ComingSoon.net first encountered filmmaker Richard Shepard after seeing his dark comedy The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan as a hitman and Greg Kinnear as the salesman who befriends him in Mexico. That was almost exactly two years ago, and the movie became one of the first releases by the fledgling Weinstein Company, who quickly got on board Shepard’s next movie, The Hunting Party.
It’s based on the true story of a group of journalists who returned to Sarajevo after being stationed there during the war and over a night of drinks, they decided to try to find and capture the dangerous war criminal, Radovan Karadicz, who disappeared after the war. In Shepard’s movie, the five print journalists have been transformed into TV field correspondent Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) and his former cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) who reunite five years after Hunt had a breakdown on camera to go on this same mission. The duo are joined by Jesse Eisenberg as the eager rookie son of the network VP who has tagged along with Duck on his trip back to Bosnia.
As we learned the last few times we spoke to Shepard, the fellow New Yorker is very much a film buff in love with the process, and he was happy to wax philosophic on everything he learned while making this movie, including the lost art of location scouting. We also threw a little tease his way about a popular franchise he might be interested in tackling sometime in his future. (If interested, you can also read our previous interview with Shepard here.)
ComingSoon.net: I just want to start this interview by saying that twenty minutes into this movie, I decided that I’ll probably see any movie you make, because your sense of humor and your visual sensibilities are things that definitely appeal to me in terms of the movies I like.
Richard Shepard: First of all, thank you, but that’s like music to my ears ultimately because I’m someone who if I see a director whose movies I like, I will always see their movies. Even if I don’t always love their movies, it’s just more like the question of this guy is interesting or I’ll like how this guy makes a movie. I feel like that’s how you have a film career and that’s how you become a director to keep watching that you want to see their movies. One of the reasons I don’t want to just do a cookie-cutter “I’m a director for hire” where you’re just a cog in the machine. To me, I’d rather do this, where people will be “I saw his last movie, I really liked it, I want to see this one” and it goes on from there.
CS: I only just learned today that you directed the “Ugly Betty” pilot. I’ve only seen bits of the show, and I might never have put two-and-two together, but really, that show has the same use of bright colors I like about your films. Now I feel like I need to go and watch that pilot.
Shepard: It was weird to do something that I didn’t write, and the writer/creator of that show, his handprint is all over that pilot. Any accolades that it gets is really what he did, but it’s sort of fun when you don’t write it in a way. You have a huge responsibility, but at a certain point, you know what? This is the script they want. I’m going to try and get the best I can do out of what they did, but when you’re a writer/director, you’re like, “Is this good? I might need to rewrite it.” You’re listening to the dialogue both as a filmmaker director, but also as a writer. “Could this be better? Could this be shorter? Could this be tighter?” It’s difficult.
CS: I remember when we talked about “The Matador”, you said that you just sat down and wrote it linearly to see where it would go. Could you really do that with something like this?
Shepard: Funny you should ask, because I did kind of with this, a little bit. I had the basic beats about what happened in real life, so I didn’t want to stray too far from that, but because I created the three journalists from scratch, I kind of had a freedom to see where they wanted to go. I again didn’t write from an outline. Part of my deal was that I couldn’t produce an outline for this movie. Ultimately, it’s a great way to just keep yourself honest. I think a lot of times writers write an outline and it says, “They have a fight and then next scene, he’s on a bus sad about the fight.” So you’re stuck with this because it’s been approved by the studio and everyone, then you’re writing the fight scene and you’re like, “You know, he doesn’t want to take a bus. He wants to go for a drink but he’s gotta f*cking take the bus.” But I’d rather just say I know that he’ll eventually get to his Mom’s house. I’ll eventually get where he needs to go when he was taking that bus, but I want to see maybe that bar scene will lead to a whole ‘nother thing. Maybe he’ll meet someone. So a little bit of the way I’ve been writing lately on this and on “Matador” is freeing in that capacity. At the same time, this was a little different in that they were on a journey and there were things they had to go to. I knew they would eventually end up in that town and they’d meet Boris, and all of that stuff.
CS: But you were able to play around a bit more with what happens when they meet these characters on this journey.
CS: Was there something more amusing about making them TV journalists and looking at that aspect of journalism rather than print?
