John Swanbeck Interview
First-time filmmaker recalls being tapped by buddy Kevin Spacey to film talky traveling salemsan play
When busy Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey started his own movie production company last year, he chose as his first project the adaptation of a talkative, one-room, three-character stage play called "Hospitality Suite," and he picked as his director a stage veteran -- but cinematic novice -- named John Swanbeck.
A year later, the film -- retitled "The Big Kahuna" -- is about to open in theaters and Swanbeck is in San Francisco remembering what it felt like to be trusted by his good friend Spacey to helm a movie without any filmmaking experience.
"(When he asked me) the first thing I did was I got a lot of books on film and rented a lot of movies," Swanbeck says now. "I did that for a few weeks, and I found it really frustrating. I kept thinking, 'If I could just go through this once, I'd be much better prepared.'"
Then he got his chance. Before they could even plan the picture -- which Spacey would produce and star in with Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli ("Supernova"), as traveling industrial lubricant hoofers having a cathartic afternoon of conversation while waiting for a big client in Wichita hotel room -- Spacey had to bolt off to England for his highly-praised performance in the stage revival of "The Iceman Cometh."
"What Kevin basically said was, 'I'm going off to London to do "The Iceman Cometh." I'm going to give you a call at some point and we're going to go. You may have a week's notice, you may have a month's notice. I don't know.'"
Swanbeck took the opportunity to cut his cinematic teeth by producing -- not directing -- a low-budget, fly-by-night short.
"I wanted to produce the short film because I figured the best way to do a good job for Kevin as a producer would be to learn his job as a producer," the greenhorn filmmaker said while taking a big swig of coffee to wake him up after a short night that included red-eye flight from New York.
Swanbeck looks a little worse for the wear from that over-nighter. Hs jutting, stong jaw is covered in whiskers, having woken up without time to shave before our interview. He hasn't buckled his belt or tied his shoes yet either. He's tired, but he's also incredibly personable for a guy who just got up to strangers in his hotel room.
"My partner wrote and directed the movie," he says, nursing the java. "We hired the crew, we made the deals, we had Panavision and the whole thing. We were about halfway through editing when Kevin called and said, 'We've got three weeks.'"
Suddenly, Swanbeck says as he hunkers down in his chair to talk about the movie, he was happier than ever that he had the time to experiment before beginning "The Big Kahuna."
"Doing that short film was, I think, the smartest thing that I've ever done."
|Q: Have you directed "Hospitality Suite" on stage?|
|Q: What's your background with Kevin?|
|Q: You were on movie sets with him, like "Glengarry Glen Ross"?|
|Q: Had you ever directed him on the stage|
|Q: What did he do as producer?|
It was stuff like that, but it was also...I remember he called me at 2 o'clock in the morning once, (suggesting we) do the scene where (he and DeVito) sitting around the breakfast table (as a) metaphor for their relationship, which we saw as an old married couple who loved each other but really got under each other's skin all the time. I said, "Great we'll get one of you a newspaper, so it's that classic breakfast morning scene where one of them's hiding behind a paper and it's an uncomfortable silence."
|Q: Like "Citizen Kane."|
Next morning I show up to the set, and there's Kevin in the back of a grip truck in work boots and jeans unloading hotel furniture, breakfast cart, breakfast paraphernalia, the plates, the warmers, everything. He had ordered breakfast that morning in his hotel, breakfast for two, and then walked out of the hotel with the breakfast cart, and all the fixings, the food, the warmers.
|Q: You didn't have Teamsters ripping you a new one for letting him unload stuff off a truck?|
But he's brilliant at solving problems creatively. That what I'd say is the most amazing thing about him as a producer. I think it's what he does with his acting as well. When he confronts a challenge or a problem, it's not just, "How can you solve it?" It's, "How can you now make it even better than it would have been if it hadn't been a problem?" It's amazing how he does that.
|Q: Peter Facinelli (who plays a new recruit salesman on his first trip with long-timers Spacey and DeVito) must have felt like the odd man out. Everyone else knew each other. He must have felt just like the character.|
|Q: Was it difficult transition from a stage frame of mind to a film frame of mind?|
|Q: So did it go smoothly on the set?|
|Q: Last question: Why did you change the title?|
I got a lot of heat for that title. Because people didn't think it was a good title or the right title. Kevin and my partner Nancy just said, "Stick to your guns. It's your movie. Call it what you want." Now everyone loves the title. And it's great 'cause it sounds so good when Access Hollywood says, "The Big Kahuna." I love that.