Don’t Come Knocking: Interview with Wim Wenders

Don’t Come Knocking, from a screenplay by Sam Shepard, based on a story by Shepard and director Wim Wenders, is a sequel to Paris, Texas, made in 1984.

FRANCES, from left: Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard, 1982. ©Universal Pictures

An old scrapbook. A vintage Packard. An urn filled with ashes. A couch in the middle of a sidewalk. Everyday objects such as these might be overlooked in many films, or perhaps briefly considered as reflecting a plot point or symbolizing a characters emotional state. But in the films of Wim Wenders, these elements help construct the landscape of the story. Memories, relationships, images, emotions and objects flow into each other, and come alive through the sensitive and vivid renderings of very human characters experiencing remarkably frightening and honest moments of enlightenment.

The hero, Howard Spence (played by Sam Shepard) was one of Hollywoods hottest movie stars, his rugged good looks and quiet charm landing him All-American roles in westerns.

Now approaching 60, Howard is on the set of his latest film when he decides hes had enough and simply leaves. A short stay with a mother he hasnt seen in thirty years (Eva Marie Saint) leads to the revelation that Howard might have a son in Butte, Montana, where thirty years before he made his first film and had a short affair with a local waitress named Doreen (Jessica Lange). Arriving in Butte, just ahead of the bounty hunter that has been hired to bring Howard back to the movie set (Tim Roth), Howard tries to reckon with his past while dealing with the very present problem of speaking to a family that hes never known. The story is about so many things, says Shepherd of the script that he and Wenders developed over the course of four years. Its about estrangement more than anything. Its about this strange, American sadness that I find, the alone-ness they feel. We dont know each other in America, we dont even know who we are, we just dont. Im haunted by that American character, and that strange, strange lack of identity.

What is the crux of this film, what is this film about

Wim Wenders: Don’t Come Knocking (DCK) is a film about love and family relations. Most of all it is a film about missed chances, and the regret that comes with realizing those. The tragic-comedy of recognizing the love of your life too late. With Howard and Earl, we watch a father/son relationship that never happened. With Howard and Doreen, two old lovers come back together, but have come to terms with the fact that their passion burned out long ago. And with Sky and Earl, a brother and a sister discover each other when theyre almost 30 years old and have lived their entire lives as single children. All these emotions get mixed up and overwhelm everybody and produce a few days of joy and pain and confusion in the life of this dysfunctional

Q: How did this project evolve

WW: It started with the sheer desire to work with Sam again, as far as Im concerned. Our collaboration on Paris, Texas was such a highlight for both of us that we avoided repeating it for almost 20 years. I guess we were afraid, or superstitious, to destroy something good by trying to replicate the experience. Anyway, 20 years were enough of self-restraint. So I went to see Sam and suggested a treatment to him I had written on my own. He read it and related to some of it, but altogether felt it wasnt down his alley. But the more we talked about it, the more we also realized the principal interests that were driving us, and soon we had left my treatment behind and started to shape a new story. And then we worked on that, on and off, for three years altogether.

Q: Could you have done the film earlier

WW: Oh yeah. We were close to doing the film in 2002, but then had to postpone it, after all, to 2003. And in the summer of 2003, we got very close again, but had to pull the plug in the last second, due to financing problems in Europe. (Many movies underwent the same fate that year.) I made Land of Plenty instead, a low-budget film. Which gave Sam and me another chance to look at the script of DCK, and I think that additional breather did it a lot of good. Like a good wine, it just aged a bit longer. We were able to let go off a few things, and to add a few other colors.

Q: If you could talk about your choice of music for the film and how it evolved. Did you always have T. Bone Burnett in mind

WW: I never thought of anybody else for the music of this film. I love T-Bones own music, and I think he had buried his talents for too long by just producing other people. His last record The Criminal Under My Own Hat goes back to 1992! I still consider it one of my all-time favorites. T-Bone has gathered a lot of experience over the years in film scores and soundtracks. Just remember his extraordinary work for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou! So I spoke to T-Bone already in the very beginning of our project. Actually he accompanied me on my first trip to Sam. The two of them go back together for a long time. They met on the Rolling Thunder Tour in the mid 1970s already, when T-Bone played lead guitar for Dylan, and Sam was the chronicler of that historic event in Rockn Roll.

