LOS ANGELES — Richard Shepard is an independent film and television director and screenwriter who has been recently vaulting from one success to another. The television pilots that he has directed for the shows “Ugly Betty,” “Criminal Minds,” “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” and “Ringer” have successfully led to serialized television shows, and Shepard won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing and a Director’s Guild of America award for “Ugly Betty” in 2007. Shepard’s 2005 film, “The Matador,” starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis, received enthusiastic reviews. His most recent film, a dark comedy called “The Hunting Party,” with Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg, was shot on location and deals with modern political issues. His documentary, “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” (2010) is a favorite of movie buffs.
Shepard, a native of New York City, continually encounters Armenians in all walks of life in Los Angeles. He said, “As soon as I hear a name which sounds Armenian, I say my mom is Armenian and we start talking about it.” His father’s family was originally from the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and exposed him to aspects of Jewish culture. Shepard noted that there are filmmakers who have tapped into their childhoods and backgrounds in a specific way to make their films. Atom Egoyan is a good example. Shepard, however, is not one of them. His childhood and cultural formation manifest themselves in his work through his worldview.
He explained, “I consider myself very lucky in the weird rich complex of back- grounds that I grew up with. It contributed to my development as an artist and a human being, my way of looking at things, and my attitudes.” Shepard was exposed to different cultures and languages, leading him to become artistically open, and flexible in life. He said, “I remember as a child going over to Grandma’s house, and people were speaking languages that were not English. I can eat any food, and travel almost anywhere. I have shot movies all over the world in places most people have not gone to.” Despite this general influence, Shepard has not so far made works delving directly into his past, observing, “More specifically, that hasn’t been the case, but who knows where it may lead?”
Both of Shepard’s parents were artists in different ways. Shepard’s passion for movies was shared with his father, who would take him to revival theaters as a child. Shepard said, “I think that as soon as I realized that I was not going to play third base for the New York Mets I shifted my priority to making Super 8 movies, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I educated myself, getting magazines and books to learn how to do little tricks and visual effects. I was influenced by real movies I was seeing. It is such an incredible way to express yourself. Then eventually I realized it was what I wanted to do, and truly the only thing that I was at that point capable of doing.”
After making films in high school, Shepard went to New York University (NYU) for film school. “NYU at the time went out of its way not to teach you anything about business. It allowed me to be in a very creative environment without the specter of commerciality over your work. I had some great teachers and was able to experiment without any pressure, which the business aspect usually adds,” he explained.
He learned about techniques of lighting and
all the other aspects of making movies, though he does regret not learning more at the time about how to deal with actors or the business itself.
He also made a lot of good friends and connections, which ultimately were helpful in his career. He loves to point out on various occasions, and on his website, that he is still waiting for an honorary diploma from NYU. (He failed one science class, which prevented him formally from graduating with a degree.)
Shepard feels that his career can be divided into two halves. Initially, he followed what the conventional wisdom about screenwriting — to follow a very specific structure. Shepard said, “This is what they teach in film school and every single book of film writing. This is the structure of most successful movies. The problem is that you end up trapped in a structure. For years I would outline a movie, pages of this and that will happen. It is smart in one way to do this but for me in retrospect it was not smart.”
Then, while in his mid-30s, he found his creative voice. He said, “Some find it much younger. My finding my actual ‘voice’ took a while. I really learned to do the craft of writing. This eventually allowed me to stop thinking about the craft and focus on the art. When I write now I don’t feel like I’m trying to fit into a box, but that I am my own thing. I think writers get stuck trying to write what they think others want to see or read.”
It happened in 2004 when Shepard began to write “The Matador.” He said, “I was in one of the many darker periods of my professional career and not getting much work. I decided to write a script, but not for anybody except myself. I let the characters take me where they wanted to go.” It turned into a comic thriller about a hit man and a businessman, both experiencing difficulties in their lives, who accidentally meet and strike up an unlikely friendship.
Shepard planned to make this movie very inexpensively, but then luck stepped in. He sent
it as a sample for a writing job to Brosnan’s production company. Shepard said, “I would have never thought of him…his producing partner though felt it was really funny, so they gave it to him to read. We weren’t even trying to get him. It was lucky timing. A few years earlier when he was doing James Bond he might not have want- ed to risk his image.” Brosnan agreed to both co-produce, and act in it, and this added another layer to the film precisely because he was appearing now as an anti-Bond. Shepard added, “‘The Matador’ might have come off as a dark comedy about a hit man, but it was also a movie on friendship and what a marriage was like and what you need to do to get ahead in business and having a moral compass in life.”
