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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Laramie Project

Famous play made into HBO film

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 7, 2002, updated Feb. 20, 2003 -- "The Laramie Project" has been seen all over the world on HBO and it is also available on DVD. For most who see it, it was their first glimpse of the city where gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 became the most famous of many thousands of hate crime victims. Some 300 Laramie residents packed the Wyo Theatre in Laramie to see the Laramie premiere of the film on March 6, 2002. For those of us who live in the Laramie area, seeing the film was a very different experience. For one thing, we saw it in glorious 35 millimeter, projected on a big screen. For another, we live where it was filmed.

We saw people and places we knew in the film. It was a little unnerving to see people we knew playing other people, and to see actors we knew from other roles playing people we knew. For instance, the real Harry Woods of the University of Wyoming's theater and dance department played a juror at a murder trial in the movie, while actor Bill Irwin played Harry Woods. Klaus Hanson, head of the modern and classical languages department at the University of Wyoming (located in Laramie), played prosecuting attorney Cal Rerucha in the trial scenes. Local resident Hal Wedel (now deceased), a longtime activist, is both in the movie and also in the promotional videos for the film. If Hal got a dime for every time he appears on television, he'd end up being a millionaire. He's the one standing near the fence watching the infamous gay basher, Pastor Fred Phelps (played by James Murtaugh). Thankfully, the film made it very clear that Phelps is not from Laramie.

Those of us who have lived here a long time knew every camera placement in the film, we knew every building, every outdoor scene, and, of course, we knew most of the people in the film. The film was especially effective at recreating the media storm around the Matthew Shepard murder and trials, right down to the tents and fences on the courthouse lawn and the satellite trucks parked around the courthouse. Laramie has not gotten that kind of attention since the trial over the killings in the Johnson County wars. The courtroom scenes were filmed in the same courtroom where the actual trials took place. The cinematography by Terry Stacey is quite good, except for one of the last scenes overlooking the Laramie valley at night, which is a little fuzzy. The courtroom scenes brought back a lot of sad memories for me. I was a reporter at the Laramie newspaper (The Laramie Daily Boomerang) during the time of those trials. I did not cover those trials, but I had covered other trials in the same courtroom, and any murder trial is a tragedy. For me, and every long-time Laramie resident, this is a very personal film, so don't expect a review that looks like it was written by someone who lives in New York City.

"The Laramie Project" is based on a play developed by the Tectonic Theater Project. It was co-written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, who also directs the film. The screenplay is based on some 200 interviews conducted with Laramie, Wyoming and Fort Collins, Colorado people (Shepard died in a Fort Collins hospital and Rulon Stacey, a Fort Collins hospital administrator portrayed by Dylan Baker of "Happiness," is a major character in the film). The film recreates some events that took place around the time of the murder and trials, it also recreates some of the interviews conducted by the New York theater troupe which developed the play. Some of the actors portray members of the theater troupe, while some of the actors in the theater troupe also appear in the movie, playing Laramie people.

The process of bringing the play to the screen resulted in many changes. I saw the play on which the film was based during its initial run in Denver, Colorado. The film has many scenes which are in the play, but a number of changes were made to accommodate the medium of film. It also appears as if the film is a bit of an update on the play. It seems to give a little more perspective on things that have changed in Laramie since the conclusion of the trials.

One of the problems I had with the play (my review of the play can be seen by clicking on this link) is the accents. In the play, the actors used southern accents to designate the Laramie townsfolk. There is a Wyoming accent of sorts, but it is a lot more subtle than a southern accent. The film pretty much does away with the accent problem. The other main problem I had with the play is that hatred of gays is largely portrayed in terms of Laramie, when in fact the same attitudes prevail in much of the rest of the country and world. Moisés Kaufman said as much after the film was shown in Laramie. He said people had come up to him after other screenings and said that people in Laramie reminded them of people in their own home towns. He mentioned one person who had grown up in a small town in Germany told Kaufman that Laramie people depicted in the film reminded him of people in that German town.

It made me feel better that Kaufman said that after the film was finished and the projector had been turned off. I just wished he had found a way to put that idea more clearly into the film itself. That idea is in the far corners and margins of the film, but it never makes its way into the forefront. People from small towns and conservative backgrounds already know how typical some of the attitudes in Laramie are around the country and around the world. However, about half the people in the U.S. don't share the same background. I'm talking mainly about the coastal urban dwellers, the "blue" territory (voted for Gore) denoted in David Brooks Atlantic Monthly article, One Nation, Slightly Divisible. I'm afraid this film enables those people to distance themselves from people in Laramie. The fact is, those people are in the same boat with the people of Laramie, even though they don't want to admit it.

The film, like the play, hits the religious issue head-on. It is one of the few films (along with Trembling Before G-d) which has the guts to take on this very controversial issue. In "The Laramie Project" we are confronted by two ministers who strongly disapprove of the gay lifestyle on religious grounds, the well-known anti-gay activist, Pastor Fred Phelps (his website domain name says it all http://www.godhatesfags.com) and a Laramie minister, called only "The Reverend" in the credits. The Reverend is chillingly played by Michael Emerson, perhaps best known for his portrayal of serial killer William Hinks in the TV show "The Practice." Another regular on the same TV show, Catherine Manheim, plays Rebecca Hilliker of the UW theater and dance department.

