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 second part of a three-part interview I spoke with Richard about the themes and concerns of his work; how his artistic choices affect his career; his writing process; and making the documentary  I KNEW IT WAS YOU: REDISCOVERING JOHN CAZALE.     

Part one of the interview. 

In THE MATADOR and DOM HEMINGWAY, we have protagonists who are outside of conventional society and free, and yet need the connection of friendship or family to make them whole. Do you feel that happiness is a balance between freedom and connectedness? 
I think deep connection is something we all strive for. In THE MATADOR, Pierce Brosnan's character has no friends. The only people in his address book are colleagues and whores. Then when he gets a friend in Greg Kinnear he can't do his job anymore because when you're able to be emotional with someone it's often impossible to be emotionless in other areas. With DOM HEMINGWAY, I wanted to write a character who would be the ninth guy and have only two lines if this was another crime movie. I wanted to follow a guy who had lived his life from the moral code that was required by criminals, and to look at, like us all, the sacrifices he makes when he makes certain choices. I think also in THE MATADOR and THE HUNTING PARTY I was looking at how what you can do defines you, and if you're choosing to do things in your life based on what society expects, and not what is best for you, how you can end up really hurting yourself. I find these themes very interesting.

Your films are always very entertaining, but has the richness and complexity of your stories made your career more difficult? 
These films are fun but the humanity in them hopefully makes them more interesting and challenging. But that has hurt me in terms of box-office, and in terms of what people want and expect, and how they can be marketed. I think if I didn't have my TV pilots to keep me liquid, I'd be in a difficult position. I'm lucky in that I am able to toggle between the two worlds of independent movies and television, but it's frustrating because I like to take things that you think are one thing but are not, and those films are difficult to get made. 

I guess a wonderful quality about your films that make them hard to market is that your films are difficult to adequately describe. 
They take one thing about a movie and market it from that angle. DOM HEMINGWAY was marketed as a crime movie when in fact it was an anti-crime movie. THE MATADOR was the anti-assassin movie. As soon as you put a gun in Pierce's hand on the poster you're setting up an expectation that the film doesn't really deliver. 

Are you influenced by Scorsese's idea that everyone, no matter how repugnant their actions or personalities, is worthy of redemption?
Certainly growing up, Martin Scorsese was one of my favorite filmmakers. There's no doubt that he has explored entertaining ways to hang out with sociopathic characters. We are very different filmmakers on many different levels. The first is that he is deeply fearless in a certain way, or at least he used to be. I operate with a little bit more fear than he does. I think audiences are interested in characters who you don't meet every day. If we wanted to see people we meet every day, we'd stay home and watch reruns of Friends or Seinfeld on TV. People go to the movies to have a different sort of experience. I think the blurring of television and film right now in terms of the darkness of the storytelling on TV is interesting. Breaking Bad probably would have been a movie twenty years ago but is now a show. There's a cross-pollination. What we expect and what we see is changing rapidly for the better for the most part. 

When you write screenplays, what propels you forward? Is it finding out where the characters are going to take you? Or finding a way to get to an end you have already predetermined? Your stories always take unpredictable turns that elevate the material. 
I used to write by outline and I stopped with THE MATADOR. It's terrifying and freeing at the same time because I know enough about story structure at this point that I don't need an outline and I trust the characters enough to continue to interest me. But it's scary because you do want a complete movie. In the case of DOM HEMINGWAY I wrote an entire second half that was completely different to the second half that exists now. I enjoyed writing it but in retrospect it wasn't that interesting, so I looked at it again. You get in these situations where months of your life go into the toilet. Thankfully I'm a fast writer, but the fact of the matter is that I do like unexpectedness. I write movies the way I watch movies. I don't want to be bored. As soon as I am writing something that I am bored writing, I know it's going to be boring in the cinema. It does give me a lot of freedom and it does take stories down unexpected routes. But I think this is what good stories are. If you can hold the audience's interest and the detours make the audience happier, then you've won. There are so many movies where you almost know what's going to happen at the end by the first frame of the movie. I can't tell you the number of movies I have walked out of before the last fifteen minutes because it's obvious how things are going to play out. I'm always striving to write movies and go see movies that are revealing and interesting and unexpected. 

I have always admired the confidence you had on THE MATADOR to stop and take the time to have the scene where Julian (Pierce Brosnan) reunites with Danny (Greg Kinnear) and meets Bean (Hope Davis) for the first time. 
The ending of THE MATADOR works so well because you care so much about the characters, and a lot of it is because of that scene where they are in the house talking. That scene deepens everything, and there's an underlying tension. You don't know whether Julian has come to kill Danny, whether they had sex in Mexico (which is suggested a little bit), or whether Julian killed Danny's business rivals to get him the contract he needed. You're legitimately nervous during the whole scene, even though it's not 'exciting' compared to the rest of the movie. I think it's the heart and soul of the movie. And it works because you really don't know what is going to happen. And also because you're also enjoying the company of all the characters. I happen to love scenes with three people in a room talking. DOM HEMINGWAY has such a scene where they are all in the chateau. That area of drama is super fun for me to write and direct. It's also fun for the actors because it is slightly theatrical. It's not every day that they get to do that much talking in a scene. 

