“It all started with my mother,” explained Kevin Spacey in a recent Dallas interview about his new film “Beyond the Sea,” a biographical piece about Bobby Darin which the actor not only stars in but directed, co-produced, and co-wrote. “I grew up in a very musical household. My mother was a big Bobby Darin fan. I grew up in a house where not only Bobby was playing, but all the Big Bands. My dad had a great ’78 collection—Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington. I just grew up in a house with that kind of brassy sound. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I read a couple of books about Bobby that came out after he passed, and I didn’t know anything about his life. And I was stunned by what he had accomplished and overcome in a very brief life.” (Darin suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, and it was expected he’d die before his fifteenth birthday. He actually lived to be 37.)
That explains why when Spacey, then a young journeyman actor in New York, heard that Warner Brothers was preparing a movie about Darin more than fifteen years ago, he tried unsuccessfully to get involved with it. “For a number of reasons, that movie never got made,” he said. “And I just tracked the project, year after year and eventually ended up doing a bunch of movies with Warner Brothers. So I actually started a relationship with the people that held the keys to the kingdom. And I was finally able to convince Alan Horn, who runs that studio, to let go of those rights—and that’s not easy, because studios don’t like to give up rights…. And I’m so grateful,” Spacey said.
But securing the rights was only the beginning of Spacey’s struggle to get “Sea” made, and made his way. One matter involved the script, which he eventually rewrote himself. “The truth is, I had nothing to do with the fifteen-year development of the Bobby Darin film at Warner Brothers, and I never met any of those writers,” he explained. “But I did use a good measure of Lewis Colick’s writing because I thought even though the totality of that screenplay wasn’t the vision I had for this film, he wrote some great stuff and funny stuff and stuff that advanced the narrative and had great character in it, and fit within the overall concept that I came up with. And I’m very happy that Lewis agreed to share credit with me.” Then there was the problem of the budget:
“You wouldn’t know it this year, because it’s suddenly the year of biopics, but when I was trying to raise the [production] money, in 2000 when I got the rights, 2001 and 2002, biopics were, like, persona not grata—nobody wanted to touch them. Secondarily, I think that films that are driven by music also terrify studios. So it was a bit of a sludge uphill. It took three years.” Financing was eventually secured from German and British sources, and the picture was actually shot outside Berlin, which Spacey thought worked out extremely well. He remarked that one of the most complex elements of the shoot involved the elaborate choreography. “We actually cut it before we shot it,” he explained. “It was the major section of the film that I storyboarded, all the dance sequences. When we went out, we knew exactly what we wanted to get. We moved very fast—we just had no time to waste.”
One part of Spacey’s approach to the project raised eyebrows early on: he intended not only to play Darin, but also to sing the songs himself rather than lip-synch to the existing recordings.
One reason for his insistence was technical. Spacey intended to build big dance numbers around some of the songs, and he said, “We never could have done that if we were tied to original tracks.” And he added, “I just prefer it. I grew up loving movie musicals, and I knew that it was Gene Kelly singing, and that was Fred Astaire, and that was Judy Garland and that was Donald O’Connor. And I just think it’s exciting for a an audience to know that the person opening their mouth and singing is actually doing it.” So even before the rights issue was fully resolved, Spacey began practicing. “It was in mid-’99, when it looked like I was going to get the rights, that I began working on the music—before there was a script, before there was financing, before there was a cast. So it’s been about five years of singing my guts out.” It did, however, take some effort to convince Darin’s family and friends that it was the proper route to take. “Once we finally sat down and they heard from me, from my heart, what I was trying to do…they got behind the film and agreed to let me do it, without asking me to audition, without asking to read the script, without ever telling me what I could or could not put in the movie,” Spacey recalled. “Dodd [Darin’s son] said to me one day, ‘I trust you—go make your movie.’”