On the other side of the issue, we have the much more sympathetic portrayal of Father Roger Schmit, played by Tom Bower. Schmit's views of acceptance of gays and mercy for the killers is in sharp contrast to the two other ministers (and in contrast to the Catholic Church's official position on gays). The Reverend supports the death penalty for the killers, while strongly opposing the gay lifestyle, while Rev. Phelps waves inflammatory anti-gay placards. The religious root of anti-gay attitudes is not explored deeply in the film, but it is explored, and that's more than you can say for most films.

On the lighter side, two of the more humorous characters in the film, limo driver and chief entrepreneur of Bosler, Wyoming, "Doc" O'Conner, played perfectly by Steve Buscemi of "Ghost World," and Matt Galloway, the Fireside Lounge bartender, played by Joshua Jackson of TV's "Dawson's Creek," seem like characters right out of "Northern Exposure." They are the kinds of quirky characters you expect in a town like Laramie. Deputy Reggie Fluty, the first law enforcement officer at the scene of the crime, is well-played by Amy Madigan (she played opposite Kevin Kostner in "Field of Dreams") and the chief investigating officer in the Shepard case, Rob Debree, was sympathetically played by Clancy Brown (who played the villain Kurgan in "Highlander"). Frances Sternhagen does a good job playing Marge Murray, Reggie Fluty's mother. Also in the movie are Peter Fonda, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney and Janeane Garofalo. Unfortunately, there will probably never be another movie about Laramie with more stars than this one has.

Why does this little film have so many big stars in it? Politics. Specifically, New York and Hollywood politics, which is unlike most other kinds of politics. One of the themes of the movie and of the media covering the Shepard matter, has to do with a specific legislative agenda dealing with hate crimes. What has been proposed, and passed in some places, are laws which would include sexual preference along with the usual categories of race, ethnic background, religion, etc. in civil rights laws. Another goal is to enact laws that would impose harsher penalties against those who commit crimes against classes of people because of their sexual preference. What does this have to do with the death of Matthew Shepard? Good question. Even if Laramie had enacted all these laws prior to the murder, Matthew Shepard would still be dead. There is something very unsavory about the vultures of political opportunism circling the still-warm body of Matthew Shepard as he lay dying in Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

Following the death of Matthew Shepard there was tremendous pressure put on Laramie and Wyoming to pass bias crime laws and to modify civil rights laws to include sexual preference. These measures were not passed, although the Laramie City Council did pass an ordinance to monitor bias crimes and to cause an annual bias crimes report to be submitted to the council (there were three bias crimes reported in Laramie in 2001, one of them involving sexual orientation, and there were no homicides in Laramie that year). Even this modest ordinance was hotly debated and it passed with difficulty. Laramie is a liberal town by the standards of the Mountain West, but very conservative compared to the politics of New York and Los Angeles. It will probably never be liberal enough. As one character puts the legislative situation in the film, "Laramie hasn't passed shit." Aside from the pun, the statement isn't totally accurate.

More important than legal changes, Laramie has seen a change of attitudes, and that is reflected in the film. The murder of Matthew Shepard caused just about everyone in Laramie to re-examine their own beliefs. It caused a lot of debate and soul-searching. That was a good thing, as was stated in the film. Some teachers at the local schools have resolved to teach tolerance to their students. There have been panel discussions about it. Local groups have sponsored films to promote gay awareness and gay rights such as "All About My Mother," "Shades of Gray" and "Boys Don't Cry." Attitudes toward gays that are based on religion, however, are slow to change.

The film makes a stronger argument than the play did that this was a hate crime, and not a robbery that became a murder, as some argue. I have always maintained it was a hate crime, but there is no denying it was also a robbery. Shepard's wallet and keys were found in the possession of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, the men who killed Shepard. As in the play, the film also leaves out the fact that the jury found McKinney not guilty of first degree murder. He was found guilty of a lesser included charge of felony murder. The film also does not mention that McKinney's lawyers did not use their "gay panic" defense in the sentencing phase of the trial because the prosecutor and the Shepards agreed not to seek the death penalty. Defense attorneys were also legally barred from using the gay panic defense during the main portion of the trial. The claim of gay panic is brought up in the film to bolster the argument that this was a hate crime and not a robbery.

As is the case with any film, the truth is a whole lot more complicated than what you see on the screen. The film does give a pretty good overall picture of the situation in Laramie following the murder of Matthew Shepard. It doesn't do it as well as the play did, however. The film jumps around too much, from re-enactments of events to re-enactments of interviews about events. It also jumps forwards and backwards in time, sometimes jumping from interviews to re-enactments of the events being described in those same interviews. Sometimes these different events are years apart. The film tries hard to nail together all these different interviews and re-enactments into a coherent narrative, but it doesn't quite work. It just can't quite draw all these different pieces together into something that is as compelling as the play was. The play used some innovative techniques, including multimedia presentations, while the film is more conventional in its approach. The film rates a C+, while the play rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)