2 FILMS BY MARK STEVEN SHEPHERD
Films by Mark Steven Shepherd: Nothing but the Truth and Red Carpet Burn
IN the 1980s, Mark Steven Shepherd owned a production company in Beverly Hills. He’d already built a successful career in the New York film world, but he’d come home to Southern California to try his luck on the opposite coast. “It was a wild time,” he told
Pasatiempo. “Socially, I came across O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown a few times. This was before they were married. I saw the way he treated her. He broke her heart once in public and I witnessed it.”
Shepherd, who moved to Santa Fe in 2015, described a scene at a longago wedding in which Brown caught the bouquet thrown by the bride. “Everyone was calling O.J.’s name to stand up and catch the garter, to commit to this beautiful young woman, but he was just being the player. This is the best football athlete in the world, and when the groom flipped the garter at him, O.J. made the lamest attempt to catch it. He missed it. It fell to the floor. I looked at Nicole and her heart was just broken.”
Though he believes Simpson is guilty of the murder of his ex-wife and her acquaintance, Ronald Goldman, a crime for which he was famously and controversially acquitted in 1995, Shepherd said that when he began his documentary about the civil trial against Simpson, he didn’t go into it with a biased attitude. “Or who cares if I did?” he said. “I’m nobody.” That hourlong documentary,
Nothing but the Truth, was completed in 1998. It shows in a back-to-back screening with a more recent documentary by Shepherd, Red Carpet
Burn, on Monday, Jan. 25, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. The quirkiness that characterizes Shepherd’s films is bound to prompt many audience questions. He will be on hand to answer them after the closing credits roll.
Red Carpet Burn, completed in 2014, was featured at the 2015 Santa Fe Film Festival. Its subject is the public fascination — and sometimes obsession — with the red carpet. Some want to clamor for celebrity attention along its edges at awards shows, while others are desperate to walk it and get discovered. Shepherd takes viewers on a tour of A-list, B-list, and D-list red carpets, from the plush crimson of the Academy Awards carpet to a hallway runner bought at K-Mart for the premiere of a schlocky horror movie. He travels to Toronto, where he devises his own impromptu “Red Carpet Festival,” and to Cannes, where he successfully sneaks a young woman wearing an eye-catching gown onto the red carpet and in front of international media. But the real meat of Red Carpet Burn is its depiction of a certain kind of Hollywood experience, embodied in the faces of Botox-enhanced aspiring starlets and panting, diehard celebrity worshippers.
It can be difficult to tell whether Shepherd is poking fun at his subjects or taking them seriously, and his singular sense of humor infiltrates many moments in the film. There are playful and ironic production values, including action-figure paparazzi and a Robin Leach-style British voice-over narrating some of the events. Shepherd also visually equates Woody Allen with the definition of celebrity and soon after, he jokingly asks Roman Polanski whether he prefers walking the red carpet to engaging in sex with minors. It’s a stylistic choice that also colors
Nothing but the Truth. Whether this is successful, distasteful, or merely distracting is probably in the eye of the beholder, and one’s opinion could change with repeated viewings. “I want to take people to a place they’ve never been before. I see the humor in subcultures and the desperation of people who have illusions,” Shepherd said.
He grew up near Venice Beach in the throes of the 1960s counterculture. He was a surfer with no artistic bent, but one day, when he was eighteen, he said he met a woman on a threespeed bicycle who told him she was riding to Big Sur and that she’d had a dream about him the night before and thought he should travel with her. She was a revolutionary-minded artist from France. “I took her home to meet my mother,” he recalled. They went to Big Sur for a month, and she gave him the use of a movie camera. When they returned, he started filming local protests against the Vietnam War, which proved a useful training ground for his later work as a freelance cameraman for E! and CNN. He was hired by CNN in 1995 to shoot Simpson’s criminal trial, which was held in downtown Los Angeles.
The civil trial, Shepherd said, took place in his backyard in Santa Monica. “I lived a block from the courthouse. The helicopters would fly over my house.” There was a media gag order on the proceedings, with no cameras allowed inside, but he decided to get in on the action anyway. Nothing but the Truth is the result, a documentary not about the facts of the civil trial, but about the hoopla outside: media, avid Simpson supporters, and those there to proclaim his guilt to anyone who would listen. The film has been used in college courses and at psychological conventions, and was featured by the PBS Independent Lens series.
Though the crowd was much smaller at the civil trial than at the criminal trial a year earlier, the circus atmosphere prevailed, and the most fanatical members of pro and con camps remained. Among them was “Melrose” Larry Green, an obnoxious, outspokenly racist radio host and media personality most famous as a member of Howard Stern’s “Wack Pack” — a contingent of Stern’s radio guests who were valued and mocked for their inability to understand why other people laughed at them. In the film, Green vociferously maintains Simpson’s guilt while shouting at Simpson supporters who are African-American. He often goes up against Big Money, a young
black man with a public display of evidence he collected to prove a police conspiracy, who reveals tremendous patience and humor when dealing with Green. There is cacophonous shouting among the madding crowd, but once in a while a voice of reason can be heard. An unnamed African-American man in a 1996 Olympics sweatsuit engages Shepherd in a substantial conversation about race and public perception, and a middleaged white woman calmly explains a plausible-sounding theory about Brown’s connection to the Mafia that could exonerate Simpson in the court of public opinion.
Shepherd highlights the racial divide over the trials in Los Angeles, a subject with renewed relevance in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and corruption in the legal system as portrayed in recent documentaries like
Making a Murderer. The FX Network is revisiting the events in the upcoming star-studded miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Now more than 20 years ago, the Simpson trials took place just a few years after the protests that occurred in response to the acquittal of police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King, and many people in Los Angeles were afraid that if Simpson was convicted, the city would once again erupt.
Nothing but the Truth, a time capsule of public outrage caught on film, is a fascinating opportunity to look back on history with fresh eyes.
Mark Steven Shepherd