Scenes From A Life: Spalding Gray as Himself ... and Not - 27 East

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Scenes From A Life: Spalding Gray as Himself … and Not

10cjlow@gmail.com on Oct 1, 2010

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By Annette Hinkle

You could say Spalding Gray was an adventurer for our times. When it came to new experiences, very little was out of bounds or too extreme to dissuade him from giving it a try. Gray, who was best known for turning his inner musings, philosophies and unorthodox experiences, into hour and a half long monologues for the stage, held audiences spellbound with his words. But in 2004, Gray’s voice was silenced forever when he took his own life — just as his own mother had decades earlier.

But for admirers of Gray and his work, there is now a chance to get a fresh perspective on his life through “And Everything is Going Fine,” a new documentary directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by his widow, Kathie Russo. The film will be screened next week as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival and, as one might expect, it is the story of Spalding Gray as told by Spalding Gray.

Since January, Russo has been traveling the country speaking at film festivals where the movie has been shown. It opens nationally on December 10, and will continue to be screened at festivals overseas until next May. Prior to the official December opening, Russo hopes to offer a sneak peak of the film in Sag Harbor as a benefit for the Bay Street Theatre. For Russo, the interest in the film confirms not only the continued popularity of Gray’s work among avid fans, but a whole new generation as well.

“What I always want to know when I lead Q&As at the film festivals is how many people saw or knew Spalding’s work,” says Russo. “Half  of the audience will raise their hands. Afterwards, people come up and say, ‘Where do I get his books, or see other movies with him?”

“And Everything is Going Fine” really does show Gray as he truly was — without competing voices. Because Gray was the consummate storyteller and documentarian of his own life, Russo feels that it’s appropriate Soderbergh’s film tells his tale through his own words.

“Steven and I had talked about using voice-overs for excepts from his journals and take-away shots,” notes Russo. “But when he got into it, he thought it’s not necessary. He said, ‘I want Spalding to tell his story himself.’ There’s no voice over or interviews with people. It’s all from footage of him. I can’t recall another documentary I’ve seen where there’s no narrator at all.”

Gray is probably best known for his monologue “Swimming to Cambodia,” which was made into a movie in 1987 by Jonathan Demme and was based on Gray’s experiences in Southeast Asia where he had traveled to act in the film “The Killing Fields.” But Russo notes that for this film, Soderbergh, who directed Gray in the narrative film “King of the Hill” and also filmed his monologue “Gray’s Anatomy” chose to go with much rarer footage.

“He stayed away from anything that had been done before,” explains Russo. “There is interview footage from our home in Sag Harbor during [the monologue] ‘Morning, Noon and Night,’ home movies from me, and his family. His brother, Rocky, sent this beautiful home movie of Spalding as a baby.”

“Steven really got the essence of Spalding … Spalding wasn’t overly sentimental in his work and neither was Steven,” adds Russo who, as producer, was charged with compiling the 120 hours of film material on Gray’s life that Soderbergh eventually had to work with.

“Susan Littenberg, his editor, is a brilliant editor,” says Russo. “She did ‘Gray’s Anatomy,’ so she whittled it down to nine hours. That’s when Steven went in and started working and he finished it. It’s him being director and editor.”

The film takes a fairly chronological approach to Gray’s life, beginning with memories of growing up, his mother’s nervous breakdowns, psychotic episodes, and her eventual suicide at age 52, and Gray’s discovery for a love of acting which eventually led to formation of the Wooster Group in New York City where his monologue technique was perfected. Peppered throughout the film is rare footage of Gray visiting with his father and asking questions about his youth, and old talk show clips in which Gray was interviewed by a range of hosts, including Charlie Rose, Roger Rosenblatt and a then unknown Joy Behar.

For Russo, who explains that most of the footage was found stored in the couple’s Soho loft, portions of the material covered completely new territory.

“Some of the early monologues I had never seen. They were on ¾ inch tape,” she says.  “For me to see them it, was something surprising.”

“What I liked about it was because Spalding was so young, you can see how much the boys look like him or see where they got their mannerisms,” says Russo, referring to sons Forrest and Theo. “Forrest turned 18 this week, and you can see he’s this young man who looks so much like his dad. It’s this younger footage — Spalding’s in his late 30s in some of it.”

“I’m 50 now, and I was 29 when I met him,” adds Russo. “He was 49, and I remember thinking I don’t know if I could go out with someone that old.”

Russo finds in addition to the surprises, there are also painful moments as well. Particularly difficult was an interview filmed in Sag Harbor in the summer of 2001, not long after the horrific car crash in Ireland that left Gray badly injured and led to the depression that caused him to eventually take his own life.

“The hardest thing to watch, but also the most gratifying was the Barbara Koppel footage from the ABC [documentary ‘The Hamptons’],” notes Russo referring to the interview. “He’s sitting on [artist] Donald Lipski’s deck and he’s going through the details of the accident. But he also says the last five years have been the happiest years of his life. At least I was able to do that for him.”

The new film also includes footage from Guild Hall shot not long after the accident in which he performed “Interviewing the Audience,” a sort of monologue in reverse where Gray took the role of host and delved into the fears, hopes and secrets of random audience members on stage. But some of Russo’s favorite parts of the film show Gray in his most important role — that of a father.

“There’s this great footage of Forrest and Spalding shot at our place in Brewster when Forrest was a year and half,” says Russo, who adds that Forrest, now a freshman at Berklee College of Music in Boston, composed the music for the film. The piece, “Sunset,” had been part of Forrest’s senior project at the Ross School in which he wrote a song for each year of his life.

“He’s doing the autobiographical thing, but in a different medium,” says Russo, who adds that the day Gray’s body was found was the day Forrest picked up a guitar for the first time.

The details of Spalding Gray’s death are by now, well known to friends and fans. In January of 2004, Gray disappeared from his loft in New York City and was presumed to have taken his own life by leaping from the Staten Island Ferry. In March, his body was pulled from the East River. But this is not something the film explores. This is, after all, the story of Spalding Gray as told by Spalding Gray. And his final adventure was not an act he documented.

“Something that comes up in the Q&A is we don’t go into how he killed himself,” says Russo. “People ask, ‘Why didn’t you include it?’ The fact is, we don’t have any footage on it. We all know how it happened, why go there? To keep the story true to the form, we didn’t. It would go against that.”

“And Everything is Going Fine” will be screened as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, October 8 and Monday, October 12 at 2 p.m. at the UA Cinema in East Hampton. For more information on the festival, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

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