Embodying the multitude

Oren Jacoby on Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself director Oren Jacoby on Sam Shepard: “ He was great at revealing as a dramatist these clear revelatory moments but he also always loved cloaking a certain amount of it with mystery …”
Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself director Oren Jacoby on Sam Shepard: “ He was great at revealing as a dramatist these clear revelatory moments but he also always loved cloaking a certain amount of it with mystery …”

The afternoon after the We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert in Central Park was abruptly halted due to lightning, while Barry Manilow was on stage and before Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Sam Shepard favourite Patti Smith could perform, director Oren Jacoby discussed with me his revealing documentary Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself. Earlier in the evening (on August 21) the New York Philharmonic performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the song that opens On Broadway, Oren’s fabulous tribute to the theatre community told through performers telling their own story.

Oren Jacoby with Anne-Katrin Titze on Sam Shepard: “He had an amazing ear and way of transforming ordinary American idiom and language into something that was poetic.”
Oren Jacoby with Anne-Katrin Titze on Sam Shepard: “He had an amazing ear and way of transforming ordinary American idiom and language into something that was poetic.”

John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, True West; August Wilson, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams; T Bone Burnett, Wim Wenders, Until The End Of The World; Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Rolling Thunder Revue; Botho Strauss, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Bertolt Brecht, Mabou Mines; Joyce Aaron, and Charles Mingus III all came up in connection to Sam Shepard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for Buried Child. Sam received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.

In Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself, Sam Shepard reads the Nina Simone passage from Motel Chronicles and intimately talks on camera about his journey from Duarte, California to New York City, where he joined Theater Genesis, founded by Ralph Cook at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. We see clips from Shepard’s plays: Jude Ciccolella and Paul Dawson in Curse of the Starving Class; Bruce MacVittie in Action; Wayne Maugans and Leslie Silva in Chicago; Joyce Aaron and Joseph Chaikin in Fourteen Hundred Thousand; Kirk Acevedo and Vincent D’Onofrio in Tooth of Crime (Second Dance); Ethan Hawke in Buried Child; Jamey Sheridan in Killer's Head, and the powerful performances by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in True West.

Joseph Chaikin with Sam Shepard in Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself
Joseph Chaikin with Sam Shepard in Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself

From New York City, Oren Jacoby joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello!

Oren Jacoby: Good to see you again!

AKT: How’s Henri doing?

OJ: New York is not too bad.

AKT: I’m in New York, too. It’s just raining.

OJ: It looks like it [Tropical Storm Henri] landed in Rhode Island. Rhode Island and Connecticut are getting the worst. So we’re blessedly skipping the dangerous part.

AKT: You weren’t at the cancelled concert in Central Park last night?

OJ: No, I had to go to the screening to do a Q&A of On Broadway.

AKT: At the Quad?

OJ: Yeah. Our distributer thinks that the theatre will hold it for another weekend and maybe we will pick up some more next week.

Jude Ciccolella in Sam Shepard’s Curse Of The Starving Class
Jude Ciccolella in Sam Shepard’s Curse Of The Starving Class

AKT: And you have a special screening at the JCC [on September 1] also.

OJ: Yes, and then next week it opens in L.A. and in a bunch of other theatres all over.

AKT: I saw The New York Times made it a Critic’s Pick, well deserved! Let’s go back a quarter century. What is so fascinating about Sam Shepard is when you hear him talk or have him read from his writing or even excerpts from the plays, it all flows into one. Boundaries are disappearing. I spent an afternoon with him where we talked for five hours straight. I almost felt as if I was in a play with him. Afterwards I at times wondered if I heard something in a play or long long ago, or if it came from our conversation. You capture that flowing quality in your film.

