By James Calemine
A Sam Shepard chapter appears in my latest book, Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2, that I wrote before he died in 2017, but this article captures the spirit of Wim Wenders film Don’t Come Knocking that I omitted from Vol. 2.
Sam Shepard’s career epitomizes the rugged soul of America’s West. The award winning playwright stars in Wim Wenders’ film, Don’t Come Knocking, as a 60 year old actor who abandons his current film in search of loved ones he deserted decades ago. Shepard’s wayward character (Howard Spence) realizes at 60 he’ll only find supporting roles for the rest of his acting career.
The film includes a fine cast including Eva Marie Saint (her film career began opposite of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront that won her an Academy Award), Tim Roth, Shepard’s wife Jessica Lange, Sarah Polley, and Fairuza Balk.
Shepard wrote the Don’t Come Knocking screenplay. The story originates from his collaboration with Wim Wenders. These two wrote together on the 1984 movie Paris, Texas. Shepard’s old friend T-Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou, The Ladykillers, Cold Mountain) composed all the music for this film except the title track written by U2’s Bono and The Edge. Marc Ribot, Dennis Grouch, Keefus Ciancia, and Jim Keltner appear on the soundtrack. On previous films Wenders worked with Ry Cooder, Daniel Lanois, Willie Nelson, U2, Nick Cave, Ronee Blakely, and Lou Reed.
Shepard and T-Bone Burnett first met in 1975 while touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Shepard wrote a book about that tour called The Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977). Shepard, no stranger to music, played drums in a group called the Holy Modal Rounders back in the sixties. Shepard co-wrote a song on Bob Dylan’s 1985 Knocked Out Loaded album (also featuring T. Bone Burnett) called “Brownsville Girl”. In a 2004 interview with the Village Voice Shepard spoke about his collaboration with Dylan.
“Working with Dylan is not like working with anybody else. I’ve had some successful collaborations, with Patti (Smith), with Robert Frank—and some disasters (laughs). They’re all unique. With Dylan you’re continuing on this hunt for what he’s after, who he is, this continual mystery about his identity. Songwriting is a very intense form of writing. You have to be very concise and economical. You really have to be on the money. He had that little snatch of chorus and melody lines that he’d laid out. He had em’ on tape and then he would play them on guitar. The way I found my way into him was to follow this story that started to evolve. All these characters started to pop into the story. Traveling around, visiting these characters, tracking people down. We met outdoors, in Malibu. Most of the writing was outdoors…”
Shepard said this about Don’t Come Knocking. “The story is about so many things. It’s about estrangement more than anything. It’s about this American sadness that I find, the alone-ness they feel. We don’t know each other in America, we don’t even know who we are, we just don’t. I’m haunted by that American character, and that strange, strange lack of identity.”
Wenders revealed Don’t Come Knocking revolves around “love and family relations. Most of all it is a film about missed chances, and the regret that comes with realizing those. The tragicomedy of recognizing the love of your life too late.” Wenders mentioned Shepard’s perspective on the American family. “There is nobody else who writes his kind of dialogue. And nobody touches these subjects, either. He makes a whole different kind of ‘America’ visible behind the obvious, contemporary one.”
Shepard started out as a playwright. Born November 5, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Samuel Shepard Rogers changed his name in 1963. In 1965 he won an Obie Award. Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child in 1979. In 1984 he and Wenders won the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in for Paris, Texas, featuring a killer slow blues soundtrack by Ry Cooder.
After writing over 50 plays, Shepard found work as a supporting actor. He’s appeared in at least 45 films. Shepard gave insight to his career choices years ago, “You can’t make a living as a playwright. You can barely scrape by.”
In 1983, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Shepard also earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1999 for Dash & Lily. Over the years, Shepard maintained a continual writing output. He penned books such as Hawk Moon (1973), Seven Plays (1981), Motel Chronicles (1982), Fool For Love (1983), Cruising Paradise(1996), Great Dream of Heaven (2002), and The God of Hell (2005).
Don’t Come Knocking ranks as an indelible film that finds Shepard playing his greatest leading role. Husband and wife–Shepard and Lange—haven’t worked together since they both appeared in Frances (1982) and in Country (1984). Lange spoke about Don’t Come Knocking: “Wim and Sam seem to share this tremendous sensitivity to loneliness. Sam is the storyteller in words. Wim is the storyteller in images, and they have almost this psychic connection which you wouldn’t expect, with Sam being from the American West and Wim from Europe.”
Filming for Don’t Come Knocking occurred in Butte, Moab and Elko, Montana. Wenders’ keen eye captures austere landscapes that preserve a great resonance of the American West on celluloid. Don’t Come Knocking proves Sam Shepard represents a living personification of America’s wandering spirit.