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Viggo Mortensen Talks Writing, Directing, Co-Starring And Composing Music For ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ And Bringing Multicultural Elements To The Western Genre: “The U.S. Was A Real Melting Pot Even Then” — Glasgow Film Festival

Viggo Mortensen really puts the word multi-hyphenate to good use for his second directorial effort The Dead Don’t Hurt as he also wrote, co-stars in and composes the music for this distinctive Western film, which played at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this week after world premiering to critical acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival last year.

The film, which was acquired for the U.S. by Shout! Studios last month and is being released in the UK by Signature Entertainment, is a story of star-crossed lovers on the western U.S. frontier in the 1860s. It follows Vivienne Le Coudy, played by Vicky Krieps (who was honored with the TIFF Tribute Performer Award), a fiercely independent woman who embarks on a relationship with Danish immigrant Holgen Olsen (Mortensen). After meeting Olsen in San Francisco, she agrees to travel with him to his home in the quiet town of Elk Flats, Nevada, where they embark on a life together until the outbreak of the Civil War separates them when Olsen makes a fateful decision to fight for the Union.

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This leaves Vivienne to fend for herself in a place controlled by corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston) and his unscrupulous business partner, powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). Alfred’s violent son Weston (Solly McLeod) aggressively pursues Vivienne, who is determined to resist his unwanted advances and when Olsen returns from the war, he and Vivienne must confront and make peace with the person each has become.

Deadline sat down with Mortensen in advance of the UK premiere of The Dead Don’t Hurt at the Glasgow Film Festival, where he was presented with the festival’s inaugural Cinema City Honorary Award, to discuss his second film in the director’s seat following 2020’s Falling, how he approached the Western genre, working with Krieps and the importance of bringing multicultural stories to the big screen.

DEADLINE: This doesn’t feel like your classic Western film in many ways. I haven’t typically warmed to many Westerns in the past but this one is different and really pulled me in – it  has a lot of heart and softness to it.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: A lot of people have said this to me so far – not just women, men have too and whether they are cinephiles or not, quite a few people who have commented that Westerns wouldn’t be something they would go and see normally, came out and told me that they really liked the story and it made them want to maybe learn more about Westerns, which is always interesting.

DEADLINE: What compelled you to tell this story? Are you a fan of the Western genre? 

MORTENSEN: In my generation, it wasn’t uncommon for kids – especially boys – to see lots of Westerns in the movie theaters. It was the 1960s and there were still Westerns in movie theaters and a lot on TV too. Not that they were all great. It’s a genre that has, as you know, a long history from the beginnings of movies. Initially, it was kind of naive, mythological, folklore stories that were kind of simple minded and, as you know there have literally been thousands of them, most of the simple and not very original. But as a result, there have also been many that are profound and complex and the best of them are at a level with the most poetic, tragic works that human beings have made since ancient history – some are really thought provoking and they’ve adapted to the development of North American society and other places.

When I first started writing The Dead Don’t Hurt, I wrote it during the pandemic lockdown and I had an initial image of a little girl running through this forest with maples and red oaks and I was thinking about my mother and where she had grown up and lived until the end of her life. I knew the books she had – these hardcover late 19th century early 20th century stories of knights and ladies and adventures with beautiful colored covers – she talked a lot about that. I imagined my mother running around in these woods but I pictured it being from an earlier time and I thought what does that mean?

I had the idea of showing the effect before you show the cause, which happens more in novels than movies. When we have a traumatic or an important event happen, we tend to look back and think, ‘How did it come to this? How did I get here? How did this happen?’ So I started at the end and worked my way back and once I realised what was going on, I thought, well this is a Western so I stuck to that.

DEADLINE: What were you hoping this story could offer to the Western genre?

MORTENSEN: My intention wasn’t to reinvent the Western – I just wanted to tell a story as someone who likes Westerns and likes when the details are realistic and the horse riding is believable, and all those things. I thought that I would just try to make a classic Western and not try to do something that brings attention to the camera work or do something completely different – I just wanted to do it really straightforward, but really well shot and hopefully well written and definitely well acted and see if that works. That was the goal.

DEADLINE: But at the center of this story you have a strong woman, Vivienne, played brilliantly by Vicky Krieps. 

MORTENSEN: Yes, she’s actually a woman of her time who happens to be very independent and strong-willed but it’s not like she’s going to take a shotgun, and then shoot all the bad guys in a superhero kind of move. She’s actually a real flesh and blood person. Of course, you need a great performer to do that, to help you get that across and Vicky really nailed it and even when her male companion [Holger, played by Mortensen] goes away to war, it’s unusual that you stay with her and you never see him when he’s gone.

