When putting together a production of “Richard III” in his position as artistic director of London’s renowned Old Vic Theatre, Kevin Spacey took his cues from another one of William Shakespeare’s plays when he sought to realize the Bard’s belief that “All the world’s a stage.” With The Bridge Project, a collaboration with his “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes, he did just that, slipping into the title role of the physically crippled, power-hungry king and taking the show around the globe from the boards of the Old Vic to stages in Istanbul, Greece, Australia, China, Qatar and ultimately the U.S.
The production was built to take place in the moment, drawing upon the energy from a new audience in a different part of the world every night and reinterpreting a classic text in a way that would speak to contemporary culture. Yet while 200 different audiences were treated to a royal visit from Spacey, that experience was intended to stay within the confines of the theaters “Richard III” played in, which is why it’s worth celebrating that longtime Spacey associate Jeremy Whelehan had the forethought to bring a camera. Capturing the exhilaration of live theater while harnessing film’s ability to reflect and contextualize, Whelehan’s first feature “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage” has an attention to detail that could only come from someone who spent three seasons as an Assistant Director of the Old Vic himself and comes at “Richard III” from both the perspective of the performers and the audience, allowing Spacey and fellow actors such as Gemma Jones to add a new dimension to the discussion of their craft by acknowledging the role of the places and the people they encounter during their tour has on their performance.
Appropriately enough, “Now” is available to watch immediately on Netflix and in honor of the occasion, Whelehan spoke about his grand adventures, whittling down over 150 hours of footage into a taut 90-minute travelogue, and the thrill of capturing history and being part of it all at once.
Initially, it was 10 years really before this project came together. We had met a number of years ago in Ireland when he was working on a film back in 1997, and then we remained in touch and maintained some correspondence. Around 2003, he was putting together a fundraiser at the Old Vic Theater in London and had asked me to come over and help. It also happened to be the same week that he was announcing to the press that he was going to take over the theater as its artistic director. Very shortly after that fundraiser, he asked me to help him put together and produce the film that he was directing and starring in called “Beyond the Sea.”
The timing of this is interesting since he’s actually stepping down soon as the Old Vic’s artistic director. Did that play a role in wanting to preserve a piece of his tenure with this film?
How this film came about was a very simple thing really. I have obviously worked with Kevin on film projects and at the Old Vic theater over a number of seasons, so when I heard that in the final year of the Bridge Project, he was going to play Richard III, Sam [Mendes] would direct and that they were going to tour to the extent that they were going around the world, I approached Kevin and began really pushing him for the opportunity to make this film. It was a real opportunity to make a documentary about the process of live theater.
At the time, Kevin was very focused on putting together a filmed live production of “Richard III.” He was slightly less interested in a behind-the-scenes thing where I was coming from, but because of our longstanding professional relationship, I think he had the trust and confidence in me knowing what I was interested in saying in a film like that and it came together. Unfortunately, [a filmed version of the production] never came to be, so in the end, thankfully my film remains the only document of that particular production. The only thing is Kevin still hasn’t officially stepped down as the Old Vic artistic director, so it certainly wasn’t a conscious impulse from him to document his work there. It was me pushing and fighting to make this film and to raise the money and to make it work over the course of shooting it throughout the very last of the edit really.
You are able to get a feel for the production with the way the film is structured, showing the play interspersed with the creation of it. How did that particular structure come about?
From the outset, there were two things which I really wanted to try and capture first and foremost. One was from my experiences over three seasons working in theater companies, particularly the Old Vic, I wanted to put the viewer into the company as such and to give a sense of that passage of time when people from all sorts of different backgrounds who really don’t know each other well at all and watch how they really come together for the work [first], then as a family to live together for the year as they toured. So we spend a night in the theater with the cast and crew from the moment the audience arrives right through the curtain call to form one timeline in the film, then the second thread is the wider timeline through the whole year of the tour and that’s the story of the company forming a travelling, working family.
Your cameras seem to be everywhere. Logistically, was this a challenge?
