Viggo Mortensen: This isn’t what we usually see in westerns

03 Jun 2024 | 5 MINS READ
Viggo Mortensen: This isn’t what we usually see in westerns
Savina Petkova

Those who saw Viggo Mortensen briefly appear as a cowboy in Eureka (2023), and demanded more spur-kicking action, your prayers have been answered. Mortensen has not only starred in a western, but directed, written and composed the score for one: The Dead Don’t Hurt. In a 19th-century frontier town, Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen) falls in love with Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), a self-sufficient, French-Canadian florist. Their blossoming romance is cut short when Holger volunteers to fight in the Civil War; surprisingly, the narrative sticks with Vivienne, showing how she fends for herself in a Nevada community controlled by a corrupt mayor. Here, Mortensen discusses his female-centred spin on the western and bringing cultural diversity to the genre.

SAVINA PETKOVA: This is the first western you’ve directed, what is your relationship with the genre? 

VIGGO MORTENSEN: When I started watching films as a little boy, at about four or five, there were still some westerns showing in movie theatres, but there were also quite a few western TV series at the time. I liked them in terms of their stories and physicality. Only as an adult did I realise that maybe 5% of westerns are actually good stories, well told and photographed.

SP: Were striving to make a classic western with The Dead Don’t Hurt?

VM: Yeah, I wanted to make a film that was like the best classic westerns: they seem simple, although they’re not easy to do. I wanted to make a film where you see the landscape, the people, the objects. It would be historically accurate, and the way it looks would make you believe it was then, even the language. In westerns there is a lot going on between the words, the communication is really important –  that’s what you feel and what you understand from the films.  

SP: So, a classic western with a twist? 

VM: A good, classic western, except of course, that the female character is at the centre, which is unusual. And what is even more unusual, her male partner goes off to war. We don’t even follow him, we stay with her while he’s gone for a long time. I asked myself, ‘What happens to women like Vivienne when their husbands or fathers or sons or brothers go off to war? What do they feel and think?’ That’s not what we usually see in any western or any war movie. This one is about a woman who breaks the old boundaries and creates her own. In other words, she’s opening a new frontier for herself as a woman. I thought it was suitable to set this story in a place where the frontier is wild, open and lawless. You could, of course, tell a story like that now, but it would be different. 

SP: The film is quite specific about where these characters are from, and includes their dialects. Why was it important to show they came from different parts of Europe?

VM: Artistically speaking, I think the more precise you are about the details, the more universal the story can be. One has to believe the characters could have been real people. While there are some things you have no way of knowing for sure – what Holger says, his irony, shyness, awkwardness and dry sense of humour– there are elements based in Danish history that are representative of men back then.

SP: We know Vicky Krieps is a polyglot, but how did you work with her on accents and line delivery?

VM: Vicky, obviously, speaks French because she’s from Luxembourg. But when she speaks French, she sounds European. And when she speaks English, it sounds dramatic. She did a great job. She had to work on speaking with a subtle accent, like someone from Quebec, but from back then. 

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

SP: So you wanted to highlight the diversity that westerns have typically denied?

VM: Yes, the American West was a melting pot back then. Some films have shown it, like Heaven’s Gate [1980], but, in a lot of westerns, everybody sounds like they’re from California or maybe Texas – not to mention the homogenous way Indigenous people were represented. There was a real mixture of Irish accents, and Scottish, Danish, French, Chinese… that was the way it was. That’s even more apparent now. Only Conservative people deny this because of ignorance or nationalism. It’s ridiculous to imagine an ethnically uniform Germany or Spain or United States, because for centuries there have been so many cultures involved. So you’re in complete denial if you’re not emphasising that diversity. 

SP: Was that why you chose to shoot on location in Mexico?

VM: We shot almost all of the film in Mexico, with a couple of days in Ontario and western Canada. There were a lot of places that look like North America, but are all Mexico, like those mountains, canyons and waterfalls, remote areas that hadn’t been filmed before. I’ve travelled a lot in the United States by car and on horseback, and I can tell if a film was shot in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Montana or Wyoming, even when directors of photography get very creative and offer a new way of looking at it. But those mountains, those trees in this film, are new territory. It was a new frontier for this woman, and a new frontier visually.

SP: How would you characterise Vivienne and Holger’s relationship?

VM: I didn’t want to make a movie about a superhero woman who goes in with a rifle and shoots all the bad guys, that’s too easy, even if that would satisfy a part of the audience. The Dead Don’t Hurt is a movie about an independent woman who knows herself. Also, it’s a story about a relationship of trust between two imperfect people who manage to come together because they are both independent. They are stubborn and very honest with each other. And I think that, unlike a lot of westerns, what’s more important in the story is the ability to forgive. It’s not easy to do, to forgive yourself or another person. But that’s true of any relationship: if you don’t adapt, and you don’t evolve with the other person, the relationship will dry up and die. That’s what makes movies dramatically interesting.

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

SP: Are these the films you find interesting to make? 

VM: For a film to be interesting, something unusual has to happen, an obstacle or a problem to be solved. And then you wonder, ‘How are these people going to deal with it? Are they going to resist, or are they going to find a way to deal with it? If they make a mistake, will they try to make up for it?’

SP: There’s a lot of silence in the film. As a screenwriter, you must also find that dramatically potent?

VM: Yes, if you have good actors! If you have someone like Vicky opposite you, something’s going to happen in those silent moments. I also think it humanises the characters. Some of the cowboys Clint Eastwood played in his early westerns, like The Man With No Name trilogy, for example, are like a brick wall. If they speak, it’s with a few, well chosen words. But Holger is clumsy, he says things that are kind of stupid because he’s trying to evolve. When he comes back [from war] and Vivienne demands he say something, he ends up saying something silly [‘I went swimming.’]. But it’s not really about the words themselves, it’s about the effort to communicate. And she understands that, even though she considers it ridiculous. With someone less talented than Vicky, I wouldn’t have been able to hold on to silences for so long. But she makes them powerful. 

SP: You directed, wrote and composed for the film. Were you always going to play Holger?

VM: Well, the idea wasn’t to play the part, because I wanted to give my full attention to the other actors. There was someone else with Vicky, but in pre-production, the actor decided to leave. I had three different actors in mind, but they weren’t available, so when the producer suggested we postpone it for a year, I thought, ‘No, now I have Vicky, and that’s really important. Maybe I won’t have her next year. Now is the time to do it.’

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023)

SP: Did you have to change the script after that?

VM: Yes, I had to make the characters older and mention that in the dialogue. Fortunately, Vicky was OK with it – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But I don’t think anybody could have done anywhere near as good a job as she did. For me, it’s impossible to conceive of the movie without her. I think that’s the best thing you could say about any actor.

SP: A similar thing happened with your directorial debut Falling [2020]. What was it like to direct and star in The Dead Don’t Hurt

VM: It’s a strangely calm situation. In a way, I’m less nervous than if I was only acting. Sometimes, during the shoot, I would judge my own performance, when ideally you should be fully open to interacting with the other person in the scene. Everything around you should influence what you’re doing: you’d take it in, rather than resist it and put things out. And that’s what you’re doing as a director. So as an actor, I was probably less self-conscious than I would be if I wasn’t also directing.


Savina Petkova