OJ: I remember very vividly, there’s these qualities with Sam where he combines in one persona and one body of work and in one creative impulse these elements of myth, of American popular culture, of kind of the generational angst and quirkiness of the Sixties, sort of hippies, the rebellion that he was part of, of post-war American trauma - and it’s all blended up in this world. He was able to create an amalgam of language that combined those worlds and put his own stamp on it. As you say, very fluid, kind of fun, a little bit dreamlike, and poetic.

Edward Albee on Sam Shepard: “Sam was always taking chances, always being original. He is just one of the most exciting individual talents.”
Edward Albee on Sam Shepard: “Sam was always taking chances, always being original. He is just one of the most exciting individual talents.”

AKT: At the same time, terror was always lurking somewhere, a kind of palpable inherited terror that is generations old although very much of his time. I noted when he said “I grew up in this WWII world, where women were continually healing the men.” What a sentence! And the mystery that is still lingering, still now.

OJ: That was also always a quality of Sam’s writing and Sam’s persona, is that he wanted to maintain a certain mystery. He was great at revealing as a dramatist these clear revelatory moments but he also always loved cloaking a certain amount of it with mystery and not making it too obvious and withholding enough information. Working with him on this film, he was in many ways forthcoming, he was an honest human being.

But I think he resented the fact that we were pulling back the screen a little bit and revealing so much of him. It’s the only time that I’m aware of that he sat down and gave a really lengthy interview on film about his life and his work and his parents and growing up and his evolution as an artist. He was so generous to do that. He was avoiding the interview and putting it off. Finally that day when he said let’s go upstairs and do it, we found a corner of this broken-down theatre on 42nd Street where he was rehearsing a play.

AKT: That was one of my questions, where you were filming, because it looks so perfect with the red curtain. It looks like an abandoned flat or an attic.

Lunch with Sam Shepard at Le Cirque in New York
Lunch with Sam Shepard at Le Cirque in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

OJ: Yeah, it’s the attic of a theatre, a rehearsal space. Now they’ve all been gussied-up in the decades since. Along 42nd Street between 9th and 11th Avenues, there’s a row of Off-Broadway theatres. He was in some ways a generous subject but he was also a reluctant subject.

AKT: Reluctant in the sense that at first he didn’t want to do the interview? Or about questions where he didn’t want you to go?

OJ: It was very odd in terms of his privacy. There’s a scene we open the film with, the cameraman came to the theatre for rehearsal and he was all friendly and happy and then suddenly he got furious with the cameraman for being there filming him. And he pushed him out of the way, a gesture that spoke of something that was always there with Sam. You can go so far, but if you got too close, he was not comfortable.

AKT: You interviewed T Bone Burnett, what was the collaboration that Sam had with him?

OJ: He worked with Sam on a number of different projects. They probably met on some film project, or they may have met actually going back to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. Scorsese did a weird movie about it, with faux documentary footage to set up wonderful footage that had been filmed of the tour.

Ed Harris on Sam Shepard and women: “He’s got a good eye.”
Ed Harris on Sam Shepard and women: “He’s got a good eye.”

For some reason Dylan organized a tour through New England, playing in gymnasiums and little town halls and he brought along poets to be his muses, Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard went along and others who dropped in and out the entourage. Joni Mitchell’s showing up and Joan Baez was there for a lot of it. Anyway, T Bone was the guitar player in Dylan’s band and that’s where he and Sam met.

The premise for my film was the Signature Theatre in New York, which was fairly new at the time, they devoted each season to plays by an American playwright and they did as much of that person’s work as they could manage. They devoted the year we filmed to Sam with a retrospective of, I think, six or seven plays. One of them was the first revival of one of Sam’s favourite plays, The Tooth of Crime, which is of a kind of warrior rock ’n’ roll god and T Bone did the music for that.

AKT: I was also thinking of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, that has connections to both. Edward Albee is there in your film. Was he simply available for you to interview about Sam?

