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ESCAPE FROM MOVIE JAIL
The writer-director of The Matador does hard time for making a failed first feature.

BY RICHARD SHEPARD

Writer-director Richard Shepard and David Bowie on the set of The Linguini Incident.

Hollywood hates failure. They think the stench is catching, and no one likes to smell bad in Los Angeles.

If you’ve directed a movie and it fails spectacularly, you can be sent to a place designed specifically so that no one in the business catches even the faintest whiff of your cinematic malodorousness.

It’s called Movie Jail, and it’s an ugly, ugly place.

Orson Welles was sent to movie jail and never got out. Altman was there in the ’80s. Frankenheimer too. Soderbergh spent some time there in the early ’90s.

Movie jail is the dark, disturbing little secret of the movie business. Your calls aren’t returned. The good scripts stop coming your way. You can’t get your movies made. After years of getting your ass kissed and the word “brilliant” bandied about you, a few bombs can make the agents and producers who once fawned over you turn their BlackBerrys off and run for the Hollywood Hills.

But this is not about those great directors who ran into some bad luck. This is about me. Some schmuck you’ve never heard of.

See, it’s not only giant directors who can get sent to jail. In fact, the prison roll call is filled with more directors that you haven’t heard of than you have.

Many a “first time” director becomes a “last time” director if their movie ends up considered a failure. They had their chance, and they blew it. They get sent to movie jail and never get out. They leave Hollywood. They end up in the family furniture-moving business or something equally unglamorous. They loiter at the local Blockbuster Video parking lot on a rainy Saturday night to see if anyone rents the faded VHS version of their first and only film.

I know. I’ve been there.

Richard Shepard today.
My sentence to movie jail was handed down in relative obscurity to the general public. However, Hollywood is not the general public, and those in power watch eagerly to see how you fare when given an opportunity to direct a film with major players. They watched what I did in 1991 with The Linguini Incident and threw away the key.

I was just a punk back then. Twenty-four. Thin. It was the early ’90s, and life was good. Somehow a script I had co-written got into the hands of David Bowie and Rosanna Arquette, and we were able to raise a couple million bucks to make the movie.

It was a strange, difficult experience. Our producer mysteriously disappeared for long periods of time. Shelley Winters showed up drunk on her first day of shooting, and I had to fire her. Rosanna Arquette took to not saying good morning to me when she arrived on the set. It certainly wasn’t like NYU film school. But somehow we completed shooting and we all felt that we had a little gem.

Hollywood took notice.

During editing, production execs started calling me at home. Agents floated scripts in front of me. Sycophants began to circle. I was invited to swanky parties, met movie stars and studio heads. I was feted. I was called “a little Scorsese” in Variety. I was asked what I wanted to do next. I bought a thousand-dollar suit.

Problem was — no one had seen the film.

That all changed on April 21, 1991, the night of the first industry screening. The agents were there in droves. The studio execs too. The backslapping sycophants. My parents even flew out. I wore my thousand-dollar suit and felt like the movie world was mine for the picking and the three-picture final-cut deals were right around the corner. I believed the hype. Swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

And then the film started.

Afterward, in the lobby, by the shrimp platter, my father awkwardly told me that he liked the film well enough, but it seemed a bit “longish.”

His, it turned out, was the nicest review.

It seems my film was a romantic comedy that turned out neither very romantic nor, unfortunately, very funny.

And because of that, because it was my first film and I had been given this incredible opportunity and had blown it, I was immediately and unconditionally incarcerated in movie jail.

No due process. No appeals. The town turned its back on me faster than Don Simpson snorted cocaine off a hooker’s ass.

The day after the screening, my phone did not ring once. Not a wrong number, not a telemarketer, not someone looking for my roommate. Nobody. And certainly no calls from any of the agents and studio execs who only hours before were schmoozing me about how much they wanted to fulfill my megalomaniacal dreams of movie-moguldom.

The stroking, it seems, was over.

Jail. It’s an ugly word. Uglier in my lime green thousand-dollar suit. No one had warned me about it. No one had told me that in Hollywood you can go from hot shit to dead cold in the speed it takes to project 105 minutes of celluloid stinkiness. I was over before I began.

Pierce Brosnan in Richard Shepard’s The Matador. PHOTO : DANIEL DAZA.

My co-writer was able to get work because no one blamed her for the mess of the movie. Fuck, they actually liked the script. It was my direction that everyone hated. And those 15 extra unfunny minutes that I had refused to cut because I was young and stupid and believed the hype and believed my shit didn’t stink and believed those Hollywood agents and executives when they told me that they loved me. I was a punk. A fool.

After that screening everything changed for me. I found myself out of work and devastated. I got fat. I got drunk. I got thin. I got fat. I shoplifted food because I was broke and ashamed to get a job waiting tables in order to, god forbid, have to serve any of those agents or sycophants who had earlier touted my cinematic brilliance. I saw Rosanna Arquette at a party and hid behind a plant. I was a mess.

All I had ever wanted to do was be a film director, and now no one would let me. Agents ran like roaches in the daylight. The studios wouldn’t return my calls. My car was towed, and I couldn’t afford to get it out. I wasn’t like Altman, who had a tremendous body of work and had just made some bombs, or Welles, who was a genius but deemed irresponsible. I was a once arrogant kid with nothing to show for myself but a crappy, unfunny movie with pasta in its title and a blown opportunity. There’s too much talent in Hollywood. They have no time for someone who flubs his shot.

