Here at ComingSoon.net, we get to talk to a lot of cool actors and filmmakers every week, but we don’t get nearly as many opportunities to talk to “living legends,” which is why it was impossible to turn down an opportunity to talk to actor, playwright and filmmaker Sam Shepard, who stars in one of our favorite movies of 2011, Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn.
Shepard has established a reputation as a tough frontiersman who is really in tune with the country’s cowboy philosophy, having written many books and plays about cowboys during the ’60s and ’70s. This led to him writing Wim Wender’s acclaimed film Paris, Texas in 1984, which in turn followed shortly after being nominated for an Oscar for his role as airman Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff a year earlier.
Shepard takes his Western affiliations to a new level in Blackthorn, in which he plays James Blackthorn, who decades earlier was known as the bandit “Butch Cassidy.” When we meet up with James/Butch, he’s been living in Bolivia for decades and is ready to return to the United States, but his plans are waylaid when he meets a Spaniard, played by Eduardo Noriega, who convinces James to help him retrieve money he’s stolen from a mining company. It also stars Shepard’s long-time friend and collaborator, Irish actor Stephen Rea as the Pinkerton Mackinely who is convinced that Butch Cassidy didn’t die after going over the falls with Sundance.
ComingSoon.net was given a chance for a rare sit-down interview with Mr. Shepard last week in a rather noisy hotel restaurant, and though we were somewhat nervous due to the rather gruff characters Shepard has sometimes played, he couldn’t be any nicer as we talked about Blackthorn and his just-announced role in Jeff (Take Shelter) Nichols’ new movie Mud.
ComingSoon.net: I talked to Mateo back in May, and he mentioned that you agreed to this based solely on the script without the reservations one might have going to Bolivia, working in high altitudes with a director like Mateo whom you never met before. What was it about the script that struck you right away?
Sam Shepard: It was beautifully made. The construction of it, the way it moves, the episodic nature of it, the whole thing. I thought it was beautifully crafted and it was probably the best script I’d read in about ten years.
CS: What were your impressions of Butch Cassidy before doing this, either from history or previous movie appearances?
Shepard: I had known very little of him. I wasn’t that drawn to him as a figure, but I did do some research, I went and got some books and started reading about him and it was a fascinating background. He was a Mormon, and he grew up with horses, so he was a good horseman, and actually his first breaking of the law was rustling the cattle and horses of this guy who was a neighbor of his. In fact, where he got the name Butch was from this guy.
CS: Mateo glamorizes Butch as a “Robin Hood” figure because he wasn’t stealing from people, but stealing from companies. Did you get a lot of that out of the script that he was very different from what some might consider a bandit?
Shepard: You can’t think of these guys too much in the mythological vein, because I think the mythology grows out of… like Savanti says, “Every man is the child of his deeds,” so you try to get inside the sweat of the guy, the body of the person, and let the rest of it take care of itself. If you push the character as a mythological or iconic character, it removes you from the person.
CS: Some might say that you’re kind of a mythological figure yourself, so having you in this role automatically makes it something bigger.
Shepard: Yeah, I know, but as an actor, you can’t think about it that way. You have to find the practical tools of playing the character.
CS: You’ve been so involved with the Western genre over the years, so when you read a script like this, can you tell how this one stands out? The location is very different obviously.
Shepard: Well, that was part of the attraction. I’ve never been to South America. I’ve been to Central America, Mexico and Spain, but never South America, and Bolivia is absolutely unique. It’s an Indian culture, 70% Indian, it has an Indian President, Spanish is maybe the second language. It’s all Indian dialects and the locations are very exotic. We were all over the place from the top of the Andes to the valley floor to the high plateau, the salt plains, all these little backwater places. It was just fascinating to be there. We were at 15,000 feet, which was a physical problem… (chuckles)
CS: That’s what Mateo told me, that it was hard to breathe up there.
Shepard: Yeah, it was difficult to breathe, for some more than others. Even the horses we had to bring in from Argentina, because there are very few horses there because of the breathing. We brought in Argentine ex-polo ponies, and they had to acclimatize for about a month and a half. When I was loping a lot of them, they would breathe hard. I could feel them blowing (while I was riding them).
