Treva Wurmfeld is a writer, producer, and filmmaker. In 2012, she was named one of the “25 Faces of Indie Film” by Filmmaker Magazine. That same year, her feature-length directorial debut, Shepard & Dark, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to significant acclaim. An intimate look into the forty-plus year friendship and correspondence between actor-playwright Sam Shepard and writer Johnny Dark, Wurmfeld’s documentary continues to tour the international festival and theatrical circuits. On October 22, 2013, Shepard & Dark will be available on DVD and on iTunes Video-on-Demand. On October 25th, it will begin a theatrical run through Music Box Films at the Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, Texas. Ms. Wurmfeld spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about fly-fishing with Sam Shepard, the beauty of solitude, and what Michel Foucault might say about her documentary. This interview, part one of two, has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: I read in an article for Filmmaker Magazine that you were shooting a film other than Shepard & Dark [which was partially filmed in San Marcos and Quanah, TX] at one point in Texas. Is there truth to that?
Treva Wurmfeld: I started shooting a film about Artificial Heart technology in Houston in 2005. Amy Hobby, the producer of Shepard & Dark, is also the producer of this project, which takes place in the Texas Heart Institute.
SM: What has prevented you from finishing the Texas Heart project all these years?
TW: When we first started filming, I was studying Fine Art in graduate school and I didn’t have a solid understanding then of how to make a film. I was producing it, shooting it, directing it, and editing it myself. I think the motivation to do all that came from doing most things in my art studio. So it required breaking out of that mold to learn how amazing a process it can be to collaborate with people like Amy and Sandra Adair, the editor [and associate producer] of Shepard & Dark.
SM: Parts of Shepard & Dark were filmed with a crew of one: you. Did you have to build into the process of working with other people as you went? At what point did you realize you wanted to be collaborating rather than alone?
TW: There were certain times where I could only get what I was looking for by being able to jump into Sam [Shepard’s] truck and just go fly-fishing. There were never any highly choreographed shoots – I sort of just went where Sam and Johnny [Dark] went. But Amy was on Shepard & Dark from the get-go. She was the first person I spoke to about making the film, and she was very enthusiastic about it. She started fundraising and did actually come on some shoots with me.
SM: How much time did you spend with your subjects, ready to get up and go on-the-fly?
TW: It was about six weeks altogether over the course of eighteen months. It was much harder to know where Sam might be at any second; I couldn’t just go visit him, as I could with Johnny. There were times where I knew he’d be in Los Angeles, so I’d set up an interview. Once, I heard he would be in Kentucky, so I arranged to fly there for literally two days to meet him. The initial shoot was our drive down to Deming, New Mexico; then to Santa Fe; and on to San Marcos, Texas. That journey was a total of about six days. With Sam, I shot these little chunks, and another in Taos and Southern Colorado for about four days – they were all over the place. As for Johnny, I spent about ten days with him in Deming [where he lives.] Then, there was the Santa Fe chunk with both of them – that took up a couple weeks.
SM: Before seeing your documentary, I had never heard of Johnny Dark in my life. Did you know anything about him before meeting Sam Shepard?
TW: No, I hadn’t either, which is why the richness of their friendship was such a surprise to me. Everything about his connection to Sam’s work was eye-opening. I discovered him within two days of starting to film Sam. I met [Shepard] in Santa Fe, and he told me he was driving down to Deming to pick up these letters to bring them over to San Marcos. He had mentioned something about this over the phone, but I wasn’t sure it was worth me doing the journey with him. But when I attended a reading of his in Santa Fe, I realized I wasn’t going to get the type of footage I was looking for unless I made this journey by car with him.
But then I met Johnny, and during that first interview with him in Deming, he just revealed so much of their story. Once I heard all about their letters to one another, saw all of Johnny’s photo albums, I knew this was an interesting friendship, and I wanted to explore it.
SM: You said that you needed to go on this trip to get the kind of footage you wanted. Before you met Mr. Dark and saw their letters to one another, how different was the kind of portrait of Sam Shepard you had intended to make from the one that is now Shepard & Dark?
TW: I had always wanted to make this kind of film about Sam – I just didn’t know about the Johnny part of it *laughs*. With Sam, there was this guardedness that told me I wouldn’t be able to really capture him unless I saw him in the context of those close to him. Before I met [Dark], I actually filmed Sam with other friends. I might have been able to capture how Sam lives, but it would not necessarily have been able to get into his past or the challenges he faces in relationships. I don’t think the portrait would have been nearly as deep if it didn’t include Johnny.
