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Postmodern Village
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The Accidental Genius: Inside The Mind of America's Only Autistic Film Director
by Liam Lingham

Barney's Bakery, the hyper chic eatery favored by Hollywood's heaviest heavies, located in Nestlewood, the newest home for Movieland's most with the most, is the one place that the locals in L.A. insist I visit if I really want to capture the current Hollywood flavor. Not only is it the place of the moment, it's also been the favorite haunt of director Julian Shope for years. I'm told that if I want to make nice with Shope, I really have to understand Barney's and how it works. "Julian is mad about that place," one insider tells me, "you better get used to liking it and you better get used to the customs of the country, if you will."

Knowing this in advance helps, especially when, on my third day in town, I find myself there for the fourth time, waiting for the twenty (so the press junket says, though friends wink that Shope was born in 196–)-something director whose new film Back In The Garden opens August 23. Shope, who is autistic and who also suffers from Intermittent Explosive Disorder, is late. His agent calls about two hours into my waiting period to say that the director has just finished several consecutive head banging sessions (apparently inspired by the news that Bruce Willis will be presenting him with an award at the upcoming MeMeMe.Com Awards in Boca Raton, Florida) and that he will be along momentarily.

"I'm in no hurry," I lie, knowing that to rush Shope will probably mean another episode and more delays.

While I wait Barney's owner Martin Landbaum––DJ Big Stick to those who own copies of his multi-platinum discs Thug With A New Attitude and Let's Get It On II––sits down at my table and helps me pass the time. He and Shope are good friends, he says, pointing to several pictures of the five-time Oscar-winning director on the restaurant walls. One hangs over the front door of the room. In it, Shope holds a broken plate in his hand, his face fixed in a scream.

"That was one crazy night," says Landbaum. "He didn't like the wine, so he flipped a table and then slapped Richard Gere, who was sitting at a nearby table. Richard actually got a kick out of that––Julian's so much like a little brother or son to all these vets––so he slapped Julian back and the two of them had a go, but in a good way." Landbaum laughs as he finishes the story and then says, "Unfortunately Richard started to have too much of a good time. He tripped on Jack Nicholson's tablecloth and broke his nose."

On the day I visit Barney's the mood borders on somber. A number of actors hover close together as though in prayer. Two very legendary British rock stars shovel bloody steaks into their mouths and tear bread with their bare hands but do not speak to each other. A handful of agents talk quietly at the bar. I begin to wonder if the stories of decadence inside the walls of Barney's could possibly be true.

Landbaum dismisses the question, eschewing the rumors fueled by Kim Basinger's 20–– memoir of her time at Barney's entitled Bacchanal Nights (Rutherford-Collins). "I don't know where Kim was at all those years, but I would have loved to have been there. Believe me. Maybe I'll have to ask Puffy about all that." I press him a little, not believing that he's giving me the full story, though believing that Basinger might have spiced things up a little. "Sure, people have a good time. They come here to have a good time. It gets a little wild but it's not like its Studio 54 or anything. Nobody's doing coke off the table tops. Nobody's getting shot. If Julian shows up and gives people an excuse to let loose, that's something I don't mind."

Shope has his own table at the back of the restaurant and Landbaum has had it bolted to the floor. "One customer, an actor/director, didn't care for strange food landing on his plate. I mean, Julian's important, but I want everyone who comes here to have a good time. So we had to modify things a little."

Landbaum does at least seem determined to protect not only the reputation of his restaurant but the reputation of Nestlewood as well. Like the misfit director who calls the neighborhood home, it has a curious and checkered history.

During the Reagan era, Nestlewood suffered under the scourge of gangs and drugs. The riots of 19–– nearly brought the complete destruction of the neighborhood, as Harvard professor Sean Flannery noted in his best-seller The Fall of the New West: The Unmaking of Nestlewood, California. Although Flannery's book now seems dated Landbaum says that calling it a "new ghost town" in 19–– wasn't too far off.

That was until another misfit, former rapper and current business mogul Big Daddy Longneck––better known as George Van Winthrop III to his accountants––invested (in his words) a huge chunk of change in the neighborhood. Decrepit buildings were torn down, gangs driven out, and a new era began. Today the area has less in common with Compton than Orange County. Here, the fears that one day the whole area would become the deepest of ghettos seem to have been allayed.

