Tuesday, September 20, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD SHEPARD (PART 3 OF 3)

For many film viewers, director Richard Shepard burst onto the scene with his hilarious, perceptive Pierce Brosnan thriller THE MATADOR (2005), but Richard had actually been making feature films for around a decade and a half before that film. He made his sole directing debut with the unique David Bowie/ Rosanna Arquette comedy drama THE LINGUINI INCIDENT (1991), and after its troubled production and critical and commercial failure, he regrouped and made a trilogy of effective, low-budget thrillers (1995's MERCY, 1999's OXYGEN, 2000's MEXICO CITY) that prepared him for his breakthrough with THE MATADOR. Richard is one of the industry's most under-rated talents. His films are always hugely enjoyable, skilfully mix genres and tones, take fascinating and unpredictable turns, and show us actors like Pierce Brosnan, Richard Gere (2007's THE HUNTING PARTY) and Jude Law (2013's DOM HEMINGWAY) like we have never seen them. He also directed the acclaimed documentary I KNEW IT WAS YOU: REDISCOVERING JOHN CAZALE (2009), and with shows like Girls is one of the most sought after and successful directors working in television. In the third and final part of a three-part interview I spoke with Richard about how he has maintained his focus and enthusiasm throughout his career; the importance of location scouting, and filming in real locations; his musical approach to creating films; and his experiences making DOM HEMINGWAY and THE HUNTING PARTY.   

Parts one and two of the interview.      

Do you enjoy alternating between different kinds of stories and different mediums like films, shorts, and TV episodes? 
I like to mix things up and not get too complacent. If you don't try to do stuff that's different, you can get really stagnant very quickly. I look at the filmmakers who have continued to work their whole lives. They're filmmakers who make movies in which actors are given freedom and great roles, which is something I think I do. Some filmmakers get trapped in that they have to make films at a certain budget and in a certain way. As an independent filmmaker I'm uniquely trained in continually having to be on my toes, which is both a burden and a gift. It doesn't allow you to rest on your laurels. You're always having to look for your next thing.

How did you achieve the British flavor of DOM HEMINGWAY? One would swear it had been made by a British writer and director. 
Before I came to England to prep DOM HEMINGWAY, I'd only spent five days in the country in my entire life. I got a sense of the city, and because I had purposely created Dom to have a rhthym of talking that was his own and not typical Cockney gangster rhyming slang style, it allowed me to have a character that was unique and wouldn't expose my naivete. Working with Jude Law on the two months of prep was amazing. I've never rehearsed a movie more, and I've never had the pleasure of having an actor so committed to a role. He truly was a partner. He came to many of the auditions. We went to many of the locations and rehearsed scenes with the other actors. I like to think I can take in places very quickly and in the case of London I really did. Other than me, we had a totally British crew. I was surrounded by people who weren't going to let me misrepresent the city and its people. 

What was it like working with producer Jeremy Thomas on the film? 
I beg him on a regular basis to allow me to make a documentary about him, but he's afraid of sharing tales that might offend people who are still alive. I told him ''I'll film you and wait until you're dead to put it out!'' He's had his hand on so many great movies. He's a deep lover of cinema and it seeps into everything that he does. He's a lover of life, and a lover of art. Where he wants to be is surrounded by people who want to have a good time. Film sets by their nature are that. It was a joy and a rare gift working with him. He's a raconteur and will talk about anything, and pulls no punches. As a film buff I'd sit next to him and have fairly long, drunken conversations about every movie he has ever made. Having produced SEXY BEAST (2000) and THE HIT (1984), two of my favourite British gangster movies, he was the perfect person to produce DOM HEMINGWAY. Having Jeremy as producer also sent a message to people like Jude Law that we were doing something that would be smart. Jeremy doesn't really do movies that aren't smart. You walk into his office in Soho and it is a four storey building filled with alternate movie posters of the films he has done. Posters you have never seen before. The first time I walked in there I felt like I didn't want to leave. 

I think one of your strengths is making the audience feel like they have just been to a real location and spent time in a real geographical space. You also have a good eye for interesting, offbeat locations within cities. Is location scouting very important to you? 
Location scouting is as important as casting your movie. Where things happen in a story are important in getting the audience visually interested in what they are watching. I'm careful that the choice of locations are not cliche. I love location scouting, and I'm always looking for something that surprises me and feels authentic. When an actor comes onto the set and the set feels right on every level, it makes them better actors because they feel they're in a real place that is also cinematic. I've been very lucky to work with great production designers. The location scout for the villa in the South of France for DOM HEMINGWAY was about as fun as was humanly allowed. We drove through the South of France, having very long lunches which were being paid by someone else and then we were looking at gorgeous chateaus. There are worse things to do in the world! Driving through Bosnia on THE HUNTING PARTY looking for locations was great fun too. 