CS: How long were you down there to shoot this?
Shepard: About a month.
CS: What was it like to be down there? Were you all camping in tents?
Shepard: No, no, they usually found us accommodations in some little town, like little haciendas or whatever, pretty shabby but not bad, and we were catered by some cooks from Cochabamba, really fantastic cooks.
CS: So you got the full Bolivian experience while there, that’s amazing.
Shepard: Yeah, at a lot of llama. (laughs) It’s pretty bland, not that great. It was okay.
CS: I enjoyed seeing you working with Stephen Rea, who you’ve known for so long.
Shepard: It was fun.
CS: Have you guys ever made a movie together?
Shepard: You know I’ve worked with him in theater since the ’70s and he’s done a lot of plays. We just did two plays in the Abbey Theater in Dublin, and we brought that last production to the Atlantic Theater, and I directed him and he’s been in my plays, but I’ve never acted with him, so it was a great turn.
CS: Mateo suggested that he had Stephen on his list of actors he wanted for the role but then you suggested him and were involved with getting him on board.
Shepard: No, they had Brendan Gleeson and a bunch of other guys, and I was working with Stephen at the time in Ireland, so I said, “What about Stephen?” and he said, “Of course.” (laughs) Stephen has a tremendous diversity. That was our first movie (together).
CS: As a writer and director yourself, when you work with a director who is not as experienced, do you feel you need to bring that aspect of yourself to a film or do you just focus on the acting and character?
Shepard: Well, Mateo I liked very much personally. I really like him as a person. We had some discrepancies in work, because I found his approach was very intellectual, and he had preconceived many of the scenes, which drives me crazy.
CS: You mean in terms of storyboards?
Shepard: Everything. “You’re over there, then you’re over there, then you’re here.” And I said, “I can’t work like this, it’s impossible. You’re going to have to drop the reins and let me find the character.” I think we had an essential, not disagreement but an essential head-butting about the approach, and finally when I think he began to realize that I just needed more room to investigate the character, he began to allow that to happen. I think he was so nervous about the money and the budget, etc. etc. and coming in on time and making sure everything was done that he squeezed rather than allowed the thing to breathe a little bit. Finally, we found an agreement and an area where we could move together and collaborate. It finally worked out, but at the beginning it was tough, because he seemed deadest on getting certain things that he had preconceived in his head, and I was going, “Oh my God, this is going to be tough.” We finally worked it out.
CS: The last really big role you had was with Wim Wenders on “Don’t Come Knocking,” which was a different time and place but similar feel, so what was your working relationship like with him since you wrote the two movies you made with him?
Shepard: It took us a while, too. I had a tremendously easy time with him as a writer, because we wrote “Paris, Texas” and then we wrote that one, and he allowed me a lot of room as a writer and the collaboration felt very relaxed. As soon as he became the director, it seemed as though the camera dominated everything. The shots were so imposing and so didactic in a way that I again felt squeezed in a certain kind of way. Finally, we slowly found a way of working. It’s common with directors that there’s a period of testing the waters. There are very few directors that you start off with and you’re immediately relaxed. Andrew Dominick, he’s one of the few directors who I felt immediately relaxed with, immediately. He’s going to give me room to do stuff. He has his ideas, I have mine, but we’re not going to step on each other. Ridley Scott I felt very loose with, more open, but certain other directors, they’re kind of clamped, and you can understand it the way the film business tries to help people because of the money. “You only have this money, this money, this money.” There’s people walking around all day long looking at their watches. It conspires to make people uptight, and that’s the nature of it.
CS: The locations in “Blackthorn” are very specific so I expect that Mateo must have spent a lot of time finding those places.
Shepard: He and Miguel, the co-writer, I mean Miguel literally lived down there for years, and I think they first had in mind even more remote locations than we had. Sometimes, it would take an hour and a half or two hours to get to the set! By the time you go there, you were wiped out from the roads (chuckles)…
CS: Well, the locations they found were great and it’s similar in that sense to “Assassination of Jesse James.” The Western genre has had its ebbs and flows, but every once in a while movie like this or last year’s “True Grit” come along and really gets people excited about the genre. Why do you think Westerns continue to find fans despite not being as regular or consistent as other film genres?
