Kevin Spacey in 'The Big Kahuna'
Kevin Spacey in "The Big Kahuna"

SPLICEDwire interviewed John Swanbeck on February 24, 2000 in San Francisco

"The Big Kahuna"
First-time filmmaker recalls being tapped by buddy Kevin Spacey to film talky traveling salemsan play

By Rob Blackwelder
(Some questions in this interview may have come from other journalists present for the Q&A.)

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?
A: I had directed a production of the play in Chicago a few years ago. And after that I sent it to Kevin with whom I have a long history. We had spent a few years trying to do it in New York, but his movie career was just starting to take off at the time. At that point, he couldn't juggle both theater and film the way he is able to now. So we could never fit it in. Then he started his production company. He thought this would be perfect as a small launching pad for his company. And I was honored that he trusted the company's first movie in my hands.

Q: What's your background with Kevin?
A: Kevin and I met on a Broadway production of a play called "Hurlyburly" (an '80s excess-in-Hollywood dark comedy which was filmed two years ago with Spacey and Sean Penn). I was an assistant and Kevin was an understudy. So we'd be hanging out in the stage manager's office while everyone else was on stage, cracking each other up. Then as his theater career started to take off, I would help him with lines, do a little coaching. We really clicked really well, so he would start to fly me in to locations where he was working and I would be his coach.

Q: You were on movie sets with him, like "Glengarry Glen Ross"?
A: The actual projects on which I coached him probably aren't as important as the fact that it seemed to go really, really well. We connected and clicked. We just had a really good relationship.

Q: Had you ever directed him on the stage
? A: workshops and readings, and otherwise coaching him.

Q: What did he do as producer?
A: Well, I'll tell ya. It was everything. Kevin (called) Danny DeVito five days before we started shooting (to get him on board). Danny had been our first choice but was directing a movie, so we went with somebody else (and) he dropped out. Kevin said, "Who do you want?" I said, "I still want Danny." Five days later, we were all in New York shooting.

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."
A: Exactly. So I said, "We only have one problem. We're shooting the scene in eight hours, and we need to get the hotel cart and the food and the breakfast plates and everything." So Kevin said, "I'll take care of it."

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?
A: Because we had to shoot it sort of guerrilla style to do it in 16 days, there were a lot of times where we just did things and apologized later. Because we didn't really have a choice. It wasn't going to get done otherwise.

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.
A: Exactly. He's done a lot of small movies -- mostly coming-of-age, they get out of high school, they have angst over their future, they switch boyfriends and girlfriends, they have a party -- those kinds of movies. He called me a couple days before we started shooting and said, "Great, now I'm in a movie with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito." I said to him, "It's exactly the same situation your character's in. Just embrace that situation." So that was really great. It's amazing how much he was able to step up to the plate and hold his own with Kevin and Danny. I think very few actors from his generation could do that.

Q: Was it difficult transition from a stage frame of mind to a film frame of mind?
A: I really thought it was going to be harder than it was -- not that it wasn't very challenging. But I really like to work internally with actors. I like to get at what they're hiding. I like to shoot their secrets. I like to shoot their innermost ambitions. With film you can get the camera right up close into the eyes, and sort of have a relationship with an emotional journey going on. The way I like to work with actors, I find it very conducive to film.

Q: So did it go smoothly on the set?
A: Kevin really gave me creative control over the story and what was going on. His answer to everyone was, "Whatever Swanny wants." So he really sort of let me make the movie I wanted to make. Both Kevin and Danny showed up, and they were actors, and they never offered unsolicited advice. And then if I just sort of freaked out at any point, they'd both come up to me and put their arms around me and go, "It's OK. We'll fix it in post. No problem." They were great. I was really lucky to have those two guys. They were mentors in a way.

Q: Last question: Why did you change the title?
A: First we thought it sounds too much like a Neil Simon play. Then, as we were making the movie, through the whole process of editing, I realized it was turning into a different story than the play was. Not just because of the script, but the performances, and the editing and the sound and the music and the timing. Everything seemed to sort of develop it into a story that we couldn't capture on stage because you can't get so intimate.

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.

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