PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Rangy and relaxed, Wim Wenders looks like he spends time outdoors. His jeans are worn, his voice soft, and he’s simultaneously awkward and elegant, too long-legged for the plush chair in which he finds himself, but used to it too. The German-born director of The American Friend (1977), Wings of Desire (1987), and Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Wenders is currently promoting his new film, Don’t Come Knocking. His second project with Sam Shepard, after Paris, Texas (1984), the movie “deconstructs”—again—the myths of the American West, this time with Shepard starring as cowboy movie star Howard Spence, as well as a writing the script.
The connections between this film and Paris, Texas suggest an ongoing interest in themes that interest both you and Sam Shepard.
It took a long time to work with him again. He had refused to be Travis [in Paris, Texas]. This time, it didn’t take much twisting of the arm to get him to play Howard. I learned from my mistakes: I didn’t ask him. We had written quite a lot already, and restarted after a long stretch, after about a year. Sam was sitting across from me, typing, I sort of looked at the script, and casually mentioned to Sam that when it was finished, I was going to give it to Jack Nicholson, and that I thought Jack would love this picture. Sam didn’t say much at first, but he made it clear that he didn’t like that direction, and the only direction I should think was towards him. He said it himself, I didn’t ask him. That was a much better approach.
Both films create a distinct rhythm between the verbal and visual languages. During your writing, do you think about images at the same time?
I’m not thinking of the images of all. I think of something else. Maybe that’s how the two come together. I think of the places, and I bring that to the table, a sense of place. Sam brings a sense of character. Sam doesn’t really care much about the story, he thinks about what drives the characters. In both Paris, Texas and Don’t Come Knocking, the methods are the same: we came up with the character first—Travis and now, Howard—and we had not plot, no arc, just the character.
In Sam’s work, he starts with one first scene, and then he writes the story completely chronologically. We don’t allow ourselves to think much ahead. He writes a scene, we read it together, we correct it, and then the inevitable question comes up: what’s next? And what’s next is not what is going to happen in the next half hour of the film, but strictly what is the very next scene? Who is he going to meet and why does he do what he does? We discover this, we almost live the story. You don’t know beforehand who’s going to show up. We knew that he was going to find a life he missed, that he never had, that he was going to find that he had a kid. We didn’t know he was going to have two kids. The vague story I started with was “absent fathers.” I had wrapped it into a 20-page treatment, but that was little more than an excuse to go see Sam. And the inevitable thing happened: he didn’t like my story. Already he didn’t like the first line that the guy was a crook. But he related to the idea that this man went to visit his kids because he wanted to write up a will and had neglected his children all his life. So he went to see them, sort of observe them.
Sam didn’t like the entire story, except the idea of the unknown son. So we started from scratch. So here’s a man who’s come to the point of his life where he sees that he’s led a self-indulgent life. I didn’t know he was going to be a Western movie star, Sam came up with that idea and he was very convincing. I was appalled, because I didn’t want to make a movie about movies. He knew he was onto something, and wrote that first scene, where Howard, in full cowboy attire, runs off the set. When I read the scene, I said, “Maybe you’re right.” He’s fleeing the movies, so that was okay with me. I liked that his life was obsolete. And from there, I knew Butte was the place: I had been there six or seven times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had photographed the place over the years. I knew each and every place where we would shoot. I knew the feeling of the place, its lostness of space and time. I realized the story of the lost father had to take place here.
The running away from the movie produces that terrific headline, “Spence Disappears from Phantom of the West.”
The movie was for a little while going to be called “Phantom of the West.” My first title, which Sam didn’t like, was “In America.” But then my Irish director friend, Jim Sheridan, made a film of the same title. Then we called it “Phantom of the West.” But that seemed like we were spelling it out right there. And then Sam said, look at this, the plaque on Howard’s trailer, “Don’t Come Knocking if the Trailer’s Rocking,” and I said no, that’s way too raunchy. But it did stick. I strongly believed in yet another title. We shot this last scene of the film, which is not in the script, where the kids in the car pass a sign that says, “Wisdom 52 miles, Divide 1.” And I thought that was the title, “52 miles to Wisdom,” but Sam didn’t believe in it.
