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Unusual suspect

Times Staff Writer

In director Robert Zemeckis’ film adaptation of the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” Crispin Glover portrays Grendel, certainly the most strange and hideous character of his 26-year acting career. Which is really saying something if you’re at all familiar with Glover, a guy known for his bizarro behavior, indelibly weird performances and aesthetic of elaborate hideousness. He has, after all, filled his underpants with cockroaches (in David Lynch’s 1990 film “Wild at Heart”), shepherded murderous rats (in the oddball 2004 horror flick “Willard”) and tortured snails (in Glover’s controversial 2005 directorial debut, “What Is It?”). Although “eccentric” is the description that comes up most frequently in describing the writer-director-author, who is currently in the midst of a career transformation.

But more on that later.

Glover’s animated Grendel comes kicking and screaming to life in ways most comparative literature scholars acquainted with the original 5th century “Beowulf” text could never have imagined -- courtesy of the same kind of performance-capture technology Zemeckis used in his 2004 Christmas hit “The Polar Express.” The monster is a menacing giant with razor-like claws, decomposing flesh, a grotesque underbite and a habit of flying into murderous rampages -- hated and feared by the ancient Norsemen whose mead hall he repeatedly destroys (prompting the king to put a bounty on his head, compelling hero-for-hire Beowulf to come to the rescue).

But as played by Glover, Grendel also comes off as a kind of developmentally disabled outcast, a naif urged to extreme violence by his coldly calculating mother, portrayed by Angelina Jolie. “Grendel is a character with a certain amount of physical dilemma,” Glover explained. “He’s living in a cave with this supernatural being. He’s a shut-in.”

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After shooting his scenes surrounded by 240 cameras, his face and body covered by reflective motion-capture discs, the actor feared that the “essence” of his mannered physical performance would be obliterated by animation. To Glover’s relief, however, his humanity survived the digital transfer.

“I was worried they wouldn’t get the nuance I put into it or that it would just look like some alien CGI animation that’s in one of those video games,” Glover said, hunching forward in an antique chair in his baroquely styled, gargoyle-laden Silver Lake home. “But I can see my performance. Every single movement you see Grendel doing is what I did. The animators didn’t make choices for the actors. They were pretty careful about that.”

But as you might expect from a virtuosic character actor who has contentiously shunned mainstream roles and conventional stardom (since establishing himself at age 20, playing George McFly in Zemeckis’ 1985 blockbuster “Back to the Future”), Glover, 43, doesn’t really want to talk about “Beowulf.”

On a recent morning, Glover ushered a reporter into his cavernous bedroom/screening room to watch his personal copy of “It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine,” the film Glover co-directed, produced and edited that premiered as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Turns out the actor-filmmaker has timed the limited theatrical release of “Fine” -- a sequel to “What Is It?” and the second part of a planned “It” trilogy -- to piggyback on “Beowulf’s” promotional blitz.

Before turning off the lights and leaving the room, Glover gave a discreet indication of what was to come: “I think it’s the best film that I’ll ever have anything to do with in my career.”

Even someone with Glover’s capacity for thinking light years outside the proverbial box would have been hard-pressed to come up with a movie premise -- not to mention its real-life meta-narrative -- as outre as what’s at play in “Fine.”

The film was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart, a cerebral palsy-afflicted former mental hospital shut-in whom Glover met while filming a movie in Utah in the mid-'80s. With the help of a local filmmaker, David Brothers, Stewart wrote a screenplay about a cerebral palsy-afflicted serial killer who is irresistible to women -- never mind that he’s confined to a wheelchair and his speech is all but unintelligible. When Glover read the script in 1986, he knew what he had to do. “If Crispin hadn’t become involved, that film wouldn’t have been made,” Brothers said.

Flash forward to 2000: With Stewart in frail health after one of his lungs collapsed, Glover and Brothers quickly went into production on the film, literally rousing their star from his hospital bed for his scenes. Co-directing “Fine” together over the next 10 months, they feared Stewart wouldn’t survive the production -- for which he was filmed completely naked in several love scenes, one involving an act of necrophilia, and performing unsimulated sex acts.

Moreover, Glover felt a moral obligation to complete the project.

