The Frederick Keeve Conversation

24 May 2020

Fred, you have worked in Hollywood for many years alternatively as a producer, writer, director, actor, and composer. Growing up in Santa Monica, alongside your brother, Douglas Keeve, who is also a very well respected photographer and filmmaker, how did your film career begin?

The first movie I auditioned for was One from the Heart, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and choreographed by the great actor/dancer, Gene Kelly. I auditioned as a dancer for the film, and although I did take ballet classes at Santa Monica Community College, and played for ballet classes, as I am a professional pianist and composer, I never dreamed I’d be dancing in my first film.    

I was just a kid, barely out of my teens, and the first stunning memory was standing there as Nasstasja Kinski, one of the stars of the picture, along with Frederic Forrest, Raul Julia and Terri Garr, arrived on set. As Nasstasja stepped onto the sound stage and look around, I literally felt electricity shoot through my body when our eyes connected. Talk about star power! For my first film, it was a fun experience and little did I know that in many ways this film would be groundbreaking, but also be controversial as well. It was the most talked about movie in town, because Francis Coppola had spent more than $3 million dollars recreating Las Vegas on a sound stage at American Zoetrope Studios. The budget ballooned from $2 million to $26 million, and it did not fair well with critics or audiences when it was released in 1982. Francis spent the rest of the 80s and 90s paying off the debt he had incurred with this film. 

As an actor, you studied with George Shdanoff who worked with Michael Chekhov, and was co-director of the Chekhov Theatre. Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, James Dean, and Gregory Peck all studied Chekhov’s acting methods. This must have been a fascinating and invaluable learning period for you?

It was really incredible. I knew when I started studying with George Shdanoff, even before I had the idea for the documentary about his and Chekhov’s lives, and their revolutionary acting methods that transformed Hollywood acting, that I was in the presence of greatness, of someone very special. The Chekhov technique is very spiritual and uses deep, psychological methods more akin to Jungian psychology and universal archetypes rather than personal emotional memory and emotional recall. The Chekhov technique was diametrically opposed to the acting techniques taught by an intellectual like Lee Strasberg and the Strasberg studio. Also, Chekhov was a warm, kind man whereas Lee Strasberg could be unrelentingly harsh with his students. 

Leslie Caron, who had studied with George Shdanoff for several years, had taken a few classes with Lee Strasberg and when she witnessed some of the emotional abuse Strasberg heaped on his actors, she witnessed Strasberg coach actors through scenes where she thought the actress would need a month in the hospital to recover from the harshness of the Strasberg method. Chekhov never did and never would do that to an actor. He recognized how sensitive and vulnerable most actors are, and respected them as artists. He famously told his teaching partner, George Shdanoff, who sometimes didn’t understand what they were doing teaching actors in Hollywood, “My dear Mr. Shdanoff, we are not teaching actors to be better actors, but to be better human beings.” That was the essence of the Chekhov technique—to become a better human, because being more human made you by default a better actor. So that informs the acting as well as other facets of one’s life.

I remember arriving at Mr. Shdanoff’s Brentwood apartment and meeting his assistant, the actress, Ia Parulava, from Georgia, Russia, and being very nervous at having to audition for this great acting teacher. It was not like anything I expected. It was almost like going through a hypnotherapy session where I had to imagine myself in a garden and take various paths through this garden, using my imagination. George would ask me several questions on my journey through this garden paradise as I proceeded through it, eyes closed, in my imagination. At the end of the audition, Shdanoff declared that he thought I had talent, and he accepted me into his scene study class. He also informed me that the most talented actor he ever worked with, with the greatest imagination, was Patricia Neal, who not only studied with him for several years in Hollywood, but had a distinguished film career, winning a Best Actress Oscar for Hud, starring alongside Paul Newman. I later came to know her quite well through interviewing her on camera for the film that I created around Shdanoff and Chekhov, and their acting techniques and their gift of acting as a craft to so many legendary stars in Hollywood. 

