When Viggo Mortensen began outlining what would become The Dead Don't Hurt, he didn't realize that he was writing a Western. "That happened as I was writing," he recalls. The actor is no stranger to the genre, having starred in 2004's Hidalgo and 2008's Appaloosa, among others; however, the origins of his sophomore outing as a writer-director connect back to his late mother, Grace.

"I started writing a story about a little girl who becomes a woman named Vivienne, and the inspiration for her was my mom," Mortensen explains. "Like my mom, Vivienne is a woman very much of her time. She's not an extraordinary woman, but she is someone who has a special kind of courage — a decency and a real strength of character."

Set on the American frontier in the 1860s, the film centers on Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), a Franco-Canadian immigrant whose romance with Holger Olsen (Mortensen) is strained when he volunteers to fight for the Union in the Civil War. What Vivienne experiences while Holger is away forever changes the course of both of their lives. The Dead Don't Hurt is the story of star-crossed lovers and revenge, of fortitude and forgiveness.

"I realized that it'd be a greater challenge for the character of Vivienne to really be herself and explore her own frontiers if I placed her on the literal frontier in the 19th century, in a society devoid of law and order and dominated by powerful and unscrupulous men," says Mortensen. He was mindful, however, to avoid any familiar clichés of the genre. "Vivienne is the strongest person in the story, but this isn't a superhero film. She's not going to grab a Winchester and go shoot all the bad guys. She's a regular woman with regular courage."

The director found a performer capable of filling those shoes in Krieps, the Luxembourgish-German actress who broke out in 2017's Phantom Thread. "She has an unusually strong screen presence as an actor," says Mortensen, himself is a three-time Oscar nominee for Eastern Promises (2007), Captain Fantastic (2016), and Green Book (2018). "Vicky has a particular kind of beauty and a way of expressing herself that lends itself to being from another time period. That doesn't just have to do with her outward appearance, either. She has something inside of her — a remarkable interior strength that she's able to express in every role she plays."

In conversation with A.frame, Mortensen — who not only wrote, directed and stars in The Dead Don't Hurt but produced it and composed the music, too — looks back on the journey into the wild West and reveals why, after starring in both of his directorial efforts thus far, he's not planning to cast himself in the future.

A.frame: I know you started writing the script for The Dead Don't Hurt during the COVID lockdowns, which wasn't long after you'd finished Falling. Had you intended on starting another film so quickly? Or was it a case of suddenly having the time to write due to the pandemic?

It didn't come together as quickly as I would've liked, to be honest with you. We shot Falling in 2019 and it was ready to be released in 2020 but, of course, COVID made that complicated. Even though people have seen it since and liked it a lot, it didn't immediately reach the audience that I wanted. But the film's story will speak for itself as time goes on. It did well in a couple of countries, like Spain for example. It stayed in theaters just on word of mouth for about five months there, so that was good. The distributor made a lot of money.

When I say The Dead Don't Hurt didn't come together quickly enough, I mean that I wrote the first version of this story when we were still trying to find a release for Falling, and I had hoped to start shooting it if not that year then the next. But it took a little over two years before we found the financing for it, and then two-and-a-half years, at the very least, before we could shoot it, which isn't terrible for an independent film. It's always hard to find the financing for independent movies, especially if you want to maintain a certain degree of creative control over them. But I would've liked to have started sooner.

I hope my next film won't take as long, but this is a business, so that's dependent on The Dead Don't Hurt doing well enough and being liked enough for people to want to invest in my next effort. So far, things have been good. It's come out in France and Spain, and it's done really well in those countries with audiences and critics. I'm hopeful we'll reach audiences in the same way in the United States.

That is not a bad turnaround time for an independent film, but also for a Western, which seem to be very few and far between nowadays.

You're right about that. We were lucky, because I found basically all the financing for the film in Mexico, with a company there that wanted to work with me. They'd seen Falling and liked it, and they read a couple of scripts of mine and this is the one they liked the most. That was a stroke of luck, because I didn't have to cobble together financing from 50 different places like you usually do. We were also able to go and shoot it there with a mostly Mexican crew. We shot a couple of days in Canada, but the rest of it we shot in the state of Durango in Mexico, and it was a really great experience.