“The Hunting Party,” Shepard’s next film, appeared in 2007, just two years after “The Matador.” Another dark comedy, it was loosely based on a real life attempt by two journalists to catch the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (who later of course was arrested and at present remains on trial, accused of geno- cide). Shepard spent months researching Bosnia before writing and then shooting the film on site, some 15 years after the fighting and ethnic cleansing took place. Emotions were still raw. He said, “We had extras crying when the set was dressed and looked like their town with blood on the ground. Journalists in a war
zone keep a sense of humor — that is the only way that they can deal with things. There is a level of that in the movie but we were also extremely careful to be accurate and I certainly wanted to make sure that we were not treating anything that happened in a light way.”
Shepard added, “Without a doubt, there is some correlation in my life to this film. I don’t necessarily have any interest in doing a movie on the Armenian Genocide, but you can touch on topics without directly dealing with them.” Among other things, he explored in the film the tragedy that ethnic cleansing and genocide was permitted to occur again, while the US and the world knew it was happening. The US chose to do nothing initially.
Shepard feels he has developed his own directorial vision as well as a personal approach to writing. He said, “One of the pleasures of being a director is that it is ultimately your decision. Even with the world’s best cinematographer offering an opinion, in the end it is your deci- sion. There is no rhyme or reason, no way of explaining. Filmmakers in general are steeped in so many things — the spirits of their parents and friends, the things that they see…I’d like to think that I am still evolving.
The movies that Shepard has recently made are all character-driven, with entertaining dialogue and plot twists. This attracts prominent actors looking for the kinds of roles they can- not always find. Despite his success, Shepard remains clear-eyed about the dangers of his profession. He pointed out that “each time a movie is put together it is a mystery. It is a miracle even if you are Steven Spielberg. There are a
million things conspiring against you. In a weird way, I am the CEO of a $20-million organization for one year. No one’s figured out the pure secret to it. You hope you have the best, most interesting script, that you find the right people to trust you and give you money, that
your partners won’t screw you over, that the movie will be distributed correctly, that they will spend enough money advertising, that the reviews will be good…It can easily go the other way. Great scripts don’t always get made, and even very good movies sometimes do not get seen.”
Shepard has made a conscious decision not to work in the studio system — though he would have gotten larger budgets — because he does not want to direct movies that he does not also write. Instead, in between writing and directing his own movies, to support himself, Shepard directs television projects, which pay well. They also, he feels, allow him a different kind of creativity.
He explained: “I do a lot of pilots, which set the look for the whole show. It is like a mini- movie, with a lot more time than regular TV. You tend to put on a different hat for each one. You can’t hold on to your own aesthetic as much.” Shepard said that learning about art history in high school and the Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed him to realize after see- ing so many different ways of painting a bowl of fruit that you can shoot things in different ways as well.
Another advantage of television pilots is that those that are successful attract a lot of attention, while others are forgotten about, as if they
do not exist. But, with movies, he said, “if you make a film that is not great, you suffer in a way that is so different. And people will always look at my last movie.” Finally, it is three months of work with a deadline for TV versus two years for a film.
With five recent successful pilots which have become television shows, Shepard has a good track record, and this allowed him in September 2011 to launch a small production company called Olé with the producer brothers Sean and Bryan Furst, with whom he worked on “The Matador.” Olé has an exclusive two- year deal with CBS Television Studios. Olé, Shepard said, basically “finds scripts for me to produce. It is just being proactive. The company is the difference between being a hired gun as a director and producing your own TV show. It is a lot of extra work, which is why I have partners.” The Furst brothers read scripts, come up with ideas, meet writers, sometimes before Shepard does, and then they discuss things. CBS finances the company and Olé pitches ideas to it. The project concepts that CBS buys will be produced by the Furst brothers, with Shepard as executive producer.
Clearly, Shepard through practical experience, has caught up with the business side of the industry and has drawn his own lessons: “It is a curse and a blessing. During this economic downturn a lot of people in business do not have a stable life. They are laid off and unprepared to reinvent themselves. In the movie business you have to reinvent yourself every week, and you are always looking for a new job. You cannot depend on only one thing. You have to have a lot of balls in the air, and you always want to be as self-starting as possible.”
Shepard has come to enjoy the changes in schedule and approach that switching back and forth between directing TV and writing and directing his own films entail. He said, “I hap- pen to like both worlds so much. When I’m writ- ing, I’m in complete control of my destiny and day. I can do anything when I want, but when you’re directing you deal with 150 people, all asking you questions. After six months of writ- ing a script I like to get back to working with tons of people, and vice versa.”
Shepard just finished a pilot called “Golden Boy” for CBS about the meteoric rise of one policeman’s career all the way to police com- missioner. He also has directed some episodes of the popular new HBO series, “Girls.” Shepard’s next big film project is called “Dom Hemingway,” a comedy about a safecracker set in London, in which Jude Law has agreed to star. If all goes well, Shepard will begin filming his new script this fall. He already is scouting locations in London.