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 first part of a three-part interview I spoke with Richard about his early years; co-directing the romantic comedy COOL BLUE (1990), which gave Woody Harrelson his second film role; making THE LINGUINI INCIDENT and working with David Bowie; his time making MERCY, OXYGEN and MEXICO CITY; the genesis of and the experience of making THE MATADOR and working with Pierce Brosnan; and his approach to creating stories.     

What were some of the most important films for you growing up? 
The 1933 KING KONG was certainly a deeply influential movie. I was certainly intrigued by it. It used to play on TV a lot, so I saw it so many times. This was obviously the days before VHS or DVD or anything. My Dad was not in the movie business at all but he was a big fan of movies, and he loved that movie, so we would watch it together. There was a joy showing my stepson the movie a few years ago. He also really liked it, which was interesting because it is in black and white and the special effects have really dated. There is something magical about the story, and none of the remakes have managed to capture the energy of the first one.

Do you think any of the film's qualities found their way into your work? 
I guess I love adventure stories, and THE HUNTING PARTY was definitely something of an adventure story. I certainly understand why Peter Jackson wanted to remake KING KONG because it did seep into the consciousness of a lot of filmmakers and it captures a lot about what great storytelling is, which is the journey into the unknown.

I feel like I had a very good film education when I was growing up. I got to see a lot of great movies because I grew up in New York City, and there used to be a lot of revival theaters. I got to see a lot of great movies because my Dad would take me a lot and he had a particular taste. He took me to some really interesting stuff. CASABLANCA (1942) was another film that definitely affected me in the idea of these rich characters in sort of an exotic place. You can watch that movie today and it truly stands up. There's an edge to Bogart that is very modern. There's no doubt that I am constantly looking for that sense of adventure. In a way, when you go make a movie on a foreign location you get a little bit of that energy. Somehow, the hotel bar of where you're shooting suddenly feels like Rick's bar in its own magical way. There's something about it. 

When did you start to entertain the idea of becoming a filmmaker? 
I think it was when I realised I couldn't play third base at the New York Mets, which was around the ages of 8-11. My baseball dreams kind of died with the realisation of my ability. I got given a present of a Super 8 camera when I graduated from sixth grade, which was something I really wanted. I started making Super 8 movies. I didn't realise that you could actually make a living at it, but as I got older I realised that filmmaking was something that I was obsessed with. It started to feel like it was the thing that I had done the most and the thing that I most enjoyed. By the time I went to NYU Film School, I definitely knew I wanted to be making movies in some capacity. I was writing screenplays, and I was trying to get an agent. I was so aggressive in trying to have a career that I was ahead of my ability actually to do something interesting. I was lucky because so many people don't know what it is they want to do but I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. 

How did your first film, COOL BLUE, come about? 
I co-wrote and co-directed the film with my buddy Mark Mullin, and it was not my sole artistic expression. It was the days when you could get a few hundred thousand dollars from a video company to make a movie; the same era when Steven Soderbergh made SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989). That's a brilliant movie, and COOL BLUE was made by two 21-year old nincompoops who really didn't know what they were doing. I am glad I had the experience and I learned a lot but there was nothing artistic in it on any level. It was my next movie, THE LINGUINI INCIDENT, that I directed myself, where I felt I had made a movie I could call my own, for better or for worse. At least it had my fingerprints on it, even if it wasn't a great movie. It was certainly me at that moment, even though I co-wrote the script with Tamar Brott. 

How was the experience of making THE LINGUINI INCIDENT? 
I have had so many ups and downs in my career, but that was a deeply difficult production for many reasons. The producer and I did not get along. The movie opened on the weekend that the riots in Los Angeles happened. We famously had the lowest per-screen average ever because there was a curfew. There was not a lot of great things that came from that movie. I wrote an article for Filmmaker Magazine called 'Escape from Movie Jail' because that's how it felt at the time – that I was put into Movie Jail after the movie. 25 years later, I can look back on the film in a different way and find things in it that I am happy with, but at the time it was a tough thing to go through. It's one thing to make a movie that you're proud of but that no-one sees. That tends to be what I do! It's another thing to make a movie that you're not really proud of that nobody sees. It's tough. But it informed who I was. It led me into a road of being a different kind of writer. It took me a long time to find my voice as a writer. Even though I made a few small movies between THE LINGUINI INCIDENT and THE MATADOR, in many ways THE MATADOR was a re-introduction into the industry. Many thought it was my first movie, because they hadn't seen the others. It was the first movie I did that had a true voice of originality to it. It took me a long time to find that voice. Some people are blessed to have an original voice from the get-go, but I wasn't one of those people. 

