Michele Josue was a sophomore in film school in Boston that October day 15 years ago when her older sister called, telling her that she needed to turn on the television immediatelythat her friend was on the news.
It was Matt Shepard, as she called him then and nownot Matthew, as he's mostly been called since that tragic October evening in Laramie, Wyo., when he was kidnapped from a bar, driven to a field, tortured and tethered to a fence and left to die.
Shepard died from his injuries days later, never regaining consciousness.
"I was immediately shocked; it was very surreal, beyond surreal," watching the breaking news reports in 1998.
Josue was admittedly "on pins and needles" after learning of Shepard's dire state after the attack. She watched every news report she could, read everything she could.
Shepard was a friend of hers.
She still remembers watching the press conference on Oct. 12, 1998, which told of his passing. "That was very, very hard [to watch]," she said. "His death was very devastating, and it has stayed with meto this day.
"I wanted to make a film to share with the world that before he became Matthew Shepard, this iconic symbol of the hate and intolerance that the LGBT community struggles against, he was just a normal, complex, gay young man who had friends and family who loved and supported him. I think it's really important for the world to know that. As a filmmaker, and as his friend, I always just felt this tremendous obligation to honor Matt and his family in the most honest, faithful way possible. So, when I was emotionally and artistically ready, I always knew that I would do this, that I would share with the world who Matt really wasand the only way I know how is, through film."
Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine is an emotional 89-minute tale, exploring the life and tragic death of Shepard through a truly personal lens. Josue is the filmmaker, which includes director, producer and editor, and the movie shows pivotal locations in Shepard's life, plus countless interviews with other friends of his, plus family members.
Filming started on the project in the fall of 2010, and included vintage cameras, partially due to the movie's limited budget, but also to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Some of the shooting even was done on Super 8 film.
Josue spoke with Shepard's childhood friend Tim Galles, and also Matt Galloway, the bartender who was the last person to see Shepard at the Fireside Bar, where he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
The moving tribute to Shepard, in the words and pictures that Josue chose to include, are perfect. Josue talked to high school friends of Shepard's, as well as mentors, teachers, policemen and more.
"Sometimes, to be quite honest, it feels like [Shepard's attack and death] happened just yesterday. You don't get over something like that, even after 15 years," said Josue, 34, who lives in Los Angeles. Her husband, Liam McNiff, is the movie's executive producer.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew's parents, gave their blessing for the film, Josue said.
"I think the movie is a well-rounded, complete portrait of who he really was," Josue said. "To me, what was always missing to the public about Matt Shepard was, his humanity. I think that's what our film doesit fills in those blanks for people; it really shows Matt through the people who knew him best, and shows who he was as a person."
The movie makes its world premiere on Friday, Oct. 4, at the Mill Valley Film Festival in California and also that same night at the Washington D.C. National Cathedral. The movie will be shown Oct. 8 in San Diego, Oct. 9 in Los Angeles, and on Oct. 11 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
The Chicago premiere is Tuesday night, Oct. 29, at Sidetrack in Lakeview. (See the accompanying sidebar story for more information on the Chicago screening, which will include an appearance by Josue and others.)
"The title of the film is a very literal reference to my friendship with Matt," Josue said. "I always hope people watching the film will see that Matt was a human being with hopes, dreams and struggles, like everyone else. Also, I hope the movie changes hearts and minds, helps in the education process of those who might not believe in dignity and equal rights for everyone."
Josue said one of her personal favorite aspects of the movie was the use of a big box of Shepard's keepsakes that Judy provided, which included photos, unsent letters, poems, souvenirs, postcards and more. "It was beyond meaningful to read Matt's words, to hear his voice, and just so vividly remember who he was," she said. "I was profoundly confronted with how much I miss him [after seeing the items in that box].
"By far, the [content of that box was the] most meaningful, the most emotional part of the entire production."
Josue and Shepard went to the same boarding high school, The American School in Switzerland. He was two years older than Josue, so they had no classes together.
They met working together on school theatre productions, and though he was a junior and Josue was a freshman when they met, "we grew very close," she said.
Josue said Shepard was the school's unofficial mayorbecause everyone loved him.
"He was friends with kids in grades below him, and grades above him. He also was friends with all of the staff and teachers," Josue said. "What we always said about Matt was, he never met a stranger; rather, everyone he met was a potential new friend. He was so friendly, so full of life, so loyal, so curious about the world. He was very vibrant, very kind, very sensitive, so good to everyone around him."
The school had about 300 students, and Shepard "definitely was one of my best friends at school," Josue said.
Shepard was not out in high school, and when she later learned that Shepard was gay, it was "a total non-issue," Josue said.
After he graduated, the two stayed in contact by writing and by phone.
And one summer, Shepard visited Josue and her family in Albuquerque, N.M. Josue's memories of their Albuquerque adventures still stand tallfrom going to a water park, to the sunburn he endured.
"My last memory was dropping him off at the airport, and he was very late for his flightand yet he still wanted to stop at the shops at the airport to pick out the perfect New Mexico trinket for his mom because, whenever he traveled, he would always buy a souvenir for his mother," Josue said.
See related story at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Chicago-screening-of-new-Matthew-Shepard-movie-Oct-29-at-Sidetrack/44449.html .