‘I was using myself to play myself—I was playing with myself,” says Spalding Gray in his 1997 monologue “It’s a Slippery Slope.”
And he’s not the only one. Directors Jonathan Demme, Nick Broomfield and Steven Soderbergh have also played in the giant sandbox of Gray’s angst-ridden persona. And yet in their cinematic collaborations with the late storyteller—Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1986), Broomfield’s Monster in a Box (1992), Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy (1996) and his latest, And Everything Is Going Fine (opening December 10 at the IFC Center, along with a Gray retro)—these auteurs all take a backseat to that singular, droll figure, perennially sitting at his big desk in a flannel shirt, talking and talking.
Famous for his autobiographical one-man shows, the dyslexic New England native began his career as an actor (even doing some porn), and then found his voice in the mid-1970s at the Performance Garage, “cutting and pasting memories of my life,” as he once described it. With their movies, the filmmakers do their best to preserve the direct connection with the audience that he achieved in his theatrical work.
“I was very conscious of not wanting to do anything that would insert myself between him and his audience, particularly on this one,” explains Soderbergh, referring to And Everything Is Going Fine, which compiles 90 hours of archival footage, monologues, and TV clips to provide a snapshot of Gray’s life and work in his own words several years after his 2004 suicide.
“There was an extra layer of responsibility, artistically, to generate something that felt like him,” continues Soderbergh. While working on the documentary for three years with editor Susan Littenberg, between the making of Che, The Informant!, and The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh set out to “create a new monologue,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want [talking heads] talking about the best talker in the world. It had to be a testament to his work.”
All that talk is what initially put Swimming to Cambodia director Demme off Gray in the 1970s—“not wanting to be alone in a small room with one person talking for an hour and a half.” But he eventually realized that this was the performer’s greatest strength. “He was a spectacularly attractive and appealing storyteller,” he says. In conceiving Cambodia, a filmed performance of Gray’s monologue about acting in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields, Demme says, “I knew that it would never be boring and it would never start to feel static, because it wasn’t boring live.”
Broomfield agrees. “That’s the wonderful thing about Spalding Gray’s work: It’s just him sitting at a table, and, obviously, with the films, it’s enhanced by sound and effects, but essentially, it’s still Spalding sitting at a table, and the audience uses their imagination to fill in a visual story.”
Despite the acclaim and new fans these films brought for Gray, he found the movie versions of his monologues “hard,” according to widow Kathie Russo, a Hollywood costume designer and a producer on And Everything Is Going Fine. “He was always game,” she says. “But he was more about the live experience of his work. He thought it got a little lost in the translation to film.”
For Soderbergh, translating the Spalding Gray experience in And Everything Is Going Fine was fraught with both practical and personal challenges. Not only did the filmmaker wrestle with how to make a documentary as vivid as one of Gray’s shows, but it was also personally “painful,” he says. “It was an opportunity to process this tragic event, and I did need to perform some act of contrition, because of how bad a friend I was during that period,” he continues, referring to the years Gray was severely depressed after a car accident in 2001 left him with partial brain damage. “I’ve had friends die, but there was something about this that had me by the throat.”
Gray might have understood. His monologues, of course, helped him deal with his own inner turmoil, from his mother’s death to his own mortality. (“It’s a control thing,” Gray has admitted.) Soderbergh hopes the new film will allow viewers to see how this process—“the idea of the struggle to organize one’s experience”—functioned for Gray. “Unfortunately, I think that’s one of the things that was affected by Spalding’s accident,” says Soderbergh. “He would be the first person to say that his work saved him in many ways, and in an awful circumstance, that very thing was taken away.”