Danny O'Keefe's play on the word "wanted" signifies how important it is for an outlaw to be chased in a western. If an outlaw isn't chased, then what has he become? Or what has the western become? Mateo Gil's Blackthorn (2011) poses the question: what happens if the outlaw is caught, shot, and presumed dead? But isn't really dead?
In Gil's addition to the legacy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escape their ambush in a Bolivian standoff but elect to forfeit their identities to Death in exchange for some new lives. Butch changes his name to James Blackthorn and lives an exiled life in Bolivia for 20 years. But flashbacks of his youth when he and Sundance were in top form and in love with the same woman revive old feelings in him. Blackthorn longs for moments lost and longs to ward off moments he is just about to lose. The need to meet a son he has never met inspires a series of melancholic letters in which he tentatively addresses the boy as "nephew". The time has come to return "home" and set things straight.
And who better to look off to the horizon with craggy determination than Sam Shepard in a role he was born to play. More force of nature than performance, Shepard enrichens his character with a deep sense of lived experience as he works through one obstacle after another. It's inspiring to witness. Supported by a competent international cast and outstanding Bolivian locations, Blackthorn reconfigures a legend and a genre in one poignant and innovative stroke.
Mateo Gil is well known in Spain as a screenwriter. He co-wrote Alejandro Amenábar's Thesis, Open Your Eyes (later remade as Vanilla Sky), The Sea Inside, and Agora, as well as The Method for Marcelo Piñeyro. His first movie as a director was Nobody Knows Anybody in 1999. He also directed the award-winning shorts Housebreaking and Say Me.
Blackthorn premiered at La Palmas and was in the World Narrative competition at Tribeca 2011 in April. It premiered on Video on Demand on Friday, September 2, and opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 7 and in the San Francisco / Bay Area in the weeks that follow [release schedule]. My thanks to Brandon Nichols for facilitating the interview and for Mateo Gil for granting time to talk on the phone. Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
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Michael Guillén: Mateo, it's my pleasure to speak with you today about your recent film Blackthorn (2011). You're the perfect person to talk to about one of my recent interests: how the international reach of genre contests the limitations of a national cinema. You started out as a screenwriter within the Spanish film infrastructure but quickly achieved an international profile through your collaborations with Alejandro Amenábar. How much do you think of yourself as a Spanish director or of Blackthorn as a Spanish film?
Mateo Gil: Yes, well, to be honest, originally I never imagined making films for an international audience. I simply had the good fortune to work on Alejandro's films, which is when I first encountered the opportunity to consider an international audience and to strive for those heights through his vision. Alejandro was the one who thought internationally.
With respect to Blackthorn, at a sincere level the film is almost entirely Spanish. Some of the financing came from France, and when we were on location in Bolivia we received some assistance from their government, but primary financing came from Spain. For a while, I thought we would find our audience in Spain but the western isn't that popular of a genre there. However, I think of the Spanish audience and the North American audience in the same sense. It isn't that I was trying to make a successful U.S. film. What I wanted was that a North American spectator would be able to watch my film and not think of it as strange or foreign (which is to say, European). But I understand that the spirit of the film is North American in the sense that the western is a genre particular to North America. But I wasn't trying to expand into North America by using the genre; I was just trying to make a film that contained the key elements of the genre. That was my primary purpose.
Guillén: In his interview for New York Mag's Vulture, Sam Shepard opined that these days the western seems best understood by foreigners. He singled out his experience working with you on Blackthorn, and another western he did with German director Uli Edel (Purgatory, 1999). Do you think that's true? What attracted you to film a western?
Gil: I've heard about this statement of Sam's and the truth is that I can't really answer your question because I don't know to what extent young directors in North America are involved with the genre. I do know that in Spain westerns are an almost forgotten genre. In Spain, or in other parts of Europe or the world, it might be true that they understand the western better; but, I don't know.
In my case at least, in my childhood I spent my time watching westerns on television. I watched a lot of westerns as a child because at that time there were a lot of westerns programmed on television, especially in the '70s and the '80s. My first time to a movie house was to see a western.
I chose to make a western because the genre—though considered to be a North American genre—is a genre that I feel is my own and part of my culture, having watched so many of them. Again, I don't know if the young directors in North America have watched as many westerns as I have or not; but, I do think that there's a general nostalgia for the western among audiences all over the world. I think they feel real pleasure when they watch a western in a movie house.
Guillén: How did you distinguish between the North American westerns that came out of Hollywood, let's say, and the spaghetti westerns that came out of Italy? How did each influence your vision of a western?
Gil: There are a lot of influences in Blackthorn. There are some of the spaghetti western influences because I watched a lot of the films of Sergio Leone. But the film has also been influenced by other types of westerns, especially from the '60s and '70s; the westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Sidney Pollack and Robert Altman. Even as I was working on the project and setting up the scenes on set, the films of John Ford were also present. It's as if the film itself did not want to exist without these influences. Thus my experience of Blackthorn is of a mixed experience, respectful of influences from the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, which were the westerns that I liked.
