Kevin Spacey Makes Waves in Beyond the Sea
Producing, acting, directing, singing, dancing, and now writing. Is there anything Kevin Spacey can't do? After seeing his labor of love Beyond The Sea, clearly the answer is no. But don't tell Spacey that - it might go to his head. Creative Screenwriting speaks to Spacey to find out how he made it through a decade-long journey to tell one story. BY JEFF GOLDSMITH
Eventually every great artist produces his career-defining work. These works are easy to identify because 'they are motivated by passion rather than pennies. The book seemed to have already been written on Kevin Spacey, who had already distinguished himself as an Academy Award-winning actor in both The Usual Suspects and American Beauty .In each of those films Spacey's skills allowed him to elevate the already excellent writing (both films won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay) to a higher level, and Spacey was rewarded as such. In fact, it's Spacey's inherent understanding of character mechanics that led him to pursue telling Bobby Darin's life story, and that's why it's not surprising to find that an actor capable of breathing such vibrant life into his characters has now taken masterful control of the medium as both the storyteller and the avatar through which the story flows. Starring in, directing, and producing films were already a part of Spacey's career, but for this film he finally entered the realm of authorship by collaborating as a screenwriter. Beyond The Sea deserves Oscar recognition because it's clear in every frame that this isn't a story that Spacey wanted to tell so much as it's a story that Spacey had to tell.
THE SPACEMAN COMETH Funny enough, at the beginning of Spacey's decade-long odyssey to make this film, all he wanted to do was act in it. "Part of it is my absolute unfiltered adoration of Bobby Darin as a performer," Spacey says. "He was, in my opinion, the ultimate performer. He sang, he danced, he did impressions, he wrote his own songs, he sang his guts out, he played the guitar, the piano, the drums, the harmonica. He was probably, next to Sammy Davis, ]r., the greatest nightclub entertainer we ever had. But because he died at 37, because he continued to reinvent himself, change his image, challenge himself, do different genres of music, he's not as famous as he would be, and I think in some ways, he's been the forgotten one. So part of my desire was to reintroduce him to a generation that has never heard of him and also to a generation that may well own his albums."
The germ of the project began when Spacey, who was already a Darin fan, learned that Barry Levinson was going to direct the project for Warner Bros. "I thought, this is the movie for me," Spacey says. "I should play Bobby Darin. But of course, I didn't realize that the movie studios or Mr. Levinson would necessarily think that hiring this obscure theater actor from New York and also allowing him to do the singing would be the way they'd want to go. So I was quickly reject- ed from that project when it was happening, and I continued my career as an actor in the theater and eventually started doing movies. But over the years I kept very close tabs on what was happening with that film. Was it going? When was it going to happen?"
Then in 1995-1996 Spacey did a string of movies for Warner Bros. and established relationships with executives there. He started talking about the Bobby Darin movie with them. "It didn't seem like it was going to happen because it had been at the studio for nearly ten years at that point and for one reason or another they never got the movie made," he says. But Spacey continued to dream about the project and was given the chance to prove his singing skills on the soundtrack of a Warner Bros. film he starred in. "I was asked on a Friday night would I come in on the following Tuesday and record a song for the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sound track, 'Oh, That Old Black Magic,"' Spacey says. "I agreed to do it with virtually no rehearsal, and I don't think it's a particularly good track. I was determined that before I did this movie, I would give myself a hell of a lot more preparation in working on the music."
From 1995 to 2000 Spacey pursued the rights to Darin's story from Warner Bros. During this time he continued to occasionally sing, including performing Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" on TV's Saturday Night Live. Finally in 2000, Spacey's dream came true and he acquired the rights to Darin's story. Along with the rights came a truckload of research. "You have to understand that when I bought the rights out of Warner Bros., what I bought in addition to a lot of scripts was all of the research material that the family had participated in, including hundreds of hours of recorded conversations," Spacey says.
"I then began the contemplation of, ' All right, now I've got the rights, and all these old scripts that had been commissioned while it was at Warner Bros., what am I going to do? How do I tell the story?"' Spacey says. "I hired a screenwriter who wrote a very nice screenplay, but I ultimately wasn't satisfied with the direction and felt it could go a lot farther. And it was at this same time in 2001-2002 that I was trying to raise the money and get financing for the film, so I was taking that particular screenplay and my ideas behind it to the studios and pitching the movie-and everybody turned it down. And I got to a point where as every door slammed 'politely' in my face, I got very frustrated by the process and one day I said to myself, and I remember this day: 'God d****t! I wonder what Bobby Darin would do if he was trying to f******g put this movie together? What would he do if he was directing this movie?' And then I suddenly stopped myself and went, 'What did you just say?' And from that question of, 'What would Bobby Darin do if he was directing this movie?' came the entire concept of how to tell the film." Spacey and the team working op the film made a collective decision to hire on Spacey as a writer, and he began working on a script that included his new concept for the movie: Bobby Darin is autobiographically directing his own biopic.