Although I had been introduced to the Chekhov acting techniques through my friendship and mentorship with the great character actor, Morgan Sheppard, here was a man, George Shdanoff, who not only knew Chekhov intimately through a close friendship that began in Berlin in the early 1930s, but was his professional teaching partner for 25 years until Chekhov’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1955. The acting exercises and techniques that I learned from George were unlike anything I had learned previously then or since; they were original, deep, profound, yet simple at the same time, grounded in study and techniques of acting that Shdanoff and Chekhov had developed over the post-Berlin years, first at Dartington Hall in England, then in New York and Connecticut in the late 30s and early 40s and after that in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s while Chekhov was under contract to MGM. Chekhov garnered an Oscar-nomination for his work in the Hitchcock classic, Spellbound, with two dear friends, and two of his acting protogees, whom he privately coached, Gregory Peck, and Ingrid Bergman. Although Chekhov did several films in Hollywood under contract to MGM, he was never entirely comfortable with film acting. He was known as the genius actor of the Moscow Art Theatre, and the most brilliant pupil of Stanislavski, developing many brilliant roles in plays in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and throughout the 1920s.

The Chekhov techniques of psychological gesture, use of centers in developing and playing a character, and all the colors and palettes of the many Chekhov teachings such as radiation, atmosphere, and other techniques, totally turned the Method-driven Strasberg techniques on its head, and influenced generations of working and legendary actors such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, Leslie Caron, Patricia Neal, Cyd Charisse, and really almost any actor worth their salt that was coming up in the Hollywood system in the 40s and 50s. 

Gregory Peck became your mentor and went on to narrate your feature film documentary: From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Schdanoff. Can you tell us a little more about your friendship with Mr. Peck?

Our first communications began by letter, before the mass impact of the internet, in 1996, when I was putting together the research and writing the script for the feature documentary about Chekhov and Shdanoff. This was my first feature-length film, and it was a monumental task—I did two years of research alone on Chekhov, his life, his teachings, and the Chekhov technique. The film took seven years to make, working on it from 1995 to its release in 2002, and during this time I traveled through several continents and many countries to complete the film. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and informed everything I do now as a filmmaker and literally changed my life through the travel, the wonderful artists that I met, and the general creation of the award-winning film that became known as From Russia to Hollywood. 

When Mr. Peck came into the picture, I had reached out to him detailing the documentary about two legendary acting coaches, Chekhov and Shdanoff, both of whom had influenced him enormously, and he graciously agreed to narrate the documentary. When I got that thrilling news, I went overboard (in hind sight), creating this amazing narration for Mr. Peck that was at least 25 pages long. He reviewed the first draft of the narration and sent me a short, but concise letter. “Dear Mr. Keeve, When I agreed to narrate the Chekhov and Shdanoff documentary, I agreed to voice the narration, not narrate a book!” I think I must have hid in my room for at least a week, shuddering with embarrassment, before I had the courage to write to Mr. Peck again. He was still on board, but I would have to revise the narration to a reasonable length. 

At the same time, I was in touch with one of my favorite actresses, screen legend, Elizabeth Taylor, because I knew if I could get two living legends Taylor and Peck in one movie that would literally “make my career as a fledgling writer/director.” Taylor responded to me on her violet stationary with Elizabeth Taylor letterhead. Although she was interested, she needed money for her Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. I was just a fledgling filmmaker and couldn’t match the kind of donations she usually got when she raised money for AIDS. Ms. Taylor demurred, but it was still thrilling to be in touch with her. 

Now, back to Mr. Peck. After exchanging several more letters, and revisions of the script, Mr. Peck and I actually worked side by side creating the narration that you hear in the film. I’ll never forget going over to his house on Carolwood Drive in Bel Air with my cameraman and sound recordist and hearing his deeply resonate voice read my words into a microphone. I was awed by his presence and his down-to-earth friendliness. The other distinct memory was that of Mr. Peck’s sense of humor. He had a sly sense of humor that really captured his unique personality. But as conversational and down-to-earth as he was when we were together, I could never quite forget that I was in the presence of the one and only Gregory Peck. There was a subtle greatness and authenticity in his presence, and one could see the qualities both personally and professionally that made him such a legendary movie star. The hallways of his beautiful home were filled with priceless works of art that he collected over his years in Hollywood. 

Over the intervening years, an example of how gracious and encouraging Mr. Peck was with me, whenever we would meet socially, after we had worked together in the late 1990s, before the release of From Russia to Hollywood in 2002, he would always introduce me at social gatherings and Hollywood soirees as this “talented young filmmaker” whom he had worked with. 

