East Meets West, Take 2
SAM SHEPARD, a quintessentially American writer and actor, came naturally — if sometimes painfully — to his understanding of the West. Mr. Shepard, 62, grew up in Wyoming and California, and even worked as a ranch hand, thanks in part to the wanderings of a father who moved from job to job after serving as a pilot during World War II.
Wim Wenders, born in Düsseldorf, Germany, shortly after the war in Europe ended, took a more fanciful route to the American West. "It all goes back to a German writer by the name of Karl May, who wrote in prison in the late 19th century," the director said in a recent interview. "He wrote 50 novels that all take place in the West, though he never left Germany. There's no German who grew up without reading those books."
That the two should share a vision of that world not once, but twice, is a considerable mystery, even in the often mysterious world of cinematic collaboration. Having known each other for 25 years, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Wenders worked together on "Paris, Texas," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1984. And they've now returned with another film about ruptured families in the American West, "Don't Come Knocking," which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
"Of course, Sam grew up in the West, and Wim did not," said Jessica Lange, who has lived with Mr. Shepard for two decades and who co-stars in "Don't Come Knocking." "But sometimes foreign directors can drop in and see our country clearer than an American director."
In "Paris, Texas," Harry Dean Stanton played a drifter found wandering through the Southwest. Eventually he reconnects with a wife and son he left years earlier. In "Don't Come Knocking," Mr. Shepard is cast as Howard Spence, a western movie star who suddenly walks off the set of his latest movie and goes in search of his past. He tracks down a woman (played by Ms. Lange) whom he met years ago when he was on location in Butte, Mont., and learns that she bore him a son (Gabriel Mann). Howard also discovers that he has a daughter (Sarah Polley), the result of another fling.
In a recent interview, Mr. Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay, acknowledged that his interest in stories of derelict fathers probably grew out of his troubled relationship with his own father, who left his family for extended periods. "It's one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America, that families fall apart," Mr. Shepard said. "Almost everybody has that in common. When I was writing this script, I wanted at all costs to avoid any sentimentality about the father-and-son relationship."
The connection between Mr. Shepard and Mr. Wenders began when the latter was preparing his first American film, "Hammett," in the early 1980's. The director wanted Mr. Shepard to play the title character, the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. The film was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and according to Mr. Shepard, "Coppola didn't want me."
He continued, "He thought of me as a writer, not a movie star. He was a dictatorial producer. After Wim finished that nightmarish production, he asked me if I would be interested in writing a script based on some of my short stories." (Mr. Shepard finally got to play Hammett in a television movie, "Dash and Lilly," in 1999. Mr. Coppola is out of the country on location and could not be reached for comment, a spokeswoman said.)
When the script for "Paris, Texas" was completed, Mr. Wenders asked Mr. Shepard to star, but Mr. Shepard declined. "He adamantly insisted that being the writer precluded him from acting in the film," Mr. Wenders recalled.
About five years ago Mr. Wenders began thinking about another story set in the American West, and he contacted Mr. Shepard. They worked together, intermittently, over the course of several years.
Mr. Wenders had first imagined the main character as a New York businessman, but Mr. Shepard suggested changing him to a cowboy actor. "I liked the idea of an actor feeling trapped and escaping from the set," Mr. Shepard said. When asked if he had ever experienced that desire to flee while working on a film, Mr. Shepard replied succinctly, "All the time."
At first Mr. Wenders was reluctant to ask Mr. Shepard to star because he remembered how quickly Mr. Shepard had rejected starring in "Paris, Texas." "When we were about halfway through the script, I said, 'I'm going to send it to Jack Nicholson first,' " Mr. Wenders recalled. "Sam stopped typing, and he got very grumpy. Finally he said, 'Jack can't ride a horse anymore.' And I knew he wanted to play the part."
Mr. Wenders felt choosing the actresses was especially important because it was the women in the story who sustain a group of helpless men. "The weight of the story was with the women characters," Mr. Wenders said. "Women have a different way to resolve conflicts. When there's conflict in the air, my tendency is to avoid it and wait until tomorrow. My wife would never consider going to bed until the conflict is settled."
Ms. Lange finds that reliance on the feminine consistent with much of Mr. Shepard's work. "Sam's men are often kind of lost," she said. "They're always in the midst of a breakdown, whereas the women are somewhat more stable."
One of the film's intriguing casting choices is Eva Marie Saint, who plays Howard's mother. Ms. Saint is enjoying something of a career resurgence at the age of 81: She also plays Clark Kent's mother in "Superman Returns," opening this summer.
Ms. Saint had only a few scenes in "Don't Come Knocking," but she constructed the character's history in her mind. "This woman hasn't seen her son in 30 years, and I had to try and understand that," she said. "I think it's because he didn't get along with his father. But she's made a life of her own. You feel her strength."
There were no in-depth discussions with the director, she said. "He left it to me to create the character," Ms. Saint noted. "Sometimes he would have a comment, and it was always right on the mark. Hitchcock worked the same way."
With its mixture of humor, rage and sadness, the film doesn't fit into a simple mold, and those involved recognize that it may mystify some audiences. "It's so personal to Sam and Wim," Ms. Lange reflected. "Either you get their work or you don't."
"Sam often touches on this terrible American aloneness in his work, and Wim creates that visually," she added. "That's why they make such a good team."