OJ: Albee was an incredibly generous wonderful mind, articulate human being, whom I was lucky enough to film for three or four different projects that I worked on. He was always very open and supportive and generous with his time. I had heard this crazy story of Sam going in search of Albee and showing up at his house in Montauk Point at the end of Long Island. I wanted to get Albee’s version as well as Sam’s. Probably with August Wilson, the two greatest American playwrights of my lifetime, with Sam, they’re the three that will be remembered from my generation.

Charles Mingus III on his roommate: “Sam immediately moves in with a new mattress and a bumper from a “57 Chevy or something as a footboard for the bed.”
Charles Mingus III on his roommate: “Sam immediately moves in with a new mattress and a bumper from a “57 Chevy or something as a footboard for the bed.”

AKT: In each clip you have of Albee speaking, he says maybe one sentence about Sam and then switches to the general, about life and death, and what it means to be an artist. That all artists try to convince those who are alive to stay alive, something like that.

OJ: He really has a mantra about art. And that is as artists we all have a responsibility to remind people that life is fleeting and that you really have to appreciate life. He thinks that’s what art is for. We’re mortal, appreciate it! Get the most out of it! I think he connected on a personal level with a lot of the themes of Sam’s work, experiences as a playwright, what it’s like, the pressure, achieving fame as a young man. Specifically, they came out of the ferment of the Greenwich Village of the Sixties and they were both part of the culture of Downtown New York.

AKT: The love of Beckett, of course.

OJ: Yeah, both got a lot from Beckett, from Pinter, the major British voices of those years.

AKT: When Sam says “I’m actually many, many, many people” - three manys! And he is actually to be found in so many of his characters. Even, and I am looking at the poster on your wall again [which shows a Picasso stage set], the mother in True West - “Picasso’s in town” even she sounds like him. There are questions of identity that reach far beyond the cowboy persona.

Jamey Sheridan in Sam Shepard’s Action
Jamey Sheridan in Sam Shepard’s Action

OJ: I think he does it on purpose; he wants to embody the multitude. That’s why he became a playwright rather than a novelist. He loved living vicariously through these other experiences. He creates more interesting female characters than a lot of American playwrights do. They’re not maybe as deeply complicated and as advanced in the writing as the men, but some of the characters in A Lie of the Mind are very interesting, the mother in True West is a very interesting character.

He had an amazing ear and way of transforming ordinary American idiom and language into something that was poetic. Which is a mastery, a secret that I think the greatest playwrights have. August Wilson does that with his dialogue, Tennessee Williams is a playwright who can manage that, Pinter does it. They take the ordinary and they make it something extraordinary, but it resonates with all of us because it feels like it’s the way we talk, but better. It’s funnier, it’s more poignant, it’s more compelling. It touches us more deeply.

AKT: And timeless! You made the documentary 25 years ago and there is nothing that timestamps it really. After watching your film, I had the image in my head of the Dali painting called The Burning Giraffe. In the front is a figure that consists of drawers, one drawer underneath another on the body. That’s what came to mind about Sam Shepard. You can open one drawer and go into biblical territory, another drawer is full of cars. A person consisting of so many drawers.

Ethan Hawke on Sam Shepard: “Sam truthfully is an outlaw …”
Ethan Hawke on Sam Shepard: “Sam truthfully is an outlaw …”

OJ: It’s a great image. It’s what the greatest playwrights can do. Think of Shakespeare! Think of all the worlds that come out of this one guy’s head! And Sam had that aspect. Oh, it’s a Sam Shepard play, you know, a bunch of guys on the road, and the West and da, da, da … But as you say, there are many many worlds that are revealed in the characters and through the plays.

AKT: I just figured out why I had drawers on my mind. You have a moment where we hear Sam’s voice talking about being born in 1943. His father was dropping bombs on Italy, he is a baby sleeping in the bottom drawer of a dresser. “I am born without a clue” he reads [from Cruising Paradise].