Shepard: Because I think it appeals to some kind of American conservative morality. Most of the people I know that love Westerns are from that background, and it essentially has to do with living there. Most of them are West Texans, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana. There’s a harking back to and an excitement about preserving some of the morality of it.
CS: The morality and also the environment, because seeing Bolivia like that with all that open space. You can find places like that in America if you look, but those big open spaces are getting fewer and fewer because people see that as places to build and develop.
Shepard: But I think the real audience are people who live it, who have grown up with it, who have a background in it. You know, when I was a kid, we didn’t have a TV until the late ’50s, but I can remember watching Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Steve McQueen and “Gunsmoke.” It was 80% Westerns, maybe 90%, and then we’d go to parades and you’d see the real guys coming down the streets riding horses with the Spanish saddles and you’d see Gene Autry on Champion in a black leather saddle with leather trim. It had a whole different connection, and it was all black and white Westerns.
CS: There’s just something ingrained into kids, especially boys, where they immediately can connect and be interested when you show them a cowboy, there’s something that’s instantly glamorous to them wherever they live. It was just announced you would be in Jeff Nichols’ new movie “Mud.” I just talked to him last week.
Shepard: Did you? It’s a beautiful script.
CS: You’ve been doing fewer movies in recent years so has it just been that you haven’t found scripts you like? Is that the main reason for doing movies?
Shepard: The script first, yeah, and then whatever actors are in it. I’m not put off so much by first-time directors if the script is great. If the script isn’t there, I’m not there.
CS: Have you seen either of Jeff’s other movies?
Shepard: I haven’t. I hear they’re great.
CS: Yeah, “Take Shelter” is pretty amazing.
Shepard: Did he write those as well?
CS: He wrote them as well.
Shepard: Well, I can see why they would be great, because this is a beautiful script, great little script. It’s a script I wouldn’t even think about touching except rearranging a little bit of the language in it, but there’s no way you can improve on it.
CS: What’s the character you’re playing?
Shepard: An ex-sharpshooter from the army who lives alone on the river on a riverboat house and is sort of the protector of the Matthew McConaughey character.
CS: It’s also a family drama like “Brothers” so is that something you’re drawn to if you like the script?
Shepard: Not necessarily, but again, it has to do with the writing. In this case, the writing is totally authentic and flows. It doesn’t feel like any of it is contrived. You know how things stick out and they go, “A producer must have written that.” (laughs)
CS: Jeff is still working independently…
Shepard: Beautiful writing.
CS: He can still get the financing and still make movies the way he wants and get the actors he wants.
Shepard: I just have a feeling it’s going to be something special.
CS: When are you going down there to shoot it?
Shepard: I won’t be there very long. I’ll probably be a week shooting the initial stuff and then the very last scene, because of the nature of it, has to be shot in New Orleans, down on the Gulf, and we don’t shoot that ’till late November, so I’m shooting in Arkansas mid-October and then that at the end.
CS: There are a couple big anniversaries coming up. You’re going to be 80 in a couple years…
Shepard: 80?!? I’m not going to be f*cking 80!! (laughs)
CS: Did I do math wrong? (thinking) 70.
Shepard: 70. (laughs)
CS: How did I come up with 80? But also “The Right Stuff” is going to be 30 in a couple of years so has anyone been in contact about doing some stuff for a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray or anything?
Shepard: No, I haven’t heard anything about it. I’m not a big fan of anniversaries. (Laughs)
CS: Do you ever look back at your previous work whether intentionally or due to festivals/retrospectives?
Shepard: No, I’ve turned a lot of stuff down, but the only thing I really regret was “Lonesome Dove.” I turned that down because I had really young kids at the time, and it was a long, long shoot. It was extremely long. I just didn’t want to be gone that long, but I do regret that. I could have played either one of those characters and was offered both of them.
You can also read our exclusive interview with director Mateo Gil here.