Anyone who loves movies knows that the finest cinema is often built on great character actors rather than big stars. Think of character actors like the rhythm section in a band—sure, you have your flashy singer and guitar player, but without your drummer and bass player holding down the beat, all is thin and unhinged. Never drawing attention to themselves and, therefore, often without us realizing it, great character actors make a scene real for us in the way they support the film’s star. But what set Harry Dean Stanton apart from his peers who excelled at supporting roles was the deep authenticity and heartbroken feeling he was able to bring to every single role he played. And a kind of unpredictable recklessness too.
I met him on the set of Paris, Texas, where I was studying under my mentor, Wim Wenders. That experience served as a hands-on film school for me, and it was a chance worth me taking a quarter off from studying at UCLA. I’d lied my ass off to get a grant, saying Wim had invited me to work on Paris, Texas. After a year of receiving my voluminous letters (which he still has) and occasional phone calls, Wim rang me up one day and said he was leaving a writing session in San Francisco with Sam Shepard and coming to LA. He asked if I could find time to show him my film. Wim already knew my project intimately, having given me feedback on the script. I nervously screened the film for him at UCLA and after applauding my seven-minute super 8 movie, I sprung it on him: I’d won the President’s Undergraduate Fellowship of 1982. “Congratulations,” he said. “To study under you on Paris, Texas,” I said. He looked wearily to heaven and said, “Well, I guess you have to come.”
When I got to the set, Wim didn’t know what to do with me. I was officially a production assistant, but I was hopeless with a walkie and didn’t drive. For a while he had me float between departments so I could learn a bit of everything, which was great. I learned a ton. And I was always under the maternal arm of Wim’s first assistant director, the great Claire Denis. But the golden moment happened when he assigned me to run lines with his star, Harry Dean.
I didn’t know at all what this meant, but I went to Harry’s trailer and read his lines with him. Harry and I both had Kentucky roots but we had both left long ago. Still, we shared a longing for the place which only fellow Kentuckians understand. A few days into my duties, I was running lines with Harry and his costar Dean Stockwell. Harry was grumbling to Dean, frustrated that he didn’t understand why his character, Travis, spent so much of the film not speaking. “I mean, is he mute? Is he catatonic?” he said.
I didn’t mean to interrupt, and it was so not my place, but I cleared my throat and timidly said, “Umm . . . I, umm, well I was catatonic once.” The two men turned to look at me. “When I was fifteen,” I said, “I wrote a poem about it.”
Dean said, “Honey, would you happen to have that poem with you?”
“Actually, I do!” I said. Heaven only knows why, but I’d brought it with me from LA. After I showed them the poem, Harry began to ask me questions about what I had experienced.
“Could you hear people talking to you?”
“Oh yes,” I replied.
“Did they sound normal?”
“I could even hear them talking about me!”
“When you finally spoke was your voice shaky?”
“No. Not at all. I sounded perfectly normal.”
“What did people do when you finally talked?”
“Umm . . . they about shit themselves.”
They burst out laughing. And finally Harry asked, “Why didn’t you talk?”
I said, “I just felt like it was all too much. I had too much to say, and if I said it, I’d really lose it.”
When Paris, Texas premiered at Cannes, I was so touched that Harry told the press that there was a girl—he left me unnamed so as to protect me—who worked on the film and shared a story with him that helped in creating the character of Travis. He thanked me then and never stopped thanking me for sharing it. To know that some personal information I was able to share had helped him deliver his performance authentically was tremendous to me, and still is. It was a huge gift to me. Until Harry asked me about my experience and used it for his performance, I had no clue that my truth could help an actor make a choice about his character.
I became a filmmaker because of Wim. But I became a director because of Harry. And I hope I thanked him enough.