What was it like working with David Bowie? 
He was always such a deep pleasure. I have been asked many times which movie I would remake and I generally answer with THE LINGUINI INCIDENT. I feel like I could make that movie really well right now. I wish I could have had the chance to work with David again, even on the same project. He was a deeply curious human being who was so incredibly sweet. Because of this, he was an incredible presence on set. He would never go to his trailer. He would always sit on the set, and everyone who worked on that movie had their time to sit and talk with him. David was a genuine human being. That was a real lesson. He was so famous that he had circled back to being a real person. Not really being part of the movie business, acting in movies allowed him to take some of the pressure off his shoulders and just deal with being an actor. He seemed very happy. I went to see music with him, I went to dinners with him and I have all these great memories, but in a weird way, they were wasted on a 25 year old. I wish my current self could have known him as well. I feel very lucky that I got to work with him, even though it was the weird experience of making that movie.

How close was his character in the film to who he is in real life? 
 think he decided he was going to be that character for the length of the movie. He lived a true artistic life. I wonder if I had been on the set of say, THE HUNGER (1983), if he would have been the same, charming guy offscreen. Probably, but I don't know. I think it suited him to be the guy he was while making our movie. And he was in a pretty good place in his life. While he was making the film he met Iman and started dating her. She has a little cameo in the movie. I ran into David about eight or nine years ago on the streets of New York. He was of course charming and lovely. I said to him ''Making that movie was a really difficult experience for me. '' And he said ''I look back on that film with only fondness because I met my wife on it. '' 

How do you look back on THE LINGUINI INCIDENT now? 
There are certain things in it that I am still happy with. My experience of doing a movie that was female-driven definitely helps me now when I direct on the TV series Girls. That, and being the oldest person on set, means I bring a different point of view to everything. I think the film was ahead of its time and behind its time simultaneously. There are things in the movie that are really relevant and fun and there are things that are just not. But there was something there, without a doubt. 

MERCY, OXYGEN and MEXICO CITY could be seen as a loose trilogy in that they share similar themes. They are also all similarly budgeted. Was this because of circumstance or were you interested in exploring similar themes during this period? 
I grew up in New York but I had moved to Los Angeles and had lived there for a number of years. After THE LINGUINI INCIDENT was a disaster, I kind of re-looked at my life and ended up moving back to New York City. I love thrillers and I got obsessed with films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), and I would watch them on a loop. Out of this, and my anger at my career and where it was, I started writing my own little thrillers. MERCY was Sam Rockwell's second movie. It was a movie we made for $50, 000. It was really nothing. It was the only way I could get a movie made. I was obsessed with the idea of trying to make a movie that was not going to be taken away from me, and that was going to be my own, whether I had any money or not. Making that movie really changed my life on many levels. It was an incredibly satisfying experience because even though we didn't have any money, we had freedom by the fact it was just us doing it. It saved me because I was finally able to show something I was proud of, whether it was great or not. I was proud of it at that minute.

It led me to get the money to make OXYGEN and MEXICO CITY because the money I got for the foreign video rights for MERCY enabled me to pay back the people who financed the movie. I was on a little bit of a roll. They're similar movies because thrillers were the kinds of films the people wanted to finance. They gave me half a million dollars to make OXYGEN, for example. They were great experiences because I really learned a lot. 

How did THE MATADOR come about? 
The three thrillers set me up to make THE MATADOR in a way because after a stretch of time of making those movies, which was like eight years, the money dried up and I found myself back to zero again and broke, and still not having made anything that had broken through into the mainstream. I would get jobs here and there but I wasn't really making a living because I wasn't making anything truly original.

I wrote THE MATADOR, thinking that, again, nobody would give me much money for it. But this time I wrote and wasn't trying to please anyone. I wasn't trying to write to a specific genre. I wrote it simply for me and as a fun thing that would be a different thing for me to do. In a way, that freedom of not trying to compromise and not trying to please anyone allowed me to write something truly original. Through a series of incredible events, we got Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear and a real amount of money to make the movie. This never would have happened I think if I was again just trying to fill a void or be calculated in any way. It took me almost fifteen years of my career to actually find a voice that was my own. It changed everything. 