Shepard: Hey, listen, I’m not a journalist. I’ve never been a print journalist. I’ve never been a TV journalist. I worked as an assistant to a cameraman, so I know a little bit about that lifestyle. I wish I had an answer that made me seem more intelligent rather than just a random choice, but to me, I just kept seeing Duck holding a camera. It was just one of those things. It’s a macho thing. Most cameramen are really macho, it’s this weird thing. All the ones I’ve met, they’re all kind of man’s men. I just thought if Duck’s holding a camera, it’s just a shorthand for what kind of guy he is. It’s visually maybe more interesting than two guys with pens. I think if I had no flashbacks in the movie and I just started with them just deciding to go find this guy, since Terrence doesn’t really hold the camera for all the stuff in the current day, I might have just made them print journalists. Because I had the flashback stuff, which was my way of introducing the characters, to me I wanted to see it in a more physical way like holding a camera.
CS: Duck’s an interesting character, because after being this cameraman during the war, he goes back to the States and becomes this network guy in a suit.
Shepard: It seemed to me that it was an interesting thing. I don’t know about your friends, but with my friends, it’s something we always do. You’re in a career that you like and then sometimes you’re offered opportunities that you think you’ve always wanted. Like I’ve always wanted to write for Vanity Fair. I’ve always wanted to direct a big studio movie, but is it really what I want to do? Or am I actually doing what I really like to do? I think what I was trying to do with Duck’s character is that he really loved what he did with Simon, he loved it. When he went away from it, he went to the dream he always had, this perfect life, the hot girlfriend and the nice apartment and the first-class jets, but he missed the other life, the life that he really loved. It’s a subtle thing in the movie, but the friendship between Richard and Terrence is one of the deeper parts of the film. The way that Terrence tells that story to Jesse about Richard Gere, there’s a real emotion in his eyes that basically tells you that he loved the guy. It almost explains why Terrence doesn’t say to Richard Gere, “F*ck you, I’m leaving, goodbye.” If you believe that they really have this friendship, then you’ll do a lot for your friends. You’ll do stuff you wouldn’t do for normal people. I dealt with it in “The Matador” certainly, but a way to deal with male friendships that’s not a movie about male friendship. It’s not like (lowers voice), “I’m now making a study about men’s friendships” but if you can sneak it in, in terms of okay, it’s a thriller, but there’s this element of the way men talk, these insult things that they do to each other, but they love each other nonetheless. That stuff I like to write, and I like to see, and I think it’s undervalued or underseen in movies.
CS: How were the crews over there in Sarajevo compared to the crews in Mexico you used for “The Matador”?
Shepard: I joke that no matter where you are in what country or what crew, you always can tell which person is the script supervisor. You can always tell which person is the make-up guy or hair guy. You can always tell which guy is the grip. Crews are kind of universal. There’s something about the type of personality that a person has that they gravitate towards a certain type of job. No matter where you are, it’s the same sort of people. We had a mixture of young and old on the crew. Croatia used to have a really strong film history, and then it sort of got decimated in the war, and then a lot of the best of those crew members went to other countries like Prague. We were actually able to get a lot of really good crew who wanted to come back and shoot in Bosnia and Croatia again, so we had very experienced focus pullers and grips and stuff like that. Some people weren’t experienced. At a certain point, American crews, New York crew in particular, that’s a top-notch crew. You can’t survive in New York if you’re not basically the best you can be. You have to forgive a little bit in the rest of the world sometimes. It’s not that they’re not trying hard enough. They just don’t know the level of perfectionism that’s expected here in America. It’s a little bit of a strange thing making a movie. If you’re spending twenty million dollars in basically three months, if I was a start-up company making cups, I wouldn’t spend twenty million dollars in three months. I would maybe spend a million dollars, test the cups, do people like the cups? “Guess what, they don’t like the cups! Hey, it’s been six months and we can’t stand that guy in accounting, let’s get rid of him. We’ll give him another three months.” On a movie set, you have no time. Sometimes you fire people after two days that in any other situation, you wouldn’t fire, but you’re clicking with these people and we don’t have time for a learning curve as a crew. That’s a tricky thing as a filmmaker. You certainly don’t want to be disliked, but sometimes, you just have to be tough.
CS: But when you go over there, isn’t there only like one person who does a specific job?
Shepard: Yeah, well it’s not exactly a deep talent pool, but it was the type of movie that there was a really good vibe on the set. I’m always the most miserable person on a film set. I’m just in deep misery all day long, ’cause it’s just so hard for me. To me, it’s all about compromise. Everyone else I think had a pretty good time. (laughs)
CS: That’s good to hear, and the language barrier was okay?
