In the heart of Western Europe, above the gorge of the Alzette river, sits Luxembourg City, a trash-free Eurotopia where the trams are free and the streets are ranked amongst the safest in the world. It’s a long way away from the frontier justice of The Dead Don’t Hurt, a revisionist Western about love in a lawless place written and directed by, and also starring Viggo Mortensen, who––never one to slouch––also composed the film’s score. “I did the score for my first movie as well,” the endearingly polite and casually plaid-shirted polymath explained to me on a recent morning at the Lux Film Fest, “that one took a long time to get financed, longer than this one, and while I was waiting, I was trying to think, ‘What can I do?’ I’ve got the script where I want it, I have the main actor, Lance Henriksen, and so I just started coming up with melodies and things. I put together a short of some of the nature shots I had done with some music, just to show people the feel of what it might be. And that helped me in shooting and editing. I didn’t know what it would be like editing images––I’d edited music before––but to my surprise it was very similar because it’s about rhythm, timing, musicality.”

Starring Vicky Krieps as Vivienne, Mortensen’s sweeping story takes place around the middle of the 19th century, opening on Vivienne’s untimely death before skipping back and forth to tell the story of her life. It begins in San Francisco, where she fends off suitors before falling in love with a Danish man, Holger (Mortensen), who whisks her away to the frontier before disappearing to fight in the Civil War. In Holger’s absence she carries on, building a home and a garden and doing her best to foster a sense of community in a town of some undesirable attitudes and some less-desirable men. Mortensen’s aesthetic approach pays homage to a different era (landscapes that sweep and rise along with the string section) but his themes are more contemporary. For a short, sweet 20 minutes, the least-starry of all movie stars talked to us about Western cinema, casting Vicky Krieps, and the director who has influenced him more than any other.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

The Film Stage: Congratulations on the film. I really found it quite beautiful––just the scale of it, how you mix this sweeping time span with so much intimacy. Has it been a dream of yours to make a Western like this? 

Viggo Mortensen: Not necessarily. I’ve been in a few as an actor before and I enjoyed that because I grew up as a kid riding horses, and also I’m old enough to have seen the end of the Western era, the early ‘60s––like ‘62 or so, that was it. That year they made some really good ones, actually. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Have you ever seen a movie called Lonely Are the Brave

With Kirk Douglas? Man, I love it.

Yeah, it’s fantastic, but that was really the last gasp in a way, even though they’ve kept making them. And then, of course, there was a revival in the mid-sixties when Sergio Leone––and a bunch of other Italians who copied him, and the Spaniards––started making a ton of them. They shot them in Mexico, a lot of them in Spain, as you probably know. And so that was a revival, but that was a kind of reinventing, kind of stylistically exaggerated and photographically noticeable; the camera work and all that, it was a different thing. 

I wanted to make a story that would fit into something that came before that, which is the classic Western. Most classic Westerns, like most movies in any genre, are kind of shit. I mean––not “shit,” but they’re just not very original. And Westerns in particular, since the origins was this sort of mythological, usually exaggerated folklore presentation, that was usually fairly naive and often clumsy. You know, stock stories, you’d see the same stories over and over again. The miners or the sheepherders against the cattlemen. Obviously the indigenous people attacking the poor settlers and all that. And then just this sort of myth-making about the country that made people comfortable. And they were very popular, especially in rural cinemas. People would go every weekend and watch a couple of them, and they’d churn them out in a couple of days. I mean, the first was, I guess, 1902––The Great Train Robbery or whatever––but from 1910 to ‘62, there’s probably 7,000 or 8,000 made. And most of them are bad, but there’s a small percentage that are really poetry, that are beautiful. 

Was there any Western in particular that inspired you when making The Dead Don’t Hurt? 

Oh, tons. I mean, if I mentioned them to you it would use up the rest of our time. The ones that people are most familiar with––there’s a lot of the more obscure ones––but, say, Howard Hawks’ Red River or John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Stagecoach. Some of Anthony Mann’s movies. Some Europeans have good ones, too––Jacques Tourneur. But I wanted to make one that was in the vein of the older ones, in terms of the camera work. If you know about it you go, “Wow, that’s really well-shot,” but it doesn’t call attention to itself. And you want to see the details––the best ones are really authentic; they look right and feel right––and so we tried to do that with the significant difference from classic Westerns in that there’s a woman who’s a central character and when her male partner goes off to war, it never happens that you go with him and she becomes secondary. You stay with her; you don’t even see him. He leaves the shot, basically. 

Vicky Krieps is so perfectly cast as Vivienne. What did she bring to this collaboration? 

Well, she’s very self-sufficient. She has strong opinions about things. She’s very independent-minded and extremely talented, and so you can sense what she’s thinking and her feelings. I could see that in movies she had done. And so I said, “Well, she seems like she would be perfect to play the strong-willed, independent woman in a story where there’s a lot of subtleties and a lot of unspoken things that happen.” And to get that across, you need a really good actress with a really finely tuned instrument, able to transmit emotion and say a lot even without talking sometimes. You never know if they’re available and they might read the script and say, “This is no good, I don’t like this,” or whatever. She read it and answered right away, said she loved it, and identified with it on some level. She did more than I could have dreamed she might do. 

There’s a great scene where your character returns home and Vivienne asks, “How was your war?” And you respond, “How was yours?” The way this was acted, I found really fascinating. There’s so much nuance in the way Vicky delivers that line, so many layers. 

It’s devastating. 

How did you develop that moment together? 

It was basically written that way. The idea was not to do the typical “the guy comes back and she’s emotional and she runs out and embraces him.” They’ve been apart longer than they knew each other to begin with, so how’s that going to work? A lot has happened to both of them. So it’s awkward. And we’ve already seen, in the beginning of the story, that he can be awkward. He tries but he’s a bit clumsy sometimes, and they’re both proud and stubborn in their way. So it’s feeling each other out; it’s almost like a new relationship beginning, really. There’s a lot of information that they can or can decide not to tell each other. And so all of that should be there. But, you know, it’s one thing to imagine that and to write and describe it. It’s another thing to have it actually work onscreen and for the audience to get involved. You need someone like her, who has really no false notes ever. 

There’s another moment early on, where you take the thorns from a rose in one movement and pop it in your breast pocket. Was that one take? 

I think I did it a couple of times. I did ask for the knife to be very, very sharp. 

It reminded me of something in another film of yours, Far from Men, which was set in Algeria, and the way you poured the tea in this traditional sort of looping way. Do you like to nail these physical flourishes, to give some color to your characters? 

Yeah, I like props; I think they have a life of their own. And I like the idea of the rose because it sort of represents the relationship, and the fact that he keeps it and you probably don’t even notice it. There’s a scene at night where he’s writing and she comes in and talks, and that rose is sitting there on the desk––he’s kept it like it means something to him, but it seemed practical. And he seemed like somebody who was like her: comfortable in nature. 

Is there one particular director you’ve worked with who you would say has had an influence on your approach to filmmaking? 

In terms of being extremely efficient and knowing what shots, and just making editing a lot easier, would be Cronenberg. He’s the most organized in terms of knowing ahead of time. When he arrives on a set, and in very short order, he knows exactly what he wants to do. I’ve worked with directors who are organized and who are calm and communicate well with their crew and their guys. And I’ve also worked with directors who don’t know how to talk to actors, who are afraid of them, or always communicate with their crew through other people. Or maybe they’re trying to preserve a certain sense of authority by doing that, but I find it really useful to just make it clear from the beginning. I have this very clear idea what I want to do, but if somebody has a better idea about something, speak up. Don’t tell me tomorrow because it’ll be too late.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is now in limited release.

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