If keeping a few wild clients around so that the upper crust doesn't become too upper crust, says Landbaum, then so be it. And having Julian Shope around certainly helps.

Born in Lincoln Park, Illinois, Shope had his first exposure to film at the age of eight. William Holden, a friend of Shope's mother, worked as a sound engineer at the time and had his own studio. Each Saturday Holden took Shope to the studio for a few hours and slowly taught the budding genius how to place simple sound and simple visuals together. Each time Holden told the future director it was time to leave, the young man cried. Holden admits that he almost did too.

"Even then the stuff he did was truly amazing," Holden remembers. "I had shown him maybe a few things and in no time at all he started doing these things with sound that I would have never dreamed of: making the bass track the loudest part of the song and panning in vocals only on the odd beat, fading everything but the cymbals out and then slowing them down and then letting that give way to a huge wall of distorted guitar after thirty or more bars. Stuff they didn't even do with the psychedelia."

But plenty of people get lucky with sound, Holden notes. He offers that some of the best work the Beatles ever did happened by chance, citing producer George Martin's tape slicing experiment with "The Benefit of Mr. Kite". But with Shope, it was highly different. "That's when it really started to happen. That's when I had to start bringing things home. Over time, I built a small studio for him in the basement––just with old machines I had at work or had repaired, or gotten on pawn. And pretty soon he started spending most of his time down there, I mean Carmaline [Shope's mother] couldn't pull him away."

Holden says that the earliest experiments consisted of material from documentaries and industrial films as well as scenes from poorly financed films that largely languished on the cutting room floor. "He would splice the industrial visual stuff in with documentaries, then throw in sound. You'd have the sound of a train wreck playing over a family of four eating dinner or a film for how to operate cranes with the sound of birds twittering in the background. One time he took a film on Truman and replaced the soundtrack with farts and rhino mating calls. I had some footage of a B war movie and in this one battle scene he imported––from an old sound effects record––the sound of marching boots, with scratchy vinyl and all, and completely turned down the sounds of cannon and gunfire as the soldiers did battle. It was just a simple cadence. Then," Holden laughs, "at the peak of the battle, he replaced it with the sound of himself chewing cereal. If anybody else did that––and I'm sure somebody must have tried––it wouldn't make any sense but, Julian being Julian, it seemed perfect."

Holden eventually sponsored a showing of the young filmmakers work at a local theater. A number of heavies from the Chicago Film Institute (CFI) showed up. Before too long they had wooed Shope into attending their program despite his autism and lack of any formal schooling.

Former CFI director Constantine Urbach remembers one of Shope's early student films: "It was forty minutes of people walking around Chicago on a summer day. But he turned down all the normal sounds––the busses, the car horns, the shouting––and brought in the stuff you never hear in a crowd scene: change in pockets at top volume, stomachs rumbling, people scratching themselves. You name it."

The fifth of Shope's student films saw the beginning of his meteoric rise. Entitled Bomber (c.19––), the fifteen minute 8mm classic simply features Shope dressed in bomber pilot gear standing in a high school shower stall. That film, remembers, Urbach, didn't die a quick death in Chicago. You can still see it every once in a while when a local house pays tribute to the city's favorite son.

"You know, it was the kind of thing people talked about for years afterward. It was like when Hitchcock insisted people remain in their seats during Psycho. It's still that way. I get young students wanting to interview me all the time about the night the film opened," says Urbach.

But even with the success of Bomber, Shope's time at CFI was not without problems: temper tantrums in the sound studio, property damage, numerous assaults on fellow students. At one point, the campus police had to escort Shope from class to class, holding his arms at his sides while a fellow student took notes for him. The restrictive environment didn't necessarily hinder Shope's work, one classmate remembers. "No, I mean, you know, he got to go to class. I'm sure other people wanted to try it, you know. In fact, somebody recommended that Frank Coppola make a film with his hands, you know, tied at his sides or something, just for the feel of it."

