The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 2

About Butte

by Wim Wenders

I knew Butte, Montana, long before Sam Shepard and I started to write the script for Don't Come Knocking. Actually, I suggested Butte for the main location of the film at the very outset of our adventure. Sam had come through Butte as well, so he understood my desire and agreed right away.
     Butte is one of the places in America I'm most attached to. I've always wanted to tell a story there, ever since I discovered it in 1978. I read that Dashiell Hammett based the mythical town of Poisonville in his fantastic first novel, Red Harvest, on the city of Butte, where he had spent some time in the early twenties as a Pinkerton detective. The Pinkertons were sent in as strike breakers. When Hammett realized the true nature of his job, he quit. Soon afterward, he started writing his revolutionary Continental Op detective stories.
     I had never suspected that all the events described in Red Harvest actually happened: the bank robbery, the lynching, the gang killings, the strike. This is one hell of a violent book. It single-handedly started the tradition of the hardboiled detective novel, even film noir. I don't think many novels had so much influence and were so strikingly inventive and boldly new. Briefly, Red Harvest is my favorite book in American literature.

I was in San Francisco, preparing a film called Hammett for American Zoetrope, and I drove to Butte to check it out. It completely blew my mind! I had never seen any place like it: mineshafts; derricks; pits; huge brownstone buildings like on Broadway in New York, ten stories high; wide avenues, but altogether abandoned. A ghost town of fantastic proportions!
     At the turn of the century, Butte was one of the biggest cities west of the Mississippi, mostly due to its rich copper mines. But a lot of other heavy metals were found there as well—silver and gold. Politically, Butte has a rich history too. Unions always had a powerful influence; one of the first women's unions was founded in Butte. Even now it is a liberal stronghold in an otherwise very conservative state.
     But when I first saw it, in 1978, Butte was deeply depressed. On the day I arrived, a whole city block went up in flames. Arson, I was told, to cash in on the insurance. Half of the city disappeared in the sixties and seventies. The giant pit that had started to eat up the uptown area had been closed; when the pumps stopped, it slowly filled with water, becoming the largest body of poisonous water in the world, with a red surface like Bordeaux wine, but definitely more lethal. Hammett had been right, after all, to name the city Poisonville.

I revisited Butte several times in the eighties and nineties, always hoping that it hadn't been discovered as a film location. Don't Come Knocking was the first feature film to be shot in Butte, at least as far as I know, even if we had to postpone it twice. (Well, Evel Knievel was shot there, but that was more a documentary of the town's most famous son.)
     Anyway, Butte grew on me over the years, maybe because I grew up in a mining town in Germany that Butte very much reminded me of—same mixed culture, same smells, same industrial wasteland, same great people. I always returned to Butte full of anticipation, especially to the M & M café. (I'm proud to say it was reopened and is up and running again due to our film.) The city is much less grim now than when I first encountered it, but still entirely unique. Many artists and painters have moved there in the meantime. If I were a painter, I'd live there.
     Many shots in Don't Come Knocking owe a lot to the American painter Edward Hopper; Butte calls to mind his art all over the place. In fact, the entire uptown area looks like one giant outdoor studio in which Hopper might have painted his pictures of lonely and isolated figures in empty cityscapes: same brownstone buildings, same big windows, same lampposts, same advertising on the walls, same abandoned train tracks. Even the colors and the light are straight from his canvases—all of which is not without irony; Hopper was an ardent moviegoer who would leave his studio each time he had an attack of what I'd call "painter's block." That his paintings in turn provoked me to see them in Butte and evoke them on film is a sort of strange full circle.
     In my design of the Summer issue of Zoetrope: All-Story, I present stills from the film Don't Come Knocking, along with the photographs I have been taking of Butte since that day I arrived in 1978.

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