When queried about the creative process, the more reserved or outright precious artists tend to defer, if not make the interviewer look foolish for wanting them to explain the ineffable. This So-Called Disaster, a lackluster behind-the-scenes look at the staging of Sam Shepard's 2000 play The Late Henry Moss, opens with the folly of a journalist trying haplessly to eke pearls from the famously laconic playwright/actor, who considers each question carefully before delivering his non-answer. Unlike Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back or Radiohead's Thom Yorke in Meeting People Is Easy, Shepard's evasiveness isn't laced with contempt, but seems designed to preserve the air of mystery that shrouds his iconic persona. He'd clearly prefer the work to speak for itself.
Director Michael Almereyda's decision to begin the movie with this scene seems a bit self-serving, as if to announce that his full access to Shepard, artist-to-artist, will glean the sort of insights denied to the common scribe. But while it's true that Almereyda gets Shepard to open up for the camera, particularly in sad ruminations over his alcoholic father, these revelations are better left to his plays, which at least have the benefit of dramatic tension. With a cast and crew of first-rate artisansincluding actors Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson, as well as composer T-Bone Burnettthe untroubled production amounts to nothing more rousing than professionals going about their business, which doesn't leave much for Almereyda to do.
Coming off his cameo appearance as the ghost in Almereyda's adventurous Hamlet modernization, Shepard invited the gifted director to observe the last three weeks of rehearsal before Henry Moss' premiere in San Francisco. With his grainy videography and loose, collage-style structure, Almereyda is less interested in following backstage crises than in learning about the creative process. To that end, he gets a few minutes of face-time with Penn and Nolte to ask how they got into acting (Nolte picked up Stanislavsky's acting texts after suffering a nervous breakdown at 21, while Penn was impressed by Anthony Zerbe's "zipper boots"), but he mainly skulks around rehearsals, hoping to catch those little moments that make a production come together. Those few he finds barely register, however, because he doesn't bother establishing what the play is about in any specific detail, other than occasion to have deep-dish Method actors scream at each other. Organizational skills mean as much as artistry in the documentary form, but based on this documentary and his previous work, it's never been Almeredya's strong suit. The scattered insights in This So-Called Disaster aren't worth the sifting it takes to find them.