Another Chekhov connection: long-term friend and collaborator, William Morgan Sheppard, who played the character of Michael Chekhov in your 2017 award-winning short film: Designated Caretaker Redux. Can you tell us a little more about how Morgan became involved with the project?

Aside from Gregory Peck, Morgan Sheppard was another mentor for me. We met around 1992 while I was studying acting at the esteemed Vincent Chase workshop in Hollywood. Morgan was teaching scene study and improvisation classes, and this was where I was first introduced to the Chekhov acting techniques. Morgan also taught a very popular Shakespeare class at the studio. Morgan and Vince were very good friends, and I remember, jumping ahead to early 2018, that I began to study with Morgan for the last time, with a small group of students, at Vincent Chase’s house in Hollywood, which was an intimate setting to do scene work. These were some of my last very special memories of Morgan, who was quite ill at the time, but never complained or talked about his health. He was so dedicated to the craft of acting, and so excited to still be teaching even during the last year of his life. What a wonderful and inspiring teacher he was. 

In the ensuing years after 1992, I studied with Morgan for many years in the 1990s, and then left to pursue other areas of work and study at various acting schools and with various acting teachers, but Morgan was definitely my baseline, and I feel, looking back on the Vincent Chase years at his workshop where Morgan taught classes, it was a solid foundation for building my craft as an actor. Vincent was a legendary acting coach, Head of Acting at Warner Bros., and MGM over the decades in the 50s and 60s, and one of the last acting coaches under contract at Universal in the 1970s. Vincent’s good friend Morgan, who appeared on Broadway in the Peter Brook directed Marat Sade in the mid-60s, was one of only four actors accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1962, along with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, and he brought a wealth of theatre, film and television experience to his classes and the craft and passion for acting. 

Jumping forward to 2016, when I was casting for the role of Michael Chekhov in Designated Caretaker Redux, my short film taken from my feature script Designated Caretaker, Morgan seemed the obvious choice. When we did the costume tests with wardrobe at Western Costume Company in North Hollywood with our veteran costumer/wardrobe designer, Cherlyn Lanning (Magic Mike, Masters of Sex), Morgan totally inhabited the character of Chekhov, even from the first fittings, and bore an uncanny resemblance to Chekhov. The end result was nothing short of stunning. I believe if we were able to film Morgan as Chekhov in the feature film of Designated Caretaker, he would have garnered his first Academy Award nomination, because of his stellar interpretation of the character of Michael Chekhov. As a trained Brit, I could really see how important the use of Morgan’s voice was, inflection and tone, in creating the character of Chekhov, with a Russian accent.

On some days of filming the short film, Morgan would doubt himself, wondering if he was doing a good enough job as Chekhov. And so it seems, even with actors with decades of experience and success, there is always the doubt of whether the artistic creation of a character is good enough. It is part and parcel of the artistic process. Dear Morgan passed away in 2019. I shall never forget him—he had such a big impact on my life both personally and professionally.

Music and composing have always been a huge part of your life, having played piano since the age of five. In what ways did your passion for music influence your new feature film: The Accompanist which was another huge hit on the independent film festival circuit winning ten top awards at festivals such as the Florence Film Awards, Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, Culver City Film Festival, Rose Prisma Awards, and winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at the Silicon Beach Film Festival to name a few!

The Accompanist was actually “birthed” at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica as I sat at the piano waiting for one of the classes that I played for to begin. There would be no film or idea for the story of gay lovers and family tragedy against the backdrop of professional ballet, without my experiences working as a pianist at Westside Ballet. In addition, since one of the key elements of the story is the “magic” that Jason Holden possesses through his piano music, the thought of being able to use my original piano music in the film, to play for the classes, and to compose the score for the movie, would be a dream coming true. 

I endeavored to use my decades long love of and training in classical music, and my own original piano music, plus my love for and admiration of ballet as an art form and the pure athleticism and artistry of ballet dancers to bring these art forms to the forefront of this film for today’s movie going audiences. 

