Sundance Buzz: A Pair of Wild Cards

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Donít Come Knocking, one of the closing movies of the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday, is the story of Howard Spence, a washed up bad-boy star of Westerns, who makes a last ditch effort to reconnect with the people who genuinely love him. The film, which was shot in small towns in Utah, Nevada and Montana and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on March 17, reunites German director Wim Wenders and American playwright/actor Sam Shepard, two icons of the independent art world who first teamed up for the acclaimed Paris, Texas (1984). They spoke to TIME about their creative process.

TIME: What does this movie say about how long it can take to find yourself?

SAM SHEPARD: I donít know. Thatís an ongoing process donít you think? I donít think it ever gets resolved. I think it takes a lifetime, if not more.

WIM WENDERS: Iím not so sure if thatís what we were trying to focus on, though itís a side issue and itís an important issue. Howard is himself until he realizes the only problem with his life is that he didnít have it. Heíd missed most of it. A lot of it.

SS: I donít think Howard ever thinks he has a life. I think he is eternally lost. At the point where this movie begins I think he comes closer to not kidding himself about having a life than he ever has. He really realizes heís at a dead end. Nothing has led anywhere.

WW: My focus was always the realization because I can relate to that. He wakes up and realizes if he would have died that night nobody would have cried or mourned him and that is a sad thing to realize, that nobody is going to miss you.

TIME: What is it like for you two to work together?

WW (laughs): Oh thatís a huge question. I donít think you can define such a complex relationship as a director and a writer and being friends and then he is also acting in the movie. Iím very, very fond that I met Sam a long time ago. Iíve actually worked more with novelists than screenwriters and I think itís not a coincidence that Sam is really a playwright. He hasnít written all that many scriptsÖ

SS: Screenplays? Few.

WW: So he sits there, he types. We always write together. Sam doesnít really like writing when Iím not around. I donít really know why that is. No, I know why that is because when he is finished with the scene, we talk about it and then the question is whatís next? I donít know anybody else who works like this. Sam writes in total chronological order. We start with the first scene not knowing what the second scene is, and when we write the second scene we think about the third scene. So you really sort of live through the story. And everything comes out of the character. Nothing is because of fluff. Itís such a relief when you can just think about your characters and the story comes out of it.

TIME: What kind of characters would you say youíre attracted to writing?

SS: Iím drawn to loss-ness of a certain kind, aloneness. Which is not peculiar to a lot of writers. Many writers use that as their stepping-off place because I think one thing that writers share in common is this sense of aloneness. Of somehow or another being cut off, being outside, and somehow having to communicate through writing. Thatís the need for writing. And I find the characters I write also have that quality, of being somewhat or very much removed from the mainstream of life, and donít know quite how to find themselves in society. Outsiders I guess. Not in any kind of fashionable way, but a real remoteness from the mainstream.

WW: What I have to say about that is when I made my first movies and I showed them in America in art houses, all my American reviews were about the same thing. They all said Ďthis Wim Wenders guy, his movies are about Angst, Alienation and America.í So I called myself a triple A director. (laughter)

TIME: Youíre both known as people who get your work out, whether it falls outside or within the commercial realm. Do you ever think about where your film might end up?

SS: I never think about that. If you get wrapped up in whether itís independent or commercial I think youíre on the wrong track. You have to follow the thing that you want to pursue because if youíre not committed to what youíre doing, personally, then it doesnít make any sense whether itís commercial or not, or independent. Youíve got to be attached to material in a very integral way.

WW: I think the very classification, the word independent means you want to express yourself and you donít look at it under an industrial sort of aspect, and success is an industrial aspect. I mean you want to have success, you want to reach people but the beauty of making films like Sam and I are doing is we just want to tell a story and we come up with something that is close to us and that we want to do. And then hopefully we touch something that people can relate to.

SS: One of the great things as a writer working with Wim is I know for sure that this is going to be turned into a movie. I donít know how many screenplays Iíve sat down to work with that never become movies. Working with Wim I know one way or another, it may take five or ten years, but down the road itís going to be a movie. And itís a wonderful feeling because you know what youíre writing is not going to be in vain. Itís not going to go through that Hollywood process of being looked at by a committee. Itís just between me and him

TIME: You, Sam Shepard, are known as a very iconic American writer, good at capturing the American experience. And you, Billy TurnerÖ

WW (to SS): I told her my name in English is Bill Turner. Wim is short for William, so Bill. Wenders means winding, to turn. So my English name would be Bill Turner.

SS (to WW): Do you use that in hotels?

WW: No, but I should.

SS: Billy Turner. Itís a good character name.

TIME: Wim, whatís it like being a European/American director?

WW: I think Iím a European director. I love America. Iíve lived here for a long time. But when I first came and made my first movie in America I realized I was not an American director and I was never going to be an American director. And that freed me to be able to look at America in my own way. And I do think if you are a foreigner that you have a privileged view of things. I like that position. Itís obvious in my films how much I love America but I donít think that I have an American point of view and I think that works well with Samís writing. Thereís a certain detachment. Because Iím German in my heart, and a hopeless romantic therefore, I think that maybe enables me to look at some places in America in a way that maybe Americans donít get to do anymore. I donít know why a single American director never made a movie in Butte, Montana because that townÖ

SS: Itís like a movie set.

WW: It needed, somehow, a German to arrive there.

TIME: For a while it did seem like directors were interested in making regional films but now everything has sort of drifted back to locations in Los Angeles or Toronto. Is something missing?

SS: As an actor I realized I was doing more films in Toronto and Alberta than I was in America and it was very disappointing because itís so great to be able to go to the actual place where the thing takes place. My first experience of it I guess was Days of Heaven (1978) because we shot it in Alberta and itís supposed to be West Texas. What the hell were we doing in Alberta? It was all about the money, which is kind of sad. I love Alberta, I love the high plains up there and itís very visually beautiful up there. But itís not West Texas. If we had shot it in West Texas it might have had a different feel. Probably not as pretty. The idea of taking the actual location of the story and transposing it to another location, itís heartbreaking.

WW: A sense of place is something thatís about to get lost in movies and we wrote Donít Come Knocking for Elko (Nevada) and we wrote it for Moab (Utah) and we wrote it for Butte. Even for money reasons we could not have made it anywhere else.