Sam Shepard on Blackthorn, His Hollywood Years and Why He'll Never Write a Memoir

sam_shepard_blackthorn630.jpgPulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Shepard doesn't take a lot of lead film roles, but when he does, he makes them count. Take this week's Blackthorn, the sweeping epic tale of what might have happened if -- as some historians believe -- legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy wasn't gunned down by Bolivian forces in 1908, and instead went on to live a quiet, reclusive existence in that country under the pseudonym James Blackthorn.

Filmed on location in the dizzying terrain of Bolivia, Blackthorn is Shepard's latest scenic route through the vicissitudes of American mythology, an exploration that has previously taken him as both a writer and actor through the U.S. space program (The Right Stuff) to the moody, modern West (Paris Texas,, Don't Come Knocking) and even contemporary geopolitical intrigue (Fair Game). Shepard spoke with Movieline recently about his 40-year-plus journey -- and his new film's place within it.

I'm not sure if I should tell you this -- but the one and only experience I've had with acting was in one of your plays.

Which one?

I was in Angel City.

Angel City! Oh, yeah. Where did you do that?

It was at a college in Orange County. That play is obviously a pretty cynical perspective on Hollywood culture and its output, and I was curious: How would you characterize your relationship with Hollywood and the film industry in general in the 35 years since writing Angel City?

When I wrote that I was in the process of trying to make some money in Hollywood collaborating on and developing scripts, which didn't work out at all because it was constantly board meetings with, essentially, businessmen who didn't understand anything about writing or screenwriting or even cared about movies. All they cared about was money. Which is still the case, but back then I was kind of shocked at it. I thought maybe it was possible to function as an artist in Hollywood, somehow. When you consider all the people who've been duped into that belief -- not excluding Bertolt Brecht, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and all these extraordinary writers -- I felt like I bought the bullet, too. I drank the Kool-Aid. [Laughs]

Do you still maintain any connection to it at all?

I don't do screenwriting at all for Hollywood anymore. I don't even attempt it. In the beginning I thought it was a way I could pay the rent, and at the same time also get something done. But it was impossible. The only screenplays of mine that have been [filmed] and released that I've been satisfied with have been the ones with Wim Wenders, where I feel like it's in total collaboration, and I have the confidence that it's going to be made the way we're conceiving it. It's not going to be distorted into some other creature. That's basically what I've enjoyed about working with Wim. But I don't have that luxury working for any studio. And I don't see novels as something you can adapt.


No. I think it's a really bad idea. It's as bad as trying to turn old movies into Broadway plays.

I guess The Right Stuff was technically nonfiction, but it just feels so novelistic.

That worked, but I think because of Phil [Kaufman] and his wife Rose. They're kind of brilliant screenwriters themselves, and they found a way to adapt it that worked with the material.

Also around the time you wrote Angel City, you were giving screen acting a go. Days of Heaven was a breakthrough, and of course that took seemingly years for Paramount to come terms with. How, if at all, did that further sour you on Hollywood?

I was very lucky to start out like that. That was virtually my first movie. I'd done a couple of other, little things, but that was my first sort of feature film. And to start off with Terry Malick, that's not a bad way to go. But you still have the onus of producers trying to influence things -- the whole oppression of people from the outside sticking their two cents in. I mean, anybody who's going to advise Terry Malick on any aspect of filmmaking should just apologize. [Laughs]

Do you stay in touch with Malick?

The last time I talked to him was in Austin, probably two or three years ago. I've kind of lost touch with him. We've talked on the phone a couple of times.

Do you ever think about finding a way to work with him again?

Oh, I'd love to work with him, but that's entirely up to him. I'd love to work with him. He seems to be off on a tangent of his own, now, though.

Moving on to Blackthorn, the director of this film, Mateo Gil, has professed his appreciation of Westerns as a "truly moral genre." Do you agree?

I think the way it's been conceived, for the most part, is moral tales, yeah. Or immoral tales. But that's probably the stage for this. It's also very classic in that sense, because of the scope of it. I think it's inexhaustible, this film. You could go on and on and on. It's like Don Quixote.

Do you remember your very first encounter with the mythology of Butch Cassidy?