I was surprised that you actually filmed a lot of THE HUNTING PARTY in Bosnia. 
A lot of Bosnia still has unexploded land mines so we did all the stuff set in the woods in Croatia. But a lot of the film was shot in Bosnia. It adds an authenticity when your actors arrive in a country where the real story took place in, and the local crew is telling them stories about what they went through in the war. The financiers wanted us to shoot the film in Bulgaria because they could save about three million dollars. I even took a depressing trip there. It could have worked, but I decided the film wasn't going to be the same unless we had Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg walking through the streets where it all happened. The bullet holes and the mortar holes in the buildings are not set dressing – they're real. There was no way the actors weren't going to be affected by the environment. 

On OXYGEN, there was a really good street energy and I hadn't seen New York like that before. 
It's weird. When you don't have much money, you have to figure out ways to make things interesting visually. Location scouting isn't expensive ultimately, and I have learned that the bigger the production value in the places I choose to shoot, the bigger the movie will feel. If the movie feels big, then the limitations of the budget will be less noticeable. The goal is to make the audience feel that they are looking at something fresh or interesting. When you work on a movie, the location people tend to bring out these big folders of locations they have used before and they know they can get. Finding new places requires more work but it adds value to the film. In THE HUNTING PARTY, there's a scene where the lead characters are kidnapped and taken to a barn in the middle of a valley. I had stressed to the production designer, Jan Roelfs, that I wanted a deep valley with green as far as you could see, and he spent two months searching all of Croatia, but he couldn't find what I wanted in area that was safe enough to shoot. He said ''I have an idea and I want you to be open-minded. '' So we drove for thirty minutes into a beautiful valley and it was perfect, except, as I told him ''There's no barn here. '' He said ''I've found a barn'', and we then drove twenty minutes away where there was this perfect one. He told me he wanted to take the barn apart and rebuild it at the other location. Which is what he did! It was cheaper to do that than to continue searching. 

How much does music influence your approach to making movies? You seem to have a punk rock approach to not only the soundtracks but the films themselves. 
I think I do. Punk rock is energy to me, and energy is central to everything with making movies and telling stories, especially in the world we live in of short attention spans. The right music can really lift you in some sort of great way. Very few things are as enjoyable as sitting in an editing room and putting on an image next to a piece of music and seeing it work. Often I am just like ''I want it to feel like this song or have the energy of this song'' and we will plop it on and we now understand what the scene is going to be even if it isn't going to be that particular piece of music. Music is another area where you can add production value to your movie, so I consider things very seriously. Music means different things to different people so I can only really go off how the music makes me feel or what it reminds me of. When it works, it's a connectivity with the audience that is wonderful. I think there is a real punk aesthetic in all that I do in terms of how everything is always slightly off-kilter or not normal, which is good. My movies tell stories in a different way in the same way that punk music is a different way of telling a story than a pop song. 

The choice of music can often, for good or bad, tell you how well the filmmakers understand their own film. 
That's right. A lot of times filmmakers get into fights with the financiers who want more traditional music, and they lose that fight. You have to stay true to what your movie is, and sometimes you have to be creative when you don't get your way. For the end credits of THE HUNTING PARTY we wanted to have I Fought the Law by The Clash, but they wanted $150, 000. I said ''What if we just pay for the song publishing, but we get a band to cover the song in Bosnian?'' It turned out even better than having The Clash. 

Was the score of the film influenced by John Barry at all? 
Rolfe Kent said he wanted to do a John Barry style score and I thought that was a perfect idea. There's been a movement away from Barry's style of music but I am sure it will come around again. I felt the film was an adventure movie so I wanted to feel that in the score. 

What projects do you have in the pipeline? 
I just finished shooting a short film that I made in Tokyo with Elizabeth Moss. It was a really great experience, and hopefully it will be premiering soon. One of the reasons I was itching to do this project was because I really wanted to do a love story and I had this idea that was perfect for a short film. It's really unlike anything I've ever done before. It was really exciting and freeing making a movie with a twelve person crew. I came off that project a better filmmaker than when I went in, which alone makes it worthwhile. I've also been directing on Girls, and I'm in the midst of writing a new feature right now. I'm a different filmmaker from when I started out, and a different person. I know what I'm doing a little bit more. But you don't want to know too much. I think part of making movies is exploration. The movie reflects the moment you're making it. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.