OJ: He generously shared with us many passages to use, and he’s speaking it. He remembers this about his father and his childhood and the war. His father who returned from the war with what we now understand to be PTSD and alcoholism as the sort of medicine for that problem, had a lifelong influence on him. His father was still alive and he was still grappling with that when we made the film and the father died shortly after that.

AKT: Why did you pick Stalking Himself for your title?

OJ: I think I mentioned last time we spoke, my impulse in my films is always as much as possible for the filmmaker to disappear behind the character, behind the protagonist. I wanted the protagonists’ view of themselves to be the dominant thing. I’m pulling the pieces together, creating this kind of illusion that the person is there in front of you and sharing themselves. With Sam, that’s the image that stuck with me, of what his experience of himself is, it’s like he’s stalking this creature that he is standing outside of, looking at, understand, empathic with, but not really able, controlling or shaping or understanding completely.

Tulip Poplar in memory of Sam Shepard at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery
Tulip Poplar in memory of Sam Shepard at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: When he talks about the ancestors and that if you don’t respect the ancestors it is a kind of suicide. And it seems the farther away the ancestors are, the more real they are compared to the living ancestors in this context. Another fascinating drawer to open.

OJ: And he’s pulling on all kinds of ancestors - of American writers, American culture. On the writers who wrote movies and detective stories and pulp fiction. I think the ancestors are in his head as much as his own parents and his own family. He’s always digging into that suitcase to find more props, more things to write about.

AKT: The True West clip with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise - wow! It’s very dangerous, much more dangerous than the productions I’ve seen.

OJ: Did we talk about this in our last conversation?

AKT: Yes we did briefly. Now I know what you meant.

OJ: This was an earth-shattering production for actors of my generation. Everyone had never seen actors go out on a limb like this. The trust they had for each other. I think it was probably the best production of a Shepard play ever. We are all very lucky that it was filmed very capably and that there’s a record that somehow doesn’t deaden the magic of the theatrical experience.

Tim Roth on comparing Welch in Sam Shepard’s God of Hell to Oswaldo Mobray in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight: "Wow…. I think just that duplicitous nature of the character."
Tim Roth on comparing Welch in Sam Shepard’s God of Hell to Oswaldo Mobray in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight: "Wow…. I think just that duplicitous nature of the character." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It’s very strong. The golf club scene! I saw, on a different note, that you yourself directed plays by Botho Strauss and Franz Xaver Kroetz. Which plays?

OJ: I was a directing student in graduate school and I was very lucky to know a translator of German literature, German plays. Kroetz was at the time breaking through as a playwright. Mabou Mines in New York at that time had done one of his plays. As a senior project for my directing thesis, I was able to meet Kroetz in Germany and get permission to do the American premiere of a play called Help Wanted [Fear And Misery in the German Democratic Republic is the literal translation], which was based on a play that Brecht had done, called Fear And Misery In The Third Reich.

AKT: Yes.

OJ: He was writing about the political and sociological scene in Europe at this time, which was the 1980s, but it was very similar to what was happening in the United States on a lot of levels. So I worked with my friend Gitta Honegger, who was a translator, and together we did an adaptation where we set it in America. We did it with concerns about immigrants and identity, very wealthy people living next to people who are struggling and a lot of themes that are still very resonant that Kroetz understood were coming to the fore in the 1980s, the years of Reagan and Thatcher.

Sam Shepard’s last play A Particle Of Dread (Oedipus Variations) starred Stephen Rea
Sam Shepard’s last play A Particle Of Dread (Oedipus Variations) starred Stephen Rea Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I was lucky to do that play, which has in some way connections with Sam. In terms of the way in which Kroetz uses language and in the relation of high culture and low culture, which is another big part of Shepard. With one hand he’s reaching up to the Greek tragedies and with the other hand he’s reaching down to comic books or movies.

AKT: Also in terms of landscape, there’s a kinship between Shepard’s West and Kroetz’s Bavaria. And Botho Strauss?

