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Hamptons Life

Oct 5, 2010 12:58 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Soderbergh documentary on Spalding Gray to be screened at Hamptons International Film Festival

Oct 5, 2010 12:58 PM

It has been more than six years since the brilliant monologist Spalding Gray took his own life, but for his wife Kathleen Russo the heartbreak of his loss began to be felt much earlier.

In the years after an automobile accident in 2001 in which Mr. Gray suffered terrible injuries, she had been at his side as he struggled and failed to regain his mental equilibrium.

What has helped her to recover her own equilibrium, she suggested during a recent interview at her North Haven home, has been her work sorting through the extensive journals and the many recorded interviews and performances that document her husband’s extraordinary life and career, and seeing to it that the man and

his genius continue to be present for new audiences as well as old fans.

In 2007, she worked with others to produce a performance piece for the stage, “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell,” which was a huge critical and audience success. An ensemble piece with a cast of four, it brought Mr. Gray’s unique voice back to the stage.

More recently, she has worked with director Steven Soderbergh to bring the Spalding Gray voice back to the screen. Mr. Soderbergh’s feature documentary, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” which has been making the festival rounds, attracting crowds and critical praise, will likely be even more warmly embraced when it is screened in East Hampton this weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival. After all, Mr. Gray made his home in Sag Harbor for many years.

Although he is best remembered for irreverent, deeply revealing and often hilarious monologues like “Swimming to Cambodia,” which he delivered on stage seated behind a desk, Mr. Gray also had substantial acting credits, including a small but memorable part in “The Killing Fields.” Mr. Soderbergh, the master director who began his career with “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1998 and has gone on to make 21 films, including the Academy Award-winners “Traffic” and “Erin Brokovich” and the blockbuster “Ocean’s Eleven” remake and two sequels, cast Mr. Gray in his 1994 “King of the Hill,” and the two men collaborated to make a film of the monologue “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1995.

In an interview with Christopher Goodman of Times Newspapers (England), Mr. Soderbergh later spoke with regret of his initial reaction on hearing of the accident that precipitated Mr. Gray’s decline. He told Mr. Goodman that he had been terrified by his friend’s depressed state and that, having failed to lend his support at the time, he was eager, when the opportunity arose after Mr. Gray’s death, to make amends by doing what he does best: making a film.

Ms. Russo remembers that when she discussed the project with Mr. Soderbergh, “He said, ‘I’m the only one who can do this.’ He wasn’t boasting. He just got it. He got Spalding.”

From then on, she said, it was Mr. Soderbergh’s film to create.

Asked about her involvement, Ms. Russo laughed. “With Steven Soderbergh, you don’t tell him what to do creatively. You don’t need to. You have to trust him, and I trusted him.”

Her job was to raise money and to act as a facilitator, she said. “I sent him all the film footage, the home movies, the TV appearances, the clippings.”

Ms. Russo said that a total of 120 hours was whittled down to nine by editor Susan Littenberg. “That’s when Steven started to work last summer, cutting it down to one and a half hours,” she said.

Though she stressed that she did not have a hand in choosing the material to be used, Ms. Russo did ask one thing of Mr. Soderbergh. She did not want a tape she had made of Mr. Gray when he was a mental patient at New York Presbyterian Hospital to be used in the documentary.

“I told Steven, ‘I want you to look at this tape but not to use it’” she recalled. She said she believed it was important for the filmmaker to see “how low he went” but she had no wish to make the tape public.

It was undoubtedly the same “harrowing” footage Mr. Soderbergh described in his interview with Mr. Goodman as revealing a haunted man whose brain injury had cost him his ability to filter and organize his experience and thus to tell his inimitable stories in his inimitable way.

“And Everything Is Going Fine” is a title of obvious irony. Even before the accident, Mr. Gray was a man with a dark side. He was known to be prone to depression and suicide was an option that he had spoken of more than once. Yet, what his many fans came to appreciate was his unique ability to make irreverent sport of his trials—without minimizing their pain—and to be wildly, vividly funny.

None of that is missing from Mr. Soderbergh’s film, Ms. Russo assures, and there is much more.

“There is great footage of him as a child, a baby,” she said. “There is early, early footage of him doing monologues,” performances that were on three-quarter-inch tapes, which means that few people have been able to watch them.

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