RT Goes Behind The Lines With The Hunting Party's Richard Shepard
"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.