British director Iain Softley is nothing if not diverse, from the likes of Backbeat to his acclaimed Wings of the Dover, Softley believes in not making the same film twice as evidenced by his new film “K-Pax”, the story of a mysterious man (Kevin Spacey) who claims to be from outer space. Softley discussed the film with Paul Fischer.
Question: Did you come on board after Kevin?
Softley: Yeah, I was talking to Larry Gordon about doing the film when Will Smith was involved and we tried to do it together. When Will Smith didn’t work out, I went off to do something else and Larry contacted me saying, “Are you still interested in K-Pax? We’ve got Kevin Spacey.” I was like, “What?”
Question: What was the attraction to the project?
Softley: Just a wonderful script. It seemed to be so different from the formulaic thriller script. It seemed to combine realism with magic and mystery, comedy, playfulness, uplifting, not trivializing loss or death, just a fantastic combination. I think on a personal level, hard times are always around the corner in some way or other, illness or loss or death hits us all, which is something I thought was really good about the film, that it wasn’t shunning hard questions. It was somehow giving people a way of getting through that.
Question: Was casting Jeff Bridges homage to Starman?
Softley: No, because Starman is a really different film in that Starman is a film where right at the beginning the existence of the alien was kind of part of what you were required to believe. What that was to do with was my admiration for Jeff and thinking he’s fantastic and particularly for a sort of everyman character like this. He, like Kevin, is one of the greatest living American actors. I honestly can’t think of two better people to have in this film.
Question: What made you think Kevin would be suited for the role?
Softley: Well, he’s got this great comedian-like quality and what I thought about Prot, what was great was this inscrutable nature. I thought there was a hint of playfulness. Was he sincere or was he making fun of people? Was there a dark side there? Was he being slightly manipulative or aggressive? And Kevin can play those nuances so effectively. He does have that ability to play through the mask.
Question: How did you balance the two sides of Kevin’s character?
Softley: I think that the thing that is really important about this story is that in a way two truths exist and each has to be given equal weight.
It’s sort of one of the themes of the film that reality or truth can be determined by the angle or the perspective that you see it from, so it might be that seen from here, he’s a mental patient but from there, he’s an alien and then that becomes a metaphor for all sorts of other things in the film. Perhaps he’s both and I won’t elaborate on what I think my feeling is about the end of the film because I don’t want to influence people.
I think that what is good about it is that you bring your own- you become a participant as an audience in this film in that you bring your own views or the way they’ve been changed by seeing the film. And that determines how you interpret it in the way that you would respond to an event in real life. I don’t like films that tell you how to respond because I think, “Well, yeah, you’re telling me that but why should I believe you?”
Question: Did you have to fight to keep ambiguity?
Softley: I think that everybody took it aboard immediately because of what it was. Unless we were going to throw out the script and start again, this is so intrinsic to the film that we had. Is he or isn’t he? Then the conclusion is so satisfying that it’s almost the secret weapon of the film, the way that it was a satisfying conclusion that is faithful to both scenarios as to whether he is real or not.
So, really the emphasis on closure, not having it ambiguous, I don’t think there was ever any serious suggestion that we were going to have a spaceship come down, which is really the only way you could have clarified unless we came down completely on the side of saying he’s a mental patient in which case – so, there wasn’t really an emphasis there but there was a sense of how do we give the audience help in understanding the message.
Question: Is Kevin a very method actor?
Softley: He can pop into character very quickly. It’s his theatre background. He does a lot of preparation in advance and we had a lot of discussion about the role and how he would play it and talk through all the scenarios and all the different back-story scenarios and things like that. I knew that was part of what a director does with an actor, provides those stories or helps provide those stories that are consistent with the other characters in the script.
One of the great joys actually of working with Kevin was that his technique was such that he could get his character up to speed in a scene very, very early in the day. And Jeff was as well, but what was great about both of them was that sometimes an actor’s preparation can be very excluding and can be like “I don’t need anybody else, don’t get in my space.” It wasn’t like that at all. Completely collaborative and very happy and really feeding off other people, other members of the crew, other actors who were there.
Question: You sound surprised?
Softley: I don’t think I was surprised, just thankful and appreciative.
Question: How are Jeff and Kevin different?
Softley: Just in the way that I’ve said. I think Jeff works with more detail. They both work with a lot of detail but I think Jeff will be moving through research to put together the best version of the character in the scene and almost with each take you get a refining on that interpretation. Whereas Kevin will really just give different versions. And they both might be aiming in the same way but that was that one and this is an alternative, this is an alternative whereas Jeff would probably have the sense himself that the more he did it, the better it would get. Kevin would be a little more options.
Question: Did you work with the studio on marketing?
Softley: I don’t know what your perception of this is but we were certainly a big advocate of the fact that it shouldn’t just be sold as a light comedy. Obviously, the comedy is going to appeal to people and you don’t want to turn people away and it’s great to get people in, but also we don’t want to perhaps feel that we’re cheating people into thinking they’re going to get something that they’re not. I think it’s important people realize the full gamut of elements there are in this story in some way. There are reflective, perhaps serious elements as there are sort of light and uplifting.
Question: How do you change a Will Smith movie into a Kevin Spacey movie?
Softley: By casting Kevin Spacey and not Will Smith. Will Smith would have brought his Will Smith-ness to it. I think obviously there’s the racial issue had a small impact on where he was from.
Question: They seem so different?
Softley: They do now, but I think the Will Smith of Six Degrees of Separation was not so different. My discussions with Will were all about he was asking me how to be. I envisioned that’s the way he would do it.
Question: Why didn’t you make the character older for Kevin?
Softley: I think there are more outlandish attempts to change people’s age. Yes, I did make a decision that I didn’t think it was critical. In Backbeat for example we cast a 27-year-old woman and an 18-year-old man to play a 22-year old woman and a 24-year-old man.
Question: How do you make this relationship cinematic?
Softley: Apart from about five big set pieces in the film – the bluebird sequence, the planetarium, the New Mexico sequence, etc. – I think it was to do with being respectful of the power of the storytelling and the performances. Then, really thinking with every ounce of brainpower that I had as to how to make it cinematic without interfering with the story and performances.
That’s really what I did. I didn’t really want it to be that noticeable, and some of it’s more noticeable than other elements. Decisions have to be made about shooting format, the lighting, and colour we used a lot. There’s a kind of progression in colour. When we were worried, just not being afraid of the photographic or musical elements in the film. I suppose the biggest challenge was the hypnosis sequence, which I’m pretty happy with because that really is a lot of time on screen with two people talking to each other.