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Humanising the Western: our dirty questions to Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen, in an exclusive interview with DMovies talks about his sophomore feature, The Dead Don't Hurt, a very peculiar Western about an immigrant romance; he also discusses masculinity, sound, working with Vicky Krieps, and much more

Actor and filmmaker Viggo Mortensen is no stranger to the western. In Ed Harris’ 2007 film Appaloosa, he played one of two gunfighters hired to defend a town from an evil cattle baron. After his directorial debut feature, Falling (2020), based on the story of his upbringing and relationship with his parents, Mortensen steps behind the camera again. This time it’s a change of time and tone with the western love story, The Dead Don’t Hurt (which is in cinemas everywhere right now).

Set in the 1860s American Frontier amid the American Civil War, the story revolves around French-Canadian immigrant Vivienne (Vicky Krieps), and Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen). Together, they make a home in a secluded spot outside of town. They are content until Olsen, against Vivienne’s wishes, insists on enlisting in the Union army. In his absence, something happens that will forever change their future, forcing Olsen to negotiate the responsibilities of fatherhood with his desire for revenge.

When I connected with Mortensen virtually to speak with him about The Dead Don’t Hurt, he’d already completed countless interviews in France, Spain, Scotland, Denmark, the US, Canada and Mexico. The previous night, he’d been in Bristol and was looking ahead to screenings in London that evening. For the past couple of days, he’d also been completing press with journalists, in solo and paired interviews with the film’s lead actress Vicky Krieps, that had seen him asked about the now twenty-year-old fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) more than he’d have maybe liked. As the interview began, exhaustion showed in his weary expression (clearly, the living do hurt), and yet his answers were thoughtful and detailed. He peels away the layers of The Dead Don’t Hurt’s romance and the film’s place within the western genre, in an engaging and insightful conversation.

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Paul Risker – By not exposing the characters but allowing them to reveal themselves, the audience never fully understands them. This approach not only creates space for the audience to enter the film, but stimulates the desire to rewatch the film, to discover those layers and nuances we’ve missed. The Dead Don’t Hurt, like your debut Falling, is an emotionally sensitive film.

Viggo Mortensen – There are occasionally reactions where people are frustrated because they’re maybe accustomed to having fuller and clearer information – this is who the person is; this is why they’re doing this; this is why they’re upset; this is exactly what they’re thinking and so forth.

[…] In terms of presenting a character, however it’s written, I always ask myself when do they not behave, think or speak that way? What are the secret thoughts of this character? What are the contradictions? Generally, that just makes for a more human portrayal and that’s my approach.

In terms of presenting characters when you’re writing, directing and editing, I like to respect the audience’s intelligence. In other words, I’ll give you enough that you can see that these are people behaving in a way that they’re not aware of you, the audience. They’re not thinking, ‘well let me explain myself.’ That’s often what we see in moviemaking, especially the bigger the budget to make it clearer, so that every single person understands exactly what’s happening.

I just make the kind of movies I want to see, which is something interesting and attractive enough happens in the first ten or fifteen minutes that provokes me to pay attention, even if I’m not quite sure what the hell’s going on. If I start getting pieces of information where I can put it together and make my assumptions about what the people are thinking and feeling, if those people are expressive, and they’re good actors, and something is going on, even if I don’t exactly know what, I’ll work at it. Then, by the end of the story, it’ll be my movie and not the directors.

This is why I like Q&As after screenings, because there’s always something that surprises me, and sometimes something that reassures me, or someone has an interesting way of looking at a character. It’s like when someone says to you, “I know you’ve been at odds with your brother for years, but I was with him the other day, and he told me this. Maybe you didn’t know this about him?” It changes your perspective on a person, and it’s the same when someone in the audience explains why they think Vivienne says something in the film. “We don’t see that scene, but I think her mother said this to her.” The fact that they are willing to do that and want to know and have an idea, means they’re involved, and the story on some level is theirs.

That’s the goal and not everything has to be known. It’s the same with directing. If something is working, even if you’re not quite sure why, then stand out of the way and let it flow. Only step in when you feel it’s not right.

PR – The Dead Don’t Hurt subverts expectations and doesn’t use certain tropes. For example, the revenge plot is not the major narrative arc we might expect. Instead, the film emphasises itself as a meditation on human relationships and connections. While this is a western trope, your film has a different energy.

VM – What I like about the film is the relationships. At the beginning, you think, because of what happens, this is going to be a revenge story. We’re still not quite sure if it’s just because Olsen’s a sheriff, and he has a sense of justice. What has this got to do with him and Vivienne? We don’t know just yet, but we know he’s tracking this person. So, you think this is going to be some kind of justice and righteous revenge story, and to some degree that is the desire of the character.