Shepard: Yeah, it was alright. Sometimes you say things and I’m sure they feel the same way in reverse, but there’s this sort of “we want you to be happy” sort of thing so they smile and say “yes” and then they either don’t know what you’re talking about or the answer is “no.” So you’re like “Will the truck be there tomorrow morning?” “Absolutely.” And then the next morning, it’s not a truck but a car and it’s three hours late, and you’re like, “What happened to the truck?” “Oh, yeah, it didn’t work out.” You kind of have to ask more than once. You have to make sure they understand, so that’s where the language barrier gets and basically, if you’re in New York and you’re on a film crew and you’re like, “I need a truck there at 9AM”, some Teamsters run over an old lady to get it there at 9AM. It’s going to happen.
CS: Considering that this movie is similar to “The Matador” in that it uses dark humor and takes place in another part of the world, do you see this as the second part of a trilogy?
Shepard: Maybe. My wife’s like, “You know, you should do a movie that’s set in L.A. or New York.” There’s something kind of fun and exotic about traveling when you’re doing a movie and having that experience of living abroad and away from your normal life. I personally think it’s a bonding experience in that the crew drinks and eats dinner together, not every night, but there’s this sense of “Hey, we’re not going out with our normal Tuesday night poker crowd” ’cause they’re not here, so you focus more on the work in a way and you’re focused more on the project, and it’s lonely shooting in foreign countries, weirdly. Sometimes you’re like, “God, I wish I could just go to a Starbucks or meet my friend for a beer at our local bar. Tonight I really don’t feel like meeting some new people and translating sh*t. I just want to veg out and watch ‘Who’s the Boss?'”
CS: (totally joking) They actually show “Who’s the Boss?” over there.
Shepard: They do. It’s first run. It’s their favorite show still. (laughs) That part, but it’s also the coolest thing in the world, and from a storytelling point of view, I always love movies that are set in a foreign place. If it’s well done, I feel like I get to see things I don’t normally get to see. If a movie’s set in New York and it’s really well-directed, it feels fresh to me, but a lot of times, it’s like, “Oh, they’re in Central Park at the skating ring.” But if you can show people something they’ve never seen before, so not only are they interested in the story, but they’re looking at something like, “Holy sh*t, I’ve never seen this before.” Certainly in “The Matador,” Mexico was a character in that movie, and it inspired us creatively, it inspired the whole color palette and the way I shot that movie, and I think the same thing here. The woods and the “Enjoy Sarajevo” sign. You cannot not be influenced by that, and it does inspire you.
CS: What bothers me about movies set in New York–and I’ll knock 2 points off a review if I see this–is when a filmmaker is being lazy and unoriginal in the locations in the city where they choose to shoot.
Shepard: Without a doubt, exactly. Well, it’s just like, “C’mon, man. Just pick something that we haven’t seen before.” But it’s tricky and sometimes, great filmmakers will battle for some original way to look at something that’s familiar. I actually just wrote a brief article about location scouting, but I truly believe that location scouting is the great unheralded part of filmmaking, because locations say so much about your story. Sitting in front of an “Enjoy Sarajevo” sign that for the whole scene you think is a Coca-Cola sign, then at the end it says something else, that is very dramatic, and it tells you so much about what happened in the war, about the humor of the war. That was a real sign that was really there during the war. All of that stuff it affects you and how you tell your story and how the actors respond to the story. My production designer Jan Roelfs, he had “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and all these Peter Greenaway movies, and he did “World Trade Center” for Oliver Stone, but he’s really good. Almost every location was almost months of work, even things you would just normally be like “Oh, they’re just on the corner of a road in Bosnia” but just finding one with the right feeling like you’re high up. How can we get there? Where can we park the crew? Can we shoot 360 degrees? All of these questions go into those choices, but I’m always really proud of the crew members who help me with that, because I think those choices actually helped the movie.
CS: I was actually impressed with the restaurant at the top of the curvy road, because when I was in Bucharest, I went to this Serbian restaurant that was literally at the top of this endlessly curvy road at the top of a hill. You couldn’t create that anywhere else.
Shepard: Yeah, and it really is a restaurant on a curvy road, and in fact, everyone was crazy, because I think it was the last location we found, and they were like, “Why can’t you just frackin’ pick a restaurant?” I’m like, “No, it’s gotta feel like this.” And one day Jan calls me and says, “I’m two hours from Zagreb. I’m on some road. I found this restaurant. They’re going to hate us because it’s just going to screw us in terms of having two hours to get to this restaurant, but it’s going to look real.”