Similar to Damien Chazelle and Whiplash which was first a short film, and then later became a very successful independent feature, The Accompanist also began life as a short. Can you share with us a little about your filmmaking journey and transition from a short to a feature film.

If I take a step back and look at my evolution as a filmmaker from the beginning in 1995, 25 years ago, on the kick off day of filming for my first feature (documentary) From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff at the then Argyle Hotel in West Hollywood, that night of December 10th was a night more special than I could have realized or ever dreamt of in reality at the time.  Legendary Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., two-time Emmy winner Sharon Gless, and Academy Award-winner Patricia Neal were the hosts for an evening tribute to my then acting teacher, George Shdanoff, who was the great Michael Chekhov’s teaching partner for 25 years. Ironically, and tragically, Michael Chehkov died of a heart-attack on September 30, 1955, the same day as one of his legendary pupils, the actor James Dean, died in an auto accident. 

This 90th birthday celebration for George Shdanoff was also the “kickoff” to a seven-year adventure of the making of the film From Russia to Hollywood. That morning I brought my camera crew to film the lovely Patricia Neal at Leonard Stern’s beautiful home in Beverly Hills, and that evening I had put together a gala birthday tribute to my acting teacher at the time, George Shdanoff, at the legendary Argyle Hotel in West Hollywood. It was his 45th “55th birthday,” because as way of an amusing joke, George never aged beyond 55!

From the filming of George’s gala birthday party that special night 1995, this began an adventure of making a documentary about two legendary acting coaches which took seven years to make, traveling in Europe and Asia, enlisting the talents of Gregory Peck and many other Academy Award-winning (and nominated) stars and directors such as Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance, Patricia Neal, Beatrice Straight, Leslie Caron, Robert Stack, and on and on, and having this film be the closing film of the Hollywood Film Festival at the beautiful Paramount Theatre at Paramount Studios. I could have never dreamed up such an auspicious beginning to my filmmaking career. 

Jumping forward to where we are today, not only does The Accompanist pass on the “Legacy of Hollywood,” through my seven years making From Russia to Hollywood with the help of Mr. Peck and all the great stars and directors I worked with on the film, but as far as I know, I don’t know of any other example or case study in film that did what I have done with this film—beginning with a feature script, realizing as an indie filmmaker I didn’t have the money to make a feature, revising the feature script into a short film, then after filming the short film in October, 2018, encouraged by my DP and editor to not stop with the short film, but to continue and make it a feature film. We already had 62 minutes of footage, so I went back and filmed all the most important emotional/dramatic scenes from the feature script the next month in November, 2018, and eventually ended up with a 93-minute feature film. Magically, through a lot of determination, passion, and hard work over four months of post, we came up with the full-length feature that Dark Star Pictures is releasing June 2nd. 

None of the case studies on independent film including Whiplash, which was first a short film then later became a great indie feature, can compare to creating a feature film out of a short film. There is an important story here to inspire not only other independent filmmakers that are working on a “no-budget” or “shoe-string budget,” but for critics and audiences as well. 

I’ll never forget one of my favorite scenes in the 2018 version of A Star is Born where Jackson Maine (played by Bradley Cooper) tells Ally (played by Lady Gaga) that she may be on her way to stardom as they look from their hotel balcony at a giant billboard of her, but he said, “This will never last unless you have something to say.” I realized over the more than 18 months of working on my current feature film, that I have something to say with my films, and also in these interviews leading up to the release of The Accompanist, through my evolution as an artist, both personally and professionally. 

The Accompanist will be released by Dark Star Pictures on 2 June. What inspiration do you hope people will take from the film? Are there any topical themes which might be particularly relevant right now?

I had some very specific goals when I set out to make this film and evolved the story that became the core of the film with the backdrop of the classical ballet world and classical music. First, I wanted to tell a gay love story that was realistic, genuine and authentic, not a “Hollywood” version of what people might think gay male love is all about or something less than realistic. This is a fantasy/drama, so in art, whether for film, television and especially in theatre, the dramatic aspects are heightened to a degree in relation to the nature of the medium that the artist is working in. I personally never felt, even in some of my favorite “gay” themed films like Call Me By Your Name, or Brokeback Mountain, that the characterizations really approached the realism of what gay male love is really like, and also certainly not in relation to life in the ballet world. I wanted to tell a story with magical realism, a device in films I really admire, but with the realism of what gay love and gay sexual expression is like in the real world. 

