On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence post, brutally beaten by two men and left for dead on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. The attack and Matthew’s death six days later would become a milestone in the gay rights movement. The media circus that ensued would inspire an award-winning play, The Laramie Project, TV movies, best selling books and countless news articles. Matthew’s tragic death also ignited an unprecedented conversation in America about gay rights and resulted in groundbreaking new hate crimes legislation.
Michele Josue became close friends with Matthew Shepard in 1993 when they were both enrolled at The American School, a boarding school in Switzerland. With her new documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (now playing in select theaters), Josue shares her memories of Matt and connects with those who knew him best. Matt’s personal journals and home movies reveal a Matthew Shepard that has been largely overshadowed by his symbolic gay martyr status: that of a sensitive and fun-loving friend, son and brother. Josue spoke with Queerty about her film and the happy memories and legacy of her late friend.
Queerty: There have been countless news articles, plays and films written about Matt in the 16 years since his death. Was there something that hadn’t been said about Matt that you needed the world to know with your film?
Michelle Josue: I think what’s exciting and fresh about this project is that it was made by someone who knew him and was close to him. I think the other projects were honorable and wonderful, but they couldn’t capture who Matt was as a human being. That was our primary goal for this film. To share with the world that Matt was an extraordinary, complex and flawed individual who had real struggles.
How did you convince Matt’s friends and parents to be in the film?
It was just sort of a known thing that one day when I was ready — when we were collectively ready as a group — that we would do this project. We are all over the world because we (Matt’s high school friends) went to an international boarding school. When we came together at reunions it would always come up. Back in 2009 I was at a stopping point in my career, I had just wrapped up working on a project and it seemed like the natural step. Judy had released her book, The Meaning of Matthew, and it seemed like the right time.
The fact that they knew me and I was a dear friend of Matt’s helped them to trust me implicitly. The Shepard’s trust in me is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. But it was also a very intense sort of obligation. On one of our first filming trips out in Wyoming Judy handed me a shoebox of HI-8 tapes. She hadn’t seen them since… Actually, I don’t think she had ever seen them. They had given away their HI-8 camera so they had no way of playing them. She also took us to their storage unit where they kept a lot of Matt’s belongings and gave us a box full of his letters, journals entries, and pictures. She let us use all of it. They trusted me implicitly throughout the whole process of making the film. They were really hands off and allowed me to have complete creative license with whatever I wanted to do. That was tremendous but also very unnerving.
I was his prom date for his senior year dance. I was younger and I think he felt sorry for me. He was so lovely and nice. The prom was just starting, the music was playing and no one was on the dance floor. He ran up to me and took my hand and swept me up onto the dance floor. We did this sort of tango across the floor with everyone awkwardly gawking at us. Matt was so fun-loving and didn’t care what other people thought. He was very silly.
What is the question you get asked most about Matt?
What was he like? No one knows what he was like as a real person. They know him as the victim who was gay and tied to a fence and died because he was gay. Those are the only things that most people know. That’s the number one question I get. I just tell them that he was incredibly generous and kind.
What do you think is the biggest misinformation out there about Matthew?
The overall picture of Matt is of a sort of saintly icon. When people throw out the words, “martyr, saint and icon” you think of an individual who is free of flaws who is perfect. Matt was certainly not perfect and he never pretended to be. I think it’s dangerous to characterize someone as perfect and not human.
There is one story, in particular, that stood out to me in the film. Reggie Fluty, the first officer to respond and find Matthew on Oct. 6, 1998. She freed Matt’s tied hands from the fence and performed mouth to mouth on him in an attempt to keep him alive. What was it like to hear her recount that story?
That was tough. That was probably one of the very first interviews I did for the film. It was the second day we were in Laramie. It was really intense. We spent almost a whole day in her home talking. It was really emotional for her, as well as myself. At the time it was difficult to hear but it also offered me some solace to hear little things I hadn’t heard (before). When she found Matt there was a doe lying there next to him. That has provided me with a lot of solace to know that he wasn’t entirely alone through the night. I had always been so angry and shaken up at the thought of Matt lying there alone for all those hours in the cold. That image haunted me.
