Creative Screenwriting 2004  

Kevin Spacey Makes Waves in Beyond the Sea

CreativeScreenwriting041Producing, 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.

 

SPACEY CAN HANDLE THE TRUTH The search for truth in the film is set up early when Polly, Darin’s mother, tells him, “You can never go wrong with the truth.” But later on Bobby tragically falls into an identity crisis because of the lies his loved ones had told him. “Bobby was raised to always tell the truth,” Spacey says. “So think of it this way; he built his entire life on the idea that he was Walden Robert Cassotto (Darin’s real name) – that was the pillar from which he built his life. Then he created Bobby Darin, and then he suddenly found out, at the age of 36, that he wasn’t either of those guys – he was nobody. He wasn’t Walden Robert Cassotto and he wasn’t Bobby Darin. I mean what that does to a person’s mind – it’s completely understandable why he f***ing gave everything away and f****d off to Big Sur for nine months. And it was only when he figured out that if he put back on the toupee and he put back on the tux that people would listen to what he wanted to say.”

The scene where Bobby fights to learn the truth behind his identity serves as the film’s climax and comes at the end of act two. It’s a complicated, effective scene that remains completely dependent on the non-linear, unique structure that Spacey built into his story. In various places leading up to this scene, both Bobby and Little Bobby (the wise child actor playing Bobby’s younger self in the biopic) comment existentially about different events” in Darin’s life. They sometimes make decisions together and at other times watch on the sidelines as Darin’s life plays out in front of them. While early on this seems like a gem of a device, it’s completely paid off in the film’s climax, which relies on the surreal relationship between these two characters that constitute the same person. In the climax, Bobby and Little Bobby simultaneously challenge Nina (Bobby’s sister) and Polly (Bobby’s mother) regarding the secret behind Bobby’s true identity. It’s a scene that calls for four different characters, two different sets, and two completely different time periods in Bobby’s life, wherein the characters also manage to interact with each other across these boundaries – by all means, a heck of a scene for freshman screenwriter Spacey. “I can only tell you that it was a very confusing scene for everybody to shoot,” Spacey says laughing. “It wasn’t confusing in my head because I knew exactly how I wanted it to come together. Writing that scene went through a couple of different stages. Originally, that scene happened in what I call ‘The Bobby’s World Soundstage,’ where Polly was on the stage of the Coconut Grove rehearsing an old vaudeville number and Bobby and little Bobby and Nina were all there. Then I decided it didn’t work for me dramatically.” Spacey finally decided on two rooms: Bobby’s dressing room and Little Bobby’s bedroom. “It was terribly confusing for everyone involved in the movie, and I can’t tell you what it did to the actors. But I just said, ‘Look, the reality is that you’re all where you’re supposed to be – and we’re having a conversation where everyone is talking to each other, but we don’t necessarily know it .’ And then I said, you just have to trust me on this.’

The scene ultimately works because it grew organically from Spacey’s structure and his understanding of Darin’s character. It also works because Little Bobby’s character fulfills his purpose here when Darin reverts to his childlike self as Nina’s revelation of the truth attacks the very core of Darin’s psyche. “What I wanted to do was, in a sense, go inside Bobby’s head at that point in his life,” Spacey says. “I tried to think about what must have happened in his head. He must have just sat there thinking, ‘My whole f***ing life.’ The confusion, the sense of betrayal, the sense of loss, the sense of anger. And I thought, ‘Can I create a scene in which – without making it sentimental and without making it over-dramatized – all four of them are dealing with each other, but the audience doesn’t know that they’re all in the same space until a certain shot.’ And at that moment you suddenly realize that Bobby’s world, which previously has been expansive – he’s had his house here and his Bronx house there – suddenly those worlds are colliding. Physically colliding. And that’s why I’ve decided to put the dressing room and the living room next to each other for that scene.”

KEEPING IT ALL TOGETHER Even after getting the rights and writing his script, Spacey still had to continue fighting to get his film made. When funding fell through, Spacey invested his own money into pre-recording the music so that his UK-German co-produced, $25 million, ten-week shoot could move forward unhindered when given the final green light. Beyond his own capital investment, Spacey’s secret to bringing this film to the screen was the same tactic used by any good screenwriter: never give up on the story. “Well, I never ever, ever – not for one day did I not think it was going to happen,” Spacey says, “because I happen to be of the school of thought that sometimes it is through sheer force of will that you make something come through. And this was an effort of absolute sheer will. We made it happen. There was a moment when all of the financing fell apart – I had my cast, my crew, and four months went by when we weren’t sure the movie was going forward. But I never lost faith. Everybody stuck with me, including the cast with agents saying, ‘This movie’s never going to happen, you should f***ing walk from it. It ain’t happening, we got a big studio offer for you.’ Every one of that crew and that cast stuck by us, and rather than all of that s*** that we went through coming on top of us and crushing us, from the moment we started shooting, all that s*** went underneath us and lifted us up. That’s how we got through it.”

