Next week sees our capital play host to a special off-shoot of legendary US indie cinematic institute, the Sundance Film Festival. Tim Hunter’s 1987 gripping, bleak-as-hell (and darkly comic) teen drama River’s Edge was a film which made a big impact at the festival, decades back.

Featuring a number of recognisable young actors (Keanu Reeves is one of the leads), alongside the granddaddy of grungy cinema, Dennis Hooper, the tale of a bunch of high school kid’s apathetic response to the killing of a fellow friend and student by her boyfriend, has evolved into something of a cult treasure.

An anniversary screening of this unique piece of downbeat eighties cinema is scheduled for next Saturday (28th) and will be followed by a Q&A with one of the film’s other stars, Crispin Glover.

Glover is instantly identifiable to many via his portrayal of Marty McFly’s ineffectual, nebbish father in the first Back to the Future, but he’s also a renaissance man of sorts, having made some thoroughly original and genre-defying forays into directing, screenwriting, recording and as an author.

When he isn’t juggling his esoteric ventures with roles in broader mainstream Hollywood fare like Charlie’s Angels, Alice in Wonderland and Hot Tub Time Machine, Glover tours the globe with his one-man show, where he performs passages from his books and screens his directorial work (you can find more information via his website).

We asked the enigmatic actor about the making of River’s Edge and what drew him to the material.

HeyUGuys: Could you tell us a little bit about how you became involved with the project?

Crispin Glover: When I first read the screenplay and heard that it was about a high school student who killed his girlfriend, my inclination was to [want to] play that killer character, Samson. I read the screenplay focusing on that character, but somehow it was not something I was that interested in. The filmmakers had wanted me to look at [Samson’s close friend] Layne.

My girlfriend at the time was an actress and she read the screenplay and said I would be really good as Layne and that it was a great role. I then read the screenplay with that character in mind and realised there was a certain sound of the dialogue that I was familiar with and had grown up hearing and knowing, and that if Layne’s dialogue was spoken in the particular dialect, it would have a good humour and dynamic for the character specifically, and the film generally.

Layne is in many ways removed from the real world and quite unaware of the severity of the situation. How much of that was on the page and much did you bring to the character yourself?

I disagree that Layne was removed from the real world. That to me would be a description of someone who is genuinely diagnosed psychotic or autistic.  I would not describe Layne as psychotic or autistic. I have played characters that could genuinely be described as psychotic, but that is not an accurate description for Layne.

On the page in the original screenplay it seemed apparent that Layne’s primary motivation was to save his friend from the police. In that sense, Layne has a strict moral sense that his friend should be stood up for. Actually, the element that probably makes the character feel more unusual than what I am describing was an intentional switch I made, where Layne actually wanted all the attention saving his friend would bring him. That switch is probably what comes off as selfish and perhaps feels as you put it, “removed from reality.” That’s not true of Layne but has a motivation that may seem out of place in the circumstance. I would argue however, that people in real life act out of strange motivations without the diagnosis of psychosis.

The character could have been played as someone whose genuine main intention was to save his friend from the police, as was the intention as written on the page. That choice would have given a radically different performance.

I came in to the audition with the character as I played it in the film. Tim Hunter had me do an alternate reading which was more like what I’m describing. After I was offered the role, Tim and I spoke on the phone about which way I would play the role and it was decided that the choice I had originally come in with would be the way it should be done and that was stuck with during the entire shoot.

The film is a real departure from many of the teen films of that decade. Were you aware of any nervousness on the studio/financiers behalf during making it?

Asking the question that the film seemed like a departure from the teen movies of the 80’s is not the point of view I came from when coming aboard.

While I was professionally studying acting between the ages of 15 and 20, which were in the years 1979 to 1984, I thought I was stepping into a film industry which was in the spirit of those various revival theatres I attended at that time, which were really popular in Los Angeles before home theatre business competition forced most 35 mm venues to close.  I did not realise at that time I began working as an actor, that the kinds of film that were being funded and distributed were starting to change. The films I saw in these theatres, by the likes of Ken Russell, Roman Polanski, Federico Fellini, John Waters and Werner Herzog, tended to question culturally accepted truths with performances that underscored these concepts.

These films characterised the atmosphere of cinema I believed I was stepping into as a young actor. As I began acting in feature films, I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our society. I enthusiastically supported the idea of questioning our culture. I also questioned both the film industry and the media’s messages.  Sometimes I have felt scorned and isolated – other times, accepted and admired. Then, at one point in the midst of my career, I realised that the types of films the industry was financing and distributing had changed almost diametrically from the types of films I had watched when I was 18.

River’s Edge to me is a film that still was of the discipline of those films which asked questions and caused the audience to ask questions, and that seemed more like a continuum at the time it was made to me, as opposed to a departure.

As far as River’s Edge went with monetary elements, I knew that because Back to the Future had come out not too long before I was cast, part of the reason I was there was due to it’s success, and that some of the money came into place after I was cast. The film was a relatively low-budget film shot in four weeks. It was a well-written script and there was no concern from monetary sources on the way the film was being shot.

The characters have a very nihilistic outlook on life. Do you think they represented the mood in that era, and if so, how do think modern teenagers compare?

I do not really relate to a particular generation of people so I cannot say. I think of Luis Buñuel as a contemporary because he was alive at the same time as me, so the subsections of generations seem overly particular to me. What is it that Shakespeare wrote? “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Alongside Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, this is another unforgettable Dennis Hooper performance from the 80’s. How did you find working with the actor? Was it an intimidating experience?

Dennis Hopper was approachable like a contemporary. He was very complimentary and, of course, a great actor to work with. I love all the scenes I got to play with him and the entire cast.

After making River’s Edge, he was someone I would run in to now and again. Back then, he looked at a number of my books I made at that time. Those books, of which I have since published a number of them, are taken from old binding from the 1800’s and I turn them into different books from what they originally were. I perform a one-hour dramatic narration of many of my books wherein the images are projected behind me. Dennis Hopper, having an interest in art, read these books before I published them and was very nice about them.

A number of years later, not too long after it was known that Allen Ginsburg was diagnosed with a terminal disease, Dennis Hopper had a dinner/poetry reading at his home in Venice, CA that he invited me to. I had already been performing my slide shows of my profusely illustrated books and I ended up performing a couple of my books with slides from my shows and Allen Ginsburg was very nice about it. I will never forget an image of Dennis Hopper and Allen Ginsburg sitting across from each other, both holding cameras and taking photos of each other taking photos of each other. There was a certain humour to that. I am of course sad that Dennis Hopper died too young.

Is there a particular scene from River’s Edge which stands out for you, either while you were making it, or when you first watched the finished film?

I like the film as a whole. There is a good dynamic with the styles and variations of performances. I like the original screenplay and how Tim Hunter cast it – his direction, the edit, and how all the actors come off in the film. It was well scored by Jurgen Knieper. It is a well-balanced film, a film I am proud of and I’m glad that people are still interested in it.

Check out the Sundance London website for booking information and events/screening times.