While a number of Shope's former classmates are not fond of their CFI Shope memories, Urbach seems tolerant of the young director's behavior. "He didn't care for people getting too close to him. One time a tech walked behind him and got slapped for it, the other time a guy tried to hug him at a showing and Julian didn't like it," Urbach says, and pauses. "Julian pushed him to the floor. But you know smart people learned to stay out of his way. I'm sure much in the same way that they did it for Orson Welles or Van Gogh."

At the end of his second year, Shope left the CFI program. Hollywood had called him. By the time he turned 18 he had made his first feature, low-budget El Salvador (19––) and had his hands on one of the hottest properties in Hollywood history, a Civil War thriller entitled One Nation (19––). Both films proved critical successes, but One Nation proved to be the first and only time that Shope stuck to a traditional way of presenting a film. (To this day he refuses to discuss the work. Friends feel he grew too close to the material.)

From there he filmed Jurisdiction (19––), a surrealistic courtroom drama that earned him his first Oscar as director. That was immediately followed by Agnew (19––), a dada American epic musical which earned him his second Oscar as director. Two screenplay awards followed, for the erotic comedy Faster (19––) and In The Heat of the Night II (19––). (With a Hollywood that loves a man with problems––a Mr. Gump and someone named Raymond Babbit––one wonders what took them so long to find someone like Shope.)

In all, Shope has earned nominations for each of the ten additional films he has written or directed during his time in Hollywood. He's directed Superbowl commercials, rock videos, and a handful of TV series episodes. Along the way there have been crashed cars, fist fights with industry honchos, allegations of physical abuse, and reports of bizarre behavior on movie sets. But he's also developed a number of A-list friendships, worked with some of the most promising (and revitalized a few careers of the not-so promising) actors the industry has. And, in a place where it seems that few have real friends, most of the people he's worked with in the industry have stood by him, even when his art has placed him far outside the mainstream.

So, given his reputation and his impressive career, you might expect Shope to be a little self-centered, evasive, aloof. Whatever.

And you'd be right.

When the director finally enters Barney's, he ignores virtually all those who turn to say hello (including Landbaum). He walks, his arms and hands extended rigidly, to his table at the back of the room, then turns back and comes to my table. He stares at me for a moment. When his agent, Martha Pacam, introduces us, Shope steps back, holds his arm in the air then swings.

"Shooooosh," he says and slaps me across the face. He points to his table, then continues his rigid amble to the back of the room.

Stunned, I rest there for a moment before Pacam comes over and leads me to their table. Once I am seated, Shope stares at me for a moment and says, "You cannot expect him to work overtime."

I introduce myself, but he quickly looks away. "Walter," he shouts, "water me."

Shope and Pacam do not apologize for their late arrival. I try to start the interview, but Landbaum comes over to chat.

Shope looks at Landbaum and says, "New York City."

At first I assume this serves as some sort of short hand between the two friends, but later learn that this is the first time Shope has called Landbaum this.

"It's kind of fun," Landbaum says later, "you know, you go to talk to him and he's always got something refreshing to say. He's not chained to these bullshit conversations. You know, How's business? or How long you been here? Have you been to Bora Bora? or any of that other bull. It's refreshing to meet someone truly outside the envelope."

But for a man trying to conduct an interview, Shope's word salad doesn't bode well. Of course, this is something I should have known. When he won the Oscar for In The Heat of the Night II, he stood at the podium and screamed for over a minute. "It was not the scream," says Shope pal Carmen Electra, "of someone elated, but the scream of a dying jackal." When host Billy Crystal stepped up to comfort Shope, Shope slapped him, then ran into the audience where he kicked Nick Nolte in the teeth, head-butted David Letterman and kneed Eddie Murphy in the groin.

"Billy really shouldn't have done that," says film student Eric Davidson. "I mean other people were digging it. There must have been about sixty people all screaming along with him. They should have just let it be."

Actor Jim Carrey was so enraged by Shope's behavior that he formed Actors Alliance For Responsible Behavior (AARA) in the wake of the incident.

"I can't bear to see people act like that," Carrey said at the time.

But that was then and this is now and, at Barney's, when I suggest that we move the interview along, Shope reaches across the table and pinches my right index finger. He grits his teeth and, for a second, his whole body shakes. He lets out a squeal and says nothing.

He has made a point.