CS: I also wanted to ask you about the changing of the title, because I think you might have mentioned the article the last time we spoke
Shepard: I think I did.
CS: When I heard about this movie coming out called “The Hunting Party,” I don’t think I realized it was your movie until I read a description and went, “Oh, this is Richard Shepard’s new movie!” Can you talk about that decision to change the title?
Shepard: Well, originally, before I even came on, the producers owned the article, which was called “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” and they had plopped on the cover of that article, “Spring Break in Bosnia,” so they had come up with this title even before I came on. There was this title, which I thought was a clever title, but along the way, it was confusing to people in a major way. First of all, they kept calling it “Spring Time for Bosnia.” Second of all, “Bosnia” was just a word that really turned off a lot of people, and then at a certain point, it’s a clever title and my friends will all think it’s clever, but this is a commercial enterprise at the end of the day. Why have a title that’s ultimately confusing to people and going to limit the possibilities? I want as many people to see it as possible and it’s already not a huge slam-dunk “Transformers” type movie, so I already need some love. If it’s a title that confuses people than you’re just boned.
CS: But you could have had Terrence Howard show up in his War Machine armor and catch the war criminal in the end
Shepard: That’s right. (laughs) I like that feeling! There ya go! I’m sure Harvey would pay for a reshoot right now if I said that.
CS: The other reason I asked about a possible trilogy was because the poster was similar to the one for “The Matador.” Was that something done deliberately?
Shepard: Yeah, I love the poster for both movies. I don’t know. The movie I’m writing right now is also about a friendship and it’s a black comedy, a drama, and it’s a mixture of genres
CS: Think about it. It would make such a good boxed-set if you did it as the third part of a trilogy.
Shepard: Yeah, I like that.
CS: As I watched this movie, I thought you could probably make a very cool James Bond movie. I’m not sure if it’s just the Pierce Brosnan connection or because you’re good at capturing these different locations. They already have someone doing the next movie, but would you ever consider doing something like that if offered, even though it would be so controlled by the producers and the studio?
Shepard: You know, it would be kind of interesting considering that I did “The Matador” if they suddenly ask me to do a James Bond movie, because “The Matador” sort of skewered a little bit that whole blow-dried perception, but I think Daniel Craig was just so great. I loved how Pierce did his Bond, I really did, and I hated the way they sort of dumped him from that thing, but Daniel Craig really reinvigorated that. It was really tautly done and really well directed and really well acted, so yes, the answer is that if that opportunity came, I would do it. When you do TV, you’re a little bit working for the man. You have people from the studio and from the network and the producers all on the set, which is different from a feature in which you’re sending dailies back to the studio, but they’re not there on the set.
CS: Especially when you’re making your movie over in Bosnia
Shepard: Especially not then, but when you’re doing a TV pilot, every single shot is scrutinized, every single thing, because they’re spending millions of dollars that they’re never going to get back unless it works, as opposed to a movie that if it doesn’t work, it’ll go straight to DVD and they’ll make their money back. On a TV pilot, everyone’s looking at everything, so yes, you are in a creative environment, but there’s someone looking over your shoulder in a major way and I would assume that doing something like a James Bond movie would be very similar in that they have a major franchise to protect. The producers are very strong and they’d want it to be done in a certain way, but at the same time, I think it would be a challenge that I would probably be up for. That as a particular because in general, I’ve always loved James Bond movies even when they’re bad.
CS: I think it might be interesting to add some of your dark comedy sensibilities to the mix.
Shepard: Well, I just heard did you read that they’re thinking of adding some comedy to the second one, but it’s interesting because it could be
CS: It could be a return to the bad puns.
Shepard: Well, yeah, that’s what it is. What was so great about Daniel Craig was that he looked like he would just f*cking kill you, and that’s what I liked about it.
Having literally come full circle, it seemed like as good a time as any to finish our interview. Shepard’s The Hunting Party opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 7 and expands nationwide on September 14.
As an added special treat for those intrigued by the premise or the men on which this movie is based, we also talked to Scott Anderson and John Falk, two of the journalists who actually went hunting for the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia. You can hear more about their story and the thrills of being a field journalist in a foreign country by clicking here.