“It’s not that you need to be the same. It’s that you need to fit in some weird way.”
For nearly 50 years, Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark have fit in a weird way. Shepard is the acclaimed actor and playwright (“True West,” “Buried Child”). Dark works the deli counter at a supermarket in Mexico. And yet, somehow, they’ve been friends most of their lives, and the engaging documentary “Shepard & Dark” shows how.
The laconic Shepard describes himself as rootless and solitary, someone who keeps moving on, even if that hurts the ones closest to him. Dark, meanwhile, is happy staying put in his cozy little house in New Mexico, surrounded by his dogs and his books. Seeing them together, there’s an easy broken-in rapport, as they tease each other and trade Dylan lyrics. But the question can’t help but occur as it often does with long friendships — if they met each other on the street today, would they become friends?
The pair have exchanged letters for decades, and a university wants to buy them for their archives and perhaps turn the correspondence into a book. So they settle down with their boxes of old letters and try to make sense out of them. Dark in particular is almost obsessive when it comes to archiving his past, and the occasion causes the pair to reminisce about their long history together.
This delights Dark, but rankles Shepard, who has some things in his past he’s not eager to revisit. His abusive, alcoholic father looms large in his psyche, and there was a notorious incident in 1983 when Shepard left his wife and son for Jessica Lange. Dark, as it turns out, was married to Shepard’s ex-mother-in-law, and ended up staying to pick up the pieces of Shepard’s decision.
That’s a lot of shared history, and it’s perhaps inevitable that Shepard and Dark are heading for a big reckoning. Mixing interviews with old photographs and film from Dark’s personal collection, filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld has made a lovely and insightful film, not just about this friendship, but all friendships, and how having people in your life who know you so well can be a comfort and a curse.
Wurmfeld said during the post-show Q&A that she first met Shepard while making one of those making-of documentaries for the film “Fair Game.” She thought she would make a documentary just about him, but when she met Dark during the first week of filming, she knew the friendship would be the real subject of her film, each man providing insight into the other.
As intimate as “Shepard & Dark” gets, Wurmfeld said both subjects were extremely open and giving with their time, a bit of a surprise given Shepard’s reputation as being somewhat mysterious.
“I was always surprised about what he was willing to share,” she said. “They were both extremely generous in terms of answeering questions. Johnny was incredibly open with his old archives. It was really a treasure trove of material.”