I don't know if he was on my radar screen until that film [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid] came out. I hadn't paid much attention to him before that. But then I did some research for this film in Archer City, Texas, where Larry McMurtry has his warehouses full of books. That's his hometown. And its amazing: You go into these warehouses, and they're four times the length of this room, stacked with books kind of in a semblance of order. But anyway, he has a whole Western section, obviously, and I dug around in there and found some great research stuff on Butch. I didn't realize he was raised Mormon in Utah. As a teenage kid he went off and kind of rustled some cattle and stole some horses and things like that. And he had this whole background that was... From the get-go, as a teenager? He wasn't that interested in the work market, you know? He liked the adventure. And they guy he based his name on, Butch, was a rustler. And he learned to break horses from him. Do you know about it?

Not a thing.

That whole territory up there in Utah was full of outlaws from all over the country because there was this network of caves and things like that where they could hideout and easily escape pursuit. Then things eventually got so hot for them, they eventually had to go to South America.

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  • Marlowespade says:

    The dude has a knack for picking interesting films (I'll go to my grave defending Thunderheart).

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    And don't forget Stealth! Wait.

  • Chris Tasse says:

    Marlowespade--There is NO WAY on GOD's GREEN EARTH you or ANYONE should ever have to defend. Every time that movie comes on, I end up watching at least SOME if not all of it. GREAT farking movie. Based a little loosely maybe around real events. Shepard, Kilmer, Graham Greene practically steals the movie. Fantastic memorable lines, touching, mystical...and hopeful without being overarchingly so, at the end (the scene at the Stronghold...then Kilmer, leaving Greene, in his car...stopping at that paved road/highway, almost a roadblock still there, subtley, by the still many whites, in addition to a device akin (and well before), if I am remembering correctly, Hanks similarly at the end of Castaway, at a crossroads, decision to make.

    My old man and I LOVE Thunderheart. Maybe I love it a litle more, even, owing to having like a thiry second or sixty fourth or somewhere in between Cherokee blood, but brother, I will go to my grave along with you, on that movie.

    Nice to see Spepard in Blackthorn the other night (watched it from when I came into it completely randomly and knowing naught of it, then caught it two nights later, watched the whole thing), playing something opposite of the Stealth kind of role, or FBI guy, though great in both...i..e. the speech by Butch, about who he was, to the Spaniard, finally...the whole Railroad and Cattleman war, shitty end of the stick, Robin Hood type of thing...i.e. I gather from two interviews he is likely conservative, that is cool...but I love when flicks tell it like it WAS/IS, how we really got here...when the Spaniard says, "But it will (be gone, the pristine Bolivia, eventually), that is how life works", and Spepard answere, "Well I hope I'm long fucking dead when it does", I said out loud, in the wee hours and the dark, on my couch, alone, "Amen, brother...Amen".

  • Chris Tasse says:

    Sorry for the cpl few spelling errors (Spepard/Shepard, twice), and for the accidental deletion of the movie title ("...ever have to defend THUNDERHEART"), my laptop was on battery power, down to 9%, and I had not registered, and had to throw my email and whatnot into the box, on the quick, and dash for my cord.

    Blackthorn also has (in addition to the beautiful scenery) a great soundtrack, evocative guitar...and a song he sings that is laugh out loud funny (Sam Hull, I believe it was)...

    "My name is Sam Hull, Sam Hull...
    My name is Sam Hull, Sam Hull...
    My name is Sam Hull, and I hate you one and all, Damn your eyes"

    And totally random, here, for the other three people who might find their way here, in the next year or two; I also watched (Western Channel) for only the second time, perhaps, Kirk Douglass in his own favorite film of his, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and for the first time, THE LAST SUNSET, with he and Rock Hudson, which for 1961 and 1962, I believe, are nicely layered little movies. Do yourselves a favor, if you have not yet, check out BLACKTHORN, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and THUNDERHEART...and for those bigger movie fans, THE LAST SUNSET, too...likely one that slipped through the cracks, going to see If Jim Tasse ever caught that last one, or BLACKTHORN yet, as well.

    Heres to the sunny slopes of long ago, as Captain McCrae said in a toast.