Filmmaker Jeremy Whelehan tells Shelley Marsden about following Kevin Spacey and 18 other actors around the globe as they perform Richard III….
“Yes, there was the real concern thatit would be perceived as a whole load of lovies on a jolly across the world, and why is that compelling for a film? But I hope we’ve done something else here” says director Jeremy Whelehan, of his documentary NOW: In the Wings On A World Stage.
“There is the danger that someone reads the synopsis and says no, I don’t like Shakespeare or actors talking about their process, I’m not going near this. But I hope I’ve made a film that, if somebody’s never seen a play in their life or been to a theatre, they could sit down, enjoy it and maybe learn something – possibly even be inspired to go to the theatre.”
“There is that perception of theatre as a privileged world, but my experience at The Old Vic was quite different. What I saw was a company with a real human element, and I really hope I’ve communicated that, while also exploring the sweat and focus that goes on behind-the-scenes on the night of a show, to reveal what’s behind the seemingly effortless storytelling.”
Audience perception of the subject matter, says the Irish director, wasn’t the only challenge to the project, which follows Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendes on a ten-month whirlwind tour of Richard III with their Bridge Project Company.
He was also shooting a film never destined to be a companion piece to the production it was following (which was never filmed), so he was constantly aware of expanding the themes from the immediate ones of the company and the tour into something broader and more lasting.
The director had known Kevin Spacey for over ten years, and worked with him as Assistant Director in 2003 for Beyond The Sea, a biopic of Bobby Darin which the American actor had always dreamed of doing and directed, produced, acted, sang and danced in – a thirst for artistic control that he brought to Jeremy’s new documentary.
Following on from that, when Spacey was in London and beginning to set up his Old Vic theatre company, Jeremy became involved with him in a number of those conversations and, ultimately, was invited to be his Assistant Director on the first play he did, after which the Irishman spent three seasons there, across various productions.
With a background in film (including work on the rather dreadful Irish rom-com, Leap Year, starring Amy Adams), it was a leap into the unknown, but one he found he took to.
“It was the beginning of a whole new chapter for me. I loved the immediacy of it, thrown into the deep end of high-end theatre. The difference between spending two years putting together an indie movie, with all its logistics and complexities, to walking into a rehearsal room with four actors, a script and five weeks to get it ready was so refreshing.”
Circa 2008 Jeremy returned to his first love, film, and it was only when he heard about Spacey’s ambitious plans with Sam Mendes to do an Anglo-American production of Richard III and take it across the globe, that he wanted a piece of the action. He approached Spacey about his ideas for a documentary, and the actor said yes – if he could have a hand in the production of it.
The resulting film is, as Jeremy promises, surprisingly low on ‘loviness’. As Sam Mendes says in the opening scene, “The thrill of theatre is the fact that it’s alive… and happening, only once in front of your eyes” – and that thrill is captured admirably.
It also provides interesting insights into the world of an on-the-road theatre production, particularly one which sees English actors and US actors thrown into a rehearsal room together.
The two tribes didn’t gel immediately, as Jeremy picked up on when he was filming the first scenes at the Old Vic, where the tour began from.
Cast member Jack Ellis (Lord Hastings) says at one point that when the Americans came to London, it was very much the Londoners in their homes and travelling into work, in their element, and the Americans living in hotels – so there was a bit of a division. But as soon as they started travelling together they ceased to feel that divide; they were just a bunch of people on the road together.
“If we’d stayed just in London, or New York, it would have been a different filmThat they went through this extraordinary adventure together doing what they do is what brought them together, and what kept the freshness and spark in the work.”
The actors shared more than a stage together, and NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage portrays burgeoning relationships offstage, including some of their own anecdotes.
The great English actress Gemma Jones (Queen Margaret), talks fondly while they’re in the States about working in America in the 60s, when she was much naughtier than she is now and spent her time “smoking pot and kissing boys”.
There are moments of touching fragility too – Andrew Long (King Edward IV) remembers one night performance when a little girl near the front burst out laughing. It reminded him so much of his four-year-old daughter, who was thousands of miles away, that he had to force back tears.
Backstage there are quirky insights too, such as Spacey’s habit of gathering everyone in the one room before curtains up (“I hate these bloody dressing rooms when you’re sat in there on your own, so lonely”), and hands out Angel Cards to each cast member.
Whatever adjective is written on their card (passionate, powerful) is what they will try and imbue their performance with on the night, something they discuss this with depth as well as much laughter.
He appears in the film, but Jeremy has done a good job of not making this a Kevin Spacey vanity project. Of course, the House of Cards star leads the company, is very famous and is playing the lead role, but we get to know the rest of the cast, too.
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 14 June 2014).
NOW: In the Wings On A World Stage is in select cinemas now and available on VOD and DVD. For more, see www.nowthefilm.com.