It takes a long time for Crispin Glover to show his (unsmiling) face in The Smiley Face Killers, a disquieting new thriller penned by acclaimed novelist (and notable contrarian) Bret Easton Ellis, but it’s worth the wait. Glover is absolutely terrifying as the black-clad stalker of an athletic college student (9-1-1: Lone Star’s Ronen Rubinstein), a grotesque embodiment of the slashers in our worst nightmares. The stark divide between the film’s sun-dappled milieu and the forces of darkness that Glover’s unnamed killer represents aligns with the movie’s source material, an enduring urban legend that connects the deaths of dozens of drowned college-aged men. Investigators have apparently discovered graffitied smiley faces near the scenes of the crimes.
The Smiley Face Killers takes an oblique approach to the material, juxtaposing the trivial struggles of an everyday student with scenes that tease the nightmare waiting just around the corner. The culmination is less a horror movie than a queasy meditation on paranoia. Its offbeat nature is a perfect fit for Glover, an actor who oscillates between studio work—he’s set to reprise his role as Mr. World in the third season of Starz’s American Gods—and self-funded surrealist projects he spends years creating. For more than a decade now, he’s been touring the country with two of them—What Is It? and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine., the first two films in his It trilogy—as part of his Big Slide Show performances, and is currently in postproduction on an as-yet-untitled third that exists separate from the trilogy. He also tells us he’s at work on a book about “how propaganda functions in the U.S. entertainment industry,” though his time in lockdown hasn’t been as productive as he hoped. “There were certain aspects that I did research on that are a bit academic, and I got lost in this rabbit hole,” he tells us, adding that it’s nearing the 500-page mark. “I’ve really got to continue to edit down,” he says.
Ahead of The Smiley Face Killers’ VOD release on December 4, Glover took a moment to talk about the film’s practical prosthetics, “anti-corporate” cinema, and what it was like acting with his dad, Hollywood veteran Bruce Glover, for the first time.
The A.V. Club: Was Tim Hunter your way into The Smiley Face Killers? He previously directed you in River’s Edge.
Crispin Glover: Absolutely. I was in the midst of the production on my own film. I make my own films that I’ve been touring around with for years, and I’m working on a third feature film right now. I was just about to start shooting a production segment when I heard from Tim that he wanted me to play this part. I looked at it very quickly just to see what the character was, and my initial feeling was that it really did not require an actor. It just required an interesting-looking person. So I turned it down because I was really focused on my own project, but Tim was quite insistent. We got on the phone, and I told him what I thought, and he said he thought I could add something to it. He mentioned something about wearing a prosthetic, and there’s great work being done on prosthetics, but a lot of them right now end up feeling very much like a mask. I said to him, well, maybe, you know, if we could go back to kind of an old style of work, the kind of work that Lon Cheney had done, where the face itself becomes malformed in some fashion. Perhaps that could be interesting. So he was into that. I said, “Do you like this script? Can you make something interesting out of it?” He said yes, and, of course, I knew it was written by Bret Easton Ellis, and he’s an excellent writer, but I had just focused on the role. He said yes, and I trust him, so I really did it on that basis.
I went into the Valley and worked with the fellow who did an excellent job with the prosthetics. He knew about all of the kinds of techniques that Cheney had done, which involved hooks. [So] I had something here and something here, and it was pulled down through a collar—I had to, like, physically hold them. It was a bit complicated, which is part of the reason they don’t do it anymore. [Laughs.] It’s also painful, which is another reason. But I asked for it so I had nothing to complain about. I’m happy with it. It’s effective. It’s what I wanted it to be.
AVC: You mentioned you’re working on another film right now. What updates can you offer on it? Has the pandemic impacted your work on it?
CG: Yeah, I love the film. The film’s been locked for edit. It’s been locked for more than a year. I was working on American Gods in the beginning of March, flew to Czech on March 8th, and then everything shut down. I shot at my property in Czech Republic, which I bought many years ago specifically for the purpose of making films. I took more than two years to build the sets for this particular project. This project is not part three of the It trilogy. The first two films will have a part three, but [this isn’t it]. I’m [in it] with my father, Bruce Glover, and he and I never acted together in anything ever before, so this was specifically designed to have that happen. I started shooting it in 2013 and [finished] in 2018. So, five years of production segments, and the film changed a little bit. Toward the end, I changed certain concepts.
