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Interview: Michele Josue, Judy and Dennis Shepard talk Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

By now many people are familiar with the significance of the 1998 murder of 21-year old Matthew Shepard just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. In October of that year, the young man from Casper, Wyoming was beaten into an unrecoverable coma by two men (Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson) by two men who preyed on Matthew at a bar because he happened to be gay. The incident sparked a media firestorm and an unprecedented worldwide conversation about hate crimes within the LGBT community. Matthew was studying political science at the University of Wyoming at the time of his death, but his name would become synonymous with the fear, struggle, and sometimes stomach churning reality that most people who don’t identify as straight have to live with on a daily basis.

A lot of media coverage in the weeks and years following Shepard’s death focused on the outrage, aftermath, and specifics of the crime. His death led to the creation of The Matthew Shepard Foundation by his parents Judy and Dennis and was a key catalyst in the creation of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, but talk about who Shepard was as a person before his tragic end and the lives of the loved ones he left behind remained unremarked upon.

Enter filmmaker Michele Josue, someone who knew Shepard growing up, who has spent the better part of the past fifteen years to create a definitive look at who this young man really was. Granted a large amount of access by Dennis and Judy to previously private materials and stories, Josue creates an oral history of Shepard’s life from his childhood, to living at a boarding school in Switzerland while his dad worked in Saudi Arabia, to a bout of depression while grappling with his sexuality in his teens that would lead him ultimately to Laramie. With a wide range of interviews from close friends, family members, and even from law enforcement agents close to the case, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (which opens this Friday at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto, and on the 22nd in Edmonton and Saskatoon) tells the personal side of Matt’s story in ways it hasn’t been approached before.

We sat down with Michele Josue and Judy and Dennis Shepard last year when the film premiered at Inside Out in Toronto to talk about how the film talk about the world Matt Shepard left behind.

Michelle, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine was a project that you have been trying to pull together for about fifteen years now. Now you obviously knew Matt well when you went to school together and since that time you’ve been both a film student and a filmmaker, so at what point in that time since Matt’s passing did you think ‘This is it. This is the time to get going on making this film.’?

Michele Josue: I think I’m a really late bloomer in life, so it really did take all of that time. (laughs) I knew I wanted to do this, and I wanted it to be with the blessing of his parents and his close friends. So I was just getting ready all that time. I went and made films, I got married, I got three dogs, I went to film school, and I just really honed my skills.

I think around 2009 when [Judy’s] book was getting ready to come out I was just finishing up working on either Alvin and the Chipmunks 1 or 2 – I can’t even remember which it was now – and I realized that I had to make this film a priority. Previously I wasn’t sure if I had a voice or not, but I thought by this point I had found it and that I could help in their fight to erase hate. Back then, about four years ago, I started talking to his old friends and began reconnecting with them. That was when we realized collectively we could come forward and tell this side of the story and these events from our perspectives.

Luckily, these two lovely people gave me their blessing, so that’s the past fifteen years in a nutshell.

I’m sure that you guys have been approached by hundreds of people over the years who have wanted to do a film or a news story on Matt and they want your blessing. At what point did Michele make it known to you what she wanted to do, and what made her different from anyone else that had approached you to talk about Matt?

Judy Shepard: I don’t remember the first time we spoke about it, do you?

MJ: You were in Los Angeles for something…

JS: Yes! I was! It was for a Facing History event. I remember now. I knew that Matt was a big part of her professional and personal life, so we trusted her implicitly. Anyone else that tries to approach us to do that kind of project is under a lot more scrutiny, but we always knew she was the best person to tell this kind of story,

Dennis Shepard: She came at this from a place of knowing all of the facts way in advance, so it was never a worry that this would be just some kind of made-for-TV movie that exaggerates everything to a point where they can do what they want or make any point they want to make. She knew Matt. That made a big difference.

JS: She wouldn’t candy coat anything,

The focus of this film is also interesting since most people who tell a story about Matt tend to focus specifically on the tragedy or the aftermath, but very little on everything that happened before. A huge part of this film’s heart and surprise comes from getting a chance to know Matt in the earlier part of his life. He went through a lot more hardship than really got covered previously in the media and in fictionalized accounts. How important was it for all of you to get that part of Matt’s journey out into the world? Having seen this film now, it becomes really clear that a huge piece of this story has gone untold for a very long time.

DS: I kind of joke that this is almost like a prequel that comes after everyone else has already adapted a set of novels, but sometimes that’s what happens. People need to see the need for something before you can do something else.

JS: Even the book that we did concentrated almost entirely on what happened to Matthew and what happened after with just a small handful of memories thrown in. I didn’t feel the need to tell the story of Matt before because I think we always decided to keep those memories for us. But Michele’s story was something totally different that needed to be told. People really needed to know who Matt was to his friends.

