Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated
actor Sam Shepard doesnít take a lot of lead film roles,
but when he does, he makes them count. Take this weekís
Blackthorn, the sweeping epic tale of what might have
happened if - as some historians believe - legendary
outlaw Butch Cassidy wasnít gunned down by Bolivian
forces in 1908, and instead went on to live a quiet,
reclusive existence in that country under the pseudonym
Filmed on location in the dizzying terrain of Bolivia,
Blackthorn is Shepardís latest scenic route through the
vicissitudes of American mythology, an exploration that
has previously taken him as both a writer and actor
through the U.S. space program ("The Right Stuff") to
the moody, modern West ("Paris, Texas" and "Donít Come
Knocking") and even contemporary geopolitical intrigue
("Fair Game"). Shepard spoke with Movieline recently
about his 40-year-plus journey - and his new filmís
place within it.
Movieline: Iím not sure if I should tell you this
ó but the one and only experience Iíve had with acting
was in one of your plays.
Sam: Which one?
Movieline: I was in Angel City.
Sam: Angel City! Oh, yeah. Where did you do that?
Movieline: It was at a college in Orange County.
That play is obviously a pretty cynical perspective on
Hollywood culture and its output, and I was curious: How
would you characterize your relationship with Hollywood
and the film industry in general in the 35 years since
writing Angel City?
Sam: When I wrote that I was in the process of
trying to make some money in Hollywood collaborating on
and developing scripts, which didnít work out at all
because it was constantly board meetings with,
essentially, businessmen who didnít understand anything
about writing or screenwriting or even cared about
movies. All they cared about was money. Which is still
the case, but back then I was kind of shocked at it. I
thought maybe it was possible to function as an artist
in Hollywood, somehow. When you consider all the people
whoíve been duped into that belief ó not excluding
Bertolt Brecht, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and all
these extraordinary writers ó I felt like I bought the
bullet, too. I drank the Kool-Aid. [Laughs]
Movieline: Do you still maintain any connection
to it at all?
Sam: I donít do screenwriting at all for
Hollywood anymore. I donít even attempt it. In the
beginning I thought it was a way I could pay the rent,
and at the same time also get something done. But it was
impossible. The only screenplays of mine that have been
[filmed] and released that Iíve been satisfied with have
been the ones with Wim Wenders, where I feel like itís
in total collaboration, and I have the confidence that
itís going to be made the way weíre conceiving it. Itís
not going to be distorted into some other creature.
Thatís basically what Iíve enjoyed about working with
Wim. But I donít have that luxury working for any
studio. And I donít see novels as something you can
Sam: No. I think itís a really bad idea. Itís as
bad as trying to turn old movies into Broadway plays.
Movieline: I guess "The Right Stuff" was
technically nonfiction, but it just feels so novelistic.
Sam: That worked, but I think because of Phil
[Kaufman] and his wife Rose. Theyíre kind of brilliant
screenwriters themselves, and they found a way to adapt
it that worked with the material.
Movieline: Also around the time you wrote Angel
City, you were giving screen acting a go. "Days of
Heaven" was a breakthrough, and of course that took
seemingly years for Paramount to come terms with. How,
if at all, did that further sour you on Hollywood?
Sam: I was very lucky to start out like that.
That was virtually my first movie. Iíd done a couple of
other, little things, but that was my first sort of
feature film. And to start off with Terry Malick, thatís
not a bad way to go. But you still have the onus of
producers trying to influence things ó the whole
oppression of people from the outside sticking their two
cents in. I mean, anybody whoís going to advise Terry
Malick on any aspect of filmmaking should just
Movieline: Do you stay in touch with Malick?
Sam: The last time I talked to him was in Austin,
probably two or three years ago. Iíve kind of lost touch
with him. Weíve talked on the phone a couple of times.
Movieline: Do you ever think about finding a way
to work with him again?
Sam: Oh, Iíd love to work with him, but thatís
entirely up to him. Iíd love to work with him. He seems
to be off on a tangent of his own, now, though.
Movieline: Moving on to "Blackthorn", the
director of this film, Mateo Gil, has professed his
appreciation of Westerns as a ďtruly moral genre.Ē Do
Sam: I think the way itís been conceived, for the
most part, is moral tales, yeah. Or immoral tales. But
thatís probably the stage for this. Itís also very
classic in that sense, because of the scope of it. I
think itís inexhaustible, this film. You could go on and
on and on. Itís like Don Quixote.
