When director Jeremy Whelehan (above) and Kevin Spacey first chatted about filming the world tour of Richard III, their visions were polar opposites.
“Kevin was heavily focused on filming the play; I’m quite glad that didn’t happen,” says Whelehan, who wanted his documentary NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage to focus on that “ephemeral, fleeting nature of theater.”
“The experience on stage is live, not recorded.” It’s not meant to be on DVD shelves. “It’s a metaphor for life.” Living is a “one chance only” moment. “You can’t rewind; you can’t play it back.”
His vision was to document a band of storytellers performing around the globe and to document “that moment that exists between the performers and the audience” when a performance really works. “I have seen hundreds of plays but only a few that have really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.”
To give the documentary that “here NOW” feel, Whelehan purposely opted to not use voiceovers or other narrative storytelling elements, which “are useful tools in a documentary,” but which also create an “obstruction between the viewer and the action.” Viewers need to feel like a “member of the company, like they are there,” backstage with the actors.
He wanted to create a documentary that didn’t fit into a niche: Shakespeare fans, theater fans, or even Spacey fans (his most obvious money-making option).
“It would have been so easy to create a documentary just about Spacey because he is such an interesting and powerful performer,” but Whelehan wanted to tell story of the whole troupe, which Spacey happens to be the lead performer. Each performer had distinctive acting styles. “This company was so diverse.” Classically and non-classically trained actors had to be brought together to form a “community, a family.”
Spacey’s approach is that he “charges his way through the performance…coming off the stage dripping in sweat…all guns blazing,” says Whelehan. His counterweight is Gemma Jones (above), a stage and film actress (Bridget Jones’s Diary), with her quiet, dignified stillness as Queen Margaret.
This Ireland born filmmaker began his career working in the camera departments on several films in Ireland, and in 2003 he worked as the Associate Producer on Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, a drama about singer Bobby Darin and his wife, Sandra Dee, a famous 1950s Hollywood actress. Afterward, he followed Spacey to London’s Old Vic Theatre, where he worked as an Assistant Director on numerous plays. In 2008, he formed Treetops Productions to create theater and film projects such as NOW.
When Whelehan heard that Spacey and director Sam Mendes (Spacey’s director from American Beauty) were taking Shakespeare’s Richard III on a world tour, he pitched Spacey the idea of creating a documentary about the traveling theatrical production. Once approved, Whelehan took the helm as the director and the producer (with Spacey as Executive Producer), which meant he not only had to find the film’s creative vision, but also had to help raise the capital to fund his four-member production crew, which would ultimately travel to nine of the 12 cities that Richard III toured. Whelehan handled the B-roll on a Canon 5D, and he put a cameraman on a Sony F1, brought in a director of photography, a boom operator, and a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician).
“We were very close, tight-knit, free form group and could move quickly” because [we] were so small. “The crew became a part of the company.”
Originally, Whelehan intended to film from the very beginning of rehearsals, “but getting the financing, and convincing people it was a good idea took time.” By the time Whelehan had the green light, he was only able to film a single day of rehearsals. Still, he was “very pleased” to get his toe into the rehearsal door. Inside, he shot alone, away from the troupe, so he could just blend in. With so little rehearsal footage, the documentary, by necessity, had to focus outside the rehearsal room.
“In each city, we’d begin with the arrival of the audience and take it all the way to the curtain call,” says Whelehan. “We’d be in the wings recording the actors’ rituals and preparations, covering the backstage activity, and revealing what the play looked like from the perspective of the cast and crew.”
Once Whelehan had all the footage, he worked closely with his editors to cut and splice the kind of documentary he was most drawn to: The one where he gets a “glimpse inside a world” that he knows almost nothing about.
“I wanted to create an entertaining, playful, fun, engaging, truthful and human story, where someone, who had never been to the theater, who lives perhaps in Azerbaijan on the side of a hill, could follow and engage with it” and learn about a different way of living.
Happily, for Whelehan, his documentary has already found its way to educate and teach in the classroom. He has heard of several teachers showing the documentary as part of a classroom study.
“So many kids’ heads are sort of taped to their Shakespeare books,” he says. “Shakespeare takes on this dusty, enforced chore. Perhaps something like this [documentary] will dust him off, dust off the world of theater, which can be a bit elitist” and encourage students to “follow their dreams, get involved in something they are passionate about, collaborate on a project that brings joy, fun or light to their lives.”
For the documentary’s final product, Whelehan, Spacey and Mendes (above) had different ideas about the documentary’s focus.
“Sam felt that, at times, it was too much of a travelogue, too much of the tour and the cast and not enough of the substance of the play.” Whereas, “Kevin thought too much of the production was in the cut and fought to remove more of the performances. For me, I think we’ve found a very good balance.”
Storytelling, whether written or oral tradition, is “one of the most powerful impulses we have as humans. The stories we tell about ourselves and about others are what make up our reality.”
Some of Whelehan’s critics have argued that the documentary lacks combative grit between the performers and the director. “This is intentionally not a cynical film,” he says. “Of course, little things go on but to me that’s not interesting. I’m not looking for flaws; this is a celebration of theater, a story about 20 human beings doing this extraordinary thing…and trying to get to the human heart beat as to why they do it and why the audience comes to see it.”
(NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage is in cinemas from June 9th and available to download via nowthefilm.com.)