Part of the reason I like to fund the films myself is nobody would shoot a film the way I’m shooting it. Normally, for obvious monetary reasons, the investors need the film to be shot in however many months so it can be released within a year [or so]. But for me, because I’m funding it myself, I can see if there’s anything not working. I can fix it, but it can take time to do something like that. It also just took time for me to shoot because I shot it in these different segments. The way the film is made, it’s in different time periods anyhow. I could wrap my head around it because I’m the only person. I don’t have a team of people working with me in preproduction [and postproduction], so I have to organize everything.
The picture’s been locked for a long time, and it’s more the color correction, the sounds that are being worked on, the digital effects. This is the most extensive color correction I’ve done because it’s five different time periods and we’re making each segment a different color correction palette. It’s complicated, but, you know, all of my films have taken many years. The first film, What Is It?, I actually started shooting in ’96. It premiered at Sundance in 2005. So that was a nine-and-a-half-year period. This one I started shooting 2013. I was really hoping to be done with it this year, but there are things that have been delayed. I believe in January, February, it’ll be done, but then I’m not sure: Will I be touring with it? If everything’s shut down for a couple more years, who knows?
But this film isn’t a part of the trilogy. The trilogy is designed as anti-corporate. The sentiment is anti-corporate, and that’s part of why I tour with it. I’d never let it out digitally. It’s purposefully in the realm that they’re films made for adults. Nobody under 18 is allowed. They’re just not palatable to the corporate realm. The new film is not designed to be anti-corporate in that fashion. Whether it is or not, I don’t even know. I haven’t shown it to that many people, but it isn’t designed to be that. It’s plausible that it’s something that could have a more standardized distribution than my first two films.
I genuinely enjoy touring. I like performing my live shows. There’s always been a real pleasure in that, and I’m not opposed to continuing to tour in that way. I’m very concerned about all of our independent cinemas that I’ve been able to go to in the past. [I’m hoping] they are still out there and viable.
AVC: What was it like acting with your dad for the first time?
CG: Well, it was interesting. He was in [It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.], and it was very easy to work with him as a director. It was a very interesting experience to work with him as an actor, because when you’re acting with somebody you tend toward looking in their eyes more than you do in real life. When we talk in real life, we tend toward looking a bit and looking away, but on film it can be a bit distracting if you do that. I mean, on some level you shouldn’t think about it, but it was very interesting looking into the eyes of my father, which I don’t do as much.
AVC: Is there any kind of tease you can offer on the third in the trilogy? The first two are so different, so beguiling and strange and clearly focused on specific people that you had met.
CG: They’re all different from each other. They’re equivalently different from each other, although part three would be more similar to part one than part two because I wrote part three back in ’96. What Is It? was originally written after that to be a short film to promote the viability of getting corporate money for making it. I recognized midway through, though, it was automatically anti-corporate. There were things that I didn’t recognize when I first started it. It’s [about] the trouble of corporate filmmaking. Every production ends up having its own kind of complexity. With What Is It?, most of the actors have Down’s syndrome. They’re playing characters that do not necessarily have Down’s syndrome. That’s the conceptual element that can have controversy. People can feel different ways about it. The community of people with disabilities or people with Down’s syndrome really support it. It’s sometimes people that are not within that community that are asking questions, like, “Are you making fun of these people? Are you taking advantage of these people?” I would never have any interest in doing that, but people will ask these questions, and corporations get afraid of questions like that, of being asked about anything. What What Is It? ended up being was almost a thesis statement about this.
The third part of the trilogy is before I have those questions, but it also would feature predominantly a cast of actors that have Down’s syndrome playing characters that do not necessarily have Down’s syndrome. That aspect of production is complicated, not because of working with people with Down’s syndrome. I’ve had great experiences. All the people I worked with with Down’s syndrome are great. The complexity is that people with Down’s syndrome have to have a guardian. So, if I’m shooting in the Czech Republic, which is where I’m based for my shooting right now, and it’s an American film with American actors that have Down’s syndrome, I first have to find those actors, fly them out to the Czech Republic, and house them with their guardians. So, it’s a complicated production situation, but I do want to get to it.
I’m also interested in doing a number of productions at my property that are simpler. I’ve been working on this last production for so many years; I’d like to make some that I can get out more rapidly. I’ve got to lock this production, get this one done, and then I’ve got everything in place to do things more rapidly at my own facility now.