Movieline: Do you remember your very first
encounter with the mythology of Butch Cassidy?
Sam: I donít know if he was on my radar screen
until that film [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid]
came out. I hadnít paid much attention to him before
that. But then I did some research for this film in
Archer City, Texas, where Larry McMurtry has his
warehouses full of books. Thatís his hometown. And its
amazing: You go into these warehouses, and theyíre four
times the length of this room, stacked with books kind
of in a semblance of order. But anyway, he has a whole
Western section, obviously, and I dug around in there
and found some great research stuff on Butch. I didnít
realize he was raised Mormon in Utah. As a teenage kid
he went off and kind of rustled some cattle and stole
some horses and things like that. And he had this whole
background that wasÖ From the get-go, as a teenager? He
wasnít that interested in the work market, you know? He
liked the adventure. And they guy he based his name on,
Butch, was a rustler. And he learned to break horses
from him. Do you know about it?
Movieline: Not a thing.
Sam: That whole territory up there in Utah was
full of outlaws from all over the country because there
was this network of caves and things like that where
they could hideout and easily escape pursuit. Then
things eventually got so hot for them, they eventually
had to go to South America.
Movieline: Why did you want to play Butch? What
brought you to "Blackthorn"?
Sam: Well, the script was by far the best script
Iíd seen in about 10 years. I mean, it was a great
script: The way it twisted and turned, and the
complexities of it, and the levels of it. It was a
beautiful script. It is a beautiful script. And the fact
that they were going to shoot it in Bolivia - that it
was a Spanish production, not a big budget - I thought
it might be unique. I thought it might be different than
another American Western, particularly since they were
shooting it in Bolivia. And itís true: You get down
there, and youíre in an Indian nation. Itís 70, 75
percent Indian, all the Quechuan dialects. Spanish is
the second language. There were many people we were
working with who didnít speak Spanish at all. And itís
poorest country in South America.
So weíre in this very exotic territory, and there are
these spectacular settings. You go from the Andes to the
deepest valleys where the walls of the canyons are
straight up, and then you go to the high plateau and the
salt flatsÖ The variety is just amazing.
Movieline: Had you been before?
Sam: No. Iíd never been to South America before.
Iíd been to Central America and Mexico, but never South
America. We just flew right into El Alto, which is at
15,000 feet. Itís the highest airport in the world. You
come in and you go, ďBoom.Ē Youíre like a postage stamp.
Movieline: As a writer, whatís your approach to
shaping your parts and your characters in other peopleís
scripts? How do you negotiate any changes or
developments with the screenwriter or director, if at
Sam: I kind of have an agreement with the
director ahead of time that I can fool with the language
a little bit ó not in terms of changing story or plot
development or any big ideas, and not changing the other
actorsí language. But that I can manipulate the language
a little bit to where I feel comfortable with it. Beyond
that, I woudnít say Iím in the conceptual part of it at
all. I try not to mess around in that territory. But the
language, I will fool around with. Thatís the only way I
would really influence anything as a writer.
Movieline: In your career, youíve shown a
historical interest in collaborating with foreign
filmmakers on stories about American mythology, psyche
and landscape - guys like Antonioni, Wenders, Andrew
Dominic, now Mateo Gil...
Sam: Volker Schlondorff.
Movieline: Absolutely. What is it that keeps you
returning to this interest?
Sam: Ironically, and I donít know why it is, I
think Europeans - particularly Germans, for some reason
- see this country in a very, very distinctlyÖ I
wouldnít want to call it ďobjective.Ē It may even be
more romantic. But they see America in a way that
Americans donít see it. Maybe because weíre submerged in
it and tend to polarize ourselves. But the German
sensibility about America has a scope to it thatís so
different. Like Paris, Texas, for instance. I donít
think Paris, Texas would have been the same film had it
been done by Robert Altman or whoever. I donít think it
would have had the exile feeling that Paris, Texas had -
the remoteness of it. I really think itís the exile kind
of thing. I donít know what it is about the Germans.