As you might imagine, Shope does not work like typical directors. First of all, there's rarely a script––usually Shope opts to have actors improvise since he usually creates his own collage over the finished material anyway. The actors do what they can. Secondly, his techniques for pulling a performance from an actor have been called, well, questionable.

Admits Back In The Garden star Deborah Kamen, "I felt nervous about working with him at first, sure. I mean, who wouldn't? He's won a plethora of Oscars and he has the reputation for being difficult. But I told myself that you hear stories about everyone. The stories are always bad, the people rarely are.

"But with Julian, we really just didn't get on. I mean, he is as bad as he seems."

She remembers once, that when an actor "went up" during a scene, Shope walked from behind the camera and kicked the actor three times in the shin. Once, after a particularly nauseating take, he flipped a catering cart, spoiling lunch for the entire cast and crew. Later that afternoon, he attacked two elderly women in his neighborhood, something his lawyers have advised him not to discuss under any circumstance.

"Oh sure," says Agnew star Bill Kozlowski, "he's difficult but the performances are always worth it. I'm not going to make any calls about how someone works, you know? A lot of people think it has to be this huge lovefest, but what if it isn't? You do your work, right? Then you go home."

Others have criticized Shope's outrageous budgets. The director's demands have occasionally eclipsed those made by actors. He once started a fistfight with a producer who told him that he would have to delay pre-production on Back In The Garden. The list of horror stories about the director does seem to unravel for miles while the "nice" stories seem to be only a few blocks long. But, Kozlowski says, seems is appropriate.

"In the end, Jules can be a very loving guy. He knows what's what and I bet if you asked most people, they'd work with him again. One time we had a sick dog and she couldn't make it outside to pee, so Jules stayed in the house with her and peed right by her side. And if that's not enough, take a look at him with the fans."

Shope disciples seem a rare breed. At premieres and events it's not uncommon to see a throng of fans hanging around the ropes waiting for Shope to emerge from a limousine. When he steps out, he often lunges toward the fans, slapping and perhaps kicking them as well.

"They love it," says one member of the Hollywood press. "He gets off on it, too. I mean, I think a certain amount of violence can actually be healthy. He's shown that to us again."

Of course, this is also a man that lunged and choked an actor on the set of the romantic pirate flick Out of Paraguay. He sent actor Sam Horton to the emergency room; Horton, according to all accounts, was beaten with a small camera stand.

But Shope also checked himself into a hospital at that time. His agency cited exhaustion as the reason for his hospital stay. He emerged a few days later, ready for work and seemingly in better spirits. Horton never pressed charges.

"Look," says Faster star Edie, "it's the work that matters. Not one person here is perfect. Pay attention to the work, not the man."

I try.

In the documentary Hearts of Darkness Francis Ford Coppolla, announces, at one point, that he's trying to figure out what kind of an accident he can have so that he won't have to finish making Apocalypse Now.

After interviewing Julian Shope for half an hour, I begin to feel the same way.

Example:

Q: What inspired you to do an Adam and Eve movie? Especially one where they go to Branson, Missouri?

A: Michigan Eldorado underwear. Chuck Norris brownie.

Q: You've been known for odd parings, but why Buddy Hackett and Katie Holmes as a romantic duo?

A: Fiasco metropolis, my dear Horshak.

Q: For the score of Back In The Garden, you picked random people off the street, told them what instruments they'd be playing, then let them have at it. Why?

A: (Silence.)

Q: Sir?

A: Yeah. (From here, I decide to either get answers or move on.)

Q: Who would like to work with next?

A: Motor oil.

Q: Sir?

A: Did you know that every year forty-three million acres of rain forest is destroyed?

Q: Sir?

A: French fried vegetable banana okra killing stain Iceland fields.

Q: What's your favorite Fellini film?

A: (Shope burps.)

Q: Who would you most like to work with?

A: Martin Van Buren

Q: Really?

A: Goonight. Goonight.

(At this point he rises, swings at my head, and walks out of the restaurant with Martha Pacam in tow. The interview has ended.)

For the next day or so, I listen to the interviews, try to make sense of it all, but nothing comes. In the end, I decide to tell the story, the way it happened, and leave it open for you to decide. What I can say about Julian Shope is this: Yeah.