There were some great landscapes we got to shoot in. Some of the environments had never been filmed in before, and knowing that made it feel really special. I liked knowing that the audience was going to see a Western that didn't have all the same mountain ridges and deserts they'd seen a hundred times before. You can't look at it and say, "Oh, that's Arizona or Lone Pine, California, or New Mexico, or the South of Spain." It's something new. It looks historically correct, but it's also a little different.


The film doesn't have a traditional structure, in that it finds its way into its story and into these characters' lives very indirectly. What was the inspiration to approach it that way?

That's just the way it turned out. I liked the non-linear structure of it. I wanted to see the results of things before I showed the causes of them. That's how it came out when I wrote it, and that's how we shot it. I did try in the editing room to reorder everything and make it linear and see if it worked — just to remove any doubt that I or anyone else might have had — and it did. It was fine that way, but I didn't like it as much.

I didn't like, for example, the way we got to know Vivienne in that version. As a spectator, I like being ahead of the characters sometimes. When Weston [Solly McLeod] goes to see her as she's gardening, we know that he's a very dangerous person and a vicious killer, so seeing him alone with her in that moment makes us nervous, because we know things she doesn't know. She keeps him at arm's length because she's seen him a couple of times at the town's saloon and she thinks he's full of himself and a bit arrogant, but she still asks him if he'd like some cold mint tea. She wants to be polite. As an audience member, we immediately know to think, "Oh, please don't invite him in for tea."

I also like the fact that you see a lot of people die when the movie starts and then, because of the structure of the story, you gradually get to know those people in life and you learn why, among other things, they died. As an audience member, I enjoy that, and I personally liked seeing the story play out that way.

Vivienne becomes the center of the film. She's what anchors everything around her, and you need an actress of Vicky Krieps' caliber to pull off a part like that.


What about her past work inspired you to reach out to her for this part?

I didn't write the movie thinking of her, but when I finished writing the story, I started to think, "Who'd be right for Vivienne?" She was at top of the list right away. The first time I saw her was in Phantom Thread opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, and I was really impressed by her work in that, as were many people. She reminded me of Meryl Streep the first time I saw her. She has a quality and ability to communicate so much, even in silence. It's almost like her thoughts and feelings come through her skin. It's remarkable what she can do. It's a gift. Not only is she technically a really good actress, but she also has that mysterious quality that draws you in. The movie business is almost cruel in that sense, because some actors have that and some don't and it's hard to explain why. They just do or they just don't.

There can be great actors who are really wonderful on stage and they'll act in a film, and they'll be good, but they won't necessarily have that inexplicable, extra bit of screen presence. Vicky has that. She just fit the bill, and she responded right away. She said she loved the character and the story and loved the idea of being in a Western. She basically just said, "Let's go," and once she said that, we all knew that we had the chance to make a really special Western with a very strong female character at the center of it. We knew that the only limitation we'd face from that point on would be our own inability to surround Vicky with what she needed. Fortunately, we put together a great cast, including Solly McLeod, who is relatively unknown. He was only 21 when we cast him to play Weston, but he did a fantastic job. I think he's a real discovery. But having Vicky onboard was a big plus. Just knowing that she was going to play Vivienne made me feel really hopeful about it all right from the very start.


I know you didn't originally intend to play the lead role in Falling. Did you know all along that you were going to play Holger in this film?

No, but you know, I really enjoyed working opposite Lance Henriksen and the other actors on Falling. I found that acting in that film wasn't much of an impediment to me, frankly. I was more tired on the days when I was both acting and directing, but that didn't stop me from doing my job correctly as an actor. When you're a director, you're really focused not only on everything that the other actors are doing and saying, but also on everything that surrounds them. You're present in the way that actors always should be. I didn't have the time on that film to get nervous or doubt what I was doing. I was there, so it wasn't much of a problem that I ended up starring in it, too.

On this one, though, I thought from the very beginning, "Well, there's a lot to do." I knew we were planning on following a very ambitious, tight schedule, and the film itself is a big piece. There are a lot of locations and characters and horses and all of that. I thought it would be better not to direct and act in it. I wasn't going to do that. There was, in fact, another actor who was going to play the part of Holger. He was, like Vicky, cast early on because I had to find two people quickly who were satisfactory to those putting up the money for the movie. Unfortunately, not long before we went down to Mexico to do some final pre-production steps before shooting, the actor in question decided to do something else. I tried to replace him with someone similar and acceptable to the producers, but there was no one available who was right for the role. Time was running out, and I didn't want to lose the whole project. I had the crew, the rest of the cast, and the locations. We'd already done a lot of work in preparation for the shoot.