It’s not until later that we realise catching the bad guy is not only about justice or revenge, but it’s personal. Once you realise that, then you’re convinced it’s going to be a revenge story, but in the meantime, a lot of other things are happening. To me, it’s essentially a love story, and it’s a story about a relationship that has its problems, its absences and errors.

The reason it works and has resonance at the end is because both people in the relationship have shown at least some interest in what the other person thinks and feels. They’re willing to adapt and evolve with the other person and that’s the secret of any working relationship, intimate or family. If one person isn’t willing to adapt to the other person and recognise that things and people change, and you just have to go with it and evolve, then that relationship is going to wither.

This is one relationship that does progress despite all the odds against it, the mistakes made, the absences and the pain that has been suffered, particularly Vivienne’s suffering. But there’s an affection borne of curiosity, and if you’re not interested in the other person, how can you say you love them?

PR – The Western was shaped and defined by the masculine gaze of directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. Could we describe The Dead Don’t Hurt as softening this traditional male gaze, that perhaps leans into the unique sense of feeling of Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller?

VM – I don’t know if it’s softening, but it’s adding another layer or two to a male character. McCabe and Mrs Miller is a rarity, just like our movie is a rarity, in that the strongest person psychologically in that story is the Julie Christie character. She’s the more intelligent, and she’s the main character for me, no matter how big a star Warren Beatty was at that moment. He’s good in the movie, but I suppose what The Dead Don’t Hurt and McCabe and Mrs Miller have in common is that we see errors committed. We see a certain frailty that comes from allowing the male character to be somewhat clumsy, awkward and self-involved, and who makes mistakes.

Warren Beatty’s character, if he realises that he has taken the wrong path, realises it way too late. But he realises it, comes home, struggles against it and goes off on a wild ride and tries to blow off some steam. He comes back and makes an effort, so it’s a completely different thing.

Olsen, like Warren Beatty’s character, is clever and enterprising, and they have their own thoughts about things, but they’re clumsy. I wouldn’t say they’re that similar because I think that Olsen has a code of ethics that’s superior to Warren Beatty’s character, who is basically an opportunist. I wouldn’t say that Olsen was an opportunist; he’s a decent person who is intelligent, well-read and well travelled, but he’s not motivated to make lots of money. He just wants to live simply.

He is taken aback when Vivienne says she has got a job. He looks at the clothesline and thinks, ‘well your job is here, isn’t it?’ He’s a man of his time. He’s adjusting and you see a certain awkwardness. It’s about making the character more human.

PR – How does Vivienne compare to the way women have generally been depicted in the western?

VM – If women are the main characters in westerns, it’s more about their physical attractiveness or their nastiness. They can be powerful women, like Marlene Dietrich, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, Barbara Stanwyck’s rancher in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, and in The Furies, she’s the daughter of Walter Huston. They’re not really layered, detailed people. They’re just types, these cardboard cut out characters, and even though they’re beautiful, and I wouldn’t say anything against the actors, it’s just the approach of the filmmaker and storyteller.

Vivienne is an ordinary but complex woman, and she’s just like Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs Miller. Psychologically she’s the strongest person in the story, even if she can’t overcome the powerful evil of violent men.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is not that kind of story. It would be another kind of story, where she would pick up a gun and go and shoot all the bad guys or ambush them somehow. She doesn’t do that. Instead, she has unusual courage and decency, but she’s still an ordinary woman with lots of layers. You see her having doubts, fears and regrets. She’s nervous, sad and lonely, and you also see her being stubborn because she’s determined not to be run out of town. She’s determined to think freely and have her own point of view on things and stand up for herself. She’s a very complex character and Vicky Krieps gets the most out of her and goes beyond what I’d hoped for. Even in silence I could hold on for as long as I wanted because something is going on. She’s that kind of actress.

PR – The relationship is at the heart of the film, and the sharing of power between Olsen and Vivienne, does suggest it’s a softening of the male gaze.

VM – He’s not looking for a long term partner and I don’t think she is either. I think they just happened to meet. They’re both stubborn and unusual people, and you gradually get to know them. After her first night with him, she looks at the guy and thinks, ‘God, he’s an idiot. How can I get rid of him?’ And then he comes back – he’s not going anywhere. She has some fun with him and tests him

She’s very much in control of her own destiny, as much as she can be, and Olsen is sort of along for the ride. Then he starts making his own decisions, some of which she’s not in agreement with, and it evolves in fits and starts like real relationships do.

