You wrote the cult film Paris Texas 29 years ago. Why
did someone who cares so much about language start the
story with Travis, a mute?
It was a very conscious decision. As conscious as you
can get. I had two experiences with very close friends
of mine who experienced aphasia, the loss of language.
It shocked me. With aphasia, oftentimes the symbolism of
language is skewed and the names for things can be
swapped around. The person speaking absolutely
understands what they mean inside, but they might call a
"door" a "dog". It's very easy to lose language it can
be shut off in a second. So, what about a character who
can't speak, but has all this stuff going on inside of
him? He's feeling, but it's not being expressed. That's
where we started.
The director Wim Wenders pretty much kept the script
as you wrote it; he said later that the actors were so
faithful to your words, they'd shoot scenes from the top
if they made a tiny mistake. That's unusual in film,
Yeah, it was an unusual situation. I was lucky to be in
Have you been in that position in the industry since?
Not really. I guess as an actor you tend to be very
privileged at least you have the impression you're
being spoiled. They would like to give you that
impression. Often, it makes you cranky, rather than
Does that have something to do with why you eschewed
living in Hollywood?
It's a horrible place to live, you know. You can go
there and do various things: to live there is not great.
For instance, here in Derry, you have a feeling of home,
there's a centre to it. In LA, you don't get that
feeling at all you feel like home is splintered off in
a thousand directions.
So what makes you say yes to acting in a film these
I think it's based on the character. So many
contemporary scripts are written by committee and
they're pretty obviously written by committee. Within
the first three to five pages, you can tell how many
writers were on this sucker. If there's one writer, it's
very distinct and usually they have a hold of something.
The people I enjoy working with now are what they used
to call "auteurs": people who write their own material,
then shoot it, and they're very rare. I mean, there's a
handful of them.
Is that why you write mostly for theatre?
Yeah, absolutely. It's all handmade, theatre we're not
so dependent on technological stuff. That's what I love
about it. On stage, you're not limited at all because
you're free in language: language is the source of the
imagination. You can travel farther in language than you
can in any film.
Where do you do your own solitary writing?
Oh, I'm anywhere. I used to think the kitchen was the
place. I loved it, right in the kitchen; it just felt
like the kitchen was home.
It feels like you can see the desert from your
kitchen window: it features a lot in your plays
I always thought the desert was the antithesis of peace,
something that attacks you. So you don't go to the
desert for peace. Well, I suppose you do if you're on
acid, but I never went to the desert for peace. I grew
up on it, so I always felt like it was attacking us.
What started you writing?
I couldn't do anything else but drive a tractor. I felt
like this is the only thing I had. I could do other
stuff I can ride a horse but writing sort of carries
you into all these other worlds. And I can't find
anything that would do that except writing. I don't do
it to get a message across. I'm writing just because
there are certain kinds of raw material. The material
may be very strange, but it takes shape in the course of
writing. Whether that has a message or not is not my
People can make that up afterwards?
Yeah. Writing for theatre is certainly different to
writing an essay or any other kind of fiction or prose:
it's physical. You're also telling a story, but
sometimes the story isn't exactly what you intend; maybe
you uncover something you had no idea you were going to
uncover. But I don't think you set off wanting to
transmit a message.
Is it infuriating for you to have people interpret
No, no, I just stay away from that. I stay away from
heavy-handed stuff, the good guy and the bad guy. It
just doesn't interest me; all it does is create more
fences between people, I think.
You're in Northern Ireland working with Field Day
Theatre Company and Stephen Rea, who commissioned your
new play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations). It
started out as lots and lots of scenes in no particular
I'm a great believer in chaos. I don't believe that you
start with a formula and then you fulfill the formula.
Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in
chaos we don't live in a rigorous form. This play has
been miraculously pulled together by a really talented
director, Nancy Meckler. Oddly, I worked with her 35
years ago and she's made some kind of sense of it. That
seems to be the thing everybody wants sense.
Is it fair to describe it as a riff on Oedipus?
I don't believe in adaptation. I tried and I thought,
eugh, I don't want to do an adaptation, I want to do a
variation on. I want to do something with the emotions
that the play is calling up: I want to take off on the
feelings that the thing produces. If it doesn't produce
those feelings, it's worthless, as far as I'm concerned.
So in the case of Sophocles, he definitely calls up
feelings. That's what you're adapting: the feelings, not
form the instincts and all the incredible things that
are called up.
Will you be writing new pages for it right up until
Oh yeah! Maybe beyond.
You've been here for almost a month: noticed a
difference between the Irish and Americans?
Of course there's a difference you guys have thousands
of years behind you. We, as European Americans, have
what 400 years? That's all we've got. Four hundred
years to mess around in history, whereas you've got
thousands. If, being Irish, you're knowingly carrying
around a thousand years of history, you potentially have
in you knowledge that we don't have. The history shapes
you. You go way back, so, yes, there's a difference.
Where do you go to find the poetry?
You don't go anywhere! You stay right here.