When most leading men get preoccupied with messing with models, it usually means extracurricular activity. When it’s Kevin Spacey, it means taking bold risks to create disruptive opportunities to alter arcane platforms that have ranged from his own acting career to pioneering the first breakout multi-platform success in the J.C. Chandor-directed Margin Call and the first breakout Netflix series hit House Of Cards. Now, he has made an intriguing documentary, Now: In The Wings On A World Stage, and will test new waters by self-distributing the film.
Here’s the first trailer that was just unveiled for the docu, which he is releasing in limited theatres and simultaneously via download here on KevinSpacey.com.
Spacey, in the midst of a strong run in Hollywood and two Oscars, started this journey of self discovery back in 2003 when he left Hollywood to revive the Old Vic in London. That has limited his screen time, but Trigger Street, the company he runs with Dana Brunetti, has kept him enough in the mix with Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips, The Social Network, 21 and other films. Spacey has kept up the Old Vic’s storied traditions, starring in and producing plays year after year. Now, after quietly funding and producing and starring in Now, a documentary about the conception and the experience of performing Richard III across the world, Spacey is self-releasing a film he feels captures the exhilaration of live performances that reunited Spacey with Sam Mendes since both won Oscars in Mendes’ screen debut American Beauty. His Now passion project and its trailer debut offers a a great chance to catch up with an actor who, after winning Oscars and asserting himself as a bankable leading man, up and left town for a venture many felt was folly. But this film’s most compelling selling point also underscores that Spacey knew what he was doing. If the millions and millions of rabid House Of Cards binge viewers want to see where his Vice President Francis Underwood character came from, it turns out they can find it right in this movie.
DEADLINE: I caught bronchitis this week and the only plus was tearing through the first season and one half of House Of Cards. Just a remarkable, game-changing way to absorb great drama.
SPACEY: I can’t say that I’m much of a binge watcher myself. People stop me on the street and tell me they are treating House Of Cards like a good novel, where they decide when to put it down on the bedside table, and when to pick it up again. What I love about that mind-set is that it puts the audience in complete control.
DEADLINE: Beyond leaving Hollywood behind to move to London and reviving the storied Old Vic Theater Company in 2003, you have now been at the center of two giant successes that have exploited giving audiences what they want in both movies with Margin Call, and TV with House Of Cards. I had initially heard you had reservations about Margin Call being done that way…
SPACEY: I don’t know where that came from, but it has been the opposite of what my position has been from the beginning. I understand the argument against big tentpole movies coming out day-and-date, from the standpoint of the theater owners. If you’re going out on 2000 to 3000 theaters, I get the fear that theater owners might have about day-and-date cutting into their businesses. But I also believe there are just as many people who want to stay home and watch on television as there are people who want to go to the theater. What was most gratifying about Margin Call as an experiment was that it was a smaller high-quality independent film. We all know, and I’ve experienced it on many films in the smaller range, how difficult it is to make a deal with a distributor and once you did, you didn’t get a great release, you didn’t get a lot of P&A and you couldn’t break through. And that when that happens, the first thing the theater owners say is, get this fucking movie out of my theater and give me the next one. So let’s say you have the kind of movie you feel can be a good word-of-mouth film, and you try to open it in a heavily college-based town where you know students are going to talk and have real discussions on Facebook. That might take two weeks for the conversation to get around. By then, the movie is gone.
DEADLINE: Margin Call was still treading water by the time that word-of-mouth took hold?
SPACEY: What was so encouraging and satisfying for the filmmakers on Margin Call was to have this experiment, where the film opened in theaters on the same day it did on VOD, and see it do equally well in both places. And then it did like $14 million internationally, and it has continued to have a life and revenue run that was way beyond what was expected for a movie that cost $3.5 million to make. I actually would say I have always been advocating for this, particularly with independent films which are difficult to break through. When I set out to make this film, Now, which literally no one knew I made, because we kept it under the radar, I wanted to try being more in control to be sure people could see it.
DEADLINE: It’s hard to get most people to come to the theater, even though that has been the venue for arguably your best career work. Why try a movie about the experience of putting on an historic play like Richard III?
SPACEY: When Sam Mendes and I first came up with The Bridge Project, sending remarkable performers all over the world, it struck us how this hasn’t really happened in the last 45 years. It’s one thing for Ian McKellen to go to Beijing for three performances, or a production of a play, usually not with the original cast, to tour the provinces of Great Britain. The days of an entire company going around the world and doing classic work are long behind us. Because it was Sam and I coming together a decade after American Beauty and because we got such a strong cast for Richard III, it seemed a perfect opportunity to capture the experience of what it was like to have been part of this company. So many people have stopped me on the street or written me letters saying, I’m not really a theater fan, I don’t really go to the theater, I don’t understand why you think enough of it to spend 10 years running a theater company in London. One of the things that made me proud of this film is, it goes a pretty good distance toward answering a lot of those questions. Sure, Sam and I are something of a center, but what’s more gratifying is you get to know a whole bunch of journeyman actors and actresses who are plying their trade and aren’t famous. You grow to understand what it is to be a member of a company, to bond with the company, to develop a production and then see the finished scenes. We’re very fortunate that Jeremy Whelan who directed it had been an assistant of mine who became an assistant director at the Old Vic in many of our productions. He was a peer who easily integrated himself within the company and though he had cameras everywhere, people forgot them. It was so incredible for Sam to allow me to have cameras in the room and every country that we covered, to capture the actual putting on of a play like this. It’s a 90 minute documentary, but it’s also, for people who’ve never seen me onstage, it’s an opportunity to do that. You see the performances in scenes in the movie, and then it’s back to how we developed it, how it grew and changed over the 10 months that the crew followed us.
