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 LandbaumDJ Big Stick
to those who own copies of his multi-platinum discs Thug With A New
Attitude and Let's Get It On IIsits 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
thatJulian's so much like a little brother or son to all
these vetsso 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
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
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 Longneckbetter known as George Van Winthrop III
to his accountantsinvested (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
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 basementjust
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 importedfrom
an old sound effects recordthe 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 thatand I'm sure somebody must have triedit
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 soundsthe
busses, the car horns, the shoutingand 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,"
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
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 problemsa Mr. Gump and someone named
Raymond Babbitone 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
"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
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 scriptusually 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
"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."
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
After interviewing Julian Shope for half an hour, I begin to feel the
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: Yeah. (From here, I decide to either get answers or move on.)
Q: Who would like to work with next?
A: Motor oil.
A: Did you know that every year forty-three million acres of rain forest
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
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.