Technically, it was, but it wasn’t really shooting it. The challenge was there were so many stories to tell. On the very surface of it, you have the play, “Richard III,” and you have the characters in the play and the story of the play and then from that you have 20 actors behind the characters and each of their stories and crew members as well. Then beyond that, you have the story of the tour and within that context, you have each of the individual cities and countries that they go to, so there were many sides that we could potentially focus on in the edit for this film.
When I got to working with Will Znidaric, a wonderful editor, on this project, we were really interested in trying to create a multi-faceted gem so that we could be deeply in a scene with a number of actors watching what’s happening in their role one moment and the next we could be cutting outside to the great wall of China, walking through Istanbul or being in Naples. So we had to find the language in the edit that would allow us to tell many, many story threads, consistently and complimentary [to each other].
The film really does stay inside the company, though I imagine there was great temptation to go outside of it once you were in all of these exotic locales. Was it difficult to keep that focus?
I began to establish a rhythm as we were shooting and what I found was that every night in the theater, almost irrelevant to which theater you’re in, each of the actors and crew members had the same routine they went through for the journey of the play, so either an actor would come down 10 minutes before their scene began and they might have a little ritual, putting their costume on or have little adjustments to their hair and makeup, whatever it is and then they go on and do the scene. So it was really wonderful night after night to have another take of the backstage element of the show [because] by the end of the tour, me and my crew knew pretty well where any given actor or person would be at any given point of the play and [capture] every side of it from within the theater and the machinery, the practicality and the technicalities of it.
Then week in week out, we ended up in different cities and countries. After we arrived somewhere new, I would try to find ways to spend time with a number of the actors in each city so that we can get some of the flavors of the exotic locations they were playing in and the cultural context of [doing] this play there, whether it was doing a one-on-one interview with somebody in a location that would signify the country or organizing a day out and [joining] the company to go walk on the Great Wall, the desert in Doha or visit the temples in Beijing. It was a very exiting time for everyone because the work was incredible – audiences were responding night after night – and every week we were moving to a new city, which breathed fresh life into the scene. Nobody ever got bored or was dulled by repetition of doing 200 shows night after night because the backdrop was constantly changing, so I tried my best to reflect that.
You’re actually already at work on a new project showcasing different festivals around the world such as Glastonbury and Burning Man and I’ve heard you say you’re interested in an “emerging global consciousness.” Was that inspired by going around the world with this project or did it help inspire this project?
It’s probably a little bit of both. It’s definitely something I have been increasingly aware of, but it was something that did come up genuinely within the process. Everyone who was on that tour got the opportunity to see some of these places and explore the world. Jeremy Bobb, one of the actors in the company, had never left the US before and within three months, he traveled to all the continents. There’s something really wonderful [to watch someone] open up and live life in that way, being able to absorb [those opportunities], appreciate them and to learn from them.
Within this notion of [global consciousness], the company married to it this notion of live theater being very much in the present tense, very much now, happening right there in front of your eyes. So that was something that grew [throughout the making of “Now”]. It was also something that certainly tends to inform my work, but it was also a very practical and real aspect of this company and the extraordinary opportunities they all had in touring the world and doing this work.
Was there a favorite moment while shooting this?
There were so many incredible moments throughout and many of those end up in the film. If I was to think of one moment that was particularly brilliant, it was the very first week of filming when we were in Greece filming in that extraordinary ancient theater in Epidaurus. My camera technician Mark Kozlowski and I trekked into this epic, monumental theater in the middle of the night under the stars and we set up a camera at the top of the theater to basically just shoot a time lapse of the sunrise revealing the theater. That was quite a lovely moment because the time lapse took about six hours to shoot and in that time, we just sat by the camera and I remember in that moment thinking, everything – this whole tour, this play, Shakespeare, going all the way back through theatrical history, it was really this place and this theater that was the starting point for so much of it. It was a really solitary moment, understanding what the company was doing with the tour and what I was doing with this film, but it was a really wonderful moment to start the project rolling and get the film going.