INTERVIEW: First-timer Swanbeck Directs The Year's "Big Kahuna" Kevin Spacey
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
Stage director John Swanbeck had never made a movie before. So you’d think
it would be tough-going directing his first feature in 16 days with little
experience on a film set. Fortunately, Swanbeck had a friend involved: Oscar
winning actor Kevin Spacey, who both stars and served as creative producer.
The two met on Mike Nichol‘s New York production of “Hurlyburly” where
Spacey was a mere understudy and Swanbeck was Nichol’s assistant director.
The two vowed to work together. Then in 1997, when Spacey opened up his own
film company Trigger Street Productions, the venture afforded the two to
collaborate on “The Big Kahuna,” originally a play by Roger Rueff called
“Hospitality Suite” about three lubricant salesmen debating the nature of
identity and the Almighty God. It just goes to show that even an understudy
can make your career someday.
With Spacey as Larry, a brusque, wise-cracking, know-it-all, the movie
offered the acclaimed thespian the sort of meaty role that actors love and
Swanbeck the sort of intimate, psychological character study that he could
cut his teeth on. At this year’s Sundance, Spacey spoke about the
experience: “There’s something about when everyone comes together and makes
the same amount of money and you’re all doing it for the exactly the same
reasons. I also think it makes you resourceful in ways that test you. You
have to rely on the material and you can1t rely on anything else.” Swanbeck
recently spoke to indieWIRE about working with Spacey and the challenging
move from theater to film.
indieWIRE: I read that that you were shooting every day after Spacey
finished rehearsals for “Iceman Commeth“S
Swanbeck: He was rehearsing “Iceman Commeth” for the Broadway run during the
day and I’d get him at around 5:30 at night. And I would have tried to
squeeze whatever I could of Peter [Facinelli] and Danny [DeVito] beforehand,
but you1ve seen the movie, Kevin is in a lot of it. But we’d wrap every
night by midnight. Kevin insisted on it. For his sake as well as the crew’s
sake. The crew would still gather at noon. He insisted that we leave at
midnight, because he wanted a very civilized experience for everyone.
iW: But for him, rehearsing all day for Eugene O’Neill and then going into a
film shoot. He was able to handle that?
Swanbeck: I guess you haven1t heard. Kevin is Superman; Kevin Spacey is
actually Superman, that’s his cover. It’s not Clark Kent; it’s Kevin Spacey.
iW: So was having him involved essential to the project?
Swanbeck: Everyone was initially interested because of Kevin Spacey. And
then they read the script and that’s what made them come on to the project.
iW: It seems like the genesis of the project is inextricably linked to your
prior relationship with Spacey and his interest in the project?
Swanbeck: We had been looking for a play to do on Broadway together and the
play that “The Big Kahuna” is based on was one of them. But at that time, he
couldn1t juggle theater and film, so he could never fit it into his
schedule. Then he started Trigger Street Productions and he said, this would
make a great, first small movie to help get my company going. And I was
honored. All along, all I ever wanted to do was do a good job for my buddy
Kevin. That’s really what was on the forefront of my mind.
iW: Obviously, you couldn1t have foreseen the Oscar. But is that something
you think about now as your movie is being released?
Swanbeck: I actually caught myself when they announced Kevin’s name. I found
myself jumping up and down in my living room, yelling, “I won, I won.”
iW: It’s a huge boost for your movie on a sheer marketing level. It’s a bit
unfortunate, in some ways, that that’s what a little film needs.
Swanbeck: That’s, for me, a part of the beauty of the whole emergence of
Studio-produced movies and independent movies and how the lines are being
blurred between the two. And I think these kinds of independent movies give
actors like Kevin and Danny a chance to work in an environment without all
that studio glitz and glamour and star business, which they really don’t
like. They just like the process; it gives them the chance to do the kind of
work they like and at the same time, they help independent filmmakers get
their product out there, so I think it’s really a symbiotic relationship.
iW: When you were shooting your film, how did your theater background inform
the way you directed for film?
Swanbeck: One of the things I tried to do was capture not only the person
talking, but the other two people in the room as they were listening. A lot
of what’s going to engage the audience is what’s going on underneath these
words. So I really tried to create a voyeuristic experience for the audience
where they felt like they were sitting on the couch or a chair in the
corner. My theater experience, I found very helpful in pre-production,
because theater is a very collaborative art and it allowed me to collaborate
with the cinematographer. Pre-production felt like home turf to me.
