We talked to Crispin Glover about going back in time 25 years for Hot Tub Time Machine, a quarter century after Back To The Future premiered. And he told us about playing Nikola Tesla's drunken nemesis, Thomas Edison.
It is such a welcome shock to see THE George McFly strutting around in the new time traveling movie. But his new character is nothing like Marty McFly's dad. Glover plays Phil, the happy-to-serve bell hop at the ski resort — that is, unless the time-traveling Hot Tubbers allow his grim future to come true, in which he winds up as a miserable one-armed bell-hop. Of course, "will he or won't he lose his appendage" jokes ensue — ending in bloody carnage, or do they?
I know the script went through a lot of different rewrites. Did they create this role for you specifically? Did they want you because of your history with time travel?
I don't think the role was written for me, I know they wanted to meet with me because I had been in Back To The Future. It made sense that there would be interest in my being in the film. They sensed that there would be interest.
The biggest differentiation that wasn't in the screenplay, when I first met with John Cusack and his co-producer, [was that] there was not a final resolution for my character, [in which] they come back to the present and you see my character again. It seemed like to me that it would be not satisfying for the audience if my character just kind of disappeared. Everybody ultimately agreed with that decision, and now his resolution is in the film.
Then it was just about the psychological states for each time period for my character. There are three different possible psychological states for this character. The moment when you first meet me, in the present day, without my arm. And then 25 years earlier where I have two arms. And then the resolution back in the present.
It was just a matter of making the choice as to what those psychological states would be and the different possible outcomes. First we shot the portions that were back in the 80s. It seemed apparent that my character would want to please people, and that was what gave me happiness working in the service industry and making other people happy. And then the counter choice to that, is when you see me first where I was simply not happy in the service industry serving people. It was a matter of how extreme should that be? And of course there is the third psychological choice for when you see me in the resolved state, but I won't say much about that because it's a spoiler.
So which character was it the most fun to play, the pissed off one-armed bell-hop that throws everyone's bags around, the alternate future character or the past character with two arms and a crazy joy for life?
It was never a complexly written character, there wasn't complex dialogue or anything like that. The interest in the character was ultimately having those different psychological states all together. I would say the combination of all those states was ultimately my favorite element.
What was it like working on another time traveling film?
It was interesting — I had been in Back To The Future exactly 25 years previously. And this was a character where you see me approximately 25 years earlier. And 25 years ago I had played a character where you see me approximately 25 years earlier in that film as well. So I couldn't help but kind of reflect on certain things and playing a character 25 before, being 25 years older, and playing a character who is being revisited, in a sense. It had an interesting correlation to my own life in a weird way.
Were you at all skeptical getting involved in another time traveling film?
No. I saw immediately that there was a positive element to that.
So did you learn how to ice sculpt at all for your character's big chainsaw juggling scene?
That was done pretty superficially. I'm holding a prop against a pre-sculted ice piece. I had to work with a rig for the throwing of the chainsaw that I was working with. So there's a little bit of rehearsing with that. But it was nothing extensive, the rest of it was performing with the audience.
We all know what's going to happen with your character, he's going to lose his arm. Because that's what we see in the present, and in the past he has both his arms. So the audience spends most of their time waiting for the gruesome moment to happen, and struggling with the question of, "Do you or don't you tell this person their future to prevent them from losing their arm?" Knowing what you know about time travel by working on these movies, would you personally tell someone something that would alter their future? Would you help your character keep his arm?
Of course the films are all conjecture, and there is a fantasy element to it. So it would be conjecture as to [whether] there was a possibility of being in a situation where you were time traveling — who knows what the particularities of the circumstance would be, and what you would know or what you would think would happen? You might feel that if you did something, it might have horrible circumstances for another reason, and in that situation you wouldn't want to do anything. Another scenario it might be really fortuitous to act. It's really the plot of the story that one structures for oneself as to whether that's the right decision. There are so many variables it's almost impossible to answer unless you are in the exactitude of the story plot that's been constructed.
What you've just demonstrated right there is the amazing lexicon that these time traveling stories have created, the fantastical rules that people set for themselves and argue about like the butterfly effect...
Yes I would say important than the seemingly conjecturable rules, what's more interesting about the time traveling sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy, is the psychological elements that can be played with by variations of the fantastical possibilities of alternate universes. That's an interesting thing to explore and I believe that's the true value of the time travel sub-genre.
Do you have a lot of affection for the sub-genre and why?
I think it's interesting particularly because of what I just described. I think there is something about it that allows you to explore interesting things and there's a lot of fun in that.
What's it like to be an iconic figure in the time traveling world?
It's hard, sometimes people come up with that term, iconic. Anything that is contemporary, it's hard for me to think of as iconic. If it's something I've grown up watching or thinking about, that I can think of as iconic. But to think of myself involved, I know that Back To The Future is well thought of and I suppose there are people that watched it growing up and think of it in a certain way. It's harder for me to think of myself in it in those terms. on some level I don't know that I've been in a specific science fiction, maybe the fantasy term is a little more accurate to what Back To The Future and Hot Tub Time Machine fit into. But anybody that wants to think of me involved of anything in an iconic way, I'm all for it.
There are always crazy rumors that Back To The Future is going to get a remake or a fourth film, or a reboot
That would be fine. Remakes of movies have been happening since pretty much the invention of cinema. I think L. Frank Baum, directed a very early Wizard of Oz. People in the in 1930s were probably saying how can you remake a movie that was made by the writer? Because L. Frank Baum, the writer of Wizard of Oz, directed a very early rendition of the book. Of course the movie that everyone thinks of is the classic 1939 version. Which the great performance by Judy Garland and all the beautiful set design, but there was one made by the writer. I don't think that anybody feels like it was wrong to remake that. So there's always room to make things. There's no movie, that I was in, that I would think poorly of if it was remade or rebooted or made a sequel to or whatever, I think that's a compliment.
Would you want to be involved in it?
It would depend on the film, you never know anything is possible.
What is coming up for you next?
I'm on this program on HBO Called Drunk History where they get somebody extremely drunk, to the point where they are about to be nauseous, well they are nauseous. And they get them to tell an episode from history. Then they get actors to enact these stories. The one that I did was with John C. Reilly, who plays Nikola Tesla and I play Thomas Edison. There's a series of these that have been made [they won the Sundance award for Best Short Film]. I particularly like that they admit that when they are telling these histories, you're always getting a slightly skewed version of what actually happened. So it's probably a more truthful way of telling the story as when you're getting a sober reading. This at least admits that it's slightly off. But it gets to the emotional heart of what is going on.
It's a good thing. These things are only about seven minutes long. It's more focused on Tesla and Edison's kind of antagonistic relationship with Tesla. There's a conflict that happens between the two of them.
Hot Tub Time Machine is in theaters this weekend.