So I just decided to play it myself. I said to the producers, "I can do it. It'll be more work, but I learned on Falling that it can be done. Plus, I can ride horses, so that's a shortcut, and I've already done Westerns before, so that helps, too. I can do it, but I need to ask Vicky, because she's the one who will have to act opposite me if I do it." Fortunately, she liked the idea, so I said, "Okay, I'll change the character a little bit. He's going to have to be older and we'll have to make mention of that in the script in some way," and we did that and it worked out. Now, I don't really think about it unless I'm asked, because the movie is what it is and I think it works.

You mentioned the edit earlier, and this is a film with a lot of story to manage in a condensed time. What was the experience of working with your editor, Peder Pedersen, to find the right pace and length for the film?

Especially if you've written the script for a film, you have to be really cold when you're editing. There's the saying "kill you darlings" for a reason, right? In the editing period, there are always a few scenes that are really beautiful that, no matter how good they are or how good, say, an actor like Vicky is in them, they don't move the story forward, and they have to be cut. There's a certain rhythm to this film that I had to be faithful to. In the first 10 or 15 minutes, for instance, you always have to make sure that you do something that's attractive enough and interesting enough to keep the audience with you, something that convinces them to lean even if, like in this film in particular, I'm not spoon-feeding them. I have faith that they'll start to put things together themselves.

Once they do, the story really starts to move and, when it gets to the halfway point, it starts to move quicker and quicker. Editorially, you have to be very selective about the moments where you let time stand still. You can't do that constantly, otherwise you'll lose the audience. The middle of the film will get bogged down and people will be exhausted by the time they get to the ending, no matter how beautiful the ending is. It's a delicate balancing act, but I think we managed it. I think the film moves along the way that it should.


This is the second film that you've directed, and you mentioned wanting to do a third. You have been acting for many years, but how long have you wanted to direct? And what is it about directing that you find particularly rewarding?

Since the beginning of my career, I've always been interested in doing it. I was a photographer and a writer before I even thought of trying to act. I've always been interested in the process of taking a script to the screen. It's a long, complicated journey, and I've had the benefit of working for some really good directors — women and men who are very different and make very different kinds of movies. But the best of them are all really good at meticulously preparing for what they're going to do and knowing what they want to attempt before they start. They're very clear about all of that before they begin filming, which means the best of them are also really good at communicating with their crew and their cast and getting the most out of their team. They're not intimidated by someone coming up with an idea or a suggestion or asking questions. That's not treated as an affront; it's actually seen as helpful. As a director, you should avail yourself to that. That's what I've learned from the great directors I've worked with, at least. On their sets, it's treated as a team sport, and that's what I've always liked.

So when it came time for me to direct, I wasn't surprised at what it took to do it, because I'd been watching it and learning. I've had decades of film school from watching people do it. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I've really enjoyed doing it myself. It's not that I don't like acting. I still like it, but based on the other scripts I've written, I don't think I'll be in any of the next films I make, outside of a cameo here and there. In a way, that's a relief, because I have to say that, even though I enjoy acting, the days where I didn't have to act on The Dead Don't Hurt were the days I enjoyed the most. I could go to set dressed any way I wanted, and I didn't ever have to leave to go get in costume or any of that. I could just stay behind the camera. I look forward to getting to do that for a whole shoot one day.

At this point in your career, where do you look for inspiration?

Well, I love going to the movies. The movie theater is my temple. I like to go there and be transported. I am always hopeful whenever I go, and I think most audience members are. They go there, they pay their money, and they want to be taken on a journey. They want to be given something that inspires them and ends up making them reflect in unexpected ways on their lives, their families, their communities, and their society. I get a lot out of just going to the movies and watching how other people shoot their films and how they write them. I'm fascinated by that, and I love revisiting old movies and learning new things from them, too.

Also, life just continues to inspire me. I get lots of creative fuel from watching people and how they behave, and hearing how they talk. I think that's what art is really — you're trying to remember things. Life is short. We eventually forget things and I think, whether you write a poem or make a movie or make a painting or take a photograph, you're telling stories to yourself. You're saying, "This is what I'm feeling and seeing. This is what I'm experiencing now," and I want to record all of that for myself and share it with other people and see if I connect with them. That's what I'm passionate about.

By Alex Welch


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