Kevin Spacey , Skyword
Storytelling Innovator Series

Kevin Spacey: An Interview on the Shifts in Storytelling

About a month ago, I sent out a Tweet to Kevin Spacey asking to profile him on The Content Standard around his closing keynote at Content Marketing World 2014.

I got a response a couple days later from his publicist. He wanted a formal request from me, and I scrambled to put an official note together. After a couple weeks of radio silence, I figured my pitch fell flat. I was bummed out, but figured there were dozens of other press opportunities that likely pushed mine to the bottom of the pile.

I was already in Cleveland at Content Marketing World when I got an email confirming an interview with Kevin. As I sit here typing out this introduction and interview, I can genuinely say that Mr. Spacey brings a new meaning to creative storytelling by first understanding the narrative he’s trying to deliver and then allowing the audience to do what they will with the information given to them.

In the morning kick-off keynote from author Andrew Davis, he said the single most-important content marketing opportunity that brands face today is to create moments of inspiration to send people on a journey. Kevin Spacey does this through House of Cards, and in the following interview, you’ll get a glimpse into his creative process and how he views the changing shape of media.

Question: What shifts have taken place over the past decade or two that have changed the way brands and producers tell and deliver stories?

Answer: There are two things that have been happening over the last few decades in my opinion. First, there have been unbelievable, remarkable, pioneering advances in technology and, second, an equal amount of evolution in creativity. These two shifts are meeting at an intersection.

I look at the past eight or nine years as this time when people started showing balls, doing incredible programming, taking risks, and having the kind of guts that producers weren’t willing to take in the past.

Before this shift, characters had to all be likable. They had to be good at their jobs and fine family people. But then a bunch of courageous executives at HBO said, “Why not a series about a mob boss from New Jersey who kills people, but also suffers from anxiety because of it? Why not?”

From that moment in 1998 when the first episode of The Sopranos aired straight through today with House of Cards, this incredible runway has been laid out for complex characters, multiple plots, and characters who are anti-heroes. Today, film isn’t the primary place where drama is told; it’s through television.

In marketing, the same thing has taken place in delivering content to an audience. If something is authentic, and it feels like a brand is being authentic to itself and the idea it’s trying to get across, people listen. They may call themselves marketers, and I call myself an actor, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing and that is reach an audience and tell a story, whether that’s through a six-second Vine, a webisode, or an episodic show. It’s the moments of authenticity that compel people to respond.

“They may call themselves marketers, and I call myself an actor, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing and that is reach an audience and tell a story.”

Question: You and David Fincher certainly combine to create great stories. What qualities of a good storyteller do big brands need to take on to reach their audiences?

A: Sometimes you have to start with the basic question: What is the story I want to tell? What am I trying to say?

People ask me, “How do you create an authentic character?” And I say that the characters created cannot just be a mouthpiece for the writer. When you look at a piece of writing, and it’s genuine and it doesn’t feel like every character is just a mouthpiece for the writer, but that they’ve been created in such a way that they’re expressing an idea that a writer wants to get across, that’s when a story succeeds.

My job as an actor is to serve the writing and help the author get his ideas across. My job is to interpret. I’m an interpreter. I can add things and bring unique qualities to the role that the writer may not have thought of, but someone else created the fundamental idea.

If you start off asking yourself, “How can I get my audience to react in this way?” You’re taking the wrong approach. You must find a way to express your ideas and compel your audience to react through the idea itself, and then figuring out what the best representative of that idea may be, and bringing it to life. That’s the only way a story feels unique and not like it’s being ripped off from somebody else.

Question: How has consumer behavior changed the way media companies tell stories and deliver content?

A: How does the distribution model that Netflix adopted by releasing an entire series at one moment affect the creative process? It doesn’t at all except in two ways. Firstly, we’re not on a commercial network, so you’re not going to a break after a set number of minutes. It seems to me that those writers are forced to, by the nature of going to a commercial, come up with arbitrary cliff hangers in the hope that the audience will come back and watch the rest of the show.

What we were afforded to do with House of Cards was not go through the process of creating a pilot. A pilot is often used to establish all of the characters in 45 minutes and come up with arbitrary cliff hangers, and there is this kind of mechanical process that you have to adhere to in order to prove a show will be successful. Because we weren’t forced to do that, we were able to have a very long runway in which to allow characters to have space to begin to develop their relationships. And so for me, in a weird way, House of Cards has never felt like an episodic experience; it felt like I was making a really long movie because everything is connected.

But the platforms on which we deliver content don’t matter to our audiences. All our audience cares about is the content. They will go and watch something on anything, anywhere, if it’s good. And that’s the second lesson for us. Let’s not get caught up on platforms because our audience just doesn’t care.