Believe it or not, even with such complete control, Spacey took the initiative of keeping his story tight. “Look, I had to be ruthless,” Spacey says. “I cut all the stuff that ultirnately isn’t advancng the story. I had to cut my whole drum solo that I did at the Copa, because it made the Copa too long. And keep in mind I had to learn drums for four months for this. You have to be ruthless before someone else is ruthless. When I first showed the studio the movie, it was under two hours. I mean, they were stunned at not seeing a four-hour cut.” But after all tlhe years he’d put into the film, it wouldn’t have made sense for Spacey to allow his ego to lead him astray from the heart of the story this late in the game. As of press time, Spacey was fine-tuning his film with the intention of cutting four to five minutes. From all accounts, these tweaks were in response to a few “friendly” studio notes plus audience reactions Spacey noticed when his film played at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.  Presumably, some of the tweaking deals with the film’s final moments. The biggest risk Spacey took in the script is, that by avoiding the conventional biopic frame- work, his script seems, by design, to lack a dramatic ending. Thankfully, there is no weepy bedside hospital death scene for Darin because Spacey’s ending embraces the more positive concept of Darin’s artistry gaining an immortality. It’s sure to satisfy the audience, but currently hangs within a delicate balance of a multitude of seemingly final moments in which the film suggests to end itself two if not three times. These moments, even if they’re left untouched, by no means invalidate the film’s strengths but seemed ripe for reworking.

The toughest editorial decisions for Spacey yet to make concern his film’s surrealist moments. One of the film’s more beautifully surreal moments occurs when Bobby and Little Bobby sit side by side and witness a serious scene from Darin’s life play out on an old film moviola editing machine with-in the editing room that Darin uses to cut his own biopic. It’s a defining moment that continues to build upon the film’s dream-like quality and reinforce its unique structure. Sure it might momentarily confuse five percent of the film’s audience, but nobody’s going to be falling out of their chairs because at its core, this moment only serves to remind us of the film’s self-reflexive structure that’s we’ve seen since the beginning. By keeping little morsels of surrealism like this around, the film’s climax feels like an organic part of the surreal sub-text that we’ve witnessed throughout. By cutting these gems out, the style of the climax could draw too much attention to itself. Spacey suggested this scene might get the axe, and although the film will still shine without it, I will be sad to see it go.

THE FELLINI FACTOR There’s no missing the sheer beauty of Beyond The Sea‘s surrealist moments and a few steps into Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions offices reveals a huge La Dolce Vita poster hanging in the waiting room along with various Fellini books scattered throughout. Thus, it’s no surprise that Fellini’s influences can be seen throughout Beyond The Sea. The self-reflexive, self-critical, nonlinear structure approach to storytelling is also very 8 l/2-inspired. “Well, if there are two movies that were guideposts for me in developing this movie, they would be 8 1/2 and All That Jazz,” Spacey says. “What I loved about 8 1/2, and I’m not even close to having made a movie like that, is that Fellini never lets you know whether you’re in a dream or a real sound stage, or a real film set, or a health spa, or a nightmare, or a memory. He never lets you know. It’s for you to figure out. And in a way that’s what I attempted to do in Beyond The Sea. I also have to say, there’s a lot of the film that I dreamed that became a part of the movie.” Another similarity to 8 1/2 is that the Little Bobby character resembles 8 1/2‘s Young Guido, but here Little Bobby plays a more involved role because he not only plays out Darin’s childhood, but also serves as Darin’s confidant and conscience during the film. “The reason I decided to turn the character of Little Bobby into a real character, who is separate from Bobby, is because of what Bobby Darin had said very often in his own life,” Spacey says, “That he felt like two different people. And that he felt like Walden Robert Cassotto had spent half his life trying to become Bobby Darin, and Bobby Darin spent the rest of his life trying to get back to Walden Robert Cassotto. And what eventually happens by the end of the film is that Walden Robert Cassotto is the one who sacrifices himself so that Bobby Darin can live. And that’s why in this movie Bobby Darin doesn’t die – Bobby Darin lives forever.”  ~

Creative Screenwriting November/December 2004

There are several pictures from the film included in the article, versions of all can be found in the Beyond The Sea photos section.