I’m sitting in the swank Apex Hotel at the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. I’m here to meet a Manhattanite who has spent the day tramping castles and volcanoes – not to mention Edinburgh’s shops. After she’d produced and presented And Everything Is Going Fine, the acclaimed new arthouse movie by Oscar-winning director, Steven Soderbergh. I’ve seen the film. It pushes boundaries of documentary-making in new and exciting ways. And there are insights about the man at its centre that surprise even those closest to him. He's an acting legend who has spawned books and biographical movies, an experimental writers’ school, a series of plays based on his words, and even a forthcoming film of those plays to be produced by Whoopi Goldberg.
Spalding Gray is the man in question. He’s an American legend – if relatively unknown in the UK. His phenomenal ability to ad-lib dialogue has had Hollywood greats queuing up to work in the plays. To recite lines that Spalding Gray created live on stage.
Gray was initially unaware of where the words came from. He never worked from a script. But at one point he suggested that his process tended to follow a fivefold pattern:-
1) Be open and allow the story to come;
2) begin the process of mental editing;
3) speak the story first out loud to find its own voice;
4) tape record the story and re-edit; and
5) take a transcript off the tape.
Creating like this, he found that “the breath and rhythm are already included in the piece.”
Although she nurtured the concept of the film with Steven Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo (also Spalding's widow) was surprised at the result. She is with her son Forrest when we meet (Forrest also wrote the end-music to the film). A strikingly elegant and articulate woman, she talks excitedly about the way the movie has been received. By critics and audiences and even a salesman in the Levi jeans shop this afternoon.
“I don’t think I ever sat down and talked to him like that about process,” she says. “To hear him sit in a quiet room and talk about the process, even for people who were closest to him, I think we learnt something.” But instead of an academic description, the film takes us through the process at a gut level, so that we experience it as an emotional rollercoaster and understanding can come almost instinctively. We see Gray confront himself. Analyse life episodes with searing honesty. His mother’s suicide. His first homosexual encounter (at an Athens hotel – at the age of 40). The way he calmly observes fierce emotions reminds me of a meditative practice described by Cambodian Buddhist monks. Story and emotions rise to the surface, rage fiercely, then spend their force and die down. Stage monologues are not memorised and so have spontaneity, the surprise of remembering. It’s the exact opposite of an actor who memorises lines by rote and then has to use method acting to make them fresh.
Just as he demanded ruthless self-reflection from himself, Gray’s family members could also be subjected to his ‘method.’ Did he have a probing personality, I wonder? “Yes! Even with kids!” exclaims Kathie. “Do you remember,” (turning to Forrest), “when the rabbit died?” Forrest had been maybe five years old at the time. Kathie was crying over the death of the family’s pet rabbit. “He’s dead! He’s dead!” she wept. Forrest initially thought she meant his father. Later, when they related the incident to Spalding, he turned to Forrest and asked, “So! How did you feel when you thought it was me!?” We laugh. “But it was always done with such kindness,” says Kathie. “He would come home and start probing. But people got used to it. Life was never dull. It was very challenging. And I think it’s very important to talk about those things.”
Spalding Gray’s spontaneous dialogues have now been memorised and used on stage by guest actors and people such as Richard Gere, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Cunningham (the author of The Hours). The plays, which are Kathie’s idea, are called: Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell. They use a combination of excerpts from Gray’s famous monologues (recited posthumous scripts) and spoken diary entries. Each character takes an aspect of Gray’s life and personality to build up the composite whole. Soderbergh had originally begun a similar process. “Kathie thought there was something to be done with all the material that was left. I knew from the first that I was never going to shoot anyone talking about him, as there would be in a conventional documentary, but I thought there might be some place for his journals, either read by other actors or as text on the screen. I paid to have 25 years of them transcribed before I became convinced it had to be, literally, just his voice.”
In the film, dramatic monologues are illustrated with archive interviews and vice versa. It is Gray commenting on Gray, almost as he did onstage. Yet when I saw the film, my one reservation was that some of the references would be too obscure for many audiences. I was fascinated when Kathie told me that a shop assistant that day had recognised her from the Film Festival – having never heard of Spalding Gray beforehand – and gone out and researched everything he could about him, ordering books and DVDs. “That’s what makes it worth it,” says Kathie. “My hope is that this film opens up a whole new audience. It’s great for his fans, it’s great for his family, it’s great for his friends; but hopefully this will make people pay attention to him who wouldn’t have otherwise.” So was the shop assistant familiar with Chekhov and the hundred and one references throughout the film? “Errmm... it turns out he was also a media studies student!” laughs Forrest.
In terms of cinematic technique, the remarkable methodology mirrors that of Soderbergh’s subject. There is no original footage ‘created’ for the movie. (It’s also Soderbergh’s first documentary, and five years in the making.) Even the opening scene, which makes us more aware of the camera than any other, has by the end of the film merged into the iconic representation of Gray’s art: the empty desk and chair, the glass of water. And the only other external props are box-files of notes. He insists that we observe rather than become over-involved. “He doesn’t like to over-sentimentalise anything, says Kathie. “Originally there was lots of home movie footage, and I made the mistake of saying, ‘Oh I love that!’ – and of course next day it was out!”
Fans of Spalding Gray will know that he committed suicide when a severe accident meant he felt that life was no longer worth living. There is a curious analogy to Virginia Woolf’s life in some ways. They both used an interior monologue: as did Michael Cunningham, who has both penned Woolf for the screen and acted Spalding Gray for the stage. “Michael comes closer to Spalding when he’s reading him than anyone we’ve ever had – it really is amazing,” enthuses Kathie. “He has so many of the same qualities, and the same sense of timing as Spalding.” We are looking at a quotation from Cunningham’s The Hours: “He insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be – capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you've ever imagined – it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and a while after you've left him, that he alone sees through your essence, weighs your true qualities... and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has.” It exactly describes how Gray’s work uses memory, elicits the memories of ordinary events that everyone can identify with, but remembers them in a way that can have a profound effect on the one doing the remembering. In your suddenly amazing life.
“I suspect that as long as I have a voice, I’ll have a story,” he says in the film. We’ve all heard that saying, ‘Be the star of your own life story.’ But Gray did it, every minute. Reality and drama would merge. “Sometimes I don’t know when I’m fictionalising,” he would laugh. Fortunately for us his story keeps on going.
On the decision to end of his life, Kathy said, “He was not one to live a diminished life.” But the memories he left became an incredible gift to his loved ones. What was the best thing about the film? “When he said the last five years were the happiest of his life.” She smiles at the warmth that the legacy of that phrase in the film has bequeathed her.
Further reference: The ‘Five-point process’ is described in: Spalding Gray, the Humorist and his Method, by Adonia Dell Placette, interviews for Ph.D dissertation, http://etd.lib.ttu.edu/theses/available/etd-02262009-31295005559397/unrestricted/31295005559397.pdf