Director Michael Almereyda's documentary This So-Called Disaster focuses on the weeks of rehearsal prior to the San Francisco production of Sam Shepard's play The Late Henry Moss. Shepard, who also directed, had quite the cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin. The drama mainly deals with Shepard's own troubled relationship with his alcoholic father. I saw the play during its New York run and found it, like a lot of Shepard's dramaturgy, enervated, self-indulgent and incoherent.

It is, therefore, a tribute to Almereyda that his film is consistently engrossing, with nary a dull moment, and very enlightening on what is popularly called "the actor's process." As his camera captures these fascinating men at their most candid and relaxed, you get a real feeling of what it is to put on a show, especially one such as this, where the script really demands that the actors provide real emotion and spirit to flesh out its spare, showily violent bones. As opening night approaches, the mounting excitement is palpable and makes you completely understand what people mean when they say they have greasepaint in their veins. You inevitably end up learning more about the director and performers, personally, than the characters they struggle to bring to life. And these are certainly actors with some intriguingly dark places they actually permit Almereyda to probe.

Nolte is very revealing, especially about an early nervous breakdown that initially led him into acting. Even the notoriously diffident Penn is here revealed as your basic working actor, who'd like to stay for more run-throughs but has to get home to the kids, or else catch real hell. He's a fearless, physical risk-taker in rehearsal. He's also charming, impishly motioning to the wine glass fast being emptied by an increasingly loquacious Shepard at one point. When the ingratiatingly outclassed but nonetheless game Harrelson starts ad-libbing lines, Penn says, "That may have worked in White Men Can't Jump." In a flash, Harrelson gets in an equally humorous dig about Penn's performance in Shanghai Surprise and the bonhomie is infectious, just what you'd wish it would be from these guys.

But it's Shepard, actually, who comes through the strongest here. As many reservations as I may have about his playwriting, he is an undeniably formidable presence and pretty irresistible, in his weathered calm and obviously deep values. You first see him, a model of courteous patience, being interviewed by a clueless journalist, whose idiotic questions ("What's harder--theatre or film?" "Is the play autobiographical?") will make anyone who shares her profession cringe. Shepard's recollection of his tortured father and their final, inexpressibly sad meeting is deeply moving and puts a poignant cap on this very worthwhile behind-the-scenes show.

-David Noh