The title makes it sound like it's going to be one of those unmaking-of-an-epic documentaries about film directors gone loco, like "Hearts of Darkness" or the more recent "Lost in La Mancha." But "This So-Called Disaster" turns out to be one of the finer peeks into the creative process of staging a play. Granted, that's a tiny genre, and the film's core audience -- theater majors and the people who love them -- is narrow. The lessons, however, are big.
So are the names, for that matter. When playwright Sam Shepard decided to personally direct his latest play, "The Late Henry Moss," for San Francisco's Magic Theater in 2000, he cast some heavyweight friends in the roles: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson. The first two play battling, estranged brothers, while longtime Shepard favorite James Gammon is cast as their deceased alcoholic wreck of a father, seen raging in flashback sequences. Cheech Marin figures in here somewhere, and there's even a woman, played by actress Sheila Tousey, but, this being Shepardland, she's not accorded much attention.
If you think this sounds like every play Shepard has written -- especially "True West" -- you're right, and it's conscious. Like other obsessive talents, the playwright keeps coming back to the same private source of torment, examining it from all sides and quizzically seeking resolution. Shepard admits as much to "Disaster" director Michael Almereyda, and expresses the hope that with "The Late Henry Moss" he may finally have purged his daddy issues from his system. But then Almereyda gives us some background on Shepard Sr., and we understand why the son is hooked.
His name was Samuel Shepard Rogers, actually, and he was a farm boy, newspaperman, Air Force pilot, Spanish teacher, Fulbright scholar, and drunk -- the last his most enduring talent, according to his son. Almereyda, the director of the 2000 "Hamlet" in which the playwright was cast as the Ghost, has access to Shepard's old photos and even home movies, and "Disaster" uses them to convey a youth lived under a paternal cloud before finding freedom, poverty, and success on New York's Lower East Side.
In the Magic Theater in 2000, meanwhile, Shepard's actors are trying to parse all that angst and turn it into fleeting emotional truth. "This So-Called Disaster" digs into the nuts and bolts of writing and acting for the stage, and sometimes it's so honest you find yourself laughing. After a table reading of one particularly purple scene, Shepard sheepishly agrees it's a little over the top and vows to get rid of what he calls "this Joseph Conrad [expletive]."
The actors are similarly open, with Nolte -- Shepard's peer in age and experience -- talking about his own youthful wanderings in the wilderness, looking for "the playwright who was writing about what I was feeling." We get a lot of Penn on acting and on Shepard, but not a lot of Penn on Penn (other than admitting how hard it is to juggle work and family, and, hell, I could tell you that). Still, there is that priceless backstage moment when Harrelson and Penn rag each other about each other's "underrated" performances in "White Men Can't Jump" and "Shanghai Surprise."
"This So-Called Disaster" -- the title is ultimately revealed to be from a rather bruising letter written by Shepard's father -- is on the ramshackle side, but it gets under the defenses of some mighty defensive people and shows what makes them tick (and also explains why they're defensive, as when Shepard answers an AP reporter's shallow questions and wearily asks her photographer to please get out of his face). As the cast and director of "The Late Henry Moss" prepare for opening night, they calm their nerves with centuries-old backstage cynicism: "Just another show, old man"; "Just another horse race."
Still echoing in your ears is Shepard's earlier offhand comment: "Someone, somewhere, has got to get to the heart of things." We never find out if the play does, but the film makes a pretty good run at it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This So-Called Disaster
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Sam Shepard, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte,Woody Harrelson, James Gammon
At: Brattle Theatre, through Thursday
Running time: 89 minutes