I saw the documentary, “NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage” last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Read the piece I wrote about the film at that time.) Now, it’s streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend it. A chronicle of a theater company of British and American actors traveling the world to perform “Richard III” with Kevin Spacey in the lead role, the film’s camera takes us on tour with the actors on stage, backstage, in the wings, and in the exotic locales they visit.
The doc is director/producer Jeremy Whelehan‘s first feature film. How did he get such a plum assignment? Well, the movie was his idea, and he has known Kevin Spacey for 20 years. They met when Jeremy was associate producer on Kevin’s film, “Beyond the Sea,” and then when Jeremy was associate director at the Old Vic Theatre Company in London, where Kevin was artistic director until last year.
Jeremy spoke with me from Mexico, where he is working on his next film. “When I heard that Kevin and [director] Sam Mendes [“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”] were getting back together to do a Shakespeare play and a big Shakespeare villain like Richard III, and particularly when I heard that they were taking it on the road … I then approached Kevin,” Jeremy says. “He understood my balance of experience between film and theater. And I thought that we knew each other quite well, and he trusted where I’m coming from.”
Initially, Kevin was thinking about filming the play itself, but that focus changed. “As I started shooting, the filming of the play fell by the wayside. Kevin got on board with the idea of it being this sort of feature documentary and really swung in behind it when he saw what it could be and what it was becoming,” Jeremy explains.
As a result, the film only shows moments here and there of the company performing on stage. The rest is footage of rehearsals, interviews with the actors, and film of the company experiencing the world. We’re taken to locations like Epidaurus, Greece, where the company performed in a 4th century B.C. outdoor amphitheater. Kevin takes them on a yacht in Italy, they visit the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, they take in the Great Wall in Beijing, and and they ride camels and roll down enormous sand dunes in the Middle East.
“It’s a film very much from the inside of the company,” Jeremy says. “You’re hopefully along for the ride as a company member, and you get that benefit of what it might be like to work on a piece of theater like this with a company of actors.”
There were plenty of challenges in making a film like this. Besides shooting in all of the different international locations, getting footage of the performance of “Richard III” could be complicated enough. Surprisingly, however, shooting in less restrictive parts of the world was, in some ways, an advantage. “We wouldn’t have been able to film the actual performances in London without huge expense or the unions,” Jeremy says. “The same would have been in the US and Broadway. I think because of the nature of the tour, it sort of freed us up to be a bit more … in the theater, in the backstage, in the dressing rooms, on the stage itself.”
Ultimately, Kevin and Jeremy hoped to capture the excitement of live theater on film and persuade more people to support theater companies. As they say in the film, theater is a fleeting moment in time. If you give the best performance of your life, it is given and then gone. There are no do-overs and no editing, and there is an element of risk and an inherent beauty in that. Hence, the title “NOW.”
Still, there may be no do-overs on a given night in the theater, but an actor has the opportunity during the run of a play to build a character from one performance to the next and try a variety of things. Calling himself a “theater rat” while at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Kevin said, “No matter how good an actor is in a movie, they’ll never be any better in that movie.”
“We’re trying to make a film about live theater,” Jeremy says. “Live theater has a very particular alchemy of the moment. To try and articulate that and capture it on film is actually quite difficult. So, we did everything we could with the sound and how we jump around, to try and really keep you in it so that you’re not feeling like you’re watching something interesting that happened once upon a time some years ago, but actually, this is happening right now, and you’re along for the ride.”
It took about 30 weeks over a year and a half to complete the editing of the film after shooting had completed. Even though Kevin Spacey was executive producer on the project, he trusted Jeremy with the final product. “Kevin was wonderful to me…. He gave me complete creative freedom throughout, ultimately,” Jeremy says. “In the last phase of the edit around the summer of 2013, I took the edit to him. He was in Baltimore filming ‘House of Cards.’”
Kevin’s note was that he wanted the footage of the play performances cut down with more emphasis put on the tour and the company of actors. Interestingly, Sam Mendes’ note was exactly the opposite. “I think in the end, we found a balance really,” Jeremy says. “I never really intended for it to focus on the work and Shakespeare, and I never meant this to be an academic documentary about the specifics of the work they were doing. I was more interested in making a film with slightly broader themes about theater.”
Jeremy is now working on a new documentary that focuses on festivals held around the world. It has taken him to places like Burning Man, Glastonbury, and other festivals in Europe and Mexico so far. The film will explore “new tribes of people that seem to be doing things in a very different way and looking at the world in a very different way. In a very real way, acknowledging the crises that we’re facing on the planet,” he says.
“The working title of the project is ‘The Sacred and the Profane.’ There’s something happening in these bubbles that are created in these festivals. I don’t know – people can leave work on a Friday, take off their tie, put on a top hat and a set of tails, and go out and play for a whole weekend and meet other like-minded people who share that spirit of creativity and freedom and release from some of the other more mundane elements of life,” Jeremy explains. “I think in that crucible, in that cultural crucible of play and art and creativity, there’s a great connection, which I’m encountering that has quite a spiritual aspect to it as well.”
While we wait for Jeremy’s new film, catch the compelling “NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage” now on Netflix.