“Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.”
Richard Shepard’s new film, The Hunting Party, begins with this intriguing disclaimer — a tongue-in-cheek variation of the common “Based on a true story”. It’s more of a mission statement than a prologue, really, and the movie lives up to its promise of keeping us off-balance with a tone of absurdist realism that is both respectful of its characters and subject matter, yet unafraid to lampoon the outlandish circumstances that (we realize as we laugh) are rooted in fact.
Richard Shepard recently sat down with Rotten Tomatoes to discuss gallows humor, international conspiracy, why wartime cameramen think they’re invincible, and (because why not?) the future of cinema.
With The Matador and now The Hunting Party it seems like you enjoy characters who are morally dubious but who also earn our sympathy. What about that type of character attracts you, and how are those characters used to tell a complex story?
Richard Shepard: I think people are a mixture of everything. I like desperate characters because they do things that most of us normally wouldn’t do. If a character is a scoundrel or a liar you think you know them, but then I can bring some emotion to them and they become much fuller than you ever imagined. So what I try to do is have a story where you don’t quite know where it’s going, and characters who you don’t quite know where they’re going. You think you understand who Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) is at the beginning of The Hunting Party but then you learn something that changes your opinion of him — suddenly there’s more to this guy than you initially thought. For me, when I see movies where I kind of know who the characters are and what the situation is, I get bored. To me, it’s, “How do I tell a story that will keep the audience engaged?” A great story does that: it’s not exactly what you expect.
“Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.” You set a “truth is stranger than fiction” tone right up front.
RS: Some of the events are so absurd, and they’re true, and then certain things are made up. That’s why at the end of the movie I explain which is which, because I think that it’s important for better understanding the movie to be able to differentiate. Simon Hunt is a made-up character. But there really were journalists who went through the same journey. I’m not ashamed of that. I think that’s part of the fun. One of the ways I was able to do that in the movie was to say, listen, I’m going to create new characters based on these journalists. I’m not making a movie about the real people. I’m making a movie about what they did, and what happened to them. But I will create characters so that I can have the freedom to make them say and do what I want. The real-life journalists were fine with that. Same thing for the bad guy. People were really after this guy Radovan Karadicz. But I came up with a combination of several people, who then became The Fox. That’s who Simon Hunt and Duck are after. I did that so I could have freedom with what The Fox said and did, so that I didn’t have to be stuck. Certain things I wanted to stay to the truth. Certain things I changed, and certain things are the facts.
I wonder, in setting this semi-comedic, semi-realist tone, were you basically saying that humor is the best form of criticism? Because it’s a very critical movie.
RS:It’s great when you can bait and switch people — and I don’t mean that in a negative way, I mean that in truth. If we were advertising this movie as a very serious indictment about the hunt for war criminals, and it’s a very dark drama, it would probably get great reviews, but people would stay away from it because no one wants to be lectured. I feel like you can have entertainment, and you can laugh, but during that period of time you can also think, and people should get upset. America is spending a lot of time and money pretending to be searching for people who we’re not really searching for. That is enough to get someone angry. Certainly people over there, in Bosnia, are really angry. But they also see the humor in it. But they’re also angry that we’re not catching these guys. So I like switching it up. I like that people are laughing but they don’t even know if they should be laughing. I think that’s interesting. I think it makes for a fun movie. And you’re far more likely to be able to actually get something into someone’s head if they don’t quite see it coming, as opposed to delivering a very serious examination.
I have to say, in the opening sequence when you’re introducing the duo of Simon and Duck, I was very disturbed by that segment because of the treatment of war. It felt like a video game — the MTV editing style, the voice-over, people getting shot left and right but somehow the American journalists are impervious, even as foreigners are dying all around them. They even smoke a joint while under sniper fire. It felt like a phantasmagoria, from their point of view. Could you talk about this sequence and how it relates to your balance of comedy and realism?
RS:What you’re saying is what I wanted people to feel — that it’s very vicious, people are dying, but these reporters witnessed horrible things and somehow maintained a sense of humor about it, and about themselves. They were doing drugs, they were smoking hashish, they were dropping pills, while this horrible s— was going on. Sometimes, for them, the course of an evening was, “We have to get out of this town or we’re going to die, and we have to find a bottle of booze.” Equally as important. That absurdity is interesting. It’s why war journalists are a special breed. They survive because they keep their sense of humor. Like them, the movie mixes drama and comedy. Believe me, it was a question. And it’s always been a question: can people laugh after they’ve seen something horrible? And some people can’t. It’s not a movie for everyone. Some people will just not be able to deal with it. And some people can, because that’s what life is about. These characters do smoke joints. And they do get shot. Some of them do die. But they still laugh. Part of the reason why I wanted the real-life journalists to be on set a lot of the time — and a lot of our crew worked as journalists during the war; the second unit DP was a journalists whose best friend died during the war — I wanted them there to make sure we were being as real as we could, and if we were going to be absurd it was only within the limits of what actually happened during the war.
