The Searcher

Wim Wenders on his sense of the right direction

The Searcher

In 1984, German director Wim Wenders teamed up with American playwright Sam Shepard to make Paris, Texas, the classic that follows an amnesiac man through the lonely expanse of the American West on his search for himself and the family he doesn't know he has. Two decades later, Wenders and Shepard revisit the tale of a man lost with Don't Come Knocking, a dreamy comedy (beautifully shot by Franz Lustig, who worked on Wenders' 2004 film about American alienation and disillusion, Land of Plenty) that follows aging bad-boy movie star Howard Spence – portrayed with a sad and funny childlike selfishness by Shepard – on a search for ... himself and the family he doesn't know he has.

As the director explains, it is a story about a man who realizes that "while he had always played heroes in the movies, he did not appear in the movie of his own life. He wasn't even a supporting character in it, just an extra. So, he sets out to grasp whatever is left of that life he has missed."

Battling illness and a hectic traveling schedule, Wenders agreed to an e-mail interview.

Austin Chronicle: Both films you have made with Sam Shepard are about loss and searching. There is a real loneliness to the characters. Both of you have said in the past that you feel that, as Americans, we don't know who we really are.

Wim Wenders: Sam said that about Americans; I wouldn't dare to. Well, he said something like that, but more elaborate. I guess we're both drawn to the same sort of characters. I've made films about alienated people in my own country just as well. But, I'm very much drawn to the American landscape. I love this country very much and I lived here long enough to paint my own picture. It's not an American view, because I'm a European filmmaker, but I can see an American condition. ... Maybe it is my insistence on "place" and on the relation between characters and their very specific surroundings that allows me, every now and then, to bring out something that Americans are not used to seeing [in] themselves any more.

AC: Could you talk about the importance of the locations in this film?

WW: The sense of place is so important for me that I don't even want to speak of "locations." That always sounded like a somewhat condescending word to me. Sam and I wrote the script for these places. For the beginning, Howard leaves the set of the movie he's shooting and rides off into the open prairie. We couldn't help but thinking about John Ford, so we placed those scenes into the countryside around Moab in Utah. ... More than half of the film takes place in Butte, Montana, which I discovered in the Seventies.

AC: Speaking of John Ford, I heard that you rescued Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese while you were on a John Ford pilgrimage in the desert?

WW: Yes, we were The Searchers! Actually, Martin and Isabella had been to Telluride, just like me, and we had taken separate cars to drive to Las Vegas, I guess. In the middle of Monument Valley, I saw this car on the side of the road with a flat tire, and these legs sticking out from under it. I stopped and recognized Isabella Rossellini sunbathing on the back seat, and the man who crawled out from under the car was Scorsese. It turned out they didn't even have a spare tire, so I took them with me.

AC: In Don't Come Knocking, you make a series of comic statements regarding Hollywood's self-importance, and Howard is literally hunted down by Tim Roth's character, Sutter, hired by the bond company that insured the abandoned film for $32.5 million. Does it drive you crazy, the financial side of filmmaking?

WW: I made only one studio picture, for Orion, with Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studio [1982's poorly received Hammett]. That was a great and wild experience, one that I would not want to have missed in my life, but it also taught me an important lesson: I learned that I was not an American director, and that I was only good at making films my own way. So, I['ve] stuck to my guns ever since and [have] only made films that I could control and produce myself. Sometimes you feel more like a bookkeeper, a lawyer, or a travel agent, but at least it allows me to only make the films I really want and need to make. Some of them are sort of successful, like Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire; or Buena Vista Social Club, but none of them were blockbusters, of course. That was a choice I once made, to stay away from big budgets, and it made me a happy (and still independent) director.

The truth is, today: The more money you have, the more you can do with it, sure, but the less you can actually say with it. Of course, films are also a business, for me, too, but first of all I look at them as a form of expression, the most relevant form of expression these days, along with rock music. In my book, there is no greater success than being able to say what you have to say. end story

Don't come Knocking

Regional Premiere

Saturday, March 11, 6:15pm, Alamo South Lamar

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SXSW Film 06, Wim Wenders, Sam Shepard, Don't Come Knocking

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