New York Times

November 22, 2004

Published: November 21, 2004

If every film has a moment at which it was truly born, the time arrived for “Beyond the Sea” at 3 p.m. on Oct. 1, 1999, at L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Precisely then, Kevin Spacey danced into a meeting with the independent producer Arthur Friedman, snapping his fingers and singing the 39-year-old pop tune of the same name in an eerie impersonation of Bobby Darin.

Mr. Spacey, 40 years old and at the peak of his career, was on the verge of winning his second Oscar, for “American Beauty.” But Paramount executives, who had been interested in “Beyond the Sea,” a biopic about Darin, thought him too old to play the musical idol who had died of heart failure at 37 and preferred Leonardo DiCaprio.

Mesmerized by Mr. Spacey’s odd obsession with Darin, however, Mr. Friedman, a former film marketer, took him on as both star and fellow producer. That choice closed the door at Paramount, while unleashing Mr. Spacey’s passion, which ultimately got the picture made – and got Mr. Friedman booted from his own production. To woo foreign financing for the modest $25 million budget, Mr. Spacey used his Darin shtick again, performing six songs last year at the American Film Market, an annual film distribution convention in Santa Monica.

The movie that will finally reach audiences next month by way of an American distributor, Lions Gate Entertainment, is an extraordinary one-man show: Mr. Spacey is not only the star and a producer, but also director, co-writer and leader of a 19-piece band that will tour nine cities, backing his Darin act. Mr. Spacey, with the help of seven toupees and the makeup team from “The Lord of the Rings,” essentially becomes Bobby Darin in the film. Whether that will help revive his career, which has flagged in recent years as he spent his talent on routine fare like “Pay It Forward,” “K-PAX” and “The Life of David Gale,” remains to be seen.

But if “Beyond the Sea” now seems like a one-man show, it certainly didn’t start that way. In its 17-year gestation – long even by the tortuous standards of movie development – the project was groomed and regroomed, written and rewritten and re-rewritten by a bewilderingly large number of participants for what is, in the end, a relatively small, independent film. In Hollywood circles, its scheduled release is already stirring furious crosscurrents among the six A-list writers, 20 producers and one soap opera actor, who – along with Mr. Friedman – drove what has become Mr. Spacey’s signature project toward the screen.

While the film was in development, key disputes erupted between those who, like Mr. Friedman, believed that “it was all about the music” and others who were looking for meaning in the often harsh story of Mr. Darin’s life and premature death. And then there was Mr. Spacey, who favored a compassionate take on the singer, with a liberal dollop of himself thrown in.

In taking on the project, Mr. Spacey appears to have been driven as much by the chance to stand in the shoes of an exceptionally intense, uncompromising talent as to tell a screen story with obvious hooks like love, loss and the ticking clock of a failing heart. (Not to mention the chance to sing and dance his heart out.) “It was a movie that couldn’t get made,” Mr. Spacey said of a project that already had a dozen years behind it when he took charge. “What happens is that sometimes in the Hollywood perception, a movie gets in trouble and then it becomes this thing where you’re trying to push the film uphill.”

Last month, the Writers Guild of America, West, sorted through some of the behind-the-scenes pushing and pulling in an especially contorted arbitration that judged the screenplay for “Beyond the Sea” to have been written by Mr. Spacey and Lewis Colick, a veteran writer whose credits include “Ladder 49,” “Domestic Disturbance” and “October Sky.”

In an unusual twist, Mr. Colick, who wrote a first draft of the Darin film for Warner Brothers in 1987, insisted that he not receive first position in the writing credits, though he was entitled to it alphabetically. “Stylistically, this movie is not me,” said Mr. Colick, who was hired by Warner Brothers after pitching a story about the early rock and pop culture that took root around composers like Carole King in Broadway’s famous Brill Building. “Kevin Spacey took Bobby Darin’s life and kind of ran with it.”

Mr. Colick wasn’t alone in trying to disassociate himself from a completed movie that in many ways softened the edgy, if not bleak, vision that had inspired many of the film’s earlier drafts. Another screen veteran, Tom Epperson, who had struck up a friendship with Mr. Spacey while writing an early screenplay draft of Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Shipping News,” in which Mr. Spacey starred, also told the guild that he didn’t want to be considered for credit on “Beyond the Sea.”

Mr. Epperson declined to comment on his reasons. But people involved with the film said Mr. Epperson, an Arkansas-born writer whose credits include “The Gift,” “A Family Thing” and “One False Move” (with his former partner Billy Bob Thornton), wrote two drafts that included Mr. Darin’s penchant for orgies after he split with his wife, Sandra Dee, and that were far darker than what Mr. Spacey finally shot.