RS:I knew the basics of what happened, but I certainly wasn’t an expert. My preparation was to read an enormous amount, and then go over there. I ended up going on the journey that the journalists take in the movie. I talked to people from NATO, and The Hague, I talked to a lot of survivors of the war, a lot of people who were journalists during the war. Was I an expert on the war when I started? No. Nor was I particularly interested in it. But I became fascinated by it; by how America didn’t seem to care too much about the war when it was happening, and how we still don’t care now. We pretend that we’re all about justice, and we pretend that we want to capture these war criminals and put them on trial for crimes against humanity. It’s important for us, as human beings, to at least have a trial, whatever the verdict is, but to have a trial and to expose these crimes. And we put these indictments out, but we don’t do much about them. We haven’t caught Bin Laden. We haven’t caught Karadicz. And the question is, can we not find them, or do we not want to find them? I think it’s that we don’t want to find them.
RS:It’ll be shown in Sarajevo for sure. I don’t know about Serbia. I don’t think it’s going to be the number one film in Serbia.
The Hunting Party deals a lot with the humanitarian role of journalism. In today’s media culture where we are oversaturated with images of war, do you think there’s the danger of people becoming too familiar and almost callous to it, or will it come to the point where the horrors can’t be ignored?
RS:I think we zone out, almost. When you see what goes on in Iraq on a daily basis — more people dying in car bombings — you almost brush it aside after a while. To actually comprehend the human tragedy of these events is overwhelming. We see so many images, but there’s always the sense, for Americans, that it’s not in our backyard. That’s another reason why the war in Bosnia was so fascinating; because it really was in Europe’s backyard. It was in Europe. And they didn’t do anything about it for years. It took the Americans to end that war, really. That’s a shame.
Is that why you repeat those images of Chuck Norris during the film, to draw the comparison?
RS:Right. As much as I like Missing in Action, I wanted to poke fun at these conventions that we’re used to in movies. Chuck Norris pops out of the water and shoots a bunch of people in slow motion. That’s not what The Hunting Party is. We cut away from the big action scenes, almost. It’s not as important as the other stuff. Listen, I never wanted Richard Gere with a gun. It never was about that. It was about, can we make the story compelling, thrilling and scary at the same time, but not have to resort to bogus filmmaking. Even though that can be really fun. If I made a Rambo movie with the same opening scene, people wouldn’t be upset. But immediately The Hunting Party is based on a true story, the disclaimer prepares us for humor, and then suddenly we see graphic violence. We don’t know quite what to think.
Whenever a gun does appear in the film there’s a serious sense of threat. Simon and Duck take it very seriously, it’s not just a prop.
I loved that about their performances. They played every scene for real. It’s true. It’s interesting: if you speak to wartime cameramen, they say that if they’ve got a camera they feel like the bullets won’t hit them. It’s a weird thing. They’re not seeing it for real; they’re seeing it through a lens. They’re more worried about framing than getting shot. That, for them, is very different from confronting a gun without their camera. Which is why when you talk to reporters, the ones who were print journalists and the ones who were cameramen have very different views of the war. The print journalist is watching everything. The cameraman is also watching, but through protection. I think that’s interesting. So the way Richard Gere and Terrence Howard played scenes when they’re threatened by weapons was as realistic as possible. They were great. There was fear. That’s just great acting. It’s fantastic to film that stuff.
If you were a war journalist like Simon Hunt’s character and you found Karadicz, what would you ask him?
RS:Richard Gere wanted to interview him. He made it public that he wanted to sit down with him. I thought that was brilliant. I was asked to meet with Karadicz’s daughter. This was after we started filming. Had it happened before we started filming, I probably would have said yes. But we were already filming and nothing I was going to learn would change the movie. I was busy, and she wanted me to come to where she was, but I just said no. One of the things that most annoyed me was that Karadicz’s denied so much of what he’s done. There’s not really a question to ask. It was hard making The Hunting Party because I can’t overburden it with the weight of the reality of who this man really is. You can only suggest it. The bigger question isn’t why Karadicz hasn’t been caught, but why a lot of men just like him haven’t also been caught. One day he will be caught. Hopefully we’ll find out what the hell happened.
To end a little off topic, the film community recently suffered the loss of two legendary directors, Bergman and Antonioni. There seems to be a generational shift happening. I’m curious about who you think the torchbearers are for this next half century and where you see cinema going?
RS:That’s a big question. Film is going to be great. Because of the technology and the internet, films will get smaller, they’ll be more specific. Films will be made in three weeks instead of three months. From a creative standpoint it’s really interesting. You know, we studied Bergman and Antonioni at NYU, but they weren’t my heroes when I was growing up. Coppola and Scorsese were. When that generation ends it will probably affect me like Bergmann and Antonioni’s passing is effecting Woody Allen. My movie gods are different than those guys. People starting out now might look up to Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson. From a filmmaking standpoint it’s so rock-and-roll right now. There’s so many movies. But distribution is so difficult. They’re gonna have to figure out the distribution thing, because there’s just too many movies. Eventually budgets will get smaller and movies won’t have to make as much money. But right now what movies like The Hunting Party need is love. People need to hear about it.