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Toronto: Viggo Mortensen Talks Hollywood Strikes, Directing Vicky Krieps in Feminist Western ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’

Viggo Mortensen’s second feature as a director, the Western The Dead Don’t Hurt, is dedicated to his late mother, Grace Gamble Atkinson, who poetically lives on somewhat in the film’s lead character, the fiercely independent Vivienne Le Coudy, played by Vicky Krieps.

“Vivienne, she’s no wonder woman. But she’s very strong, has an inner strength, even though she has to suffer abuses. She’s a woman of her time. Yes, there’s a strength of character, not that they look similar,” Mortensen says of Krieps and his mother, who inspired the original story for the film when an image of Gamble Atkinson as a little girl came to the Lord of the Rings star while at his writing desk during the pandemic.

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In The Dead Don’t Hurt, set to world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and set in the 1860s, Krieps star as Vivienne, who starts a relationship with Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen). After meeting Olsen in San Francisco, Vivienne agrees to travel with him to his home near the quiet town of Elk Flats, where they start a life together. The Civil War separates them, leaving Vivienne to fend for herself in a place controlled by powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries, played by Garret Dillahunt, and his violent, wayward son, Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod).

Mortensen sees The Dead Don’t Hurt — both a tragic love story and a revenge tale — as a feminist Western, with its story of a passionate woman determined to stand up for herself in an unforgiving world dominated by ruthless men.

The Hollywood Reporter talked with Mortensen about his second stint as a director after his well-received debut, Falling; getting a SAG-AFTRA waiver to ensure that he and Krieps could go to Toronto for the world premiere; and the prospects of a sale in Toronto by Hanway Films amid the Hollywood strikes.

Can you talk a bit about how The Dead Don’t Hurt was inspired by your late mother, Grace Gamble Atkinson?

The story for the film came out of an image that I had of my mom sitting, during the pandemic. I was in Madrid at the time, which was one of the worst places during the lockdown. It was so strict, you couldn’t go more than 250 meters from your house. It was tough. I wrote a couple of stories, and this was one story — not knowing it would be a Western — it came out of this initial image of my mother. I have a collection of illustrated children’s books that were hers when she was a child. She loved these stories and where she grew up, which was in northern New York State, right on the Canadian border, there were maple forests and she would run around. I imagined this little girl, my mother, running round in the woods. OK, what happens in this story, a little girl imagining things. So, I’ll start the story as the little girl having become a woman literally at the end of her life, and I’ll see where that takes me.

This film slides between time periods, as your story moves from the future to the past. Why this narrative structure?

By having a structure that way, as you point out, when Olsen goes away and Weston, very gentlemanly, comes up to the garden to visit her [Vivienne] uninvited, but very polite, the audience might be thinking, “No, no, no! Don’t talk to him!” So I like that the audience knows more, is ahead of the characters. They have a stake in the story. It’s their story, not the director’s. I like that you give them a structure, a chance in the telling of the story to say, “OK, yeah, this is my story. I know what’s going on here and, holy shit, now what’s going on? Oh, she’d better watch out.”

Vicky Krieps is really your lead, which is unusual in a Western. Do you consider this a feminist Western?

Yeah. I think it speaks for itself. Her performance, she’s tremendous. She has this inner strength. Vicky, in this role in particular, feels really right. She feels like a woman in that time. But I don’t think it’s something I need to point out. It’s just a story that happens to be unusually centered around a very strong woman. But I’m not being revisionist. Yes, the structure is ambitious and different. But the idea is to really make a classic Western. And instead of always having the guy go to war and you’re with him at war and she’s incidental and then he comes back to her and how does she react — in this case, he goes and we don’t see him. We’re with her. This is a story about what happens to the woman, and how does she deal with things and what does she have to confront? What is that life, on her own, like? So yes, you could say it’s a feminist Western. I just don’t like to label things.

The film follows Vivienne on her own, as Olsen is off at war. She pays dearly for her stubbornness and self-sufficiency?

She definitely pays a lot, because she’s as she is. At one point, after the worst happens, she says, “Screw this, I’m out of here.” And she almost leaves. But there’s something about her, call it pride, call it inner strength. Yet this is no superhero movie. She’s not going to buy a bunch of Winchesters and go kill all the Jeffries family, the mayor and all their henchmen. She says, “They’re not going to scare me out of here. I’m going back to work.”

Does that stand-your-ground stubbornness Vivienne shows in the face of brutal violence and intimidation come more from your script, or Krieps’ performance?

Vicky — and that’s why I hoped she’d like the story and want to do it. She’s feisty. And she’s a beautiful person, very kind and hardworking. But she has definite ideas. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, even in a quiet way. So she’s entirely suited to this character. That’s what you hope for. You’ve written something and you hope actors say, “Yeah, I read your story. It’s interesting. I’d like to help you make this.” Then when you get someone like her — and all the actors, I would say — what you hope certainly is that people will show up on the set and come and surprise you, give you more than you bargained for. And I have to say that Vicki and the other actors, but especially her as the center of the story, she came with what I would call gifts every day. I would say, “Wow, I didn’t imagine that said that way.” Or the way she’s looking at me. Even as I’m playing the part, I’m thinking, “I didn’t expect that. That’s even more incredible than I had imagined.” 

You mentioned the idea for the film came during the pandemic …

And that was when Falling was supposed to come out. That was tough. After Sundance, we were invited to Cannes and then Toronto. We were on the way. Then the pandemic and no Cannes and I’m stuck in my house.

And now The Dead Don’t Hurt is being launched amid the Hollywood strikes, with another industry shutdown.

I thought, “Here we go again. First the pandemic and now this?” I thought we’re not going anywhere, unless we have a [SAG-AFTRA] agreement, which we have, so Vicky can go, and Vicky and I will go. It’s tough, because if you don’t qualify, you really shouldn’t go.

With the SAG-AFTRA waiver, you can attend and promote your film in Toronto. But any potential buyers of The Dead Don’t Hurt will have to adhere to the terms of an eventual Hollywood actors deal with the AMPTP, like residual payments for actors and streaming revenue. You’re OK with that?

Whoever buys this movie will have to take the agreement on board, obviously. I as one of the producers would never approve of anything different, no way. We will do things right, all the way. If they don’t, we’ll have to look for someone else. That’s the way it goes.

Now you are going to premiere your second film in Toronto. How excited are you?

As an actor, as a producer, with Falling as a director, even though I had to appear on Zoom because of the pandemic, and a couple other movies that I produced — yes, Cannes is wonderful and Venice is great. But I’ve always felt Toronto was special because of the audiences. No matter how many business people are there and how big it is, the people that actually buy the tickets to these movies are really fans of movies. They want to see movies. The Q&As there, the interaction with the audience, is always great. And we shot a little bit of the movie in Canada, so there’s a Canadian connection.

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