They’ve proved that they want to take control of media consumption. They want to watch when they want to watch. Maybe the Netflix model has shown that we in the entertainment business learned the lesson the music industry did not. Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it, at a reasonable price, and chances are they’ll buy it and they won’t steal it.

“But the platforms on which we deliver content don’t matter to our audiences. All our audience cares about is the content. They will go and watch something on anything, anywhere, if it’s good”

Question: Why did you feel so strongly about House of Cards that you refused to compromise on how it would be released?

A: It seemed to be quite clear that’s how audiences were devouring entertainment. Go back a few years and see how box sets became so popular—that all took place before the notion of binge watching on Netflix. Now, you can talk to anyone and ask what they did this past weekend, and they’ll respond with, “I stayed home and watched two seasons of Dexter or four seasons of Mad Men.”

When the question of how to release House of Cards came about, we could have gone in a number of ways, but we ultimately landed on the idea that we should give the audience complete control. Here you go, we’re not forcing you to binge watch, but you can.

Question: Netflix has a massive audience, as does House of Cards. How do you go about creating a story that taps into the passions of different demographics and people? What’s the common thread in the narrative?

A: We don’t worry about that. When Johnny Carson walked out on the stage every night, he played to the 500 people who were sitting in the audience. He didn’t think about the 30 million people who might be watching at home. To a certain degree, play to your strengths and satisfy yourself.

What we’re all trying to do with House of Cards is do the best work that we can. We can’t sit there and be like, “Some people are watching it like this, and others are watching it like that.” We don’t concern ourselves with any of that—we concern ourselves with telling the best story that we can tell.

In live theater, for example, when you walk in to do a play, you’re not thinking about how you can manipulate each showing to make sure that every person enjoys the performance in the same way. First of all, they won’t. Second of all, your perspective in watching something is different depending on the angle at which you see the show. You’ve got to trust the ground you’re standing on and the work you’ve done in telling your story. The goal should be to bring those thousands of people—viewers—together and make them one. When you feel that happening, it’s usually in silence, not applause or laughter.

The greatest sound in the theater is silence. When you know you have 1,000 people sitting on the edge of their seats in silence because of a shift that just happened on stage, there is no better feeling. It’s no different in an episodic show. We are aware of what we’re trying to achieve, the moments we must land, and the surprises we want our audience to feel. Our job is to make those moments come to life clearly and allow the chips to fall where they may.

“The goal should be to bring those thousands of people—viewers—together and make them one.”

Question: In House of Cards, Frank turns to the audience and gives an inside glimpse to his thoughts. This draws the viewers in and makes them part of the story. Do you see this trend becoming mainstream in storytelling?

A: I was fortunate enough to do William Shakespeare’s Richard III just before I started shooting House of Cards, which is where that technique – direct address – is used. I had the experience of looking out into the audience and seeing exactly what the relationship is like between an audience and a character.

There are times this approach works, and times when it doesn’t. In House of Cards, direct address makes the audience feel like they’re co-conspirators and they can feel intricately involved and then immediately repelled that they’ve been rooting for a character. It’s an interesting and interactive dynamic for the audience.

Question: What changes in storytelling do you see on the horizon?

A: I suspect in 10 years’ time, what’s new and innovative today will look ancient. There will be a whole new set of remarkable ideas and technologies that allow us to move forward in different ways.

At the end of the day, storytelling is actually very simple in its origin as long as there are people who want to tell stories and there are people who want to hear them. We’ll be having this exchange for as long as human beings are around. It’s the kind of democratization of the Internet that has led to the breaking down of barriers into the creative arts.

Emerging talents are finding the ability to self produce, self publish, and self promote their work without the help of a studio or network. It’s an incredibly exciting time for creatives and for those of us in the industry. No longer do you have to know someone in the business or live in New York City or Los Angeles to get in. It’s up to us to pay attention to those talents.

Question: A big theme at Content Marketing World this year is the idea of “moments of inspiration” in storytelling. What inspires you?

A: I’m inspired by lots of people, acts of kindness, great work, and the challenge of it all. I suppose the most important thing is to stay interested. It’s very easy in life if you get to a place where you’re successful to hit the same groove on the record player over and over again because it’s safe.

But it’s much more interesting when you go to different places—make a left turn when nobody expects you to make a left turn, and make a right when nobody expects you to do that. Pushing the boundaries of what is expected of you is important to me. Talent is only interesting if it’s challenged. It’s not where someone is today, it’s where they can be in six years if nurtured and encouraged in the right way.

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