ComingSoon.net was given a chance for a rare sit-down
interview with Mr. Shepard last week in a rather noisy
hotel restaurant, and though we were somewhat nervous
due to the rather gruff characters Shepard has sometimes
played, he couldn't be any nicer as we talked about
Blackthorn and his just-announced role in Jeff ("Take
Shelter") Nichols' new movie "Mud".
CS: I talked to Mateo back in May, and he
mentioned that you agreed to this based solely on the
script without the reservations one might have going to
Bolivia, working in high altitudes with a director like
Mateo whom you never met before. What was it about the
script that struck you right away?
Sam: It was beautifully made. The construction of
it, the way it moves, the episodic nature of it, the
whole thing. I thought it was beautifully crafted and it
was probably the best script I'd read in about ten
CS: What were your impressions of Butch Cassidy
before doing this, either from history or previous movie
Sam: I had known very little of him. I wasn't
that drawn to him as a figure, but I did do some
research, I went and got some books and started reading
about him and it was a fascinating background. He was a
Mormon, and he grew up with horses, so he was a good
horseman, and actually his first breaking of the law was
rustling the cattle and horses of this guy who was a
neighbor of his. In fact, where he got the name Butch
was from this guy.
CS: Mateo glamorizes Butch as a "Robin Hood"
figure because he wasn't stealing from people, but
stealing from companies. Did you get a lot of that out
of the script that he was very different from what some
might consider a bandit?
Sam: You can't think of these guys too much in
the mythological vein, because I think the mythology
grows out of... like Savanti says, "Every man is the
child of his deeds," so you try to get inside the sweat
of the guy, the body of the person, and let the rest of
it take care of itself. If you push the character as a
mythological or iconic character, it removes you from
CS: Some might say that you're kind of a
mythological figure yourself, so having you in this role
automatically makes it something bigger.
Sam: Yeah, I know, but as an actor, you can't
think about it that way. You have to find the practical
tools of playing the character.
CS: You've been so involved with the Western
genre over the years, so when you read a script like
this, can you tell how this one stands out? The location
is very different obviously.
Sam: Well, that was part of the attraction. I've
never been to South America. I've been to Central
America, Mexico and Spain, but never South America, and
Bolivia is absolutely unique. It's an Indian culture,
70% Indian, it has an Indian President, Spanish is maybe
the second language. It's all Indian dialects and the
locations are very exotic. We were all over the place
from the top of the Andes to the valley floor to the
high plateau, the salt plains, all these little
backwater places. It was just fascinating to be there.
We were at 15,000 feet, which was a physical problem...
CS: That's what Mateo told me, that it was hard
to breathe up there.
Sam: Yeah, it was difficult to breathe, for some
more than others. Even the horses we had to bring in
from Argentina, because there are very few horses there
because of the breathing. We brought in Argentine
ex-polo ponies, and they had to acclimatize for about a
month and a half. When I was loping a lot of them, they
would breathe hard. I could feel them blowing (while I
was riding them).
CS: How long were you down there to shoot this?
Sam: About a month.
CS: What was it like to be down there? Were you
all camping in tents?
Sam: No, no, they usually found us accommodations
in some little town, like little haciendas or whatever,
pretty shabby but not bad, and we were catered by some
cooks from Cochabamba, really fantastic cooks.
CS: So you got the full Bolivian experience while
there, that's amazing.
Sam: Yeah, at a lot of llama. (laughs) It's
pretty bland, not that great. It was okay.
CS: I enjoyed seeing you working with Stephen
Rea, who you've known for so long.
Sam: It was fun.
CS: Have you guys ever made a movie together?
Sam: You know I've worked with him in theater
since the '70s and he's done a lot of plays. We just did
two plays in the Abbey Theater in Dublin, and we brought
that last production to the Atlantic Theater, and I
directed him and he's been in my plays, but I've never
acted with him, so it was a great turn.
CS: Mateo suggested that he had Stephen on his
list of actors he wanted for the role but then you
suggested him and were involved with getting him on
Sam: No, they had Brendan Gleeson and a bunch of
other guys, and I was working with Stephen at the time
in Ireland, so I said, "What about Stephen?" and he
said, "Of course." (laughs) Stephen has a tremendous
diversity. That was our first movie (together).
CS: As a writer and director yourself, when you
work with a director who is not as experienced, do you
feel you need to bring that aspect of yourself to a film
or do you just focus on the acting and character?
Sam: Well, Mateo I liked very much personally. I
really like him as a person. We had some discrepancies
in work, because I found his approach was very
intellectual, and he had preconceived many of the
scenes, which drives me crazy.
CS: You mean in terms of storyboards?
Sam: Everything. "You're over there, then you're
over there, then you're here." And I said, "I can't work
like this, it's impossible. You're going to have to drop
the reins and let me find the character." I think we had
an essential, not disagreement but an essential
head-butting about the approach, and finally when I
think he began to realize that I just needed more room
to investigate the character, he began to allow that to
happen. I think he was so nervous about the money and
the budget, etc. etc. and coming in on time and making
sure everything was done that he squeezed rather than
allowed the thing to breathe a little bit. Finally, we
found an agreement and an area where we could move
together and collaborate. It finally worked out, but at
the beginning it was tough, because he seemed deadest on
getting certain things that he had preconceived in his
head, and I was going, "Oh my God, this is going to be
tough." We finally worked it out.
CS: The last really big role you had was with Wim
Wenders on "Don't Come Knocking," which was a different
time and place but similar feel, so what was your
working relationship like with him since you wrote the
two movies you made with him?
