Exclusive Interview : Richard Shepard

Clint chats to the writer/director of “The Matador”


Regardless of whether you’ve asked for it or not, sometimes the nozzle’s ripped off the lid of career refresher and you’re back at square one.

For Pierce Brosnan, it means giving Bond a discomfited wedgie and trying to show audiences he’s more than Martini’s and nymphettes, and for writer/director Richard Shepard, whose back catalogue screens mainly at the local Blockbuster video, it’s showing that you’ve got the skills and eye to work with such notable names as Brosnan.

Together, Brosnan and Shepard are two talents whose careers are about to blast off into completely different galaxies than they’re both use to. And for the better, if their new film “The Matador”, the story of a globetrotting bisexual hitman, hits as big as they’re predicting it will.

“The Matador” is an important movie for its lead. Not only is Brosnan playing totally against type – but it’s his first film since he was dumped as 007, so all eyes will be on him to see if he can ‘make it without Q’.

“It’s the perfect movie for him”, assures Shepard. “He’s playing a hitman, but there’s some references in there to characters he’s played before, and I think that baggage he bought (from Bond) only enhanced the movie. I didn’t want to be a parody, I mean I didn’t write it thinking Pierce Brosnan would be in it, but I think he saw it as a way to comment about his career”.

In one scene in the movie, says Shepard, “Philip Baker Hall, who plays his sort of handler Mr Randy, tells Julian, Pierce’s character, that ‘if you take some time off, they’re going to replace you with a younger, cheaper kid”.

Paradoxically, that’s exactly what’s happened with the Bond franchise. After giving them four hit 007 movies, the studio brusquely dumped Pierce Brosnan in favour of a younger model. (For the record, Shepard believes Brosnan is happy that the producers have gone with his friend, Daniel Craig, for the part

Still Shepard, a New York-based filmmaker who made his directorial debut with the flop “The Linguini Incident” (1991) and whose other films include the entertaining but little-known efforts “Oxygen”, “Mexico City” and “Mercy”, says he’s got nothing but love for the Bond films – but for different reasons than a fan-boy might offer.

“I thank god for James Bond, because James Bond gave him [Pierce] the money and power to get my movie made”, he smiles down the line.

A couple of years back, Shepard, quite desperate for work, sent a copy of the film’s script to Brosnan’s company. Not because he wanted Brosnan to star in the film – in fact, he knew Brosnan probably wouldn’t even read it if he just sent it cold – but merely as a sample of his work, attached to a resume. He was applying for a job as a writer on another of Brosnan’s films.

“They were looking for a writer to write Thomas Crown Affair 2”, explains Shepard, “And I met with them, and they asked if they could show my script to Pierce. And I was like ‘Oh yeah, right – he’s really going to read this”.

They Did. He Did.

Two weeks later, Shepard was back at home in New York when he got the phone call that changed everything. “It was Pierce and he said he read it and really wanted to do it”.

Suddenly, “The Matador” had a budget of $10 million dollars, a mega-star as its star and producer, and just one concern.

“It didn’t know if he would want to play such a scoundrel though, I mean, this guy is sexually ambiguous – he’s fucking men and women, he’s a mess, and I didn’t want to soften it up”, says Shepard.

Thankfully, Brosnan was keen to mix it up and play against type. He even agreed to have “grey in his hair, be skinny but with a pot belly, and just let it hang out”.

Shepard believes Pierce responded to that because he’s so use to playing these debonair perfectly-put together guys and thought that it was going to be fun because he “didn’t need to be perfect – he can be completely fucked up”.

If Brosnan had wanted to soften the character and make it more of a straight-laced actioner, it would’ve been the total opposite of what Shepard was trying to do with this film.

“I had seen Sexy Beast and I just loved it. I just think it’s fucking brilliant. I got inspired, because I thought it rejiggered that ‘one last heist’ movie, which was sort of like a dead genre – I mean, Ocean’s Twelve!? I wanna blow my brains out, its fucking crap on a stick”, he says. “What I liked about Sexy Beast was that it was all about the characters. It was a character piece. I wondered if I couldn’t address the hitman genre from a character point of view too.

“It was the first script I’ve written without an outline – I just let the characters go where they may. But I’ve said this before and it’s the truth, I really didn’t want to think anyone in their right mind was going to want to play this part – he’s mean to kids, he’s a bastard, he’s a scoundrel. It’s a funny role, but it’s a difficult role – and I just didn’t think it was something a major actor was going to want to do, so I thought I was going to have to make it like I did Oxygen (a low-budget thriller starring then unknown Adrien Brody), for a million bucks, or even less”.

Once Brosnan, and his money and repute, was onboard, other actors wanted in too.

“It started to feel like a real movie – so I thought I would try and get the best actors I can. Greg [Kinnear] and Hope [Davis] were right on the top of my list.

“I think Hope Davis is hysterically funny and a real gifted actress, and she’s like a thief – she steals every scene she’s in. Kinnear is so funny, but he’s a good dramatic actor. I wanted Pierce surrounded by the best actors – there’s no car chases in this movie, it’s a character driven comedy – because if the acting wasn’t one hundred and ten percent the movie was just going to fucking die. I also wanted to get actors that are famous for stealing movies, because it would make Pierce lift his game and be as good as he could be. I wanted him to be in a position where he had to give the best performance of his career – and if he wasn’t going to do it, then Greg Kinnear was going to steal it”.

Even before the film’s release, Shepard’s caught a wave. Whether it’s a wave of success or not is yet to be seen, but it’s a wave all the same, and one that’s washing him ashore some pretty big names and places.

“First of all, I sold the movie to The Weinstein Company at Sundance – so I got to meet Harvey Weinstein. It was every Indy filmmaker’s fantasy, especially Harvey Weinstein flying in and carving a deal on your movie. That sort of started the rock and roll element out. Yeah, it’s been a pretty great ride”.

Shepard’s currently writing a movie for Warner Independent – who he says “loves The Matador” and were willing to take a chance on him because of it – called “Spring Break in Bosnia”. “It’s based on article that was in Esquire [magazine] about these two journalists who go on a hunt for the main war criminal in Bosnia – about five years after the war. It’s a dark, dark comic look at why the international community doesn’t seem to be able to catch a guy – who has a $5 million dollar bounty on his head – when he’s hiding in this country that’s tiny, everyone seems to know where is, and no one’s caught him”, he says, “You can relate that to another story”.

Richard Shepard is living proof that it’s worth dreaming big – no matter how out of your reach that objective seems to be.

“I was making these movies, and doing OK, but was never in a position to have my calls returned or be able to get to the top people – I was always meeting the lower-level people. Now, I’ve been able to get in the room with the people and be able to set projects up –it’s totally changed everything for me”.

It doesn’t all rest entirely on whether “The Matador” makes a mint in its opening week either, says the filmmaker.

“If the movie comes out and it’s a total bomb, I won’t be in a desperate position because people like the movie…that’s all you really want”. But he adds, “Of Course I’d like it not to bomb, that would be better”.

- CLINT MORRIS

THE MATADOR Commences in December in the U.S, Feb 2006 in Australia