The result is so convincing that audiences don’t even realize it’s not Darin’s voice on the soundtrack. And Spacey has since recorded a CD of the Darin’s songs and, in conjunction with the release of the movie, is doing a concert tour, too. (Spacey noted that all the dates had already sold out. He found that “frankly a bit surprising, because obviously the movie hasn’t been out yet, so people don’t know that this is something I do. So I wonder if they know what they’ve gotten themselves in for.”) For authenticity’s sake Spacey also devoted himself to mastering one of Darin’s other musical talents, too—though you’d never know it from the finished film. “I learned drums for four months,” he said, “and then I had to cut my drum solo out of the [Copa] sequence, because it made it too long. And that was very painful.”
He emphasized, “What I was trying to do in the film was not so much a slavish imitation of Bobby, but to try to capture his style and his phrasing and his essence and his energy, his attack. But I did for a while, I think, start out trying to do an imitation of him. Phil Ramone, who’s our music producer, says that at some point I stopped trying to do an imitation of him. And I don’t know when that was, because I was inside of it. Phil says at a certain point I started using my own instincts as a performer. But by that point [Bobby] was in me in some way, and it was Bobby-like. I look at the movie, and I’m very pleased that I’ve done a version of Bobby Darin. But to misquote Senator Benson, ‘I knew Bobby Darin, and you’re no Bobby Darin.’ I tried to get close, and I’ve tried to honor him, but the truth is, nobody gets that close. This is a guy who was in a league all his own. And all of the effort and all of the dedication we put into this film, our big hope is that it will turn the spotlight back onto Bobby, because I think it’s a crime that he’s been largely forgotten because he died so young.”
Spacey’s use of “we” and “our” in reference to “Beyond the Sea” pointed to another aspect of the picture he was at pains to emphasize—its collaborative nature. “I keep reading in some quarters that people are referring to this as a vanity project,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t mean that as a compliment. And the fact is that it was anything but. The only way I got through this film was the dedication and the loyalty and the love that everyone in this crew and this cast put into the film. I don’t want to fail them. And I don’t want to fail the legion of Darin fans, or the Darin family. Or myself.”
Toward the close of the interview, Spacey reflected on the criticism he’s received for some of his recent career choices, and related his experiences to Darin’s. “I think I understand now more than I ever did, or certainly five years ago, the same dilemma that Bobby faced,” he said, “that I’ve faced, that other artists face—which is the conflict between professional expectations and personal freedom. Do you follow your heart and do what your heart tells you to do, or do you do what people want you to do? Maybe it’s the dilemma of all artists, that people say they prefer their early stuff. But I don’t understand the kind of criticism that people come under when they try new things. I’ve come under it myself since ‘American Beauty.’ Almost a kind of ‘How dare you try that—who do you think you are?’ I’m an actor, you know, it ain’t brain surgery. I’m trying new stuff. Why does that cause such really, truly mean-spirited commentary? And my answer to it all is, it’s not your life, it’s my life, and I have to live my life on my terms. And whether anybody likes that or doesn’t like it, ultimately who do I have to answer to? My God, my family, my friends. Other than that, you can’t really worry about it. And I really admire that about Bobby. Because there’s no question that the choices he made were detrimental to his outward career. He didn’t do the easy thing, even when people told him he was nuts. Because a lot of times, they were wrong and he was right. They were certainly wrong about ‘Mack the Knife’—which everybody told him he shouldn’t do.”
Now Kevin Spacey is emphasizing his roots in the theatre, having taken over the reins of the Old Vic Theatre in London as artistic director and aiming to revitalize it—“because movies don’t need my help, but theatre does…. And I’m going to be there until they ask me to leave.” But he’s taken a break from the boards to promote “Beyond the Sea,” and seemed to be enjoying every moment of it. “I’m actually having the time of my life,” he said. “Partly because I’ve been very energized by the whole experience [of making the movie], and I’m now being energized by people’s reactions to it. And I’m also going on the road! So I’m having a blast.”