This film, more than Paris, Texas, focuses on mothers, not as objects but as full-on characters.
Where Travis felt guilty about his jealousy and his mistake, Howard’s whole life was a mistake. He never even knew about his child. He was a reckless man. And when we conceived of him, we realized that we were not going to identify with him at all. This guy was not our point of view through the film. Travis was. Howard, no way. Both Sam and I had a nice ironic distance from him, which was something very new for me. We knew from the beginning there had to be other characters who pushed it forward, because Howard was too weak. So his mother [Eva Marie Saint] and his daughter [Sarah Polley], as well as Doreen [Jessica Lange], they have their two feet on the ground, and know one thing Howard does not, they know how to deal with conflict and they know how to face the truth.
Even Amber [Fairuza Balk] brings that.
Yes, the fourth one as well. They have their own honesty, which Howard does not. These women are all strong, and they know where they belong.
The scene where he tells Doreen they ought to get back together is so to that point, not only in her reaction, but also the set-up, as they almost perform for the people in the gym window.
Yes. They were in this city that seemed almost completely unpopulated, like they’re always on a big set. And when it comes to the real confrontation, they’re acting in front of this audience and this audience doesn’t care. I saw this ridiculous little gym and we had to put extras inside because no one was in it. But it was like a little theater—that little eruption has something theatrical about it.
And in a movie that Howard had made, she would have come back to him.
Oh yeah, in all of Howard’s movies, the movies that he believed in, they would have come back together, but not in the movie of his life.
Sky and Howard’s mother both keep these memory sets, Sky in the flashdrive around her neck and his mother in her old-fashioned scrapbook.
It’s very tender the way that Sky deals with it. I love it that she has this, it’s almost like a piece of jewelry, like a locket with a photo in it. It’s the same thing but it keeps a thousand photos, of her mother’s childhood and life. And this strange picture of young Howard and an actual picture of Sarah as a child.
Sky’s speech at the end, saying that she still doesn’t know about Howard, but that’s okay, is so moving.
That was our centerpiece. The whole film leads to his daughter declaring her vision of him. She also sort of sets him free, because when he sits on the sofa, without his daughter, he’s lost. She’s the one who finds him and forgives him. She doesn’t really say it in those terms, but she opens a big door for him, because he didn’t have forgiveness in his life. So the women are really carrying the story for Howard.
And for Earl [Gabriel Mann] too.
Yes, sometimes I think Sky does that speech more for Earl than for Howard. It’s really important that he’s there. She tries to heal him. Sam wrote her for a long time as a half-blood. That was something very important in Sam’s mind, but I was always hoping that this thing that Sky’s mother was Native American would pay off somehow, but it was just something that was important to Sam. Sometimes a writer has to have an image in mind. So finally after three years of trying to talk him out of it, he said, I’ve thought about that again and you’re probably right. It’s really in no way relevant that she’s half-blood. I went to the phone and called Sarah [laughs]. Before, I couldn’t call her, if Sam had insisted on [the half-blood daughter].
You had seen her in My Life Without Me.
Oh yes, and if you ever you get to see The Secret Life of Words, the second film she did with Isabel Coixet. It’s fantastic.
Polley’s an interesting match in this film too, because part of what’s so striking about Shepard as an actor is that you only need to put the camera on his face, and he tells so many stories. Her face is similarly evocative—not the same at all, but also full of stories.
She is, yeah. She never tries much to express any of those stories, she just translates them with her face. I love working with Sarah, it was as good as any experience I’ve had making a film. And the same goes for Jessica, and Fairuza Balk.
Amber was compelling because when you first see her, she seems the stereotypical crazy girlfriend character, to round out the boy. But she’s not what you think.
