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