Writing in the New York Times, Stephen Holden described Don't Come Knocking as "a meditation on cultural ectoplasm, on phantom cowboys and outlaws and the potent myths surrounding them."
With this latest film by Wim Wenders
now out on DVD, Calvin Souther
and Jonathan Marlow
talk with the legendary German director about writing on the road, meeting Patricia Highsmith
and the benefits of working under pressure.
What is your attraction to the road? In many of your films, the principle character is involved in some kind of journey. It isn't an easy thing for a filmmaker to do, to take your crew and go somewhere...
I thought it was the other way around! It was always so hard to stay in one place, I thought. And if ever I stayed in one place I would run out of ideas and run out of imagination. While I was on the road, all of the juices where flowing. I always prefer to be on the road. I figured the crew would rather enjoy traveling with me rather than staying out somewhere, so I discovered quite early as a filmmaker that this was one of the few things in life you could actually do on the road. At the time, I didn't even know that there was some sort of genre called "road movies
." I mean, I called my company Road Movies [Filmproduktion Inc]. I've made lots of movies over 28 years and, in most of them, I've tried to find out what road movies were.
The discovery of this process, moving from one place to another, evolved out of your earliest films, the shorts and Summer in the City
and into your work with Peter Handke
Yes. The first real "road movie" I made was Kings of the Road
. I added that title and it seemed like the most natural thing because all I always wanted to do was travel. It was my favorite thing and it still is. It goes well with writing, I think. I love writing in hotels and motels, on airplanes, cars, ships, trains - whatever, as long as it's moving. I have a hard time concentrating, sitting at my desk...
You have to be somewhere to be inspired?
I enjoy it. I mean, I'm getting older and I also enjoy being at my desk sometimes, staring out and listening to music. On the road, most of the time you just have some stereo system in your car or in some motel and you can't listen too loudly. That's the great advantage of being at home. You can listen to music. But then again, I'm really happy on the road. It suits me fine when I get out there.
With Don't Come Knocking
, you use a particular city as the catalyst to bring a number of different characters together. The location helped in developing the story?
I brought Butte, Montana, to the table.
When did you discover Butte?
An eternity ago. Actually, February 1978.
Why do you remember the date so accurately?
Because I drove there from San Francisco. A day-and-a-half it took me to drive there. I had discovered that Butte, Montana, was the real name of my favorite city in American literature - Poisonville [Personville, but pronounced Poisonville], from Dashiell Hammett
's first novel, Red Harvest
. Of course, with a name like Poisonville, it has to be fictional. "Poison-Ville," come on! All the things that happened in Poisonville in that novel are bank robberies, gang killings and lynching. It's a very violent book, considering that it's written in 1928, and it's really the beginning of a whole tradition in American literature. A lot of things started with that book. Contemporary detective stories, almost the beginning of film noir
So the day I found out that Poisonville actually was Butte, Montana, and that everything described in the book came from his experiences when he came to Butte as a [Pinkerton] detective in 1924, that day, I got into my car and I drove there. I just had to verify, and what I saw blew my mind because the 20s and 30s are still alive in Butte. It's like a history book. The city more or less stopped developing in the early 1950s and then the bottom fell out. The mine closed, since nobody needed copper anymore. It was the biggest copper mine in the world and it was the biggest city west of the Mississippi in 1900. It was bigger than San Francisco and now it was a ghost town. Everything is dead and not like a couple of shacks blowing in the wind, like most ghost towns, but like New York City with high rises, avenues, brownstone buildings, big hotels. I mean, it was all abandoned. So it was like no other place I'd ever seen.
Ever since, I've wanted to make a movie there. I've photographed it a lot [see the Summer 2006 issue of Zoetrope Magazine
]. I've photographed every street of Butte and I came back over the years again and again because I wanted to make sure it was still there and that nobody else had shot out there. I was afraid that someone would beat me to it! Nobody did, and I don't know why. A couple of documentaries and that's it.
Certain locations serve as a focal point for your films - Berlin for Wings of Desire
; Lisbon, of course, for Lisbon Story
. With Hammett
, it was partially shot in San Francisco?
It was completely shot in San Francisco but, after I finished shooting and made my rough cut, the studio and the producers thought that there wasn't enough action - way too much about the writer and not enough of the detective. So they decided to do it all over and this time on a soundstage. In the actual finished film (which I shot twice, really), only ten percent of what we shot originally was used and the rest was cut.
Was that footage destroyed?
I was told it was.
It was my understanding during the period between shooting of the streets of San Francisco and shooting in Los Angeles on a soundstage, you made The State of Things
...and this was using the set and the cast of a film that Raśl Ruiz
Quite true. The Territory
I make a mention of these two points because I see a similarity between your relationship to Hammett
and The State of Things
with Don't Come Knocking
and Land of Plenty
. While you were in the process of working on one project, you made another smaller project in the interim.
Yeah, all of a sudden, I had all the time in the world. In 2003, Sam Shepard
and I had a finished script for Don't Come Knocking
. I had my cast more or less, and we thought that the greenlight was just a formality because we had our budget. I was seriously preparing for the film. My art director was working on it already, as was my assistant and the production manager, and it was just six or eight weeks away from principal photography when we lost our co-production deal. It's a long story and a lot of films fell apart at that time, but we lost twenty percent of our budget from one day to another.
My producer called me from Germany and said, "We lost our co-production deal and you know what that means." It meant we wouldn't make Don't Come Knocking
that summer. I just had a very short, quick loophole to shoot in Butte, because at the end of September came winter. So it meant that we had to postpone the film for an entire year and I had to call Sam to break the bad news. It was tough for Sam, quite a blow, because we'd really been working our way up to that date. So the movie was pulled and I had nothing left to do. I had the entire summer to myself so I decided I would rather make another movie very spontaneously, very quickly. You cannot make any sort of big budget movie on such short notice.