She was the last addition to the cast, because until the last moment, Earl didn’t have a girlfriend, but a series of groupies. Then we felt these were too many characters, and none of them really mattered. Together, they were like a group of extras. And we felt it was better to focus, so Sam wrote all of the bizarre lost groupie girlfriends into one. As soon as I realized I had one part, I wanted to work with Fairuza, because she’d been on my secret list of actors I wanted to work with.
Amber also makes Earl different from his father.
yeah, that was another thing. Earl has so much of Howard in him anyway, he repeats his father’s mistakes. But his relation to Amber brought another dimension, some sort of effort to find some ties, to commit to something, as badly as he does it.
Sutter is almost the embodiment of what he calls “outside interference.” But he gives a different kind of shape to the film.
He is the outsider by definition, he’s an Englishman in the West, and Tim brought a weirdness to him. Although he seems to be despising Howard and seems the total antithesis, when you see them in the car together, you realize they are one and the same. The hunter is even worse off, more lost than the hunted. He says, “Some people need a family, I don’t want one.” He’s E.T.
Can you talk about the first image of the film, the rock formation that looks like a set of eyes?
Because we wanted to create a strong sense of place, and because the film is ground in the territory of the mythic and actual West, the image makes this reference. Because the landscape was so important to me, I had this funny idea that it was almost a reversal. Usually people ride through the Western landscape and see it with their eyes. This was the opposite, like the landscape was watching Howard. And the idea that the landscape was a character, I wanted to bring that out—it’s like Zorro’s mask.
And I wanted to keep that feeling throughout the film, that’s why we used all these windows and reflections, as the city is almost reflecting the story that’s happening, in both senses of the word. We wanted to make sure that people were not taking Howard too seriously. That was a big step for Sam and I. Neither of us would have dared to do that 20 years ago. My previous films had a strong sense of identification, the point of view was anchored in the characters, but here the point of view is floating, shifting slowly away from Howard and toward the kids. In the end, it’s almost like he’s a ghost who appears.
Yes. He’s the occasion for them getting together. That runs counter to the conventional relation to film protagonists. We’re trained to do it.
Yes, we’re all trained to do it and as a filmmaker, I feel I was trained to do it. It was some sort of great relief to see we could make it without anchoring it in a character. You could almost anchor yourself in everybody else. Howard is more the object of the film instead of the subject.
The movie posters inside the film speak to that, all those younger-Howard images. He seems to have a sense of this, when he tells his mother, “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore,” as if he ever did.
He says that, and his mom doesn’t want to respond, she is more practical than that.
At the same time, she’s devoted to these rituals of remembrance, of Howard, of her husband, with the scrapbook…
And his “boy’s room.” And when she gives him his father’s car, it’s almost like she passes on something. And Hoard passes that on to his son, another memory object that is passed on from one generation to another. The kids start possessing it.
And the car is such an American icon as well, the vehicle that takes them away. The other thing that’s something of a ritual here has to do with storytelling. The mother tells Sutter, “Lying is for cowards,” suggesting that she does understand how stories or myths sustain belief.
At the same time, Sutter knows that she’s lying and she knows that he knows. And she’s right to say it, because she’s not a coward.
Both Howard and Earl are close to and distant from their mothers at once.
Yeah, the father has passed on his lack of commitment to his son. When Howard is at his father’s grave, it’s like he wants to remember that he even existed. And he even carried the same name. She changes the flowers at the grave but does nothing else. She doesn’t spend a second at the grave, she does her duty and already she walks away. Mom is really very matter of fact.
But she performs this mom stuff, baking cookies and as you said, preserving Howard’s room.
She plays the part, but she doesn’t really try to fill it. When Howard reappears, she doesn’t even recognize him, but then it’s as if he’s only been gone two weeks. It’s an awful thing to be a man and go back to our boy’s room. In the end, he’s not the same person that he was. Following Sky’s speech to him, he does give her a hug. He’s not quite as estranged from his own life and his own self as he was. He has to play the cowboy, but I think Howard is able to see that. But… who knows? He has been broken, but he has, at last, committed to that.