SM: Was Mr. Shepard’s guardedness ever an impediment to making the film?
TW: No, not at all – I don’t mean that he wasn’t accessible when I say guarded. Sam is not the kind of person to generally talk about his work in an analytical way, so in order to paint a portrait of him, it needed to be about his relationships. For that, you need someone with whom he has a very important kind of relationship, which I think comes across in the film. Johnny plays a huge role in Sam’s life and work. Once I met Johnny, there was no point looking anywhere else.
SM: Mr. Shepard’s mythic status as a sort of rambler comes to a head at the end of the film when it seems that a rift has opened up between him and Dark. Has anything changed? What’s the status of their relationship now?
TW: It has been nearly a year since we finished the film. There was a period of time where I had heard they got back together and met at a Denny’s halfway between Deming and Santa Fe. But then I heard they had another falling out, and as far as I know, they aren’t talking to one another. Now, that could have changed yesterday, you know?
SM: In the final act of the film, Mr. Dark starts to become quite sullen and sad. Did the falling out between him and Mr. Shepard impact your shooting with him?
TW: Johnny lives in Deming alone, and he’s pretty consistent from day-to-day. So having guests like Amy and I at his house kind of shakes things up for him, no matter the situation. On one level, I think he had a lot of fun. We were taking walks, we were going to truck stops for pie, and he liked to have companions. He said himself that he liked having someone follow him around on camera letting him tell stories. But we weren’t there on the occasion that the FedEx box [from Sam] arrived with all their letters [slated for publication through Texas Press at Texas State University]. And when we did get there, we had to put him back into that kind of head-space. Not that we had to do too much…
SM: You didn’t force him to reminisce for the sake of good footage.
TW: *Laughs* No, we didn’t make him do anything. As you know, when someone has something very emotional going on, sometimes the last thing they want to do is relive it by talking about it. So on that level, we had to probe deeper by asking him how he felt about these things. In my opinion, some of the answers he gives during that shoot are insanely profound. They help to give the viewer insight into their friendship as two men but also about friendship in general. Johnny has a lot of interesting things to say about relationships in the film – and about perception – maybe because he spends so much time alone, maybe because he and Sam were both involved in the work of George Gurdjieff, or maybe because he spends so much time studying up on Zen Buddhism. But ultimately, he went “there” beyond our wildest dreams, and in being so articulate, made the film what it is.
SM: Looking at Johnny Dark and Sam Shepard, a sort of binary begins to form between their auras. In the spectrum between their personalities, where do you start to fit? Have you become a follower of Gurdjieff through them, or anything comparable?
TW: I wouldn’t say that exactly, but I relate to both of them certainly – there’s a part of me that loves the choices Johnny’s made in his life, but in reality I’m probably more like Sam. Little things rub off on me – I was very inspired by Johnny’s ability to play music and started taking harmonica lessons while I was living in Austin. Sam would talk a lot about mythology. Like he’s really into the commonalities in how different cultures interpret the stars. That’s not in the film, but I got more interested in that because he was.
SM: Do you find yourself drawn to any other public figures with the same level of interest you showed to the two men – one quite well-known to the public and one not so – in your film?
TW: I have, yes. I’m interested in general in behind-the-scenes looks at mythic characters. In that sense, I felt similarly about the surgeons I was filming at the Texas Heart Institute. They have a god-like role to play, and I wanted to investigate who they were on a more personal level, what motivated them. I’m also very interested in Paul Revere and his story, and I have a Revere project that I’ve been working on for a while. He’s a character that I find quite compelling. He wore many hats, had his hand in a lot including the Boston Tea Party, had sixteen children, but ultimately he is known for his contribution on the eve of Patriots Day. And I’m very interested in the work of [Michel] Foucault, the French philosopher. But I have no idea what he would think of Shepard & Dark!
SM: What makes Shepard & Dark so powerful in many ways is that it nearly demystifies the gargantuan myth of Sam Shepard just as it unites him with others: that of the Beat generation, and especially of Bob Dylan. Certainly your film is one of the most lucid investigations of the Shepard myth ever – in that regard, does it upset or muddy the myth?
TW: I think there’s some truth to that, but what makes a myth a myth is that it resonates no matter the time or place. At their cores, these [mythic figures] have some timeless psychological insights to them. We can learn things about ourselves from studying them. I think the Sam Shepard myth still stands – but we can no longer ignore Johnny Dark’s role in it all.
Editor’s Note: Still images graciously provided by Music Box Films. For our review of the film, available October 25 at Midnight PST, go here. To order Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, edited by Chad Hammett and available through The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, go here.