Maybe itís because of World War II; maybe they feel
exiled from their own country. America is regarded as
the savior of the second World War, and they look to
America as being some sort of contemporary brother. And
they donít quite find it, but they feel likeÖ I donít
know. I might just be making all this shit up. But I
think Wim has a certain tenderness for America thatís
Wim said, ďWell, why donít we call it Paris, Texas?Ē I
said, ďGreat!Ē [Laughs] ďCall it anything you want! Just
keep it in Texas!Ē
Movieline: And youíve seen it develop over the
years in multiple collaborations with him. Aside from
the films themselves, how do you think youíve factored
into Wendersís attitudes? What do you guys talk about it
in that context?
Sam: With both of those films - "Paris, Texas"
and "Donít Come Knocking", we had a lot of discussions
about place. He had, for years, this obsession with a
Dashiell Hammett book called "Red Harvest" that he
wanted to do a long, long time ago, and somehow it got
hung up. But "Red Harvest" is set in Butte, Mont., and
so he had this thing about Butte. I said, ďWell, letís
make this movie in Butte!Ē Because in both the instances
of "Paris, Texas" and "Donít Come Knocking", he started
with a totally different idea about characters. But both
of them converged around the idea of place. First, he
wanted to shoot Paris, Texas all over the world. I said,
ďWhy donít you just locate it in West Texas? Do it
strictly as a Texas movie?Ē Wim said, ďWell, why donít
we call it Paris, Texas?Ē I said, ďGreat!Ē [Laughs]
ďCall it anything you want! Just keep it in Texas!Ē
And it was very difficult, because many times, Wim wants
to have many, many, many characters. "Donít Come Knocking"
must have had twice as many characters when we started,
and we kept trying to condense it and make it more
focused. So itís things like that.
Movieline: Weíre in a period where a lot of your
peers and contemporaries are coming out with memoirs and
other material, giving the last half-century a cultural
perspective that we didnít have before. How do you
intend, if at all, to add your own last half-century to
Sam: Iím not interested in autobiography at all.
Movieline: Youíre not going to do that?
Sam: No. Never. I mean, in a way, all the plays
have been autobiographical, but not confessional like
that. Iíve never read an autobiography where the
protagonist isnít the hero of his story. Itís
Movieline: Is that intellectually dishonest?
Sam: No, no. Iím just not interested in it.
Thereís nothing dishonest about it. Itís just that I
donít want to pursue it as a thing.
Movieline: So what is next?
Sam: I have a three-act play that Iíve got the
skeleton of; itís not committed to a theater for another
year or so, so I have plenty of time to work on it. Iíve
got another play that Iím working on. Iím going to do a
film with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in
Movieline: Oh, right - "Mud".
Sam: You know about it?
Movieline: Just whatís been announced. That
director, Jeff Nichols, is awesome.
Sam: Whatís his name?
Movieline: Jeff Nichols? Have you seen "Take
Sam: No, I havenít.
Movieline: Oh, man. WellÖ
Sam: Heís from Arkansas, right?
Movieline: Right. Then he attended North Carolina
School of the Arts, where he got hooked up with Michael
Shannon. Then they made "Shotgun Stories" and "Take
Sam: I talked to him on the phone. Sadly not much
idea about his work.
Movieline: Heís brilliant.
Sam: Well, good.
Movieline: And what a cast.
Sam: Itís a beautiful script. As a screenwriter,
heís quite talented. Itís kind of an impeccable script.
[Pause] But Iím doing a lot of other stuff. Iím working
at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico with a bunch of
scientists in a kind of think-tank situation, which has
been very productive.
Movieline: Isnít Valerie Plame at the Santa Fe
Institute? Is that how you wound up in playing her
father in "Fair Game"?
Sam: No, it was actually the other way around.
She and Cormac McCarthy, who Iíve known for a long time,
recommended me for this fellowship out there ó the
Miller Fellowship. I did that a year ago, for six
months, and then I was invited back as a kind of
resident. Itís without any stipend or anything, but they
give me a place to work. And I really liked that somehow
itís time for me to be institutionalized. [Laughs] So
far itís worked out good, and I want to continue it as
long as Iím productive. Iíve got my farm in Kentucky,
but sometime it gets a little bit remote, and I wonder
what Iím doing. New Mexico feels like home to me now.