Guillén: Blackthorn's international cast is one of its strongest assets. You have Sam Shepard from the U.S., Stephen Rea from Ireland, Eduardo Noriega from Spain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Denmark, and Magaly Solier from Peru. Was part of the rationale for casting an international cast a strategy for achieving an international audience?
Gil: No, no, no. The only thing I needed from the casting as a director and the only thing I was really strict about was that the accents needed to be accurate. So the only thing I needed out of the North American characters was that they spoke with a perfect North American accent. For the characters from Bolivia, I needed them to speak Spanish the way a Bolivian would speak Spanish. I knew that Magaly Solier would be able to speak a Bolivian Spanish, which she performed fantastically.
It was clear to me that the only person who could perfectly carry the North American accent was Sam Shepard, whereas the other characters could be cast from a European pool of talent. This was difficult because they still had to be able to carry off English, ride a horse, and—in the case of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays the young James Blackthorn—that he look like Sam. It was all very complicated but we had a marvelous casting director in whom I had complete confidence. Not only did we have good luck in securing Sam for the lead role but it turned out that Sam is a good friend of Stephen Rea and he was able to bring him into the project, which was a lucky break.
Guillén: So I imagine that being on set carried its own challenges in terms of all the different languages that were being spoken? It was a multilingual set with actors speaking English, Spanish, Aymara and Quechua. How did you negotiate direction on set?
Gil: It wasn't difficult at all. I simply had to be clear what to say in one language and what to say in another. But I didn't have trouble communicating with anyone. I would speak to them directly. I think for everyone who worked on this multilingual set, they walked away recognizing what a special and rich experience it was for them. It was a beautiful experience. And it was also historically accurate because multilingualism was present at the time of Blackthorn's exile in Bolivia.
I would say that Spanish predominated on set. Butch Cassidy was said to live in Bolivia for at least a couple of decades and, therefore, he would have had a good working Spanish. At the start, it was difficult to figure out who would be an American actor who could speak good Spanish. I don't know who else could have done it as well as Sam, because he can actually speak Spanish.
Guillén: Mateo, you have a notable reputation as a screenwriter and Sam is well-known for being a consummate playwright as well as an actor. Now that you've had the experience of directing, can you speak to how important is it for a director to be in touch with the craft of screenwriting?
Gil: I think it's very important. It was as important for me as a director as it has been for Sam. I understand the characters, as written, in a singular and clear way. For me, writing and directing have become the same thing. The writing helps me decide what is important when the time comes to direct and film, which is an essential facet.
Guillén: Blackthorn utilizes an epistolary structure by way of narrative voice over: a father writes home to a son he's never met and who—in his old age—he longs to meet. A melancholy permeates this film. It reminds me of what the Portuguese would call saudade, something which surely speaks to you as a Spaniard? When you decided to film a western, why did you decide to do such a nostalgic western, and not more of a shoot-'em-up actioner?
Gil: In the original version of the story written by Miguel Barros, that specific sentiment was already present. The nostalgia was already in place. This sentiment had a double reading for me. It wasn't only a sentiment of nostalgia for a certain type of values that have fallen into disuse in a way, become lost or forgotten. The sentiment also placed value in the struggle against greater powers, which is a struggle that Butch Cassidy incarnates in his personality. So the sentiment is not only one of nostalgia, but also one of a certain kind of passion against great odds that nowadays one rarely sees. It involves a charged vision of what is political or moral within the cinematic. I saw this sentiment in the original script and it served to energize me to pursue this film.
Guillén: Another strength evident in Blackthorn is what is often seen in all the classic westerns: the understanding that landscape is a character. Juan Ruiz Anchía's cinematography of the Bolivian landscape is stunning. In its visual relationship between the individual and the vast expanses through which he moves, I was reminded of John Ford's classic westerns; however, Bolivia's landscapes—unquestionably as majestic as Monument Valley—remain singularly distinct, though aesthetically similar.
Gil: It's curious. Various commentators have made the same observation that Blackthorn resembles the work of John Ford a bit. I take it as a compliment because, of course, John Ford is the master of the western genre. When I was preparing for the film, and traveled to Bolivia to scout for locations, I frequently thought about how films that are spectacular with incredible scenery are, in a way, the same throughout the world and that audiences have become immunized to the strength of these images of natural beauty from different countries. If you start seeing something too beautiful too often, you stop paying attention. All the more reason to use a genre like the western, which is known for its use of landscape, but to take it away from the landscape of North America to the landscape in Bolivia, so that the landscape can express itself to the spectator in a revived way.
Guillén: In your filmmaking, how did you negotiate with the presence of George Roy Hill's 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? What Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg terms Blackthorn's "spiritual cousin"?
Gil: There's no way to escape the fact that Blackthorn has many points in common with George Roy Hill because they're the same characters, and in our film that's especially apparent during the flashbacks of Butch and Sundance as young men. Other than for that, I never saw Blackthorn as a direct reference to Hill's film. It's a marvelous film and I'm one of its fans but its tone is distinctly separate from Blackthorn. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a western that was also a comedy. It celebrated all sorts of things. Blackthorn looks at the world with a melancholic eye. The flashbacks of youth are given all the more poignance for being seen through the senescent eye of old age.