Wednesday 24 April 2019

Dublin filmmaker Jeremy Whelehan bonded with Kevin Spacy in a pub and now works with the Hollywood superstar

Jeremy Whelehan
Jeremy Whelehan
Kevin Spacey

Hilary A White

Talent rarely flourishes without a dash of good mentorship. Someone other than the parent, close enough to be trustworthy, distant enough to administer a shove when it's required.

Migrant film-maker Jeremy Whelehan has capitalised well on the mentors life has gifted him on his path to forging a career in an industry that tends not to babyfeed newcomers.

One of these coaches is inadvertently the subject of a feature film that has garnered acclaim for the 38-year-old Dubliner. Whelehan shadowed an ambitious production of Richard III across three continents and 200 performances, whittling 150 hours of footage down to a sharp and savvy fly-on-the-wall documentary titled NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage. The work handsomely observes both the realities of a big-league touring theatre production as well as the multi-tasking of its producer and star - Kevin Spacey.

Whelehan has worked alongside Spacey for a number of years, collaborating with the Oscar-winner and House Of Cards lynchpin on a number of dramatic projects on both stage and screen. After accepting an offer in 2003 to work as Spacey's associate producer on Beyond The Sea, Whelehan became a founding member and associate director of the Spacey-helmed Old Vic Theatre Company in London.

Before that, the pair were film-buff barflies in Slattery's in Beggars Bush. True story.

Whelehan had worked on a couple of film projects after an arts degree in UCD, but had gone back to do an MA in film. Meanwhile, some friends were working on Ordinary Decent Criminal, an ill-judged Hollywood take on the Martin Cahill story. Spacey played the film's lead and through the social jigs and reels, the pair were introduced. "My understanding was that Kevin was alone in Dublin," Whelehan recalls. "I was living in Lansdowne Village and Kevin was staying near Lansdowne Road, so half way between us was Slattery's. I managed to twist his arm and drag him out to the pub."

The then 22-year-old became a buddy for Spacey during the shoot. Spacey, meanwhile, had already lit up Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven and noir classic The Usual Suspects. Who better for the young film student to probe about Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols and other directors he loved? One would finish on set, the other his lectures, and they'd convene in Slattery's for hours of chat about movies.

"He was so far from being 'a movie star'," Whelehan says. "He'd sneak in with his cap on, have a few pints and then off he'd go. There was no limos or flashbulbs or any of that nonsense, whereas 15 years on, he's developed a bit more. In fact, it seems he now only plays presidents, prime ministers or kings, roles where there's a theme of power play."

The friendship was embellished by a "professional correspondence" which carried on after filming wrapped and Spacey left Dublin. Over the next five years, the pair hung out in New York and London when Spacey's increasing stage workload took him to either city. Whelehan would also turn to Spacey for advice as his own film career grew. Then, Spacey got in touch saying he needed help with a fundraiser he was putting on in the Old Vic. This is probably what the future Whelehan will look back at as his "the rest, as they say…" moment.

The fundraiser was a huge success, and coincided with Spacey announcing he was taking over the great London theatrical cornerstone. First, however, the star wanted to make Beyond The Sea and again turned to Whelehan to be his right-hand man with one of those "how soon can you be in LA?" phonecalls.

I ask Whelehan what he reckons Spacey saw in him and he thinks hard. "I guess that I was very enthusiastic and committed to working in film, and that in the years we'd stayed in touch that I'd been actively doing my thing. The serendipity was that he was working more in Europe and London and I was there, and I was somebody he knew and trusted. After we started working together he saw that it was a healthy working relationship."

Currently dividing his time between London and Mexico, Whelehan grew up in Howth. The son of former Attorney-General Harry, he is one of six children, among them a sculptor and another in the film industry. Mentors such as Spacey and former gaffer and renowned Dublin cinematographer John Conroy are all very well, but the nursery of the creative bent is often good parenting, I proffer.

"It was when I left school that I realised not everybody was as fortunate to have as supporting and loving a family," he agrees. "There was never a time, no matter how ridiculous or extreme, that any interest I had, particularly creative, music or theatre or drama or any of that stuff, went unsupported. It was always encouraged, and my parents did anything they could to help me do it and worked very hard to facilitate that, for my brothers and sisters too. There was never a sense of 'get a real job'."

From age six, Whelehan would play at being a film-maker like other children would an astronaut or fireman. He'd make family videos at Christmas on "clunky cameras", but despite his energies, there was always a niggling disbelief someone from little old Ireland could end up in a director's chair. If the Celtic Tiger did anything, it was discarding this crippling national inferiority complex.

"It was really Mark Dooley, a tutor in UCD - another mentor - who encouraged me to study film as I had been writing about it in my philosophy course. But it's not an easy career. There's no straightforward path, and on some levels you have to be a bit crazy and run away and join the circus. For many years you don't earn huge amounts of money, you spend eight weeks working 20-hour days with incredible people doing incredible projects and then it ends and you don't know what's next. It's one of the things that feeds into NOW…; a bunch of very diverse people come together, do this thing really intensively and then scatter again."

A circus it is these days, albeit one of film festivals (NOW… premiered at Tribeca before travelling around US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand), awards ceremonies (it is nominated for the UK National Film Awards) and interviews. Whatever about Spacey, it's a document of Whelehan's talent, an Irish film-maker working comfortably at his craft's uppermost tier. Not a bad way of putting oneself in the shop window for more circus work.

"Yeah, hopefully," he grins. "Haven't' yet got the call from Spielberg but it'll come."

NOW… is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon, and download on iTunes and Vimeo. To vote, go to nationalfilmawards.co.uk

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