Creating Howard Spenceby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
A new movie set in Montana and made by a famed German director has its roots firmly in Minnesota. Director Wim Wenders' new movie, "Don't Come Knocking," was written by its star Sam Shepard, while he lived just outside the Twin Cities.
St. Paul, Minn. — Wim Wenders says that until he flew into the Twin Cities airport recently he had forgotten the local connection. He came to Minnesota several times to work on the script at the home playwright and actor Sam Shepard shared with his longtime partner Jessica Lange.
"We wrote it in Stillwater. He was still living here at the time," says Wenders. "We wrote most of the film in his log cabin up in the woods. I thought we were going to be finished in one year, and so I saw the river freeze and unfreeze. And then I saw it freeze two more times."
Wenders is best known in the U.S. for his movies "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire." He wanted to do a story about absent fathers, because he kept hearing about children and adults who had never met their dads. Wenders wrote a short story about a banker who is disconnected from his kids, then late in life he learns he has yet another son.
Wenders took the story to Shepard.
"And Sam shred that story to pieces. He didn't like it. He didn't want to have anything to do with a broker or a banker; that was not his territory," says Wenders. "But the idea of the unknown son, and the father who had sort of led a reckless life, that appealed to him -- and we relocated the character into the West."
Wenders had worked with Shepard before on the screenplay for "Paris, Texas." He wanted to collaborate again, using Shepard's skills both a writer and an actor.
Thus Howard Spence was born.
Spence is the central character of "Don't Come Knocking," a hard-drinking ne'er-do-well who nonetheless has made a good living as a Western film star. At age 60 he realizes, as Wenders puts it, that he's become just an extra in the movie of his own life.
Spence runs away from a film set where he is shooting a new Western, and goes to visit his mother. He hasn't seen her in 30 years. She takes him in and then drops a bombshell.
"You don't happen to have any pictures of your little family, do you?" she asks.
Howard looks confused. "My family?" he asks.
"The child you never told me about," she replies accusingly. "My grandson. And I had to find it from his poor mother back then."
"What child?" Howard demands.
"Now, don't tell me you gave it up for adoption or something stupid like that," she says.
"I don't know about any child," Howard says, almost to himself.
"You don't know?"
"How'd you get to be such a mess, Howard?"
And so, even as the movie company has search parties out looking to bring him back to the set, Howard Spence heads to Butte, Montana, where he'd shot a film 20 years before.
"Here is a man who played all these heroes, but really he's been running away from everything," Wenders says. "He's never really faced reality and he's never faced any conflict. And he's not good at it. He's good at it if they write his dialog in the movies. But if he is left to his own devices he doesn't know what to say. First time father and son meet, fists are flying."
Wenders says while the movie is set in the West, it has some very Minnesotan ideas about the importance of families.
Wenders says Shepard doesn't really write plots, he writes about characters, and then the story develops around them. He became concerned as he saw the "Don't Come Knocking" script developing. He knew Shepard wanted to play the lead, but Howard Spence didn't seem like the usual Sam Shepard straight-shooter role.
"The part he was writing was truly tragi-comic," Wenders says. "So one day I asked Sam, 'Do you think you can handle this?' He laughed and said 'I can't promise you because I have never done it. But that's why I am writing it, because nobody would ever offer it to me, so I gotta write it for myself.'"
Wenders admits many directors would be wary of having the screenwriter also star in a movie, but he went one better and had Jessica Lange star in the film too.
Wenders is now working on another script with Shepard, but says that given past experience, he may well make a couple of other films in the meantime.
- Morning Edition, 04/07/2006, 6:50 a.m.