The guild received yet another “keep-me-out-of-it” request from James Toback, who, long before Mr. Spacey’s involvement, had worked with the director Barry Levinson – brought aboard by Mr. Friedman and Warner Brothers – on a similarly tough rendition that had been tailored for Johnny Depp. (Mr. Toback didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.) In 1996, Mr. Toback was reported to have been paid $150,000 a week by Warner Brothers to move in with Mr. Levinson, for whom he had written “Bugsy,” and execute a draft, which at the time Mr. Toback called “a miracle of collaboration.”

Mr. Friedman, however, disapproved, judging the script to be excessively focused on Mr. Darin’s childhood rheumatic fever and lifelong struggle with heart disease. The Toback draft, as it happened, followed even earlier drafts by Paul Attanasio, the writer of “Quiz Show” and “Donnie Brasco,” and Paul Schrader, who had created an especially raw narrative – called by one player a “musical ‘Raging Bull’ ” – by concentrating on Ms. Dee’s alcoholism and childhood molestation by her stepfather.

Mr. Toback was followed by Lorenzo Carcaterra, who was hired after selling film rights to his Hell’s Kitchen crime drama “Sleepers” for $2.1 million. Mr. Carcaterra was unprepared for the eight boxes of accumulated Darin research delivered to his doorstep by the studio. In addition to dozens of scripts, there were tapes, records, videos, early television clips, authorized and unauthorized biographies, tattered newspaper clippings, magazine interviews and transcripts of all that had come before as the project had morphed from “The Bobby Darin Story” to “Dreamer” to “Beyond the Sea.” “I decided to meet with a lot of real-life people associated with Bobby Darin until he said it was taking the focus off of Bobby,” Mr. Carcaterra said, referring to Mr. Levinson.

As a result, some of Mr. Carcaterra’s best Darin stories – including a Las Vegas confrontation with Elvis Presley in which Mr. Darin supposedly said, “If you’re the King, what the [expletive] does that make me?”- were left out of his third and final draft, which came in at a lengthy 164 pages, and was the last one before Mr. Levinson and Warner Brothers dropped out. The much briefer shooting script submitted by the finished film’s producers for Writer’s Guild arbitration – according to Mr. Carcaterra, it was only 92 pages long – proved to be a heartbreaker for one writer who very much wanted a credit, Jeffrey Meek, 45, who is best known for his recurring role as Rev. Thomas Dade on television’s “General Hospital.”

Mr. Meek’s exact role in creating “Beyond the Sea” remains a subject of fierce dispute, complicated by the fact that he has received $85,000 of a promised $125,000 to settle his claim to have performed writing services, though he was awarded no credit in the guild arbitration. In an interview, Mr. Spacey said Mr. Meek was “not a hired writer” on the project. “He turned in a draft, but it was a draft based on earlier material based on my own screenplays,” Mr. Spacey said.

Mr. Meek, however, said he was indeed hired by Mr. Friedman, a friend who stood up at his wedding and helped connect him with Mr. Spacey, with whom he claims to have produced 12 drafts, including one that was reported by Daily Variety to have received a green light from MGM in early 2003, though no movie resulted at the time. “He bought my material and then acted like I didn’t exist,” said Mr. Meek, who had to shoulder his way into the arbitration after learning that his name wasn’t on the long list of writers submitted to the guild by Lions Gate. “I’m not saying I’m Rembrandt, but it’s like someone buying a painting and then scratching the name off of it and putting their own there.”

Even Mr. Friedman was eventually swept aside by the Kevin Spacey tidal wave. Having become obsessed with Mr. Darin after meeting him while working as a night clerk at Broadway’s Colony Records in 1957, Mr. Friedman, now 64, had jump-started the film in 1987 by laboriously negotiating for crucial music rights with Darin’s ex-wife, Ms. Dee; his son, Dodd; and his former manager Steve Blauner.

After working through 10 years of script development with Warner Brothers and its string of expensive writers, Mr. Friedman frequently found himself at odds with Mr. Spacey, who finally asked him to step aside while the British producer Andy Paterson, whose credits include “Restoration” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” cobbled together financing. When principal photography finally began in September 2003 – much of the shoot took place in Berlin, a condition of the German backers – neither Mr. Meek nor Mr. Friedman was actively involved with what had clearly become Mr. Spacey’s show.

Dodd Darin, who said he had originally considered Mr. Spacey’s plan to sing his father’s material a “sacrilege,” had fallen into synch with Mr. Spacey’s deeply empathetic approach to the singer’s life. “My father was edgy, but he had a real vulnerable side to him and that just never came across in any of Levinson’s scripts,” he said. And a philosophical Mr. Friedman, now an outsider, had come to see the disputes and tensions surrounding the film, on which he and almost two dozen others share producing credits, as the inevitable price of art. “Look at ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ” he said. The producer, Sam Spiegel, and the director, David Lean, “were at each other’s throats the whole time. Some of the best movies have come out of fighting.”