Sam  Shepard on his Butch Cassidy Movie, Blackthorn
Source: New York magazine - April 20, 2011

Sam Shepard is calling from somewhere on the road between East Texas and New Orleans. That may sound romantic, but right now heís just trying to make sure the phone line doesnít go dead, and he apologizes in advance for the possibility that it might. The kinds of roads Shepard has charted in his work bear a surprising similarity to the road traversed by his character in the lovely and elegiac new Western "Blackthorn", which is one of the highlights of this yearís Tribeca Film Festival. The film marks the welcome return of the actor-playwright-director and all-around Renaissance man as a leading man, playing an aging, grizzled Butch Cassidy hiding out in the mountains of Bolivia under an assumed name. Directed by Mateo Gil (perhaps best known to American moviegoers as the Spanish screenwriter of the Alejandro Amenabar films "The Sea Inside" and "Open Your Eyes"), "Blackthorn" is, like much of Shepardís own work, deceptively complex.

Blackthorn plays on a lot of themes youíve explored in your own work. The relationship between fathers and children, for example. Throughout the film, Butch Cassidy is writing a letter to what sounds like the Sundance Kidís child. ‬

Sam: I think thatís one of the things I was attracted to in this film. I loved the script. I really responded to these relationships and to this sense of alienation; it was right along the lines of my interests. This is so different from the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Itís not a buddy movie. Itís really a story of estrangement. Itís about Butch trying to get back home. The guyís really lost out there. Plus, itís interesting, because the kid heís writing to I think might be his own, although he signs [his letters] ďuncle.Ē I liked that innuendo. Itís probably his own child heís writing to. So heís still unable to fully connect.‬

Plus, thereís this notion of a character thatís lost out in the wilderness. Itís like an alien landscape out there. You think, Damn, that guyís never gonna get out of there.

Sam: Exactly. Thatís good that you got that impression from it; we were shooting for that. That sense of him being very isolated up there.‬

You shot much of this film on the Bolivian High Plateau, which sounds like a tough place to shoot.‬

Sam: It was arduous, for sure. The locations were very remote. We were working sometimes at 15,000 feet, and a lot of people got sick because of oxygen deprivation. That certainly geared us up for the movie. The production was threadbare. Plus, there was a language thing going on, too. I speak some Spanish, but not really enough. The director didnít really speak any English, so the screenwriter kind of acted as a go-between. That kind of isolation really helped, actually.‬

You sing a number of songs on the soundtrack. Youíve done music in the past, especially in your early years drumming for the Holy Modal Rounders, but this was the first time I heard you sing. You sound a bit like a young Rambliní Jack Elliott.‬

Hah! I know Rambliní Jack! [Laughs.] I havenít seen him for years, though. For years, I was afraid to sing, and once I got over it, all of a sudden it opened up this whole other channel for me. Iíve got a young son, whoís in a band called the Dust Busters. He sings like crazy. We sometimes sing together, and heís got a great voice. Iíd like to do more singing. It was one of the things that attracted me to this movie, actually, that there was singing involved in the role.‬

You also got to act opposite Steven Rea, with whom youíve worked with onstage over the years.‬

‪It was my suggestion to cast him. I thought he was perfect for that kind of character. I think he really anchors the film. He was fantastic in it. Iíve known him for a long time. I first worked with him in 1973 in London ó we did a lot of theater together, before either one of us ever did film.‬

The Western has been a genre youíve been closely identified with. Why do you think we see so fewer Westerns nowadays?‬

‪I donít really know. I love Westerns. True Grit ó I think they did a much better job with that than the John Wayne version. And the people that I hang out with still love Westerns. Iím a horseman myself, and a lot of horsemen that I hang around, they just adore Westerns as a form. But Iím not sure how widespread that is. You know, back in the day when I grew up, the whole country watched Westerns. Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers and The Rifleman. TV was just loaded with Westerns.

It seems sometimes that foreign directors, like Mateo Gil, understand the Western form better nowadays.

Thatís true. Thatís exactly true. Iíve worked a lot on Westerns with foreign directors. Thereís one not a lot of people saw, but itís a handy little film called "Purgatory" that I did some years ago. It was a quirky Western with Randy Quaid and Eric Roberts, and it was done by a German.