DEADLINE: Why did you title it Now?
SPACEY: It’s the first word of the play, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” But it’s also the significance of how on the stage, it is all about now, what’s happening right in front of your eyes at that moment, and then it’s gone. To be able to have a film that reveals so much about what that experience is like, will be really cool for people. I did not set out to make a lovey pat on the back, some film that is only for your theater friends. I specifically intended to make a film that would appeal to people who don’t go to the theater at all.
DEADLINE: You funded the film. Why are you also funding its release?
SPACEY: The whole time we were making the film, I knew I did not want to bring the film hat in hand to a film festival and try to make some midnight deal for less money than I made the movie for, and then watch it get distributed in a way that I didn’t think was going to get enough eyeballs. I obviously want to make my money back and I pride myself on being a pretty good businessman, but at the end of the day I didn’t make the movie for that reason. I think there is a wider and broader interest in a movie like this that the industry doesn’t place enough value in. So part of this to me is an experiment, the idea of having a direct relationship with an audience, with my fans, and with the consumer. I’ll say, I did this, I’m proud of it. If you like my work in House Of Cards, this is where it started.
DEADLINE: What does that mean, exactly?
SPACEY: Playing Richard III was a big part of building how I got to Francis Underwood. He was based on Richard III. Ultimately, this is also wanting to maintain ownership. If I made a deal with a traditional distributor, I’d not only be selling the theatrical rights and TV and DVD rights, I’d have to sell it all for 15 to 20 years. This is very personal for me, and I think it is the first step in where I think the industry is heading. I did this MacTaggart Lecture in Edingurgh, and I spoke about platforms and where things are moving and how there is incredible talent finding new ways to be discovered and seen. I think what interested me now is trying to walk the walk of my MacTaggart speech, and not just talk the talk.
DEADLINE: You moved to London at a time when your screen career was going great. You won two Oscars and I thought of you in that handful of actors that included Denzel Washington or Sam Jackson, great actors who built brands where you knew these guys were going to deliver great performances in their movies. Did you ever second-guess your decision to make theater your first priority, and movies second?
SPACEY: Maybe House Of Cards is the perfect response to that. I can in all honesty tell you that I am so glad I made the decision 11 years ago to move to London and start a theater company when frankly a lot of people thought I was crazy and even people on my own team thought, really? You’re going to run a theater company for 10 years? What about movies? I said, look, I spent 12 years focusing on film, trying to see whether I build a career for myself. And I did. I was determined, as early as 1999 or 2000 when I made the decision, that I wasn’t going to become one of those actors that start showing up in a lot of big movies, gets paid big money and plays the same role over and over and frankly, probably does a whole bunch of movies they shouldn’t do, for money and prestige. I can tell you this. I’ve done a play every year for the last decade, sometimes two. I did Richard III for 10 months with one of the finest directors I have ever worked with. Every single one of those experiences has made me a better actor. I wouldn’t have been ready to play Francis Underwood, 10 years ago. If there is no other reason to say, wow, I made the right decision 11 years ago, Francis Underwood is good enough reason for me. I remember reading stories about how I’d run away to the theater because my film career was over. OK, but to find myself just as I am in my last year at the Old Vic and about to leave my position, I feel good. I’ll go 11 and a half years, rather than just 10, I’ve suddenly found this incredible renaissance with my own work, through House Of Cards and the things Dana Brunetti and I are doing at Trigger Street. I’m grateful for everything that has happened.
DEADLINE: It doesn’t sound like when you come back that you’ll now follow that path you just described, of movie payday after payday. I think part of the strength of your recent work is the fact you haven’t been overexposed. Where do you go from here, once free of all the obligations that come with running a theater company?
SPACEY: I definitely think there are new avenues I would like to march down, films I want to make, but also because we discovered with incredible success the relationship with Netflix, I want to do with more there. There are a lot of stories I want to tell. Here’s the truth about what my availability has been up until now. I made a decision 11 years ago that no matter what movie I took, I was not going to allow anything to take me away from the Old Vic for more than eight weeks. I held to that standard, until our ninth season at the Vic when House Of Cards came along, and that largely took me away for six months. The fact is I will soon be freed up, and however long House Of Cards goes on I can’t predict, but I love doing it and hope it continues into the future. I’ll probably end up getting offered movies I haven’t been offered because people knew my commitment was to the theater and I wouldn’t have allowed myself to entertain something that would have taken me away for longer than I felt I could, until the theater company was a well-oiled machine, built with the contemplation of what the Old Vic was going to be like when I was gone. I want that place to run long after I end my position.
DEADLINE: Will messing around with models and platforms be a big emphasis? Theater owners are still obstinate in not closing windows they feel will imperil their brick-and-mortar investments in multiplexes. It puts movies in the dark ages compared to the kind of dexterity TV is showing with series like House Of Cards.
SPACEY: There are a lot of shifts happening, and I believe the whole industry will have to embrace those shifts, because as I said in that MacTaggart speech, the audience is going to go where the content is. It’s not about platforms anymore, it’s about content. And we will have to open it up and give them the avenues they want to go down. Give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and the chances are they will buy it and won’t steal it. We have a chance to learn the lesson the music industry didn’t learn.
DEADLINE: Is self- distributing something you want to cultivate, particularly on a passion project with cultural education value like Now?
SPACEY: I can’t predict, but in the same way I was not surprised that a company like Netflix was willing to stand up and take a first big bold move in getting into the game with their own content and releasing in a way that had never been done in the history of television, I think there are all kinds of exciting new paths ahead of us, and you just have to be willing to go, “I’m not going to wait for somebody else, I’m going to do it first.”