What I was surprised to learn shooting the movie is the camera is very
conducive to the way I like to direct actors. I like to work on what1s going
on underneath, subtext, emotional journey, the undercurrents, and that
doesn1t always translate theatrically. I realized right away that the camera
could let me get right up close to their eyes and really paint a story with
their eyes. I found that to be a great relief.
As far as the mechanics of making a movie, I never had been behind a camera
before. So after Kevin proposed making a movie, [creative partner] Nancy
[Lane Scanlon] and I started reading books about how to make a film. [The
two then shot their own short film.] We thought the best way to do it is to
go through it once, and go through the process, to be a lot better prepared
for the crew Kevin’s going to put together. And I think it was the smartest
decision we ever made. I didn’t want to show up to the set and go, “You’re
the script supervisor, what’s your job?” One of the most important things we
learned was the best way for me to do a job for Kevin as a producer is to
learn his job as a producer. So having to raise the money and negotiate the
deals with Panavision and SAG and understanding the Byzantine production
process, I was able to see things coming down the pike, and I was able to
make decisions based on all the different factors, not only the story, but
the time we had to tell it, in the amount of money we had to tell it. We had
a 1.8 million dollar budget on “The Big Kahuna” and we had to deliver the
movie by September 1st, and that knowledge came in handy in juggling those
iW: How exactly did Kevin function as a producer. What was he doing?
Swanbeck: You have to understand that Kevin and I agree creatively and
artistically. So as a director, I was able to anticipate his needs as a
producer. When we were cutting the film and I’d send him copies every week
with the edit and he’d call back and say, “I had all these notes from the
last one, but you’ve taken care of them already.” Kevin was the creative
producer; Franchise Pictures were the financial producers. So as long as we
stayed under budget and on schedule, Kevin and I got to make all creative
decisions. What was amazing for me, and I’ll bet I’ll never have this
experience again, at almost every turn, Kevin’s response to anybody
creatively was, “It’s up to John, whatever he wants.” At the same time, he’s
able to pick up the phone five days before we started shooting, when we lost
the person who was originally playing the role of Phil and because of his
relationship with Danny Devito, sent him a script and he’d read it in 24
hours and committed to 16 days of shooting.
iW: There’s a creative choice that you’d made with this film, the idea of
keeping it closed, keeping it theatrical, and keeping them in one room that
I think it’s a challenging one.
Swanbeck: Going into the experience, I was thinking, this is an image-based
medium. And I really want to think about this as though I didn’t have any
words to tell this story. I want to tell this story just in pictures, but I
didn’t have cinematic imagery, special effects, just one location. But I
realized that by going deeper into the characters and trying to explore the
undertones of the characters that I could use their faces as landscapes. And
the special effects would be the emotions in their eyes. In the crafting of
the script and the editing, we always tried to think about telling the story
just with sort of their expressions. It’s a unique movie-going experience
for most people, but I really thought that if you create an intimate
experience and make them feel like they’re right there in the room with
them, they’re going to have a very visceral, intimate experience that they
might not be able to get otherwise.
iW: So what did you learn while serving as assistant director to Mike
Nichols on “Hurlyburly?”
Swanbeck: I think about this every time I direct something. I was just out
of college and so I was very black and white in my thinking. I thought, when
you work on a play it’s the artist’s job to find that one right way to tell
this story. And when I watched Mike rehearse “Hurlyburly,” I watched him
bring his wonderful improvisatory background to the rehearsal process. He’d
try a scene one way and then he’d try it a completely different way and then
a third way, and then he and the actors would take the best of the scenes
and piece them together into a unified whole that worked as a completely
unexpected, very complex whole. And I’ve tried to bring that to my work ever
iW: Was it strange not having a four-week rehearsal period?
Swanbeck: No, actually, it was the most unique creative experience I’ve ever
had, because literally for 16 days, we were operating on pure instinct.
There was no time for thinking, debating, discussing, hand ringing, hair
pulling, egos — I literally had to make decisions with my gut and I’ve
never had to do that before. It was just pure, raw creative instinct on
everyone’s part for 16 days and that’s something I’ll never forget.