 Are you a fan, by chance, of the movie SEXY BEAST (2000)? It has similar qualities to your work – it can't be easily described in terms of narrative or genre, takes unexpected but thrilling detours, and has dark but nevertheless fascinating characters. 
Oh, absolutely, without a doubt. SEXY BEAST has been a huge influence on me and many of the movies that I have done. It's one of the most perfect movies ever. You think you know what that movie is, and then you just don't. From the opening frame, where Ray Winstone is sitting out there in a tiny bathing suit and he's boiling in the sun, and he's got his towel and his lotion – you're like ''What the fuck is happening?'' Then Ben Kingsley comes in and he's this raging id. Yet there's this pop sensibility to the way it's shot and in the use of music. I love all of that. You're always trying to make a piece of entertainment. You don't want to make something that people don't want to watch. If you can bring them in in some way visually or with music and sound to ease them into thinking they're watching one movie and deliver them another movie, that's great. 

THE HUNTING PARTY definitely had that masterfully judged tone of seriousness and fun, which is a precarious balancing act. 
I wanted to make a movie in a post-war environment. THE THIRD MAN (1949) has always been a film that has affected me deeply. I was given this Esquire article that had been written by Scott Anderson and it connected with me. I wasn't an expert on what had happened in Bosnia. I ended up researching the topic massively and reading fifteen books and travelling to Bosnia a lot, speaking to a lot of the important people. I went to the village where Karadzic was hiding, I went to the little town where Richard Gere and Terrence Howard question the locals. I went everywhere they do in the movie, really, short of finding him, in the research of the movie. I decided at a certain point that the absurdity of it all, and the cynical black humor I found in the Balkans, were things I wanted in the movie. I wanted to make a kind of 1940s Warner Brothers B movie in which Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston go on an adventure. I wanted to make a deeply fun, very cynical, super smart movie that wasn't preachy or too serious. When I was researching the movie, I found out that if you hang out with a bunch of war reporters, they're a funny, cynical bunch of guys. That energy is in the movie and is deeply correct. That attitude is real. Getting compliments from journalists about that movie proves to me that even though the film is silly and out there, the core element – the way war reporters joke with each other and challenge each other – rings true. It makes a very difficult subject sort of fun. The idea that you can make a fun movie about war criminals is a tough one to take, especially in the world we live in. But for me that was the way in, and the world I wanted to explore. 

I think it's one of the most under-rated films of recent years. 
I could say that about literally every movie I have made! 'Under-rated' or 'hidden gem' are the terms used for most of the things I have made! It's frustrating, without a doubt. I feel lucky that I have been able to get to make the movies I hve made. I have a level of control making the movies, but I don't have any control over the marketing of them.

What inspired you to make I KNEW IT WAS YOU: REDISCOVERING JOHN CAZALE? Was he a big figure for you growing up? 
Without a doubt, John Cazale was my favorite actor as a kid. At first, I didn't even know who he really was, but I was always really connected to him. When my father took me to revival theatres to see THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), THE CONVERSATION (1974), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) and THE DEER HUNTER (1978), I always felt drawn to this sad guy in all these films. When I was older and in college, I finally put it all together that it was the same guy in all five movies, and then he died. There was something amazing about that. I always loved him, and whenever I would talk to an actor, I would talk about him. I remember vividly when I was making MERCY, talking to Sam Rockwell about John Cazale at length, and seeing the passion he had for him. I realised it wasn't just me. One day after THE MATADOR I was sitting around procrastinating about what I wanted to do next and I thought ''What do we really know about John Cazale?'' At that point there was nothing on the Internet about him. He was really lost a little bit. I started thinking ''Somebody should do a documentary on him. '' After a little while I said to myself ''You know what. I could actually be that person. There's no reason I can't do it. '' It was an incredible experience making the film, being able to speak to Sidney Lumet, Coppola, Pacino, De Niro, Meryl Streep and Gene Hackman, all of whom were deeply affected by him and clearly loved him. It was also incredible to be able to tell his story and to see the film reignite interest in him, which is what I wanted it to do. The film has been shown in so many retrospectives and at so many film festivals. The people that have seen it seem to love it. 

I just wish it was three hours long! 
There isn't three hours of material on him out there. Here's the thing. He never did a filmed interview, and there is no behind the scenes footage of him working. The project started as a feature film but we realised there was no other footage. We had a staff of people out looking for stuff, but it just wasn't out there. We could have had people talking about him forever and forever, and we could have showed twenty minutes of clips of each of his movies, but I didn't want to do that. I'd rather people leave the movie wanting more rather than feeling like we had beat a dead horse. His life was cut short, and I think, in a way, the movie is cut short on purpose. 

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

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