“There are places where writing is acting and acting is writing,” Sam Shepard once said. “I’m not so interested in the divisions. I’m interested in the way things cross over.” And as an icon of the stage, the screen, and the literary world Shepard has spent the last half-century making his mark on the world, through the “seamless juxtaposition of his cowboy mouth and battered heart.” Whether it’s his plays, memoirs, or poetry, Shepard’s work evokes a very particular mental landscape, rooted in his endless search to understand the duality that lives inside man and all those faceless screams that live inside us.
Whether he’s writing about the existential questions that reside between men and women, the legacy of fathers and sons, or the aching desire to disappear into solitude, there’s a fluidity and physicality to his work that’s once both muscular and extremely tender. The themes of his work remain central to the emotional core of his being, while remaining transient in their nature—moving from the primitive starkness of reality, to a magical realism that exists in echoes of feeling and tone rather an words alone. But its his on-screen performances that helped solidify his legendary status, and continue to bring him closer into our purview.
But for all we’ve known about Shepard over the years, perhaps one of the most interesting relationships of his life as well as one of the biggest influences on his work resides in the friendship between he and Johnny Dark. After meeting in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, two became swift friends and eventually family, when Shepard married the daughter of Dark’s wife. And although Shepard went onto become one of he most profound and brilliant American writers, Dark’s life stayed closer to home. Residing in New Mexico, Dark remains hermetic—spending his time writing, working at a supermarket deli, and walking his dog. But for his reclusive nature and emotional distance from the rest of the world, he and Shepard’s friendship has endured, through even the roughest of times in their lives.
And in Treva Wurmfeld’s wonderful new documentary Shepard & Dark, we’re given an intimate portrait of their deeply moving relationship, as they begin the archival process of their decade-spanning correspondence. Through interviews, old photographs, super 8 footage, as well as witness their interaction, the film unfolds like something Shepard would have written had he not lived it himself. Playing out like a tale of opposite brothers whose own personal traumas and struggles still ache within them, the two look back on their past with mixture of sadness and joy as we begin to understand just how entwined their lives have been while they discover the own legacies they’ve created.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to speak with Wurmfeld about her introduction to Shepard, being the first person to unearth their story, and what she discovered along the way.
Can you tell me about your background as a filmmaker and what led you to Sam?
I actually have a background in fine art; I got my MFA in New York, focused in video art. While I was in graduate school I started making documentaries and that grew into an interest in interactive media and technology. So I had these video stills and I needed work, so I was able to do a behind the scenes documentary for a film called Jumper, and I got really inspired being on the set of a big film and decided to take a stab at writing and directing myself. I made a short film in 2007, which had a festival run, and then I ended preparing a Sam Shepard documentary in 2010. One of the main reasons why I had started that was because I did an interview with him on the set of a film called Fair Game, another Doug Liman film. That interview with Sam had so little to do with Fair Game, because he had such a small role, so I just took advantage of that opportunity to interview Sam Shepard about everything I’d want to ask him and was able to channel that in raising money for feature film.
Before that first interview, had you been an admirer of his work?
Yeah, absolutely. I hadn’t seen any of his original productions put on but I had seen his shows on college campuses and that sort of thing. I actually saw one out here in LA a few years ago as well. So I had read his plays and was familiar with Paris, Texas. That was definitely in the back of my mind.
How did you approach Sam about your initial concept for the documentary? Did you know about Johnny and how they’d begun their archival process?
Once I had the idea to make the doc, I wrote Sam a hand-written letter and got it to him through Michael Almereyda, who had worked with him on Hamlet and is still a very close friend of his. So I was able to get him this letter and a couple weeks later Sam called me and said he was doing some readings in Santa Fe and asked if I’d like to come film the reading. Then he said casually, “Oh I’m going down there to pick up these letters that I’ve been writing back and forth with my close friend Johnny, and I’m going to take them down to San Marcos, Texas.” He mentioned the project in passing, but I didn’t really know at the time who Johnny was and I didn’t what the project would be and how interesting it would be to focus on. So I went down to Santa Fe and filmed these readings, which, you can probably imagine a reading or a conference for documentaries is not the most compelling thing. I really just wanted to take the opportunity to go Santa Fe, and when I got down there and interviewed them, their entire backstory just poured out of Johnny in that very first interview and I really started to see how big a role Johnny played in Sam’s life and work.