Sam: It took us a while, too. I had a
tremendously easy time with him as a writer, because we
wrote "Paris, Texas" and then we wrote that one, and he
allowed me a lot of room as a writer and the
collaboration felt very relaxed. As soon as he became
the director, it seemed as though the camera dominated
everything. The shots were so imposing and so didactic
in a way that I again felt squeezed in a certain kind of
way. Finally, we slowly found a way of working. It's
common with directors that there's a period of testing
the waters. There are very few directors that you start
off with and you're immediately relaxed. Andrew
Dominick, he's one of the few directors who I felt
immediately relaxed with, immediately. He's going to
give me room to do stuff. He has his ideas, I have mine,
but we're not going to step on each other. Ridley Scott
I felt very loose with, more open, but certain other
directors, they're kind of clamped, and you can
understand it the way the film business tries to help
people because of the money. "You only have this money,
this money, this money." There's people walking around
all day long looking at their watches. It conspires to
make people uptight, and that's the nature of it.
CS: The locations in "Blackthorn" are very
specific so I expect that Mateo must have spent a lot of
time finding those places.
Sam: He and Miguel, the co-writer, I mean
Miguel literally lived down there for years, and I think
they first had in mind even more remote locations than
we had. Sometimes, it would take an hour and a half or
two hours to get to the set! By the time you go there,
you were wiped out from the roads (chuckles)...
CS: Well, the locations they found were great and
it's similar in that sense to "Assassination of Jesse
James." The Western genre has had its ebbs and flows,
but every once in a while movie like this or last year's
"True Grit" come along and really gets people excited
about the genre. Why do you think Westerns continue to
find fans despite not being as regular or consistent as
other film genres?
Sam: Because I think it appeals to some kind of
American conservative morality. Most of the people I
know that love Westerns are from that background, and it
essentially has to do with living there. Most of them
are West Texans, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana. There's a
harking back to and an excitement about preserving some
of the morality of it.
CS: The morality and also the environment,
because seeing Bolivia like that with all that open
space. You can find places like that in America if you
look, but those big open spaces are getting fewer and
fewer because people see that as places to build and
Sam: But I think the real audience are people who
live it, who have grown up with it, who have a
background in it. You know, when I was a kid, we didn't
have a TV until the late '50s, but I can remember
watching Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Steve McQueen and
"Gunsmoke." It was 80% Westerns, maybe 90%, and then
we'd go to parades and you'd see the real guys coming
down the streets riding horses with the Spanish saddles
and you'd see Gene Autry on Champion in a black leather
saddle with leather trim. It had a whole different
connection, and it was all black and white Westerns.
CS: There's just something ingrained into kids,
especially boys, where they immediately can connect and
be interested when you show them a cowboy, there's
something that's instantly glamorous to them wherever
they live. It was just announced you would be in Jeff
Nichols' new movie "Mud." I just talked to him last
Sam: Did you? It's a beautiful script.
CS: You've been doing fewer movies in recent
years so has it just been that you haven't found scripts
you like? Is that the main reason for doing movies?
Sam: The script first, yeah, and then whatever
actors are in it. I'm not put off so much by first-time
directors if the script is great. If the script isn't
there, I'm not there.
CS: Have you seen either of Jeff's other movies?
Sam: I haven't. I hear they're great.
CS: Yeah, "Take Shelter" is pretty amazing.
Sam: Did he write those as well?
CS: He wrote them as well.
Sam: Well, I can see why they would be great,
because this is a beautiful script, great little script.
It's a script I wouldn't even think about touching
except rearranging a little bit of the language in it,
but there's no way you can improve on it.
CS: What's the character you're playing?
Sam: An ex-sharpshooter from the army who lives
alone on the river on a riverboat house and is sort of
the protector of the Matthew McConaughey character.
CS: It's also a family drama like "Brothers" so
is that something you're drawn to if you like the
Sam: Not necessarily, but again, it has to do
with the writing. In this case, the writing is totally
authentic and flows. It doesn't feel like any of it is
contrived. You know how things stick out and they go, "A
producer must have written that." (laughs)
CS: Jeff is still working independently...
Sam: Beautiful writing.
CS: He can still get the financing and still make
movies the way he wants and get the actors he wants.
Sam: I just have a feeling it's going to be
CS: When are you going down there to shoot it?
Sam: I won't be there very long. I'll probably be
a week shooting the initial stuff and then the very last
scene, because of the nature of it, has to be shot in
New Orleans, down on the Gulf, and we don't shoot that
'till late November, so I'm shooting in Arkansas
mid-October and then that at the end.
CS: There are a couple big anniversaries coming
up. You're going to be 80 in a couple years...
Sam: 80?!? I'm not going to be f*cking 80!!
CS: Did I do math wrong? (thinking) 70.
Sam: 70. (laughs)
CS: How did I come up with 80? But also "The
Right Stuff" is going to be 30 in a couple of years so
has anyone been in contact about doing some stuff for a
30th Anniversary Blu-ray or anything?
Sam: No, I haven't heard anything about it. I'm
not a big fan of anniversaries. (Laughs)
CS: Do you ever look back at your previous work
whether intentionally or due to
Sam: No, I've turned a lot of stuff down, but the
only thing I really regret was "Lonesome Dove." I turned
that down because I had really young kids at the time,
and it was a long, long shoot. It was extremely long. I
just didn't want to be gone that long, but I do regret
that. I could have played either one of those characters
and was offered both of them.