When Sam Shepard invited me to make a record of his most recent play, The Late Henry Moss, I agreed without thinking through how complicated it might get. The resulting movie, collaged from 140 hours of rehearsal footage and interviews, was a collaboration from top to bottom—not least because it required the consent and trust of Shepard’s high-powered cast, which included Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson. Sam reviewed successive cuts and supplied the film’s title, a reference to his haywire family history. In fact, between the two of us, the project cost so much time and churned-up emotion that, given an opportunity in these pages to make a concerted promotional push, we found ourselves talking around our freshly hatched film, focusing instead on a couple of Sam’s previous, time-honored collaborations. Excerpts follow:
MICHAEL ALMEREYDA: It felt like a completed circuit when Terrence Malick called to tell me he liked the movie. Among other things, Days of Heaven led me to look up your books. What are your memories of making that film?
SAM SHEPARD: It was my first legit movie. I think I got 6,000 bucks for the whole deal. I rented a Ford Mustang and drove up to Alberta, Canada, not knowing really what I was getting myself into. Wound up on the plains of Alberta, which was extraordinary in itself. Prairie country, very flat. And Jack Fisk had constructed this remarkable set in the middle of the plains, out of plywood, this house that sat there like some Edward Hopper painting. All this wind from the prairie and it somehow stayed in one piece. And there were all these other amazing people—[cinematographer] Néstor Almendros, one of the most gentle men I ever met. Looking at everything through his dark glasses, measuring the light. Shooting at night with candles and flashlights. I mean, even for me who hadn’t had much experience with filmmaking, I knew that was extreme.
MA: What are your memories of Malick?
SS: I’ve always loved Terry. He’s an extraordinarily sensitive guy. One of those guys who has a great deal of difficulty having a conversation, but then every once in a while he’d go off on this extraordinary intellectual tangent. I remember him going off on Al Green once. This gush on Al Green. And one time setting up this complicated shot and turning around to watch a flight of geese go across the sky—he stopped everything and had everyone turn the camera around to get the geese. He’d been editing on the film for about a year, and he called and asked if I would come to Los Angeles and do some insert shots. We did a series of closeups underneath a freeway underpass—and he cut ’em into the film! And then the notorious shot of Richard Gere falling face first into the river—that was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room. They had to convince Richard to do this—he said, “Are you crazy?” Terry begged him.
MA: You weren’t there for that, were you?
SS: Yeah, I had to do some shots, too. His first major film, face down in an aquarium [laughs]. But somehow you didn’t mind doing things for Terry, as outrageous and ridiculous as some of it was. You felt like you were in the presence of somebody who was taking many chances and was a kind of poet.
MA: What about working with Bob Dylan? Some Dylan-ologists consider the song you wrote together, “Brownsville Girl,” a masterpiece—one of the five or six best songs he’s come up with.
SS: Working with Dylan is not like working with anybody else. I’ve had some very 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 a 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 it with 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. My collaboration with Joe [Chaikin], in San Francisco, was also outdoors.
MA: One of the things that’s valued in the song is the way it shifts perspectives and tenses, this shape-shifting quality. Which became sort of a reference point for This So-Called Disaster. I’d like to make a movie that’s more like that song. Outdoors, of course.
SS: Yeah. Stay out of those tight little rooms.