DEADLINE: The role of Vivienne brings a real softness and innocence to the film, despite her being such a strong character and Vicky balances this so well. What was her reaction to the script when she first got it?

MORTENSEN: I just sent it to her and hoped she would like it. I didn’t know Vicky but I knew her work and when she read it, she loved it. She grew up not far from Orleans where Joan of Arc led the French force in the siege. She said she had grown up imagining she was Joan of Arc and so she brought that to the role. Vicky is so talented – she’s very enthusiastic and very committed – you never catch her in a false moment and she did a wonderful job. I was very, very hapy that she said yes.

DEADLINE: You shot the film in Canada and Mexico – what was that experience like? 

MORTENSEN: We shot pretty much all of it in Mexico, except for a few days in Canada, which made the budget a lot less expensive. It was also shot in some locations in Mexico that had never been filmed in before. I’m a stickler for the right kind of trees and the right kind of landscape for where the characters are supposed to be traveling in the U.S. It had to look right but also it’s not something that people have seen thousands of times so we were able to to show something that was not only beautiful but correct. It’s felt like we were exploring this territory with the characters in a way.

DEADLINE: This film felt so unusual because it’s a Western that’s got a French character and a Danish character at the center of it and there’s also Spanish characters such as the piano player and his family in the film. There is a big multicultural element to it and they speak in different languages in this film.

MORTENSEN: That’s the way it really was though, even in the U.S. and obviously it is the way it is now. Back then it was a real melting pot even then, and you don’t see that in a lot of Westerns. I think that reflects this particular story and it wasn’t that I was setting out to do that – it just happened and those were the characters I came up with but I think it reflects the way it really was in the West and also the rest of the country at the time.

DEADLINE: You play Holger, who is Danish like you. How did you write elements of Danish culture into this character? 

MORTENSEN: Well, originally he was going to be Scandinavian but he wasn’t meant to be Danish. There was another actor aboard for many months and then he decided to go and do something else so I was trying to find someone else to do it. We were getting close to pre-production so I had to have someone that would satisfy the financier so I said I could do it but that I’d have to rewrite Holger’s character and make him older and make that point in the story where we say he was too old to go to war. So I just adapted it and figured he could be Danish. Then I just put in the layers and the details of how my father and his father – who were both Danes – behaved.

The Danish people have a certain kind of irony and sense of humor and a certain self-sufficiency but I also wanted this to be someone who, even though he’s very individualistic, was very much a man of his time. There’s something about the character that, in spite of his limitations as a man, he’s someone who’s open to learning and is interested in what he doesn’t know about life and people and especially about this woman that he loves. He’s curious about what her opinions are and he’s open to evolving, which I thought was an important part of the character.

DEADLINE: The film has U.S. distribution with Shout! Studios and is being released in the UK via Signature Entertainment. Granted this isn’t necessarily a foreign-language film but, as we have spoken about already, there are foreign-language elements to it. Do you think that a film like this now has more opportunities with global audiences given the foreign-language market is opening up and viewers are less bothered by subtitles these days? 

MORTENSEN: That’s that could be true. I remember even back when we were doing Lord of the Rings they were nervous about the subtitles on the television but when they saw how the first one worked, they realized that it’s not an obstacle and people are into it. But there does seem to be more of an embrace in foreign language TV series and even awards shows seem to give more attention to them, not just in foreign language categories but to directors and performers in films and languages other than English, which I think is really healthy and positive.

I think 10 years ago, people would have gone to see this movie but I don’t know if it would have been the more cinephile audiences or maybe some Western fans who were real fans of the genre. I don’t know. To be honest, it might have been easier on the distribution side but we got really lucky because we have someone who is going to put this in a lot of theatres in the U.S. and that’s really hard these days for independent films.

But in terms of series and films in other languages, whether it’s Danish, Swedish or Spanish, people are gravitating towards that and they’re embracing it and that’s really good. If a story is a good then it doesn’t matter if it’s not in English or all in English. People are open to that I think and that is helpful. It’s certainly going to be helpful to us with this film.

DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Are you thinking about your next directorial project just yet? 

MORTENSEN: I’m always writing and I have probably three or four scripts right now – many of which I could shoot – it just depends which one I find the money for. It is a business after all. I hope The Dead Don’t Hurt is as well received as it was in Toronto, where we got great reviews, and that it works with audiences, which would then make it easier for me to go to someone and ask them to put up money for my next project. But yeah, I have a few different stories and I’m trying to find financing for them but we’ll see which one I can find money for first.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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