OJ: Botho Strauss, that was a play that just spoke to me, a one-woman-show and I met a marvelous actor in New York when I got out of grad school and was working Off-Off-Broadway.

AKT: It’s very funny, I haven’t thought about Botho Strauss in years and in the past two weeks you are the second person I talk to about Botho Strauss. The other person was Shirin Neshat, whose latest film Land of Dreams will be premiering in Venice soon. We spoke about her film last week, and also about Sam Shepard, by the way, and there’s a scene that reminded me of Strauss’s The Park, which is his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

OJ: Which I remember reading at the time I did this play. Again, there is a connection there with Sam, a kind of irreverence and humour and sophistication. Both being on one level deep intellectual thinkers but on the other hand being a little bit embarrassed about that and trying to undercut it with something that’s more real. More direct, I’m not sure.

Tulip Poplar in memory of Sam Shepard at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery
Tulip Poplar in memory of Sam Shepard at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: I was talking with Sam about deals with the devil because he mentioned that he was reading Christopher Marlowe at the time a lot and thinking about doing a deal-with-the-devil thing. I brought up a folktale to him where what is being sold is not actually the person’s soul, but that the man is instead selling his daughter to the devil.

And Sam wanted to know more and we were going into all of these deep Faustian territories and then he suddenly said “Let me show you a car I like.” And I remember thinking wow, what a seamless leap, from selling your soul to the devil to “Look, isn’t this a beautiful car?”

OJ: That’s Sam. Those things were all mashed up. I think cars were a big part. You saw in the film, I made a big point of finding the exact kind of car that he loved when he was a teenager and we filmed out in the neighbourhood where he grew up in the hills outside L.A. in Southern California and drove around in one of those amazing Chevy Impalas that he talks about.

AKT: Cars are a big thing when you are afraid to fly. During one of the driving sequences in your film, we hear some of the dialogue from True West. “Replicas of streets I remember” that’s another powerful line.

OJ: He’s building them in his language. He hadn’t been back there probably for years and years. In the film I loved juxtaposing some of the actual territory of these topographies with the places that he described and that his characters inhabited. Because he kind of gestured them in with a line of dialogue or a scene description, but to hear the characters’ voice when you’re actually seeing those Texas hills that Sam loved. Or he has a story where he describes going to a cockfight. We went to the Texas border town and went to the cockfight, found these same guys doing the same thing.

AKT: That’s the only part I didn’t watch. I closed my eyes.

Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself poster
Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself poster

OJ: But as you said, there’s always this thing of cruelty and menace that’s behind the flashy fun stuff, sexy stuff.

AKT: Absolutely. I’m a wildlife rehabilitator, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation licensed, so I have been rescuing birds and when Sam was talking about hunting and fishing I asked him “Do you like to kill ‘things’?” And he immediately backed off, and switched gears after I didn’t bite on the difference between hunting and killing, and he talked about rescuing an egret [and the feeling of holding a heart in your hands]. You capture a lot about the different sides of him.

OJ: The contradictions, he was a contradictory character. In many ways he was self-effacing, in many ways he was very vain, I think.

AKT: Oh, yeah.

OJ: And humble and arrogant, it was all mashed up.

AKT: God of Hell comes to mind in this context, that I spoke with Tim Roth about at a press junket [for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight]. Sam’s last play was A Particle Of Dread.

OJ: I didn’t see it. I read it. I’m sorry I missed the production. I must have been away when it was on here.

AKT: Well, his spell is unbroken. Thank you so much for this!

OJ: Good to talk to you, Anne-Katrin.

AKT: Don’t get too wet during Henri!

OJ: You too, stay dry. Talk to you next time, bye-bye.

Read what Oren Jacoby had to say on the importance of theater and On Broadway.

On Broadway is screening at the Quad Cinema in New York and will open in Los Angeles on August 27.

JCC Manhattan Rooftop screening of On Broadway is on Wednesday, September 1 at 8:00pm.

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