In the new film Don't Come Knocking, directed by Wim Wenders, the American West is a blasted moonscape of rusting metal, all dilapidated trailers, dented cars, garbage dumps and satellite dishes. Part of the story takes place in Elko, Nev., a throbbing headache of a city so full of tacky, big-box casinos, it looks like an ad against legalized gambling. Another part is set in Butte, Mont., which in 1900 was the biggest city west of the Mississippi, but now boasts blocks of boarded-up buildings and a lake whose iron-red water may be the most poisonous on Earth. The people who live in these junkyards are estranged yet longing to connect.
Wenders, however, found it all "beautiful." Or so he said in January, during a round of interviews with Sam Shepard and Sarah Polley at the Sundance Film Festival.
Shepard, who wrote the movie, stars as Howard Spence, a fading, misbehaving, cowboy actor who bolts from the set of his last film and discovers a family he never knew he had. Polley is Sky, an angelic figure (a type familiar to Wenders fans) who helps Howard find his way. (Wenders explored similar terrain, both psychological and geographic, in 1984's Paris, Texas, which Shepard also wrote.)
At 62, Shepard is as handsome and rangy as ever in jeans, a work shirt and leather jacket. He grew up in the West; it's the central subject of his plays and films. He summed up his current, desiccated vision of it with a shrug. "The history of the West is one of rape and pillage," he said. "From the gold rush to what we did to the native Americans, it was all about greed. We were never shocked enough by what went down there. No wonder it's in a state of decay. When you do that to a place, it's going to bite you in the ass."
Wenders saw it differently. "To me," he said, "Butte is one big stage for Edward Hopper. The same brick buildings, same windows, same street lamps. It blew my mind. I went back 10 times because the financing on this kept falling apart, and each time I prayed that no one else had shot there."
Growing up in Germany, Wenders "dreamt of the American West" -- he inhaled western films, novels and comic strips. In the sea of fleece that was Park City, Utah, he looked completely European in a black suit and hat, with round Harry Potter-cum-architect spectacles. "But for me, the West was the one place I knew I needed to go," he said. "I was 25 when I first came here, and it surpassed all my expectations. I knew instinctively how to frame shots here. I could shoot blindfolded. It's bigger than life. You see all the traces of its history, even in empty places; you see that people came through years ago, and left it again."
"One of the things I learned from Wim is being able to see America in this picturesque, cinematic, romantic way," Polley said. "We're all so consumed with what's wrong with America, and that's justified. But it was nice to return to those original myths, the original iconography of the American West. It was a relief to find someone who's realistic about America, but at the same time compassionate and fond of it."
Shepard and Wenders have been friends since 1978, when Wenders tried to cast the then-unknown actor as Dashiell Hammett for his film Hammett (1982), "because he was a great actor who could also type." (The studio went with Frederic Forrest.) Wenders wanted Shepard to star in Paris, Texas, too, but "Sam said he couldn't play it, it was too much inside him," Wenders said. "I thought: 'Baloney, he just wants to make Country instead.' Then I realized he'd fallen in love with [co-star]Jessica Lange, so I couldn't blame him. I'd have done the same."
Shepard wrote Don't Come Knocking -- chronologically, in longhand and on a manual typewriter (he calls computers "deadly") -- over three years, in two-week bursts, in a cabin in Wisconsin, with Wenders by his side reading scenes as he finished them. Halfway in, Wenders said: " 'Sam, this would be a great role for Jack Nicholson.' I knew it would be the only way to get him to star, and it worked."
Asked to sum up today's America, Shepard said, "Heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. It's been going that way for a long time. And now we're really paying the dues, and we're going to have to pay deeper and deeper. Particularly with this war. This is going to cost us far more dearly than we realize."
Wenders was more optimistic. "When I was a little kid in Germany, there was always a presence of American soldiers," he said. "I knew deep in my heart how much my generation owed to what Americans had done in Europe, how much their sacrifice had enabled me to live. Still today, I really cherish American ideas. In a strange way, I feel now that it's up to us in Europe to remind America of its best ideas. That's what I'm trying to express in this film. I feel an obligation to insist that America doesn't lose its own core." In a heap of overconsumed junk.