As of press time, a WGA arbitration was still being conducted to determine the film's writing credits. But based on the fact that Spacey created a new structure for the film, scenes to support that structure, the film's climax, and had rewritten dialogue, it's safe to say he deserves a co-writer credit at the very least. Spacey submitted another writer's name with his own, and clearly cited some of the film's bigger scenes, which he didn't write but kept because he admired them (the sword scene and the Oscar argument). "I'm not entirely sure whether I'm a page-one writer, in the sense that I could sit down and write a story," Spacey says. "The fact that I have a story that I want to tell that's a book is easier for me because you then have a place to begin. But I have such respect for writers that sit in front of that blank page and start.. ..This has just been an entirely different and kind of wildly amazing experience because I've learned something about myself and something about storytelling that I'd never been faced with before."
SPACEY SINGS An ongoing challenge Spacey faced was that although his film was a biopic musical, the story itself isn't conveyed through lyrics the way it is in a film like Chicago. This left Spacey with some tough decisions concerning his music. "How do you choose the music?" Spacey asks. "I mean, this is a man who recorded over three hundred songs! The choice of numbers was all about, 'Do these songs help advance the story?" Or are we going to stop now and have a concert?' I didn't want to make a concert film. I wanted to make sure that the choices of songs were about advancing the story. We hope that in choosing the songs that we've given the audience a wide breath of his talent and how much his music in certain ways, to me, is almost a social commentary on what was happening in the '5Os, '6Os, and '7Os in the United States."
And how did Spacey decide which song should be the film's title? "'Beyond The Sea' to me is a song that evokes a lot of feelings and it's obviously a hugely popular song," Spacey says. "But the song itself, when you break it down, is a very romantic song. It's a song about, I think, two people coming together and it's also a song that is a bit beyond our reach. It's about something that happens just-beyond. And I wanted it to be the center of the film because I wanted to make a film that was beyond expectations."
THE DOPPLEGANGER EFFECT As a writer, one of the more Creative things Spacey did was to infuse his own public persona into the character of Bobby Darin. This provided a rare opportunity for self- reflection in which Spacey aligned some of his own issues regarding toupees and rumored occasional artistic spats with Darin's similar traits. By merging his persona with Darin's, Spacey ended up with a nearly bulletproof film. In a post-modern fashion, Spacey criticizes both himself and his film during the film and thereby beats critics to the punch. This first occurs three minutes into the film when a journalist accuses Darin/Spacey of being too old to play the role. "Obviously there was a good amount of column inches in newspapers being spent on the only thing that they could hang their hat on, which was that I was too old to play the part," Spacey says. "And I began to think to myself, 'Well, okay, I guess an argument can be made, but they don't know that I'm not setting out to tell a typical biopic, and I don't want to tell them what I'm gonna do. So, maybe the best way to deal with this is to deal with it head-on and put it in the movie.' It's like this: you identify the elephant in the room and then you can move on. I did this also because one of the things that I truly admire about Bobby, maybe more than anything else, and something that I recognize in my own career, is that as an artist Bobby was faced with the conflict between professional expectations and personal freedom. And he chose personal freedom - much to his detriment as a famous artist. Because when Bobby started to do things that the critics didn't want him to do - when he started to show up not looking the way they wanted Bobby Darin to look, when he began to explore and expand and test his talents, they didn't want him that way. They wanted him the way they discovered him. Well, I've experienced a bit of that myself, and I'm sorry to say that you just have to go with personal freedom. I also knew that audiences and critics were going to see me in a way they've never seen me before because I've never had a chance to do a musical - and although I grew up doing musicals, it's not something anyone identifies me with. So in a sense, I am reinventing myself. "
Spacey, like Darin, is known to be a perfectionist; audiences have seen this edgy, temperamental side best from Spacey's performances in Swimming With Sharks and Glengarry Glen Ross, which is why when Spacey evokes this as Darin, it's again so believable. "Look, if you talk to people who worked with Bobby and knew Bobby, he was difficult," Spacey says. "But I understand why he was difficult - he was a perfectionist. And he knew what was right for him. And because he also knew that he wasn't going to live that long, he knew he couldn't f*** around. He demanded everyone to be at their best at all times, and if they weren't delivering their best, he f***ing came down on them. And part of that had to do with the fact that he didn't have time to f*** around. A lot of people in Bobby's life had no idea about his condition - didn't know that he was dying and therefore misunderstood his demands as arrogance. I think that without question, I am a perfectionist about the work that I do. I want it to be very exact - and at a level and at a bar that you have to meet, and if you don't meet the bar, you can't play with the big boys and get the f*** out!"
The final element in the persona formula was Spacey's and Darin's use of toupees. "I have the Sean Connery school of thought about this," Spacey says. "Sean Connery doesn't wear a wig in his personal life, but he wears a wig in practically every movie that he does. I feel the same way; I don't wear a wig in my own life, but I wear a wig in practically every movie that I do." Beyond just the personal connection, the importance of hairpieces in the movie also reinforces the film's central theme regarding a search for identity. The wig presents a false identity for Darin that he battles throughout the film.
Driving Mr. Spacey!: The positively untrue life and times of Kevin Spacey, with a few real facts thrown in for fun. All collages and photo enhancements were done by me using Microsoft® Picture It!® 99
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