I also really wanted to bring back the beauty, artistry and athleticism of ballet, and the classical music that powers it, to modern audiences. For current movie going audiences, the only references to popular ballet movies might be Black Swan and before that Center Stage. I’m old enough to remember films like The Turning Point, but for today’s audiences I felt like they would enjoy and perhaps embrace a “niche” film that had universal themes like the ones developed in this film: “To use the healing power of art to unite and celebrate who we are” within the context of the ballet world, ballet classes and ballet auditions. 

The theme of the film encompassed the sub-themes of acceptance of one’s sexuality, even if it is not “the norm,” and the use of beautiful piano music and classical music combined with the beauty of ballet and ballet dancers, to bring back an art form lost to modern movie-going audiences. This was accomplished all within the theme of using music and dance to heal psychic wounds and past traumas, whether it be Jason coming to terms with his own family tragedy or Adam learning to be more kind and loving towards Brandon and others, rather than perpetuating a cycle of physical abuse that was probably the hallmark of his own family experiences growing up. There are so many topics that are covered within the storyline and dramatic structure of the film—ageism, acceptance of one’s sexuality, healing family wounds, the healing power of the arts, and many other themes.

As an artist, how have you been coping during this unusual times in this lockdown period?

If people use this time of introspection and seclusion correctly, I think this is a moment of tremendous opportunity not only for each of us individually, but a gift, aside from the human suffering (that I don’t think anyone can avoid thinking about and feeling for those who have been sick or passed away) to bring light to the planet, to help heal it, and also make way for the “new” Hollywood with more conscious film projects that can enlighten audiences around the world. 

I think this is a time of incredible opportunity for independent filmmakers and producers to develop and produce their passion projects and seminal films that can achieve mass exposure through the streaming giants like Amazon, Hulu, Netlix, and other platforms, and disseminate these films to audiences hungry for original, unique content that is entertaining, but also shines a light on various aspects of the human condition, and provides an alternative to traditional studio offerings like Marvel and DC superhero movies, franchise madness, and sequel mania and revivals of the same superficial rendering of familiar stories again and again that are produced for profit first, and not for the passion of the project or for allegiance to original and unique storytelling.

Who are some of your favourite filmmakers?

David Lean (Ryan’s Daughter, Lawrence of Arabia), Satyajit Ray (the Apu Trilogy, The Big City), Jean Pierre-Jeunet (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement), Francois Truffaut (400 Blows), Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange), Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath, Flight), Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, La Notte, Blow up), Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Marriage Italian Style, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), Alfonso Cuaron (Roma, many others), Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander, Persona), Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samari), Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor),  Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Baaria), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc), William Wyler (Dodsworth, The Best Years of Our Lives), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, almost anything Frank Capra), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot), Mike Nichols (Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Closer), Elia Kazan (East of Eden, On the Waterfront), among others. 

The Accompanist Awakening, your next standalone sequel is currently in pre-production. When are you hoping to begin shooting, and what do you think Hollywood will look like post this lockdown period? Do you think there will be more advantages for an independent filmmaker?

Fall, 2020, but realistically probably early 2021, given the Covid-19 Pandemic and other associated production factors. This is a complicated film, but I love a challenge. Hollywood is changing in some big ways. The Big Three agencies are losing their star power and won’t be the packaging entities they once were. Big stars are divesting themselves of being beholden to these powerful agencies and forming their own production companies, and women are coming to the forefront, developing their own films and television shows, like Reese Witherspoon, and providing more of a balance to the traditional male-dominated entertainment industry. I have always felt that a good story is a good story, whoever is the hero or heroine or protagonist, and whatever genre and medium that it is told through. As one my heroes. Gregory Peck, expressed towards the end of his life, “We are storytellers. That is what we do.” And that is what I’m endeavoring to do with my art, as expressed through the medium of independent film. 

The Accompanist will be be released by Dark Star Pictures on 2 June 2020, and will be available on Amazon and iTunes. View trailer here.

For further information on Frederick Keeve, please visit here.

This interview with Frederick Keeve took place in May 2020.