co-authored by Lauren Workstein, director of Cigarette Candy, Social Butterfly and The Strange Ones
WURMFELD: I rewatched Paris, Texas recently and I feel like I'm watching...
WOLKSTEIN: Shepard & Dark unfold?
WURMFELD: There's definitely some significant parallels between the two. Themes of abandonment, long distance communication, two brothers caring for one son, the locations and old Super 8 family films. Not to mention the little things like Sam's infamous fear of flying... The characters played by Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell in Wim Wender's Paris, Texas (Travis & Walt) have a lot in common with Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. I find it fascinating that Sam Shepard wrote Paris, Texas and now almost 30 years later this documentary practically mirrors it.
WOLKSTEIN: Were you a fan of Paris, Texas before you started making Shepard & Dark?
WURMFELD: Yes. I remember the first time I watched it at a friends house in upstate NY probably 20 years ago. The whole experience stayed with me and I thought about it a lot while I was filming Shepard & Dark.
WOLKSTEIN: What brought you to this? How did you know about Sam and Johnny's relationship before you set out to make the film?
WURMFELD: At first, I didn't know about Johnny. I set out to make a documentary about Sam Shepard but then the first week I started filming Sam in Northern New Mexico he was heading down to Deming to pick up these letters from Johnny to take them to his archives at Texas State. So I went to Deming and did an interview with Johnny. During that very first interview he told me their whole story of how they met and how he married Scarlett and how Sam married Scarlett's daughter and they all lived together in Northern California and then how Sam left for Jessica Lange and Johnny ended up helping raise Sam's first son. So basically a version of the Paris, Texas story unfolded for me in that first interview with Johnny.
WOLKSTEIN: I wonder if you had set out to ask Sam about his life if he'd been as open as Johnny was. It seems like Sam's a lot more guarded.
WURMFELD: It's true. I realized very quickly that I wasn't going to get Sam to interpret his own work or recount much of his past. He doesn't want to speak to it which is one of the reasons why he generally doesn't do interviews.
WOLKSTEIN: I feel like its all in his work anyway. He doesn't need to speak to it. It lessens the work if you extrapolate it from him telling his life story and that's whats so great about your film: you get it from seeing their relationship unfold on screen. What I find so fascinating about Sam Shepard is how much of a mystery he is, and yet he makes himself very vulnerable and exposes his soul in all of his work. I love how in your film you get another side of Sam through Johnny.
WURMFELD: Its interesting. In Paris, Texas the driving force is this mysterious past. We don't know what happened to Travis or why he and Jane both left Hunter. And in Shepard & Dark you learn another version of what really happened. Paris, Texas came out in 1984, which is a year after Sam left to go live with Jessica Lange, so its obviously all very fresh.
WOLKSTEIN: Which makes perfect sense that he would write a screenplay immediately after leaving or even while he was leaving maybe...It's a very revealing documentary. Shepard & Dark is the backstory of Paris, Texas. It was completely eye opening to me. I had never seen anything written about Sam Shepard, or an interview where he's spoken in any way as revealing as he is in your documentary. And that's why I think its a very important film about his life. I don't know if anything like that could be done again. The information you get about him comes so naturally without it even being information. Its just like you're seeing it all happen with Johnny.
WURMFELD: They are both surprisingly insightful, more than you often see people being and that's one of the things that I really love about how the film came out. Its not just a portrait of friendship between two men, its also a portrait of two extremely psychologically astute individuals.
WOLKSTEIN: Yeah, they are completely in touch with themselves and what their roles are to each other. Johnny Dark saw it coming -- Sam leaving -- and he accepted it. I don't know if he does now but it seems like he almost signed a contract years ago saying Sam's this guy thats going to leave and come in and out of my life but we're going to correspond through these letters and Sam's never going to settle but he'll always be in my life. Its rare for friendships. Its almost like they need each other.
WURMFELD: Well their need for one another clearly ebbs and flows.
WOLKSTEIN: I guess that's how their relationship works.
WURMFELD: Or doesn't work. But It certainly works for making more art out of it.
WOLKSTEIN: It works for writing letters, writing plays and screenplays.
WURMFELD: Making documentaries and books of letters.
WOLKSTEIN: The constant drama.
WURMFELD: Exactly. Maybe if everything was hunky-dory...
WOLKSTEIN: There would be none of this. No Sam Shepard. I'm very curious have either Sam or Johnny seen the film, what are their reactions?
WURMFELD: Johnny Dark came to our premiere in Toronto and New York. He has been a support throughout. I recently spoke to Sam and he said that he'd "heard it was great" but that it was too difficult for him to watch it. He still doesn't like looking back at his past.
November 7, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival presents Shepard & Dark at the Sundance Cinema followed by a screening of Paris, Texas. Shepard & Dark opened in select cities September 25th, it is now available on DVD and iTunes.
Shepard & Dark:Directed by Treva Wurmfeld; edited by Sandra Adair; music by Graham Reynolds; produced by Amy Hobby; released by Music Box Films. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Not rated.