I was sorry to read about the the passing today of the great playwright Sam Shepard, at the age of 73. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child and wrote other works that included True West, Fool for Love and Curse of the Starving Class. He later returned to his very-early days of acting and had a successful career at that, getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Right Stuff portraying Chuck Yeager. His many other films included Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Baby Boom, Black Hawk Down and Steel Magnolias.
I worked with him on one movie, the very little known Bright Angel, which was based on two short stories by the acclaimed author Richard Ford. It was a solid, small independent film that had a very good cast for such a tiny, unknown movie that included Dermot Mulroney (who was the star), Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Perinne, Burt Young, Lily Taylor and Benjamin Bratt in what might have been his first movie, along with Sam. And it was in one particular instance dealing with Sam Shepard that was perhaps my finest moment as a movie publicist. (Which I suppose is not saying a lot, given that movie publicity is not filled with fine moments...)
In the film, Sam played a small, but important supporting role (I think as Dermot's father, though I wouldn't swear to that at this point), so he wasn't at the filming location in Montana all that much, maybe a few days. Sam was a nice-enough fellow, willing to chat, though taciturn and a bit distant, seeming to prefer the quiet and being alone, there to do his job.
At one point, a video crew hired by the company came up to Montana to shoot for two days and get material for putting together an "electronic presskit," the EPK They timed their visit to be there specifically when enough of the actors would be around, but most especially Sam Shepard. He would be on the set filming during their second and final night, when we were out on a big field all evening until the wee hours of the morning, a ways outside of our base residence of Billings.
All was fine as the video team was getting their interviews and behind-the-scenes footage...but with one tiny hiccup. The night they showed up on the set, Sam absolutely refused to do an interview. Nope, no way, doing a video interview was not for him, no, absolutely not. I'm not sure if he was against all publicity (I suspect that wasn't the case), or if it was just because this was such a small role and he didn't want it made to seem otherwise, or maybe because it was to be videotaped, rather than a more simple print interview. I did sense that he wasn't a publicity hound and was reticent to do publicity in general, but mainly was adamant about not doing publicity specifically for this. Not at all, nothing. Sorry. Nope. I asked a few times, as politely as possible, but the answer was always a blunt, polite, but crusty, "No."
(I didn't try to do an interview for my own written purposes, but I didn't think I really had to, and so didn't want to push him for it, preferring to put my efforts into the video interview. During his time there, I had chatted with him briefly a few times and got some off-handed replies that were very helpful, which I marked down after walking away, and also picked up random comments from standing with him as he talked with the director about the movie, so I could just use those in fleshing out the production notes I was writing.)
His refusal to do a video interview was causing great stress for the "EPK" crew. Though he wasn't the star, and it was just a small role, he was still the most-famous name in the movie. And he was the reason they were there that night. And they knew they couldn't go back to the production company and say that, "Sorry, no, we didn't get anything from Sam Shepard" and justify what they were paid. (And I knew, having been around on movie sets as a publicist long enough, that to cover their rear I'd no doubt be the one blamed for it all, how the unit publicist just was no help and couldn't get Sam Shepard to talk to them.) They were able to get some behind-the-scenes footage of him when acting, but that wasn't remotely good enough. And as the pitch-black night went on and got later and later, they got more and more concerned. They'd ask me to try again, but there was a limit I could do -- it seemed that pushing any farther than I had risked pissing off Sam Shepard, and not only might he shut down, but I'd be reamed out for mucking up the set. I'd keep my eye on him, seeing how his mood was, go over to chat and listen for any crack in the exterior, but I could tell that the answer was no, period.
And then I had my Great Revelation.
I explained it to the video crew -- I said I knew from chatting with Sam since he'd arrived in Billings that he was a massive admirer of Richard Ford's works, and in fact that was one of the main reasons he agreed to be in the movie, in such a small role. I said to the video director that I thought it was remotely possible that Sam might be willing to answer a couple questions on camera specifically and only about Richard Ford, to help promote a fellow-writer's works. If I could get him to do that, would that be enough for the video? The guy lit up -- that would be great, it would work, and besides, "Once I get him on camera, I'm sure I can get him to talk about some other things." If he couldn't though, he would be really happy to get anything with Sam Shepard on video.
So, I kept an eye on things, picked my moment when it seemed all was low-key, and went over to Sam who was sitting alone, off to the side. It was probably about 2 AM at this point. I laid out my thought to him, might he be willing to talk about Richard Ford -- and Richard Ford only -- to the video crew for about three minutes? To get some well-deserved attention on the novelist? And to my utter relief, Sam said yes, he'd be absolutely fine answering a couple questions about Richard Ford on camera. O huzzah!
When I told the video director, he was overjoyed. They set up their camera, asked their few questions about Richard Ford and -- exactly as he anticipated -- once he got Sam talking on camera, he was politely able to stay pleasant and conversational and keep Sam chatting. And in the end, they got about 15 minutes of Sam Shepard on video.
Afterward, the video director was in heaven. It seemed like he was beaming so much that it shined through that very dark Montana night.
Just to finish things up, here's a short trailer for the movie. It really wasn't a "thriller" like the narrator says, but far more a character study of people impacted by their challenging circumstances, although there was plenty that was tense throughout in the edgy story. And all the better, you'll also get to see scenes here from that dark night out on the field. And a bit of Sam.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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