Interview with Kevin Spacey

by Allison Seale

The Usual Suspects

KEVIN SPACEY AND GABRIEL BYRNE shared their thoughts about artists rights with us in April 1997, prior to the John Huston Award.

Spacey made his directorial debut earlier this year with Albino Alligator, but he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of multi-dimensional characters such as the diabolical agent in Swimming with Sharks and the "man with the plan" in The Usual Suspects, a role which earned him an Academy Award®.

One needs only to spend a few moments with Spacey discussing his work to understand just how much he puts into the process and just how important it is that his work, as well as the work of others, remains as it was intended.

Q: How important do you feel it is that films remain as their creators intended them to be seen?

A: If someone goes to watch a movie that is being shown on television, for example, or goes to a video store and decides to purchase or rent a film, or you're in some foreign country (and in fact are a foreigner and are being presented with the idea that you're going to see an artist's work)-—for that work to have been manipulated or mutilated or severely edited because someone decided that the 20-minute montage in the middle of the film didn't really play, or that a certain video company doesn't like the religious content of your film is an outrage. The way that the copyright laws exist in the United States now, you can actually take that work and alter it without the permission of the artists who were involved (and in the case of motion pictures that would be the director, the cinematographer and the writer). An audience has a right to see what an artist intended them to see, and they can then make a judgment about whether they liked it, or whether they want to debate about it, or whether they think it was artistically sound. But, ultimately, the director, the cinematographer and the writer have the vision, and that vision should not be altered in any form or at any time without their approval. These alterations are happening more than people can imagine, and the fight clearly has to continue to stop them. I suspect the fight must begin in Congress, where we actually look at Copyright laws and change them, where ownership is one thing but artistic authorship is quite another. Someone who wants to buy a film and show it has that right to do that in any place they want and for any amount of money they want. But the authorship of a work—a film—should be retained by those individuals who actually made the film.

Q: Do you see film as an art or a commodity?

A: It's an art. There is a responsibility to look at motion picture history and say that this has become—in the United States particularly and also around the world—the way that we express ourselves as a society, and that expression is seen by more people than anything else. There are more people that go to movies and see movies than any other form of art. Whether they see them on television or rent them in video stores is incidental. There are so many different ways for audiences to discover film.

This is our art form. This is our expression as Americans. It's also our history. It's the way in which we express ourselves, using the technology that we've discovered—and I truly think that we are in the infancy of what we can do in film and what we can express—and no matter what shape that expression takes, it should be protected and remain. It's ours. And, yes, people make a good deal of money on it, but that has little to do with the process of the experience for the artist. Someone writes a story because they must write it, because they must express something about a person's experience. And someone else, perhaps, reads it and says, ‘I want to help bring this dream to reality on screen.' And in some cases the sweat of the brow is not protected. That process, which is so personal, can involve sometimes years and years of work. For that work not to be protected is like someone telling someone else how to raise a child. That's what our films are, they're our children, and we want to watch them grow and be nurtured properly and not manipulated for monetary gain, which is why they are usually altered.

Q: Who is responsible for protecting films?

Actor Kevin Spacey

A: The responsibility, first of all, is to the audience. It's our responsibility as artists, as filmmakers, as actors, as directors and as writers to fight to make sure that these laws are changed so that those who are clearly interested in monetary gain are stopped from being able to alter our work.

Ultimately, it's our responsibility to make sure that the audience is seeing what we intended them to see and what they believe they are going to see when they rent a video at a video store or they go and see a movie at a movie theater. I know when I grew up watching films on television, it wasn't until years later that I realized what had been done to those movies, and that I realized what had been done to me as an audience. I had been cheated from the experience that the director had wanted me to have.

We love going to movies and when those lights go out and that one beam of light comes up behind us, we should be allowed—without any road blocks—to be taken to the world where the writer, director and cinematographer want to take us. As disturbing as that world might be, and as upsetting as that world might be, that's where we should be taken. It's up to us to decide how we'll respond to it and deal with it, but that's our world. Welcome to it.

As a child, when I watched television I had no idea that the movies I was watching had been panned and scanned. I had no idea that they'd been edited, that in some cases things had been changed, colorized, or whatever. Never was there a disclaimer that came up at the beginning of these films that said, ‘Oh, by the way, the movie you're about to see has been severely edited. We chopped out the section in the middle that just didn't play.' An audience has a right to know what they are seeing.

It's like deciding to drive to Florence and take Michelangelo's David and say, ‘we just don't like the left arm.' So we chop it off. ‘And we're going to send it around the world. For this particular exhibition, we want people to concentrate on the right arm instead of the left.'

No one would dream of doing that, but it's protected. And yet what we do in our lives —and spend our lives doing and love doing —is not protected. And the great works of the directors of the past are not protected.

What we don't know now is where technology will take us in 20 years. We have no idea how easy it will become for film to be manipulated, to be altered, to be changed without the knowledge of the director because when it's sold to foreign countries, and when it's sold to foreign television there are no laws to prohibit alterations. But if we had a law that protected it then no one could change it.