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Lost in Space

Wim Wenders Returns to America's Lonesome, Crowded West

INSERT BUTTE JOKE HERE: Wim Wenders (left) instills the grand vision in Tim Roth.

By Gary Dowell | Posted 5/17/2006

Wim Wenders finally got the chance to put his spin on the western with 1984’s Paris, Texas, a critical and commercial darling that earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes and established the now 60-year-old director’s international cachet. Wenders has now re-united with Paris writer Sam Shepard for Don’t Come Knocking, a project that gave him the opportunity to again work with two of the biggest influences on his work—Shepard and the American West.

“He hadn’t changed a bit,” Wenders says of Shepard during an interview at the Crescent Hotel in Dallas. Although he’s soft-spoken to the point that he’s occasionally hard to hear, Wenders is by no means shy; he gives the impression of a creative intensity under perfect self-control, a man with much to do but no desire to hurry. “He was still writing on the same manual typewriter. His distrust of computers has not diminished—at least now he has a mobile phone.

“But he’s a great guy to write a script with, because he’s very open and very inventive, and his approach is heuristic,” Wenders adds. “He writes in complete chronological order, he lives the story. You don’t have several first drafts and you don’t really know where it’s going right away. We’d write a scene, and then discuss it and rewrite if necessary, and then we’d ask ourselves the inevitable question, ‘What’s next?’ And we’d write the next scene. Then it slowly evolved until the end.”

Wenders pitched the idea for a drama to Shepard in 2000, after not having worked with him in 16 years, feeling it would be an ideal project for collaboration. “He didn’t think much of my story, to tell you the truth,” Wenders says.

It was Shepard’s idea to bring the backstory of one of Wenders’ supporting characters to the forefront. The pair spent roughly five years on the script, and the result was Knocking’s tale of Howard Spence (Shepard), a former hard-drinking, fast-living bad boy actor known for Gary Cooper-esque roles in old-fashioned westerns anachronistically produced during the 1970s. Now a Hollywood burnout, he walks away from the set in the middle of a shoot without telling anyone and, in a belated attempt to get his act together, learns he has a grown son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), in Butte, Mont., the product of a fling with a local woman (Jessica Lange) during a location shoot some 25 years prior, as well as a daughter (Sarah Polley) by yet another woman, now deceased.

“And, of course, I had him in front of my cameras for the first time, afterward,” Wenders says. Shepard was considered for the role of Travis in Paris, Texas, which ultimately went to Harry Dean Stanton, but had just met and fell in love with Jessica Lange, and starred in Country with her instead. “This time, Sam made it clear very early on that he really wanted to play [Howard].”

Perennially cast as iconic heroes, Shepard always seems to play straight American parts—soldiers, sheriffs, doctors, cowboys, etc.—but never anything so tragic and yet so humorous. “No one ever gave him that kind of part,” Wenders says. “We had to write it for him.”

Most of Knocking takes place in the vacant-to-the-point-of-surrealism town of Butte, a location that Wenders brought to the table very early in the game. He’d wanted to shoot there for years, ever since he read Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel Red Harvest, whose basic plot and fictitious location of “Poisonville” was inspired by the Montana town.

“When I saw it for the first time, it blew my mind,” he says. “It is a fascinating town. Nobody’s ever shot there, believe it or not, and I think, now that they’ve seen it, everybody’s going to want to shoot there, because it’s too good to be true. When we were shooting there, they discovered in an old house—in a basement where they were about to repair a wall—an old door . . . that led straight into a speakeasy that hadn’t been touched in 70 years.”

Butte, as seen in the movie, is a city that seems to have no traffic—aside from the odd pickup truck and an almost ethereal fire engine that breezes through one curious shot—and only a few barflies and restaurant customers for residents. In one scene Earl, in a fit of filial rage, tosses his belongings out the window of his second-story apartment into the street below, and they remain there for days, untouched. Howard even spends a night on what’s left of the sofa, smack in the middle of the street, and is barely noticed by a transient stray. It’s not quite a ghost town, because it refuses to lie down.

“We worked on that scene for a couple of days in a row, and nobody noticed,” Wenders says. “The uptown part of it, which is the old downtown, with the big avenues and the four-story high-rises and hotels and all that, that is the way that it is. We didn’t have to block streets much, because nobody was coming anyway.”

It’s the sort of time-blasted landscape that allowed Stanton’s character to come to terms with his past in Paris, as Shepard’s does in Knocking, and has become one of Wenders’ favorite places to shoot.

“There’s no other place like it in the world,” he says. “There’s few other places where whatever you shoot looks quite as right. I love shooting in the American West. I could get addicted [to it].”

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