Often, the best documentaries capture a moment in time that only a select group of people actually experienced in real life while the rest of the audience observes the reality on film alone. Among many examples, the film Woodstock has been enjoyed by countless millions across 45 years while only a few hundred thousand were present in 1969 for the seminal live event. In NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, documentary filmmaker Jeremy Whelehan followed a massive global touring production of Richard III starring Kevin Spacey, resulting in a feature-length cinematic phenomenon.
“It was an unusual production,” said Whelehan of the Richard III tour. “It takes the might of Spacey and Sam Mendes – [the play’s director] to orchestrate something like that. It was an ambitious tour. In modern times, it just doesn’t seem to happen enough.”
With NOW, Whelehan brings the viewer not only onstage for the show itself, but backstage, behind the stage, in rehearsals, and all manners in between. “It would have been a very different film had somebody else made it,” said the filmmaker who was a producer on Spacey’s 2004 Bobby Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea. “My previous experience working with Kevin and the Old Vic [theater company] lends a measure of intimacy. Kevin was comfortable with me and my team around. He opened the doors, and we could go anywhere we wanted. That was my intention in the film – to put you in the company and on the tour – a sense of what it was like to be along for the ride, rather than a more objective take on it. You can almost smell the greasepaint as the actors step onstage.”
“When I became aware of the nature and scale and scope of a tour,” he said, “I put the idea to Kevin to make a feature documentary film about theater. It hasn’t really been done before, so the combination of all of the elements — it was an opportunity. It just seemed to be that I got it in my head that I had to make this film. We managed to get there, and it’s incredibly rewarding to me. The film that got made was very much what my ambition was for the film.”
Naturally, the scope of the theatrical tour dictated a parallel size of Whelehan’s film. “The play rehearsed in May 2011, ran in June for three months, then went to Greece then back to Old Vic, then ultimately closed in the New Year of 2012,” he explained. “In the year that they were together, we didn’t have a green lit film, per se, until Greece. I brought the idea to Kevin at the end of 2010. We raised money and needed to figure out how to do it. Sam very graciously accommodated us to let me into the rehearsal room in one day – just me with a camera to get some of the rehearsal footage. You don’t want to be missing pivotal moments. I didn’t shoot anything at all with a full documentary crew until end of July, at the end of the run at the Old Vic and when we were going to Greece.”
In the film, staging the production of Richard III in Greece is seen as a monumental occasion. “If we missed the opportunity shooting in Greece, we were missing the key story,” said Whelehan. “It was so vital to the film. We got everything organized. Once we did that, we were cutting something from that to get people excited and move forward.”
With his skeletal crew, Whelehan spent 10-12 weeks with the theater company, on tour for nine of the 12 visited cities. “We were very much along for the ride,” expressed Whelehan. “We were a sidecar to the touring theater production. We travelled along, following them. By the end of the tour, we felt very close to the company.”
On the road, Whelehan shot a wealth of material in every corner of the globe that they visited. In addition to reviewing footage in locales as exotic as Beijing and Sydney, material was shipped back to Whelehan’s English base. “We had an assistant editor in London. We were sending the rushes to him,” Whelehan explained. “We shot it all on the go, and the footage went back to London. When we returned to London, we rolled up our sleeves to edit it.”
While on tour, Whelehan’s main goal was to try to capture as many sides of the story as he could – not just the play and its characters, but the private sides of the 20 participating actors, the machinations of the touring company, and the nuances of the various countries. “There was a lot to cover in each city,” Whelehan stated. “We had 30-40 hours of material for interviews. There were so many tracks to follow and rituals to capture. I was always aware that the make or break of the film would be in the edit.”
In editing, Whelehan, working with cutter Will Znidaric crafting the film into a 97-minute experience. “I was blessed to work with a remarkable editor,” said Whelehan. “We constructed this peculiar multi-faceted gem. We have an actor talking about his process, and you see him in the rehearsal room, and crosscutting to him on stage and playing the piano. Trying to interweave these elements and jump to these realms. Working with Will was incredibly insightful.”
Choosing equipment for a documentary, especially considering a lengthy shoot, can easily be a conundrum for a filmmaker, but Whelehan selected his technology strategically. “Because it was a documentary and on the road, I wanted to shoot it in a way that we could project it into a movie theater,” he revealed. “Being very easy on the go, we shot with a Sony F1 with prime lenses and edited with Final Cut Pro 7. I could look at dailies and do work on a laptop. It kept us flexible on the move. When we shot the Sony, we took it off uncompressed, so it gave us a cinematic feel. It was always a challenge to make it look, feel and sound like a feature film theatrical presentation. That on balance with the need to be very easily moved around the world.”
After a 2014 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a limited theatrical run, NOW has just been released on Netflix as a streaming film, and is available as a download from iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and nowthefilm.com.
“The danger is that you demystify it a bit, but hopefully what the film does is give insight to the effort, passion and work that goes into creating something like this,” Whelehan explained. “I hoped the film would try to represent that spark that only live theater generates – the alchemy between the audience and performers. The medicine of theater cuts quite deep.”