February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Sam Shepard is one of our last American Cowboys, the kind of guy who puts whiskey in his coffee and sports an ever-present cigarillo between clenched teeth. Shepard has been exploring the myth of the American dream for the last forty years now, redefining the lost spaces of the West and the ways which retribution comes side by side with success.
An actor, playwright, director and screenwriter, Shepard has continued to ponder the same enigmatic themes, working over the idiosyncrasies of American culture and turning them into sleek and poignant storytelling.
In 1979, Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Buried Child”. In 1984 he garnered an Oscar nomination for his role as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. That same year, with filmmaker Wim Wenders, Shepard would create a cult masterpiece with his script for “Paris Texas”, an achingly lovely exploration of alienation and personal redemption.
Shepard and Wenders have recently reunited for a new film, Don’t Come Knockin’ with Shepard in the roles of both screenwriter and star. The film revisits those same barren waste landscapes of its predecessor and continues to explore Shepard’s trademark themes – desire, regret and bitter, dust-blown, longing.
Q: You’ve been writing for a long time and yet I feel like all of your work as a certain common resonance, and that there are certain landscapes that you obviously are fascinated by. There’s something particularly American about those worlds to me, but it’s a lost, desolate America – there’s longing there and world-weariness. And yet it always seem like it’s also a place that only exists now as nostalgia, so you can’t help romanticizing it too.
A: Yes. It’s that landscape of desolation, of abandonment. And it’s a purely American landscape; it’s a Gold Rush landscape really, because if you think about it, it’s still no different in America from the Gold Rush days. Superficially everything has changed, but it’s still there, that Gold Rush mentality, of “getting in there, get everything you can and get the fuck out!” That’s what America has always been about.
Q: I think that comes across quite poignantly in the choice of Butte, Wyoming for the main location of Don’t Come Knockin’. Butte is the perfect example of an American boomtown gone bust.
A: Exactly. They raped that city. It has the most poisonous lake in the world and it’s contaminating the entire countryside. With Butte, that was really a case of getting the gold and leaving. It was a mountain of copper and they took the top off it. But it’s remarkable, there’s still a creative community there, there’s artists, painters and writers. But there’s also a lot of crack house and meth labs. The meth labs were blowing up while we were there. You’d be shooting and you’d here this explosion and the roof would be coming off someplace down the road. The next day you’d see people staggering around, looking through the rubble. It’s the land of the lost. But it’s also incredibly beautiful countryside, really stunning place, the colors, and the feel of the landscape there.
Q: Obviously that world is one that you’ve explored to some extent before. The forgotten places. It also is the sort of place where Wim Wenders is most at home as well. Can you talk a bit about your creative relationship with Wenders?
A: Well, we seem to have an affinity for the same emotional language, you know? And our musical tastes are the same and things like that and I think that’s a big part of what defines the aesthetic that we share – music, emotion, we tend to explore the same kind of places. In the end though, we just got lucky, it’s a good fit.
Q: It’s interesting, the affinity you have with him, considering the fact Wender, as a German, is from a different culture, entirely.
A: I remember I was once down in Texas in the South Texas near the Big Bend, in this tiny little border town. It’s one of the shallowest places in the Rio Grande where you can walk right across. It’s where Pancho Villa disappeared after he attacked Lincoln, New Mexico. It’s pretty remote. And in this little town, a tour bus shows up and the door opens and there are all these German tourist getting off, with the cameras and the cowboy boots and the hats, I couldn’t believe it. And they were all speaking German and pointing at the landscape, it was crazy. It’s funny, because German’s have always had some sort deeper understanding and fascination with American culture. I think it has to do with the fact that some of the earliest immigrants, particularly those pioneering the West, were German. You have huge German populations in places like Texas. Early on, in theater, I came across Brecht, back in the Sixties. Then I came across his diaries from when he left Germany and came to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. He talks about his dispossessed feeling, of being in this Hollywood wonderland, where the sprinklers ran all the time. His take on L.A. was quite fantastic. And it’s similar to Wim, you’re astounded by what they find. I think there’s always an advantage in that objectivity, you tend to see things clearer. It’s been interesting to me to work with Wim, because I’m working my own things out with my writing and my vision of America is always changing slightly. It’s fascinating place, and there’s always another story there, just waiting…
Originally published in Dazed magazine