As the film goes on, you tend to put yourself into the film more and more and let your emotions about the situation sometimes show through while explaining how important Matt was to you growing up. What’s it like telling a factual story, but going around the points of the story that have already been covered numerous times before?

MJ: I kind of threw all of the other projects that have been made about Matt out the window. I just used my heart and my instinct. I wanted to make this humanistic portrait of someone who was my friend, and show that he was so much more than the way that he died. He acted on stage as a kid in Casper, Wyoming. He went to boarding school. He was very worldly. I felt that it was important for people to have that context and to see this tragedy was so much worse because he lived this incredible and sometimes extreme life.

There was never a choice for me. I always knew we wanted to retrace his steps and go back over the important moments in Matt’s life in the same way you would tell a story about someone who was still with us. We wanted to do our best to share that with audiences everywhere.

Was there ever a question of where you wanted to stop the film and how you wanted to leave Matt’s memory? That can’t be an easy decision when making a project that’s this personal in nature.

MJ: Well, that’s the beauty of documentary. (laughs) It’s real life, so even though this is my first feature, I like to embark on any documentary project I’m working on with the vaguest of maps. When I was shooting even that vague map goes out the window with everything else. I’m really attentive to adapting things based on where the people I talk to are taking me and with whatever springs up.

I like to go with the flow, but it was pretty difficult being personally attached to the subject and the people in the film. It can be hard to have that connection and keep the film as a whole on track. My emotions got the best of me at times, but I think that’s the beauty of the project. It’s about being human and genuine, and it’s not about hiding those emotions. It’s about letting things happen and unfold on their own.

As Matt’s parents I can imagine that you mostly get asked the same questions over and over again about the specific details of his death and about specific issues that arose after, so I can imagine for you guys this must be a breath of fresh air to talk about something different with someone who really knew your son. It has to be unfathomably difficult to go out as much as you have to talk about the death of a loved one, but I can imagine it would be a little more relaxing to talk about the personal side of Matt instead of the bigger picture of what Matthew Shepard now means for a lot of people.

JS: I’m not even sure we really did that as much as Michele has been doing that. It’s so nice to see this because there are so many things in here that I didn’t remember or that I never saw. It’s like creating new memories to go along with the ones I already have. I also hadn’t heard Matt’s voice in a long time, so that was pretty emotional for me.

But there are still things that we keep for ourselves, but we shared with her and now she’s sharing with you. But there are things we all know here that not everyone knows.

MJ: Yeah, there are some things that even to me are still sacred; silly personal inside jokes, seemingly inconsequential conversations…

DS: Things that no one else would understand otherwise without telling another even bigger story about a bunch of other people…

MJ: Yeah, things like that. Those moments are the ones to hold closest because those are only between you and that person.

Do you guys find people who knew Matt that still find it hard to open up and talk about what he meant to them?

MJ: It was hard, but easy by virtue of the fact that I was a close friend of Matt’s. Everyone in this film felt like they could trust me, but it was really difficult to bring out those more painful moments and have them live them out so vividly. That was very hard, but I think we all collectively knew that it was important to share.

As Matthew’s parents, you guys have put in countless hours in making people realize that crimes of hate like these are still happening around the world. What do you guys think the next step in making people aware that this is still a major issue?

JS: Well, the sad truth is that these are stories that used to be reported on in the news more than they are. And if they were, more than just the beginning of the story would be told. That doesn’t happen anymore in the U.S. news and the mainstream media. Unless it’s some horrific, gruesome crime, that story won’t make it into the mainstream newscast, and if it does you never see any outcome or solution. You can see it happening just slightly more now than in the past couple of years with the new Federal Hate Crime Bill, but it takes a lot of people to make people aware of this. The news needs to get out there and let people know that things like this are still happening.

When I talk to people now, there seems to be this attitude that says, ‘Well, I don’t read about it anymore, so hate crimes can’t be what they used to be.’ That’s not true. They are. We know statistically that hate crimes against the gay community go up anytime something positive happens. That is happening. We just don’t read about it in the press anymore. Folks like us have to keep talking about it and talking about it because the press refuses to talk about it.

DS: The media likes to dwell on the horrific, and even worse than that, they have a short term memory. With Matthew, we thought we only had a few years to do this and make some news before something else tragic would happen and the issue would disappear forever. So there’s a reason he’s still there. But most of the crimes you see reported now succumb to that short term memory. They’ll start off on the first or second page of the paper, but then you never find out what happened to the perpetrators, and even if you do, it’s probably a six line paragraph buried on the back page. There’s no media attention to keep this in focus.

