New Direction

Oscar-winning bad guy Kevin Spacey tries a new role--director

"There are and will be expectations about what the movie is going to 'deliver' because of what I've done as an actor," he says. "And I can never do anything about those expectations. They are completely different things, but fair or not, they're there, and you can't do anything about it. And they're certainly going to be there for critics, which is why we tried hard to concentrate on the performances and telling the story. I wanted to direct this movie in a way that at a certain point, you just forgot who was directing it."

Spacey began his acting career on the New York stage, appearing in Long Day's Journey into Night, Ghosts, Playland, and Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, for which he won a Tony. And Alligator--which was, for the most part, filmed in sequence--could well have been a play itself, most of its action taking place in a perfectly preserved Prohibition-era New Orleans speakeasy decorated with tough-guy film posters and lit like...well, a movie set. Likewise, Spacey's best films and best performances have all taken place in cramped spaces: The Ref unfolded in a single home, his scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross were confined to a dingy office, his scenes with Chazz Palminteri in The Usual Suspects never moved outside Palminteri's police office.

Indeed, Spacey's finest cinematic moment came in The Ref, Ted Demme's 1994 film about a thief (Denis Leary) who is forced, out of desperation, to take a family (including Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage on Christmas Eve. Spacey portrayed the harried, misunderstood middle-class American male who's emasculated by his mother and half loathed by his wife. Spacey was brilliantly funny, angry, desperate, compassionate--the Everyman who has finally had enough and boils over, who tells his mother to "shut the fuck up" and tells his wife he ain't the loser fuckup she's convinced he has become.

Albino Alligator is almost like The Ref turned upside down, a hostage situation in which characters reveal themselves--their fears, their hostility, their compassion, their everything and then some--over the course of two hours. There is, of course, a major difference: Where The Ref was a thick-with-words comedy dotted with dramatic moments, Albino Alligator uses sporadic humor and tense silences to open up a situation everyone knows will end in bloody disaster. (In fact, Spacey says with a laugh, "Denis [Leary] has never forgiven me for not casting him as Dova.")

"The big difference to me between theater and film is how the experience unfolds to the audience," he explains. "You go to a play and you sit in seat 106H; you are seeing the play from a certain angle, and that play unfolds to you how you want it to unfold because you have the decision to look where you want to look....In a movie, you don't make those choices. Every single image that you see has been chosen for you. And yet when we take the best of theater and look at the early days of movies, where plays and novels were where we got most of our work from, and you look at Hitchcock and Huston and Scorsese, it's so much about words. It's so much about the way we use words, how we identify each other through dialogue.

"What interests me now as a director is how images can be just as strong and just as potent and how you can say something with no words....Words are really important to me because it always started with the writer, being introduced to writers when I was young, [but] I think you learn to appreciate silence in the theater. Or at least I have, because of the directors I have worked with. I've learned how powerful silence can be."

To prepare for his directorial debut, Spacey sought the council of many other directors--"a lot of directors," he says, grinning--and actors who took their place behind the camera. He called Sidney Lumet, whom he had never met, about 12 Angry Men and learned how Lumet literally closed the walls in on his cast during the filming. Lumet told Spacey how he shot the film in order and had the jury-room walls set on wheels so that during filming he could move them in to give the piece its claustrophobic feel. Spacey also spent a few days on the set of Jodie Foster's similarly playlike Home for the Holidays, observing yet another actor-turned-director at work.

"I've also spent a lot of time on film sets," he says, "just asking a lot of questions and writing down things and going for drinks at"--here, his voice takes on an inexplicable, almost Bostonian accent--"da bah with the cinematographers, saying, 'Ya know, dat scene you did today, you were lighting from behind. Why were ya doin' dat?' After a while, I discovered that if you could even in a peripheral way understand what a director was trying to accomplish in a particular scene or an image and then you went and saw the finished film, you could very often determine whether or not their idea had translated."

Spacey plans to direct again; his "education," as he puts it, has just begun. And though he will still work primarily as an actor--he has just finished shooting L.A. Confidential, scheduled to be released this fall, and there is talk he will take the Henry Fonda role in a remake of 12 Angry Men--Spacey does indeed show potential as a director. He has begun working on another project, and there's always the chance he will turn one of his late father's recently discovered stories into a script. "It's too early to say," he says of that particular subject. But for now, he wrestles with the impending response to Albino Alligator--awaiting the critical reaction, aware he may not be treated so kindly as a director as he has been as an actor.

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