Desperate for work, I applied for a job directing at a softcore film company. I was turned down. I was the plague that no one dared talk about. I was invisible. I was 25 years old and hidden away in movie jail to rot and die.

After nearly two years of alcohol abuse, incessant masturbation and incredible depression, my then girlfriend, appealing to my ever growing need for violent revenge, said to me that the only way to make myself feel better, the only way out of my deep, deep funk, was for me to become wildly successful and put all those agents and sycophants in the unenviable position of having to kiss my ass again.

In other words, she said, get off the couch, loser, and do something.

So I did.

I moved back to New York. I sublet a cheap apartment with roaches that did not scurry in the daylight, and started writing again. I was freed from the constraint of attempting to be embraced by a Hollywood that had no interest. I was only writing for myself, and it felt great.

After a while, I decided that the smartest thing to do, if I actually wanted a career in the film business, was to make another movie. A film that I could actually show people. Normal financing was clearly impossible, so through a desperate combination of pure sweat, petty crime and tactical blood donations I somehow raised $50,000, and three years after the debacle that was The Linguini Incident, I made an ultra-low-budget psychological thriller called Mercy on the mean streets of New York.

It saved my life.

I was a director again. It felt amazing.

Mercy starred a then unknown Sam Rockwell. It played at film festivals around the world, sold to HBO, and the few people who actually saw it seemed to actually like it.

I followed that with a film called Oxygen, which starred a then unknown Adrien Brody. It played film festivals around the world, sold to HBO, and the few people who actually saw it seemed to actually like it.

I produced a film called Scotland, Pa. It starred Christopher Walken and Maura Tierney, was in competition at Sundance, and if you rent it you can see me naked in it as a streaker.

I paid off my credit card bills, directed some cable TV, joined the Directors Guild.

I did all these things, and yet no one in the “business” knew who I was.

I was making films that were well received, I was making a modest living, I was happy, but I was off the Hollywood radar. I wasn’t hot or cold. I was neither. I was invisible.

Invisible, in Hollywood terms, is another word for jail.

I was offered no big movies. I was offered no big financing. I was offered no big stars. I was a fringe indie filmmaker — tolerated, but not allowed back into the club.

My friends who I had started out with had major studio movies made. They had fat cars and fat houses and fat bellies rich with Hollywood power and money.

I just kept hoping that the next one of my little films would break out. That the luck that befell others who had directed indie films and had broken through to wider audiences, the P.T. Andersons, the David O. Russells, would eventually happen to me. I just kept hoping that someone, somehow, would find me in movie prison and tell me that the judge had had a change of heart.

And then things got screwy.

Within a year, my financing source for my indie films dried up after Scotland, Pa. stink-bombed at the box office, my writing gigs in the lower end of the Hollywood spectrum disappeared, a script I wrote on spec died an ugly, bloody death in the marketplace, my dad got cancer, and my agent dropped me.

I found myself, at 38, back to zero in my career. Broke. Unheralded. In jail and forgotten.

So I started writing again. This had been my m.o. since I left Hollywood. I could always write, and I would write my way out of the mess I was in. I would not let the fuckers take me down. I would make another movie, for whatever I could raise — $5,000 if I had to — and I would live to see another day.

So I wrote The Matador. Wrote it to make it cheap. Make it on DV for next to nothing. Something odd and cool. Something for me. Something that could and would never be made in Hollywood.

And then, somehow, Pierce Brosnan’s production company got a hold of it as a writing sample...

This past January, The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film got a standing ovation, Roger Ebert gave it an amazing review, and we sold it to Harvey Weinstein in a bidding war that made the front page of Variety.

Instantaneously, within 48 hours of screening my movie for the first time, after 14 years in the dank cinema gulag, my phone started ringing...

The agents and studio execs and sycophants all came calling. People I hadn’t heard from since I was a 24-year-old punk. And new people too. People I had only read about in the trades.

I took meetings, got deals. I bathed in the glory of the excess that is Sundance success. I realized that finally my movies, my passion, had a chance to reach a wider audience. It’s what I had been fighting for since I was sent away.

But I was also older. Wiser. I knew that today’s front-page-of-Variety flavor of the month can be next week’s stagnant development deal. I knew that this year’s Sundance hit can be next year’s cautionary “why did that movie tank at the box office?” think piece.

So I decided I was just going to ride the wave. Enjoy it for what it was. Still live in New York City, make the movies I wanted to make, and not buy a thousand-dollar suit.

Many people congratulated me on finally breaking through. Of beating the odds and getting out of jail. I wasn’t hot (they will wait for the opening-weekend receipts to decide that), but I wasn’t cold anymore either, and in a business that is 100 percent perception, that means something. Many people told me that they had been rooting for me for years. That they were always hoping that something I made would break through, and were thrilled that it finally did. Even if it was for only one night at Sundance.

Thing was, what I realized and no one else did, was that as soon as I made Mercy for fifty grand back in 1996 and finally had a movie I was proud of, I was out of movie jail.

I was just waiting for everyone to realize I had escaped...

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