Sam Shepard on Blackthorn, his Hollywood years....
Source: Movieline - October 4, 2011


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 James Blackthorn.

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 adapt.

Movieline: Really?

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 apologize. [Laughs]

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 you agree?

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 all?

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 unique.

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 that perspective?

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 ridiculous.

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 Arkansas.

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 Shelter"?

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 Shelter".

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.