And while there are some darkly comic moments in writer/director Richard Shepard’s The Matador – in which traveling salesman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) encounters aging, freelance assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) in a Mexico City hotel bar – the film is more concerned with its characters’ flaws and allowing those flaws to drive the humor in any of the situations the characters may find themselves in.
“This movie is called The Matador because matador means ‘killer,’” explains Shepard to a preview audience in Philadelphia. “There’s, obviously, the metaphor to bullfighting. Bullfighting, by its very nature is a dying spectacle and Pierce’s character is sort of dying, not physically, but emotionally.”
In The Matador, Kinear’s traveling businessman befriends Brosnan’s emotionally unstable contract killer while on a trip to Mexico. There friendship is brief, but isn’t ended by Julian’s admission to Danny, “I facilitate fatalities.” Instead, Julian tells Danny he now has the best cocktail party story ever. Several months pass and Julian suddenly finds himself in lethal trouble with his employers and in need of a friend, so he turns to the only person he has been able to call friend in the last three decades of his life- Danny.
Shepard, who already had the 1991 cult comedy The Linguini Incident and a few direct-to-cable films on his resume, originally intended to shoot The Matador in Mexico independently on a budget of a quarter-of-a-million dollars. However, when he heard that Brosnan’s production company was looking for writers for a sequel to his 200- thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, Shepard sent a copy of the Matador screenplay in as a sample of his writing. While he was hoping to get a meeting with Brosnan and his producing partner to pitch his own ideas for a Thomas Crown sequel, Shepard got a rather different phone call from Brosnan.
“The phone rang and it was Pierce on the other end and he said, ‘I’ve read your script and it was quite disturbing and funny and I would like to star in it,’” states Shepard. With that phone call, what plans Shepard had for a small independent production promptly changed. “Suddenly we were making a much larger film. But to Pierce’s credit, the script that I had written is to script you see in the movie.”
Unlike a certain other “licensed-to-kill” character that Brosnan has played in the past, The Matador allows Bronson to explore what kind of effect that life can have on someone.
“I wanted you to know that he was brutal in his killing, but I didn’t really care about the machinations of it,” Shepard explains. “There are other movies that do those things better. To me, the movie is about his breakdown on the stairs at the racetrack, not going up on the roof to see them do something.
“I didn’t have the money or time anyway,” he adds with a chuckle, “but I’ll take it as an artistic decision over an economic one.”
“In a movie that doesn’t have car chases, it’s really all about performance,” Shepard states. “When we were suddenly making a real movie, I wrote on a piece of paper ‘Hope Davis’ and ‘Greg Kinnear.’”
And in a rare bit of Hollywood luck, Shepard was able to secure his initial picks for the roles.
“To be able to get your first choices really never happens,” enthuses Shepard. “I think Greg is so funny and he’s got a warmth to him and comic sensibility. Hope is like a thief. She comes in and steals every line. But by putting these two great actors opposite Pierce, it sort of said to him ‘You better come ready to play and not take this lightly because they’ll just whip you off the screen.’”
“About three or four weeks before we shot Pierce had a crisis of confidence, and was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Shepard recalls. “That was a very long weekend. But he came to his senses and once he did, he fully went for it.”
Brosnan’s new found confidence was the source for an improvised sequence that would go on to be prominently featured in the film’s advertising campaign.
“We were we shooting at the hotel and the lobby was so great and we weren’t using it. So I said to Pierce, ‘Do you have any interest in walking through the lobby in your underwear?’ and he said ‘Well can I wear my boots?’ There were five extras in that scene and all the people in the deep background were people checking into the hotel. We did it in one take.”