From the Making of “Shepard & Dark”

by Treva Wurmfeld

The following is an extract from a collection of dialogues recorded on the road in New Mexico, Texas, and Kentucky during the filming of the documentary Shepard & Dark between 2010 and 2012. Shepard & Dark tells the story of the decades-long friendship between Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. The material included here, which was ultimately left out of the film, is excerpted from Tangents, a monograph published by Oscilloscope Laboratories.

SS: Gracie [Sam’s dog], go get a rabbit. There are rabbits out here, go get one. She’s never chased a jackrabbit. I’d like to see her chase a jackrabbit. They are really fast. We used to chase jackrabbits with greyhounds. They were incredible. They’d catch jackrabbits and coyotes.

TW: Look at this barbed wire [pointing to a fence]. This is a different kind.

SS: It’s not too threatening. If you have a lot of pasture that’ll work because they won’t threaten it. The smaller the pasture the uglier you have to get with the barbed wire to keep them in. What did the Zen Buddhists say? If you want to control your flock, give them more pasture.

Makes sense—if you have a flock. Those things you can take on a different level though. For instance, it may not have to do with a flock at all. As in sheep, or geese or whatever. It might have to do with thoughts—the way thoughts bunch up and maybe you need to give thoughts more room, you know?

TW: Yeah, that’s a good point because as soon as you do, you’re more likely to have new perspectives.

SS: Yeah, or you’re able to see thought for what it is. The comings and goings of them. That thoughts aren’t so much originating in you as much as passing through. You’re not necessarily the originator of thought—in fact you’re probably not, unless you’re extremely wise, you know. Somewhere in the world somebody is able to control their thoughts, but not me.

TW: But do you think the fact that maybe we don’t have original thoughts is why our own story becomes important?

SS: What is our own story? You mean Adam and Eve?

TW: No, no. I mean our own personal individual stories become important. Like, if you can’t take ownership over a thought or idea the only thing you can take ownership over is the circumstances which you live through.

SS: I’m becoming less and less interested in story because, uh, it seems to be misleading. I’m more interested in a kind of experience that’s unexplainable. And that is sort of the source of writing. That you find yourself without words in trying to explain, not even trying to explain, but trying to just depict a moment. You’re without words. You’re without description, you know, so you resort to writing which is kind of pathetic. Don’t you think?

[Stops walking] Now what’s really extraordinary here is the silence, don’t you think? It’s so silent that it resounds. You can hear it bouncing off your ears. Of course, I have tinnitus. I can feel my tinnitus really well out here.

TW: What about your Beckett quote at the beginning of “Day out of Days”?

SS: Yeah, that’s what I was kind of hinting at.

TW: That’s what I was hinting at too.

SS: Ah! Yeah, his thing was that he claims that his big mistake was that he was always in search of his story. Whereas in fact, how does he put it? Experience is enough? Experience. Right? Without, story.

TW: For me it’s what you can have ownership over.

SS: I’m not so interested in ownership.

TW: I mean like your identity.

SS: You mean so you don’t feel like you’re a victim?

TW: No, I guess it’s more than that. I mean it’s like if there’s anything that’s satisfying to tell, it’s to share your own story, your own experience. I mean isn’t that what writing is?

SS: In the act of writing you’re not so concerned with sharing. I mean, I think it’s a pretty selfish act actually. I mean I would love to be able to say its altruistic, but I don’t think it is. I’m just so thrilled to be able to have a voice in this little moment—whatever shape it takes. Didn’t we do this before?

TW: Do what? I don’t think so.

SS: James Joyce’s—the three ingredients Joyce stipulated for writing? Silence, Exile, and Cunning. Whether he was serious or not I don’t know, or whether it was just an off-the-cuff statement. Sounds like he gave it some thought. And the cunning part of it, somehow, makes the whole thing interesting. What is cunning? For instance. That question.

TW: Do you have any ideas on that?

SS: Yeah, I mean, I think, um, Writers don’t really write in a vacuum. You know, they’re always somewhat concerned with somebody reading it or an audience coming to see it or an audience, you know? It would be foolish to write and not expect an audience of some kind. So, in order to have an audience you have to use a little bit of cunning inside all the other . . . . There has to be a certain type of seduction in order for people to become interested. Otherwise, it’s flat boring. I mean I’ve read stuff that was so unbelievably boring because there was no attempt to seduce the audience. I don’t mean outright jumping on people but a kind of invitation into something. You know?

And then the invitation always has to do with a mystery. Where is this going? Why this and not that? Anyhow, where is this road going?

TW: I have no idea.

SS: Did you get a view of the road?

TW: Now I am.

SS: Yeah, it goes forever. It must be old range land. Don’t you think? With the barbed wire and . . .

TW: It’s so nice.

SS: Yeah, they must have had animals in here of some kind. So now we can’t see the car anymore. See it’s like setting out on a ship. You know how in Moby Dick he describes leaving shore on the boat and all of a sudden you look back and you can’t see the land and you know you’re at sea. That’s an extraordinary piece of work. You know. Now we can’t see the car. But we know it’s there.

Published on June 13, 2023

First published in Harvard Review 60