Both Sam and Johnny are interesting subjects because they would appear to be very closed off in their own way. Johnny isn’t used to being in the spotlight and although Sam puts so much of himself into his writing, I would think he’d be more hesitant to really open up. But they were both so vulnerable and willing to show, so how did you go about building that open relationship with them?
It was pretty quick because I was familiar with having to get people to open up. Part of the job is having to get your subjects to feel comfortable on camera, and there’s a certain amount of trust for that to happen. So I made a conscious effort to approach both of them with that in mind, and I also picked up on the fact that they’re both very casual, laid back in their own way. I felt like I brought that in my process as well. I had a small crew there but it was generally just me filming, so there wasn’t a lot of orchestration. I went with their schedule, on their terms, and I think they responded positively to that.
There’s so much complexity to the history of their friendship and as the film unfolds you see it’s really about the ebb and flow of that relationship. Was there anything you began to uncover about them that you were really surprised by?
You know, it’s hard to distinguish between how my impressions developed in real time while filming and how my understanding of my own film became more clear. It’s just getting to know someone. There was nothing that particularly surprised me about Sam, in terms of how he was going be with me on camera; I felt like he maintained a kind of guardedness and at the same time was very generous in giving me access and answering questions. But I also didn’t really push it; I felt like in time it would reveal itself. I was just generally surprised to learn of their particular history, because a lot of the things that ended up shaping the story, I didn’t go in with that knowledge. I wanted to film Sam and his friend and do a portrait of his life through other people and the present, but it was striking to come across Johnny and this archive and understand it all. But to actually be able to use these photographs and this incredible super 8 footage, it was amazing to me that I was the one that was able to have this opportunity to put it all together. I felt fortunate to be in that position and I didn’t expect that.
Their story really feels like something Sam would have shaped himself, it’s so reminiscent of the brotherly relationships in his work. How did you go about interacting with the two of them as director to let the story reveal itself?
I was trying to stay as neutral as possible and be understanding of both of them at all times. I think that was easier for me when they were together, in a way, because I didn’t have to get into the middle of this. But I think as you can tell in the film, there was part of their fallout over the book project that I was actually not able to be there in person for. There was a chapter where I was trying to piece it all together and wasn’t actually there for it. I had to play a role in it in order to get them both for the film to finish, which poses some interesting questions about documentary filmmaking sometimes—like how you get the subjects to go where you want them to. Obviously nothing they did was anything I fed them, but it was just playing this role of trying to get Johnny back in the headspace of thinking about their relationship when it wasn’t great. So that kind of thing was a challenge, but I generally feel like they both were surprisingly open to talking about their friendship, and even the “hiccup” in their friendship, as its called.
So much of Sam’s work is about legacy and the echoes left behind between fathers and sons and men and women as he and Johnny sift through their on archives and letters, it was as if they were discovering their own legacy for the first time. That was so interesting to see them relive these painful moments and just how reevaluating the past effected them so much in the present.
Yeah, it has a lot of parallels to True West and Paris, Texas and some of the brother characters in Sam’s work. But it was a vulnerable time for both of them because it was basically the year after Johnny’s wife has passed away—who he had lived with for as long as he’d known Sam. Obviously that was a tremendous loss in his life, and then for Sam having left Jessica. Also, he was approaching the age that his father was when was his father was killed, so there was this looming sense of outliving his father and his own mortality. I think that those factors also played a role in their friendship at this time and the way that looking back at their past was a challenge.