The 1987 film River’s Edge was never bound for awards stages or mainstream acceptance; rather, it was an ugly, off-kilter investigation into numb, detached teenagers, the kind of flick you discovered on VHS and showed to every kid in your junior class. The story of high school kids who decide to do nothing when they discover a friend killed his girlfriend, the film depicted burnt-out, pre-grunge youth that contrasted wildly with the bubblegum teens seen in Hollywood during that era. Roger Ebert called it “the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood.”
It’s not quite as powerful as its legacy may suggest—it’s sloppily written, heavy-handed, and tonally inconsistent—but it remains striking for its bleakness and a smattering of bizarre, unhinged performances from Crispin Glover, Daniel Roebuck, and Dennis Hopper.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film, so Vice gave it the oral history treatment, compiling a comprehensive look at its production, cast, and legacy with contributions from director Tim Hunter, writer Neal Jimenez, and stars Roebuck and Ione Skye, among others. It’s a compelling read from top to bottom, but the stories behind its casting stand out as perhaps the most interesting. “We didn’t have the money to offer it to any of John Hughes’ Brat Pack crowd,” Hunter says. “So we auditioned dozens of young actors.”
Among them was a pre-fame Keanu Reeves, who casting director Carrie Frazier recalls fondly:
When [Keanu Reeves] came in, he hadn’t done anything and wasn’t being represented by anybody. He was what’s called a hip-pocket client, meaning they didn’t know if they wanted to sign him—they were just testing him out. He walked in the door, and I went, “Oh my god, this is my guy!” It was just because of the way he held his body—his shoes were untied, and what he was wearing looked like a young person growing into being a man. I was over the moon about him.
Struggling actors that they were, Glover and Roebuck went all-out for their auditions. Roebuck’s audition, especially, was a risky one.
Roebuck: I put on a costume, and KY jelly in my hair to make it look greasy. On the way to the audition, I stopped by a 7-11 by my house in Hollywood, bought two beers, and put them in my coat pocket. When I walked into the room, I sat in the corner and popped open the beer, and Tim grabbed his camera and started shooting. I think he was seeing something in that moment that was unique, different, and real.
Producer Midge Sanford recalls Glover arriving “with a wig and an outrageous take on the part. He was so out there that Sarah and I were a little nervous about what he was doing. But we trusted him and felt like it would work out in the end.”
It did, too, though Glover’s performance is almost confrontational in its brazenness. Jimenez says it took him “a while to warm up to” it, though Skye says “we were all fascinated with Crispin Glover.”
I was so impressed with his boldness, because I was very interested in not being a fool. Over the years, I’ve loosened up, and I was very influenced by Crispin. He’s just one of those great actors who seemed very real but also could be just completely out there. I’ll be honest with you, I love Crispin Glover. I think he is one of the most unique and interesting people I’ve ever met in my life.
Anyone who’s seen him in Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter is likely to agree.