It was surreal. I remember when I landed in Casper it was sunny and not very cold at all. However, the next day there was an incredible snowstorm. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because the night before we had been watching the news and saw that The Westboro Baptist Church was going to come down from Topeka, Kansas to protest Matt’s funeral. I was pissed off and scared. But the fact that there was an incredible snowstorm deterred a lot of them from coming. We had to get a ticket to go to the funeral and we all had to be shuffled around to the back entrance of the church to avoid all the craziness, the protesters and counter-protesters outside. There were snipers positioned on the roof. Dennis was wearing a bulletproof vest when he did the press conference right before the funeral.
There are many people out there, most noticeably The Westboro Baptist Church, that didn’t know Matt yet have exploited his death to advance their own agenda. Was there any interest on your part in speaking with them?
Yes, of course. There were those instances where I wanted to talk The Westboro Baptist Church and hear what they had to say. As a filmmaker I was open to capturing as much as a I could but what I really wanted to tell was the story of Matt as a person; a portrait of this person who was just coming of age and was robbed of the chance to become himself. A lot of people wondered why I didn’t talk to Aaron and Russell [McKiney and Henderson, Matt’s killer’s]. My team and I talked about that at length and ultimately we decided that if it didn’t add narratively to who Matt was as a person than we had to let it go. There is nothing that Aaron or Russell or any of the Phelps clan can tell me about whom Matt really was.
While talking with Matt’s mother Judy you refer to Matt as “adventurous.” Judy replies, “no fear.” In another scene Matt’s friend talks about how Matt’s innocence and belief in the goodness of people were qualities that made him an incredible person, yet also made him an easy target. What do you think Matt was thinking that night he got into the truck with Aaron McKiney and Russell Henderson?
I remember when it happened. I thought to myself, Why did he get in that truck? But, it was just so Matt. He was so friendly and so trusting. I also think because he had gone through such trauma in Morocco (Matt was beaten and raped in February 1995, during a high school trip to Morocco.) that even if he was feeling scared or not trusting of a certain situation or people he would do his best to overcompensate. I’ve been to Laramie several times and having visited The Fireside [The bar where Matt met McKinney and Henderson] and being in that town you would never think anything like that could ever happen. It’s such a quaint, college town.
There is a scene where you are speaking with the Father Roger Schmit, the priest who counseled Aaron McKiney. He says, “There is more to Russell and Aaron than what happened that night. Matthew is our brother, but so are Aaron and Russell.” That greatly upset you. You say, “ I just don’t want to think of them as real people” and you hope at some point you can stop being mad. Have you stopped?
No, and I think that’s part of the message of the film and why I put that conversation in. It was really transformative for me. I felt for many, many years a bit ashamed of the anger I still carried inside, the fact that I was still grieving 10, 12, 16 years later. I think in our country there is a cultural attitude that we can overcome any tragedy, any difficulty in life. But in reality, dealing with things that are so terrible and so unjust… it’s just not possible. It took me many years and that conversation to know that it’s OK for me to still be mad and we should all embrace that kind of emotion and outrage. The Shepard’s have done that and used it for good.
Do you think that Matt’s family is still angry?
I think so. When you talk to Dennis, he is really mad. Still. It was probably most difficult for him to reach the point where they could forgo the death penalty [for McKinney and Henderson]. However, Judy was always able to see them as human beings with unfortunate family lives who were products of a society that taught it was OK to hate. It’s kind of a marvel and inspiring that Judy is able to see them in that way.
What do you see as Matt’s legacy?
Matt had gone though a lot. He was at a stage in his life where he was making all the right decisions. He was on the right path. He was going back to school. He was open and accepting and proud of who he was and that had been a long struggle for him. So, I think a lot of his legacy is inspiring people to live an authentic, open life with courage. I also think a large part of his legacy is the work that Judy and Dennis do in his name. I think the work that they do to erase hate is a large part of what Matt’s legacy is.
Watch the trailer for the film below.
Heath Daniels is a writer, producer and filmmaker.