Q: You work with a relatively new cinematographer, Franz Lustig. What were your visual references for the look of the film

WW: I had initially planned to do DCK with Phedon Papamichael with whom I had done Million Dollar Hotel. But then, with all the postponements, Phedon was not available when we were finally ready. He was shooting Walk the Line, the film about Johnny Cash, at about the same time we were planning on doing DCK. With Land of Plenty, Franz Lustig had made his very first feature film with me, and the two of us had gotten along marvelously. So Franz was not just a replacement, he was the most natural choice. It is so important that youre totally at ease with your DoP, that you have the same taste that you can almost communicate without talking. And Franz, not unlike Phedon, is always good-spirited, positive and funny. Movies are such hard work, in between, that you want that relationship to your director of photography to be very brotherly. You need total solidarity and commitment. That was the case with Franz, and youre right: The look of this film is amazing, and Franz will certainly make a name for himself with DCK.

Q: The casting process.

WW: When we wrote Paris, Texas, I repeatedly asked Sam to play Travis himself. But at the time he was very adamant about not being able to play the part that we had written. I asked Sam on my knees, but he remained stubborn. And luckily, we found Harry Dean who made me forget my regrets about not being able to cast Sam. But when we started to write DCK, it was Sam, very early on, who said hed like to play the part of Howard. I didnt have to twist his arm. So Sam was a given from the beginning. And when the character of Doreen came into the story, I immediately knew I wanted Jessica for it. The two of them hadnt played together since Country, but part from that working with Jessica Lange must be any directors dream, anyway.

The two kids–well, theyre too old to be called that, but as they are Howards son and daughter, we kept referring to them as that ” I found in the casting sessions. Heidi Levitt, my casting director, had shown me every young actor and actress in the book. Gabriel Mann was sort of a discovery for me, and convinced me early on, but I had him come back repeatedly, until I was totally sure that he was my best possible Earl. And then, of course, he surprised my (and himself, probably) when we went into the recording studio with him and when T-Bone recorded the three songs that Earl is playing in the movie. He was a natural Rockn Roll talent. Sarah Polley I had seen in Atom Egoyans Sweet Hereafter and in My Life Without Me, and she had convinced me in both. So none of the other actresses I kept seeing for the part could endanger her.

For Howards Mom I saw a lot of actresses in that motherly age. After all, Howard is about sixty years old, so his Mom had to be a bit older. I did see some great ladies, and I enjoyed that part of the casting the most, because they were all so pleasant and funny. But from the moment Eva Marie Saint stepped out of her Mercedes -she had driven herself to our meeting ” and when I saw her bumper sticker: Get off the phone or get off the road! I knew I had found the ideal mom. Like everybody else I was totally in love with her when I discovered her in North by Northwest, and her Oscar-winning performance in On the Waterfront is still way up there with the best ever.

And then there is Tim Roth. I love Tim both as a gutsy director and as an actor. As such we have worked together once, ever so briefly, when he helped me out for one day on Million Dollar Hotel, where he played Izzy, the junkie poet. The part of the bounty hunter and detective Sutter was wide open, and could have been filled by younger or older actors. It could have been more action-oriented, but with the cast of Tim I went for more of a character part, which altogether payed off in this ensemble piece. And last but not least we found Fairuza Balk for Amber, which was a much smaller part, but in Sams very last rewrite, just before we went into the shoot, had expanded enough for me to look for an actress that could handle this slightly crazed girlfriend of Earls. And, boy, did she handle it!

