Kevin, the Dude and me

What’s it like directing actors who are powerful enough to have you thrown off your own movie? Iain Softley, whose new film K-Pax stars Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, explains Iain Softley

Thursday April 04 2002
The Guardian

June 2000 in the Mondrian Hotel, Los Angeles. A project I had been working on for a few months was heading for another delay. I got a call from my agent. K-Pax, a script I had been passionate about for a number of years, was back on – and Kevin Spacey was attached to play Prot, a man who thinks he’s from the planet K-Pax. “Was I still interested?” Was I? A couple of weeks later in a diner in the Valley, I’m talking to Kevin Spacey. Coffee and eggs and pancakes are slid on to the table. On the surface informal, relaxed, but what is really going on is one of the most important meetings of my life. Kevin Spacey is attached to the project. The last film of his in the cinemas was American Beauty. He is the current holder of the Oscar. If he doesn’t like me, I don’t have the job. A few weeks later, I’m in another restaurant having another meeting. This time it’s Santa Barbara with Jeff Bridges. I have offered him the other lead in the film, the part of the psychiatrist, Dr Mark Powell. Whereas Kevin was confident and direct, Jeff is cautious and methodical. About everything. Jeff studies the menu dutifully: “I’ll have the salmon.” (Over the next month at meals in LA, New York and London, Jeff always orders the salmon.)

He has his script with him, which he has painstakingly annotated, and goes through it question by question. That afternoon, Jeff’s agent calls me and says he wants to do the film.  It’s always discussions about costume, hair and make-up where the initial jostling for position takes place. If you get through those discussions with your actors, then you usually know things are going to be OK. Especially hair and make-up. And especially hair. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a director in pre-production is for an actor to become wedded to a wig that for him or her is an essential part of their character, but for everybody else on the planet is a source of unbridled mirth. I had the opposite problem on a film of mine, Hackers, where I had to restrain a young Angelina Jolie from shaving her head before she arrived for rehearsals.

I’m having a meeting in my office with Kevin and his hair and make-up people, and my costume designer. Our prop guy is also there, looking like an Oxford Street hawker with scores of pairs of sunglasses. For the first half of the film, Kevin’s character Prot wears sunglasses. Everybody at the studio is now getting worried. Doesn’t a screen actor act with his eyes…and we’re covering them up for half the film? We have laid out a number of reference photographs of midwest drifters. Kevin is particularly taken with the look in one. He suggests that he has a wig and contact lenses made to emulate the man’s look.

On my second meeting with Jeff, in an Italian restaurant in west Hollywood, his script now has those sticky page markers indicating where his notes are. I never had The Big Lebowski’s Dude down as that anal. But with every subsequent meeting, he is becoming mellower and more relaxed. At a meeting in a downtown hotel Jeff stands in his boxer shorts, trying out a selection of fountain pens and reading-glasses. He tells me the story of a film he was in about a rancher. He was in his trailer, and the farmer who owned the land that they were filming on came in to introduce himself. Jeff had never been happy with his costume, but felt the farmer’s outfit was just right. He convinced him there  and then to change out of his clothes so that Jeff could wear them. Which he did for the rest of the shoot. At this point Jeff looks at me. “Can I try your jacket on?” he asks.

A good many of the scenes in the film take place between Prot and Powell, so rehearsals start in a Hollywood loft at the beginning of October with Kevin and Jeff. They both grew up separated by just a 20-minute car ride over the Santa Monica mountains that divide the California coast and the beaches of Malibu from the San Fernando Valley.

They took different paths, Kevin’s led to Juilliard drama school in New York and the theatre; Jeff, following his father Lloyd, became a film actor and was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 21 for The Last Picture Show, the first of four Academy award nominations so far. This is the first time they have acted together, and they first met only a few days ago. They are immediately at ease, sparking each other’s sense of humour and clearly respectful of each other’s talent.

Jeff scrutinises the script as he reads the words. They roll out, sometimes as mumbles as he thinks about what he is saying, stopping to ask questions, making notes, throwing out ideas. Kevin, who has learned his lines already, explores the physicality of the character, picking up props, trying out different ways of speaking, or walking, of holding his head, as if they are so many different clothes.

The film’s producer Larry Gordon, who has a string of films to his name, tells me that the only thing he would insist on if he were to direct a film would be a locked script that no one could change. Obviously Larry isn’t directing this film because a week before rehearsals begin, he calls me to say that one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood was available for a couple of weeks, and the studio are willing to hire him to do a polish for us.

But I like this script, I say, it’s one of the best I have ever read. It’s one of the best scripts that Kevin has ever read. You don’t have to use a word of what he writes if you don’t like it, says Larry.  Two weeks later. A week before shooting. We are sitting in an eighth-floor rehearsal room in New York. Myself, Jeff and a few members of the production team lurk in the background. We got some new script pages earlier in the day for one or two scenes, and are discussing which version to rehearse with. Do we go for one version or the other or a combination of the two?

The lift doors swoosh open and Kevin flies in on an electric scooter. Everyone is in a good mood. We rehearse the scene with the new pages and fall about laughing. Then we rehearse the scene in its old form and fall about laughing again. Jeff has a go on Kevin’s electric scooter and nearly careers out of the plate-glass window on to 42nd Street.

The last scenes we shoot in New York before going back to LA are at the spectacular Hayden Planetarium. Again we shoot through the night, but the crew and cast are deprived of sleep and close to delirium. I lose Kevin and Jeff at about three in the morning. An assistant director points me in the direction of a staff room. I follow the laughter and find Kevin and Jeff sitting cross-legged on the floor with Helen Hunt playing a game throwing handfuls of little plastic pigs on to the floor and awarding points depending on which way up they land.

For a film so dependent on performances, and in particular the relationship between Prot and Powell, I want to give space and time to try things out. It usually works out, but on one occasion towards the end of the schedule, we shoot a particularly tricky scene in the hospital ward. We rehearse and block for about an hour, then shoot the master. After the second take, I walk over to Kevin. I’m not happy, I want to go back to the drawing board. Doing this will put the schedule under strain, but I know I have to do it. Just then I see alarmed expressions on the rest of the cast. When I look behind me, I see flames falling from the ceiling. The set is on fire. Moments later it is flooded with water. Half an hour afterwards I get a call from Larry Gordon. I like your style, he says. You’re not happy with a scene so you burn the set down to buy some time.

Several weeks later Kevin and Jeff see the finished film. Kevin decided to see the film with an audience. So he comes to a preview screening. In disguise. When he arrives at the cinema wearing short trousers, long hair and milk-bottle-bottom glasses I collapse in hysterics and almost give the game away. Jeff arrives for a personal screening with his representatives, and a few friends and family. His manager and agent think it is the best work he has done. His mother agrees. “He’s good in this one,” she says. “And don’t think I don’t tell him when he’s not. I’m from Lancashire, you know.” Of all the things I learned making K-Pax, I never thought I’d discover that somewhere deep inside the Dude is a Brit. K-Pax is released next Friday.

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