How did you attract a star of the calibre of Pierce Brosnan? 
I had an agent at the time who believed in the script, but there was an opportunity to perhaps write the sequel to THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1999). THE MATADOR was sent to Pierce's production company as a writing sample to try and get me that job. Pierce's producing partner, Beau St. Clair, read the script and thought that it might be a great vehicle for Pierce. It was a real stroke of luck because I think if we had just sent the script to Pierce at his agency or whatever, it would have never gotten to him. The timing was perfect because Pierce had just found out that he wasn't going to be Bond again and really wanted to get rid of that character in a way. I remember that Greg Kinnear was to say ''What, are you James Bond or something?'' to Pierce, and we changed it to ''What, are you a spy or something?'' A few people thought it would be funny to keep the Bond reference, but I wasn't one of them.

I feel that the movie business is a lot of luck met with talent. You have to have both, really. And that was definitely a moment when luck came into it. Pierce signed on, and we basically raised the money and we were ready to go. I was still really broke and in a pickle because nothing had come through. We had to wait six months while Pierce went off and made AFTER THE SUNSET (2004). He finished the movie and we were getting ready to go to Mexico and one afternoon, Pierce dropped out and let everyone know he didn't want to do it anymore. It was a very bad day for me because we were nine weeks from shooting and I was so broke that I don't think I could have paid the next month's rent. It was that kind of crazy situation. It was soul crushing. Eventually we were able to convince him to voice what he was nervous about, which was that this was a really different character for him. He was scared. To his credit, he came around. This, I think, happens to actors who are given a character who is different from what they normally do. I've seen it happen again and again, but at the same time they are drawn to the danger of the role. I think if you spoke with Pierce he would tell you it was one of the great experiences of his life getting to play that character. He genionely had fun, and I think that's one of the things you see in the movie. His relationship with Greg Kinnear in the film doesn't feel manufactured like it does in a lot of these buddy movies. 

The movie felt like a rebirth for Brosnan as an actor. 
It's interesting. When an actor feels like it's an opportunity, they'll do the movie for very little money, which is what Pierce did. The cost of the movie was his entire salary on a Bond movie. On THE HUNTING PARTY and DOM HEMINGWAY, the actors did the movies for very little because they saw an opportunity to do something different and challenging. In a way, that energy seeps into the whole production because it's not a film where everybody is just taking a paycheque. It's a film where people are trying to do something. The energy of making those movies was in a way similar to making MERCY, which was done for practically nothing, but it was the same drive, the same energy and the same feeling amongst the crew. 

We've never seen Pierce Brosnan, Richard Gere and Jude Law as they are in THE MATADOR, THE HUNTING PARTY and DOM HEMINGWAY, and they have probably never been better. 
I'd like to think so too. I like to take actors that you think you know and make you look at them in a different way. You can go a long way with a character in terms of darkness, edge and even unlikeability if you have a likeable actor playing the part. I fel like that's fun for an audience. You take that movie star charisma to allow you to like the guy who is deeply rude and anti-social to the point of being a killer. In a way, audiences somehow respond to that. 

I find it interesting in your films that the audience never feels like they are being forced to like the lead characters, and that we are allowed to get to know them like we would when we encounter new people in real life. 
If you can fall in love with a character who has no lovable qualities on the page, then you can really get an audience to connect in a deeper way. It's reflective of real life, where there are certain people who you like immediately, and there are others who you are not sure if you like. You may never end up liking them, but if you do, it's somehow a deeper connection because you had to work through some stuff. This is why sometimes the material is sometimes scary because actors want to be liked from the get-go. They're always nervous about whether people like and accept them. One reason why actors become actors is to become accepted. To play someone who is not immediately easy to connect with is risky, but the right actor can have the confidence in their abilities and the confidence in me as a director to get them to the right place. I remember with Jude Law on DOM HEMINGWAY we talked a lot and wondered ''How much further can we push this before we will never be able to get the audience back?'' It's great when you have a partner like I did on DOM HEMINGWAY, THE MATADOR and THE HUNTING PARTY. Those three films are of a family. The three lead characters are not dissimilar. All three films offer a role to an actor of a certain age transitioning from matinee idol to the next chapter in their career.

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

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