“You couldn’t put another person with cerebral palsy in this film because it had to be the documentation of this man living this particular fantasy,” Glover said. “Even though it is not a documentary, it is a documentation of his life. And it makes for a very unusual category.”

“I felt that if this had not gotten made, I actually would have felt like I’d done something wrong,” he continued, his voice quivering with emotion. “I would have felt guilty. I would have not felt right about my life.”

Then, in 2001, a month after principal photography on the $200,000 film was finished, Stewart called Brothers and Glover from the hospital where he was suffering complications from his cerebral palsy. “He wanted to know if we had enough footage,” Glover recalled. “I had to tell him, yes, we do. To say goodbye to that person, that was a heavy day. A heavy responsibility.”

Added Brothers: “Steve said, ‘OK, if the film’s done, I want to be taken off life support.’ That effectively let him kill himself. That really affected Crispin.”

Glover says problems with the film’s digital transfer and blow up from 16- to 35-millimeter film stock delayed the final edit for six years, although he is cryptic on the specifics. On Dec. 7 through 9, the American Cinematheque will screen “Fine” at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre in conjunction with “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show” (as his rollicking recitals from the six books he has written and self-published have come to be known), followed by a book signing and Q&A; session (interested parties should consult www.crispinglover.com).

“Fine’s” provocative subject matter certainly sounds like the stuff of shock cinema -- an association Glover has had to live down since casting actors with Down syndrome in “What Is It?” But he defends his casting of actors with physical and developmental disabilities as part of a larger intellectual framework -- a personal aesthetic that’s more often than not misunderstood. “I have a certain obligation to get good thoughts across,” Glover said, “my concept of educational thoughts. How other people might define it is ‘eccentric’ or ‘odd.’ But I do believe that unusual things can be genuinely educational.”

The movie won a special jury award at the Sitges International Film Festival in Spain this year and has already garnered a smattering of surprised critical praise when it screened at Sundance. “The statement Stewart makes in his script -- that handicapped people can not only be as sensitive as everyone else, but just as horrible -- is made eloquent, if bizarre, via Glover and Brothers’ otherworldly vision,” said a review in Variety.

“To say the film is weird would be a cliche,” wrote a critic for Film Threat. “The odd thing about it all -- it works.”

One of Glover’s biggest points of pride is that he was able to finance “It Is Fine!” with money he earned working within what he derisively refers to as “the corporately funded and distributed film industry.” To be specific, he used the wages he earned playing the creepy Thin Man character in 2000’s “Charlie’s Angels” -- the actor’s biggest payday to date -- to finance his own movie passion project.

The process not only changed Glover’s whole mind-set when it comes to acting, but presented him with a new business model.

Anyone seeking proof of Glover’s new attitude toward Hollywood need look no further than “Beowulf.” Zemeckis got it in his head that Glover would be perfect for the part of Grendel and made an overture to the actor. “We started describing the character as the embodiment of human suffering,” recalled “Beowulf” producer Steve Starkey. “And Bob said, ‘You know who would make the perfect Grendel? Crispin Glover.’ I said, ‘Bob, there’s only one guy who can make that call.’ ”

Problem was, in 1987, Zemeckis cast another actor wearing face prosthetics to play George McFly in “Back to the Future II” after Glover declined to reprise the role. Glover famously sued the production (including executive producer Steven Spielberg), won and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Glover was initially wary of working with Zemeckis on “Beowulf” but realized his participation could lead to him actualizing his own projects, among them the third “It” film, for which Glover says he has written the script.

“I had to think about it,” Glover said. But he wanted to buy a chateau outside Prague, “where all the physical production for my films is going to take place. And things were working this way: Now, psychologically, instead of trying to act in films that reflect my interests, I was acting in films to make money to continue putting into my own films. That made much more sense than what I had been doing.

“I went in and met with Robert Zemeckis. We went to the work at hand and we did have a good working relationship. And I’m proud of the final product. I’m not angry or bitter.”

So does that mean Crispin Glover has finally learned to stop worrying and love the blockbuster?

“It actually makes me much more grateful to be working within this industry,” he said. “It makes me have a much better attitude. I am a professional. It’s ever clearer that I’m doing it right.”

chris.lee@latimes.com


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