I don’t know whether it makes him softer; it makes him more human. He has some doubts, and he doesn’t always know how to say the right thing, even if it’s well intended. When he comes back from a nighttime swim and ride, having thought things over, he sits opposite her, and she looks at him and says, “What do you have to say for yourself? Do you have anything to say?” He knows he has to speak if he wants this relationship to advance or at least do something. He feels he needs to say something, so he says something trivial and mundane: “I went swimming.”

It’s not a scene about what they’re saying, it’s about the fact that he took that step and said something, and she looks at him like he’s the idiot she knows – welcome back. She’s amused, and I think Vicky gets this across. Vivienne is also somewhat grateful that he’s making this effort, however clumsily, and that’s why the relationship works.

You look at him and think, well, he’s not Gary Cooper, he’s not that kind of character, nor is he Randolph Scott, because there’s another, awkward layer there. When they were allowed to be awkward and clumsy, Cooper and Scott were wonderful, funny and winsome. So, I don’t know if it’s softening, it’s making them more human, less perfect and less untouchable. More approachable, I suppose, is the word.

PR – Speaking with guitarist and songwriter, film and television composer Jeff Russo, he remarked that music doesn’t have to be noticeable, and sometimes it’s beneath the surface, weaving a thread between the film and the viewer. As the composer of your films, how do you view the role of music?

VM – That’s as good a description as I’ve heard – at least what I think music should be for movies. Sometimes the sound mix is music. To me, that’s part of the score.

Although I admire grandiose big scores, like some of David Lean’s movies and even John Williams sometimes, I’m much less interested in those, no matter how much work has gone into them and how great they are. I much prefer music that doesn’t get in the way and doesn’t tell me as a spectator what to think and feel. No, sometimes music shouldn’t be noticeable and sometimes it should be.

Take a composer like Howard Shore, who has an incredible range. Working for David Cronenberg, he did minimalist and very discreet things, and he has done The Lord of the Rings. They all work on their own level for those movies.

Sometimes music can sound contrary to the tone and rhythm of what’s going on and to compliment it, you have to know when to lay that in, just like when you do a top shot or a long shot with a Steadicam. If you do it in the right place in the story, you’ll be paying attention to the characters and what’s going on, and you will not think about what the camera is doing. But, if you place it in at wrong moment, you notice the camera. It’s the same with music. In the right scene, something that seems to be a counterpoint musically, that tells you what’s going on is perfect. You have to be careful, but for the most part, music just has to move the story along or assist it. I think intertwined is a good way to look at it.

PR – How does your process in creating the film score intertwine the music with the other elements of the film?

VM – We recorded all of it well before we started shooting. I came up with the melodies and the themes with the script next to me at the piano. ‘Okay, I don’t need anything there, but for this sequence and these transitions, I think something can thread these together.’ Then I went to the musicians, and we worked it up. I explained based on the script what happens in the scene – the mood, what the place looks like, what the people are going through. So, it’s based on the script and it’s part of the screenwriting.

Before shooting, I’d play all that music for the director of photography, the actors, the producer, the first assistant director. I’d tell them the scene or sequence needs to have this tone and mood, and more a less this duration, even, and this is why I only want x number of shots. Or I want a shot that lasts a long time because that’s that musical beat. So, it’s intertwined.

It comes from the script to the music and the music then goes back to the script or the storytelling. Then you have that in the editing, and it’s almost like a cyst[laughs]. It’s part of the meat of the story. It’s not something that stands apart, and you go, “Wow, I didn’t care for the movie, but the music is great.” Either the whole thing works, or it doesn’t. It stands or falls together.

Sometimes that happens, and some actors are happy with it if you say, “The movie wasn’t very good, to be honest with you, but you were wonderful in it.” Then the actor says, “Thank you very much.” Or “The movie sucked, but damn your score is great.” That’s not what you want because you’ve failed as an overall storyteller, which is what the director is.

I can’t imagine not being there every second of the editing, and whether I’m the composer or not, not being there every second the music is being put together. That’s complicated because it extends your post-production schedule, and you can’t be two places at once. That’s just my personal thing, but some people just take off and someone else edits it and someone else does the music. But even if someone else is doing the composing and recording of the music, I want to see what it is. I want to be there and if it’s working, I’m not going to say anything, but if it’s not what I’m looking for, then I’m going to say something. So, I think it needs to be intertwined and that’s how we do it.

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The Dead Don’t Hurt was released in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday, June 7th.

Viggo is pictured behind the scenes at the top of this article. The other images are stills of The Dead Don’t Hurt.


By Paul Risker - 14-06-2024

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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