Q: Why did you decide to shoot in Butte, Elko and Moab

I knew Butte and Elko long before Sam Shepard and I started to write the script for Don’t Come Knocking. I suggested Butte for the main location of the film at the very outset of our adventure. Ive always wanted to tell a story there, ever since I discovered the place in 1978, when I went there for the first time. I had read in an old interview with Dashiell Hammett that the mythical town of Poisonville in his first novel Red Harvest was based on the city of Butte in Montana, where he had spent some time in the early Twenties as a Pinkerton detective. I drove to Butte to check it out. It knocked me out! I had never seen any place like it! Huge brownstone buildings like on Broadway in New York, 12 stories high, wide Avenues, but altogether abandoned. A ghost town of fantastic proportions! A city with a very rich history, in mining as well as in politics. I revisited Butte several times in the Eighties and Nineties, always hoping that it hadnt been discovered as a movie set. And Butte grew on me. It is much less grim now as when I first encountered it, but still entirely unique.

Elko was a suggestion by Sam. The principal character of our film, Howard, returns to his mother in the beginning of the story, and we wanted to place Mom in a small town in Nevada. My own suggestion was the town of Ely. But I knew Elko as well, I had stopped there several times. I revisited both towns and then Elko won, in comparison. It has a cowboy tradition that is not yet wiped away entirely by the gambling and casino culture that has taken hold of every other Nevada town. It also has a huge Basque tradition, because there was a lot of sheepherding. It still has great Basque food, for instance. Altogether a very interesting mixture and great for our story.

Moab was a late edition. Sam and I had written the opening and ending scenes for Monument Valley, which we both knew and loved. But scouting Monument Valley was a big disappointment. It felt as if the place had lost its soul and had turned forever into some sort of Marlboro Country. The spirit of John Ford had altogether vanished, I felt, and had been replaced by a crude tourist adventure ride culture. So I came up with Moab as an alternative. It has similar landscapes as Monument Valley, and John Ford had shot many of his great films here as well. Altogether it felt less exploited and less of a clich. Plus the town itself was pleasant.

Q: How was the writing process with Sam Shepard

Writing with Sam is a very special procedure. Sam doesnt think in terms of plot, at least not at the outset. He is strictly concerned with character. It took us a while to come up with Howard. And when we saw Howard in front of us, Sam started to write the first scenes. And then our procedure would be: I would have to read the pages, we would go through them and discuss them, make adjustments, and only then we could think about the next scene. Not the rest of the story, oh no!, only what would happen next. And then Sam would have to write that, I would have to read it, and then we would move on to the next scene afterwards. The script writing process took place in total continuity! Scene after scene without ever breaking out and thinking ahead. That is an extraordinary process, and quite demanding for the director. You really learn to be patient, I tell you! But you also learn to rely on your characters, and on nothing else. This way you can be sure your story is entirely character-driven, all the way to the end. We only made it all the way through after almost 3 years, and after two scripts we abandoned halfway through, because we felt we had come to some sort of dead-end situation. Only when we were happy with our first complete story, we then sat down and discussed it as a whole. And then, of course, we could jump inside the script and improve stuff here or there. Only then we both thought in terms of plot.

It was a great pleasure to discover again how closely our minds operated. We even tried to stretch that pleasure and worked on this script for a good three years. Not all the time, obviously, but in many installments, in various places all over the United States.

Q: What importance does the script have for you in general, when you are making a film

If you shoot with a script that you trust entirely, you have a lot of security and you can sleep in peace the night before each scene. Which means again that you can concentrate so much more on your characters. You dont have to worry about any other issue than what you expect from your actors the next day. It is a very soothing feeling to know that you have a great story and good dialogue to rely upon. I made DCK without any anxiety or stress. And we managed to shoot it pretty fast this way, in a mere 36 days.

Q: How would you describe the rhythm of Dont Come Knocking

WW: I would describe the rhythm of Don’t Come Knocking as cool, calm, and collected, with sudden outbursts of frenzy.