Onward, Crispin Soldiers

Six years ago, Ryan Page and Mike Pallagi were high school kids who idolized eccentric actor Crispin Glover. Now they're producing films with him.

As early as the fall of 1995, What Is It? was described in Film Threat magazine as nearly finished. Four years later, Glover continues to tinker with it.

Page attributes the film's slow progress to a combination of limited finances and Glover's unwillingness to check his creative impulses.

"We had investors, but their investments were sporadic, they kind of came at different stages," Page says. "Crispin's even become a primary investor, he's put a lot of his own money into this thing.

"As a producer, my primary task was to get things for free: to get people to work for free, to get film stock for free, catering for free, everything for free. I had never done that before, and now that's kind of what I'm known for.

"Once I'd accomplished that, then we said, 'Look we have all this stuff, let's just do a feature. Why do a short? A short's never gonna make any money.' So it just grew. And Crispin's mind is always working. He gets probably 100 new ideas a day, but they're kind of filtered down to, like, one good idea a month. So then we go back and shoot again."

Pallagi says with a laugh, "You'll cut from one scene to another, and there'll be a four-year gap between when they were shot. If you look at two long productions, this started shooting before Titanic and it'll be released after Eyes Wide Shut."

Page says Glover financed the film with the help of "some of his actor friends, who are going to remain anonymous." Although Glover has had distribution offers from various companies, he's chosen the unconventional approach of distributing the film himself. "Crispin really wants to keep it to himself, and he's the auteur of this film," Page says.

Glover has chosen to go the self-distribution route, at least initially, because distribution companies tend to take a huge chunk ("50 to 60 percent," according to Glover) of the film's receipts. Since What Is It? already has interest from art-house theaters, Glover hopes to bypass the normal distribution process and save a lot of money.

Even in incomplete form, it's easy to see that What Is It? has few parallels in film history. Even something as outre as Lynch's Eraserhead was linear and highly accessible by comparison. In a disjointed, dreamlike way, What Is It? follows the internal lives of several characters with Down Syndrome, not in the service of a conventional story, but as a series of haunting images that never let up, never pause to explain themselves. It's the power of those images that stay with you: a boy with Down Syndrome crushing a snail, and attempting to glue it back together; another snail coming in and unleashing a horrifying scream (courtesy of actress Fairuza Balk); a man in black minstrel face repeatedly claiming to be Michael Jackson; a picture of Shirley Temple with a swastika behind her; and, most memorably, a man with cerebral palsy being masturbated by a creature in a gruesome mask.

Two weeks ago, Glover was in New York working on a film. He sounded nervous and brusque, insisting that he was very busy and didn't know when or if he'd have a spare moment to talk. A week later, having finished his work in New York, he was much more engaging. He explained why he wanted a Down Syndrome cast for What Is It?

"I'd written several screenplays that had already had people with Down Syndrome written into the screenplay," he says. "I felt people with Down Syndrome had a certain kind of history immediately when you looked at them. I felt also that people who have Down Syndrome are not thinking necessarily about the same things most actors are thinking about, so I knew that could be valuable on film. I also thought certain things in the screenplay would be enhanced by that casting of those people."

Though the mere presence of Down Syndrome actors will inevitably make some people feel that Glover is exploiting their mental handicaps, he says he's not concerned about any criticism he might encounter.

"It's funny, I just did a recording today with Werner Herzog for a film he directed in the late '60s called Even Dwarfs Started Small. There's a DVD coming out, and I was one of the people asked to participate. And he had similar questions asked of him about that film. But, in a similar way, I've always thought there was a respect for the thought processes of the people in this film."

Glover credits Page and Pallagi with "moral support" during the long making of What Is It? and verifies that Page has a knack for getting things free.

"He's very good at that," Glover says. "The reason I wanted Ryan to be involved as a co-producer was to gain experience for any future projects, particularly It Is Mine, should that go forth. We had to make the film inexpensively, get whatever favors we could for free, and Ryan was particularly good at doing that. He was very aggressive in that matter."

At test screenings, such as one last year at Valley Art Theatre, What Is It? has generally been well received by audiences, which have been dominated by hard-core Glover fanatics. But even in such settings, a few feathers have been ruffled.

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