People get tired of seeing the same things over and over again, sadly, but sometimes they need to see that to understand, you know? There’s a mentality that cynically says ‘Oh, why is so and so whining over someone who got hurt and killed?’ But it happens.

JS: And there is a little bit of apathy within the community itself, I think. If they live somewhere where they have a secure job, they’re married, they have everything going for them, there’s a tendency for those people to sometimes forget about all the people who don’t have those luxuries. The need for action isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. We tend to take the things we have for granted while others don’t.

And sometimes you can find help in places you never would have expected. A great example of this would be (openly gay basketball player) Jason Collins. That was a huge story when it first broke. Then that leads to someone like (football player) Michael Sam. These are cases where something positive can lead to other positive things, but it certainly doesn’t get any easier for either of them. Then again, that’s often where bravery comes from.

Do you think that there’s a sort of backwards philosophy that’s been put in place because we can say that we’ve done a lot for marginalized people that there aren’t any more problems? Do you think that again it comes back to that sense of positivity where when something good happens people tend to block out for a while that anything negative could happen?

JS: When it comes to people who don’t live with it every day, I think that’s the case. If you live with it or live around it, you know the truth. Ask any black person if they think racism is over and they’ll almost undoubtedly tell you, ‘Hell no.’ Same with a gay person. Even if they live in some kind of bubble of safety or security, in the back of their mind they still know that they are at risk for perhaps losing their jobs, their homes, their partner…

DS: They still look over their shoulder.

JS: It’s always there, even if you live in Manhattan, Toronto, anywhere that seems welcoming, and that’s not going to go anywhere any time soon. That’s why I have hope for the next generation. It’s the next generation that’s making the most strides, and they’ll be the ones that can hopefully start making a difference and changing lives. I hope they can keep that attitude.

When you go out and talk about Matt, is there ever a question that’s hardest for you guys to answer and something you wish you had an answer for?

JS: The most heartbreaking thing to get asked is to get asked by a young person how to convince their family that being anything other than straight isn’t a choice. That has no answer. Every story is different. When I open the floor to questions, I only ever have two rules. First, that the question is actually a question. (laughs) And second that it’s a question I can answer. But that’s the one that I really wish I had an answer to. It takes a lot to stand up in an audience full of relative strangers sometimes and ask me, another stranger, to talk about something they feel uncomfortable talking about with loved ones. That’s heartbreaking for me. There’s just no template or how to that will fit every situation. All the best I can do is tell people to be themselves. Even providing literature sometimes feels like a cop out to me. It’s one of those ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’ scenarios. That’s the hardest question to get asked.

Since there have been many versions of Matt’s story that have been told – both fiction and nonfiction, the validity of which we could debate all day on a case by case basis – do you think the interest in Matt has been something that helps to remind people of what the impact and implications of hate crimes are?

DS: It’s a Catch-22 situation, really. If Judy goes out and speaks, I think that brings the right kind of attention and everything comes full circle. And then you have things like The Laramie Project and Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which bring out the issues in a way to write about and discuss what happened in a productive way. If it’s something that can lead to a productive discussion and a call to action, that’s a positive thing.

And the other Catch-22 is in how people tend to bring up Matt’s name when put into light with similar kinds of hate crimes that might not have the same exact details. For better and for worse, Matt’s name became a focal point for talking about verbal and physical abuse, vandalism, and as an example of what could happen again if we don’t keep watching and maintaining our values.

And it’s often a comparison that comes up when specifically talking about crimes involving young people. I don’t think if Matt and the people involved in the case were all in their forties that many people would have been talking about it.

DS: I sadly think that’s absolutely true. Around the turn of the century it really became a time for young people to realize that they needed to bring light to these things themselves. Your generation – Matt’s generation – became the activists about equality. Equal pay, equal work, child care, race issues, gender issues, this generation became the activists we needed for everything for so long.

MJ: And specifically with the film, the reception among younger people who might be learning about Matt for the first time has been tremendous. It’s all still very vital. We have some amazing educational partnerships. We have a great partnership with Facing History, which is a great, non-profit organization that teaches educators how to bring issues of civil rights and tolerance into the classroom. They’ve been great, and we’ve been partnering with them and screening the film for middle school and high school kids to have these community sessions to watch the film. It’s been really eye opening.

I always hope that they make as much of an impact on us as we have with them. I remember we were in Minneapolis, and a mother stood up and said that her middle school age child had started a GSA at her school. That was so cool and great to share the film and get those kinds of reactions.

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker is a freelance film critic in Toronto. You can follow him on twitter @andrewjparker.