Viggo Mortensen on Scripts, ‘Lord of the Rings’: KVIFF 2024 5

Viggo Mortensen seems tireless. On Friday night, he opened the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) in the Czech Republic with his feminist western The Dead Don’t Hurt after being honored with the fest’s President’s Award. On Saturday, he discussed the film at a press conference and introduced another screening in the Czech spa town. On Sunday, Mortensen met the press for roundtable interviews.

In accepting his KVIFF award, Mortensen shared that “all movies are difficult to make. But I was lucky to count on an amazing group of actors” for The Dead Don’t Hurt. He particularly lauded stars Vicky Krieps, who plays Vivienne, a strong woman who falls in love with Mortensen’s Olsen, who leaves her behind for a while to join a war, and Solly McLeod, who portrays the antagonist Weston Jeffries.

In an interview on Sunday, the star discussed his inspirations behind the film, feminism and how he didn’t set out to make a movie with a political message, how Westerns have sometimes promoted a certain “mythology” of the U.S., why he screened The Dead Don’t Hurt in Ukraine and those planned new Lord of the Rings movies.

Read highlights from the interview below.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is showing the cultural diversity of life in the old West. Your character has a Danish background, Vivienne is French Canadian. I don’t remember other Westerns showing this diversity.

There are Westerns where you see such characters, and they are usually cliches, or the bad guys or they are just secondary, very secondary figures — a Chinese person or Irish person or a Native American person. It’s true. The main roles, the principal characters are almost always born in the U.S. or Canada. Maybe they could be English, but they speak English as a first language. And they’re usually white. Just to have a woman as a main character in a Western is unusual. There have been women, whether it’s Barbara Stanwyck or Claudia Cardinale or Marlene Dietrich, but they played sort of remarkable characters. They’re usually extraordinary women. They’re very rich; they’re so beautiful that you are amazed; they’re special. To have an ordinary woman like Vivienne be the main character is unusual. And to stay with her when a guy goes off to war is totally unusual.

The Dead Don’t Hurt has been described as a feminist Western. What is your attitude towards feminism in general?

For this film, I have done, with journalists, but also audiences, Q&As, I think almost 80 of them around the world by now. People have lots of different things to say, including talk about feminism. I didn’t set out to make a movie from a political point of view or ideological or anything. I just wanted to tell a good story about a strong, independent woman [Vivienne, played by Vicky Krieps]. I’m sure there were many, maybe most, women were like Vivienne at that time. It’s just that their stories hadn’t been told. Journalists or novelists weren’t interested in those stories. They were interested in battles against Indigenous people or the coming of the railroad or outlaws and sheriffs and cattlemen fighting against sheep herders or anything like that. The push westward, settling on the country and the promotion of this mythology of the United States, you know, “God wanted them to go west, take all this.” Those are the kinds of stories that seemed to be interesting, even when they started making Western movies at the beginning of the 20th century. Until now, really, even female directors of Westerns haven’t really put so much focus on a woman as a main character unless she’s extraordinary — super powerful, or maybe a vigilante type who behaves like a violent man herself and has a rifle and shoots. It’s all about sort of an exploitation to an immediate gratification story. I just wanted to tell a story about an ordinary, relatively ordinary woman. I asked myself a question. What is she doing in this situation [she finds herself in]?

At first, I didn’t know it was a Western. I was thinking about my mom, and I knew where she grew up, near a forest. And I have books that she had as a kid: these hardcover books with nice color images on the cover of knights and things like Joan of Arc or fairy tales with lots of illustrations. She is very curious about other people and cultures and kind of an adventurous spirit who knows herself, what she wants, what she thinks. Even though she’s a woman of her time, a mother of three kids, housewife, she was always interested in movies and books and languages and things. And I thought, “Imagine how she was as a little girl based on these books and landscapes she grew up in.” And if she grows up to be a woman, Vivienne should be like that. That was my inspiration really, and everything else is obviously fiction.

You have said that in your film Falling, you used a lot of references to your father. Do you feel a need to include personal things and stories in your films?

Any role I play as an actor, or any story I tell, is always going to be from a personal point of view, just like the audience, when they see the movie we made. They see a different movie than what I see. I like to respect the audience. I think that sometimes directors, producers, studios, whatever, they don’t trust the audience fully. And the more the budget is, the less chances they want to take. They want to make sure everybody understands, and everybody goes to see it. And so they over-explain things. I like to give just enough information, and then the audience can participate. If they like enough what they’ve seen in the first 10 or 15 minutes, then they’ll be like, “What’s going on? OK, who’s this? OK?” And at the end, I like it when you ask yourself, “What are these people going to do now?” So it doesn’t really end, like life. Those are the kinds of stories I like as an audience. So I made the kind of movie I want to see.

Your work as an actor also continues after this movie. Could we maybe see you in one of the new Lord of the Rings movies?

I haven’t read a script. So I don’t know. The script is the most important thing to me unless I’m broke, I have no money and I’m lucky to get any job. So it depends.

How often does that happen?

Lately, I’ve been lucky and it hasn’t for a while.

Vicky Krieps in The Dead Don’t Hurt.

Courtesy of Marcel Zyskind

The Dead Don’t Hurt has been described as a dramatic romantic story in dangerous times. But I also see it as a road trip of father and son.

It’s also a story about father-daughter and mother-daughter. You see the effect it has on Vivienne when her father decides to go away. And what she thinks is as a little girl, “Wow, that’s cool. He’s going because he has moral reasons to do something.” And the daughter is like, “Why is mom saying he shouldn’t go?” And then the father says, “I have to go because my friends are counting on me to go,” and the daughter is like, “Yeah, that’s cool. I want to be like him.” But then you also see the relationship with the mother, and Vivienne remembers that relationship when the mother is trying to answer questions that are difficult to answer. “Why do people go to war? Do men do the same thing to women?” And when the mother thinks she’s answered the questions sufficiently, well, she says, “Well, I want to fight like that.”

But it’s our more complicated thing. It’s not an unrealistic movie in that she’s going to literally be Joan of Arc and take up weapons and kill people. Psychologically, her journey is more complex, and she’s the strongest person psychologically in the film. She’s stronger than [my character] Olsen. She’s stronger than Weston [played by Solly McLead]. She’s stronger than Weston’s father [played by Garret Dillahunt], and everybody. But she’s limited by her circumstances, physically, environmentally, everything. And that’s what I wanted to explore.

Why did you decide to screen The Dead Don’t Hurt in Ukraine at the Mykolaichuk Open film festival?

I was invited, and I thought it’s going to be difficult to arrange with the schedule I have, and I don’t know how I would get to this place. And it was a little complicated. It was a couple of different airplanes into Romania, and I’m driving for six, seven hours. But we made it, and I really knew it was the right thing when I was there. I liked a lot being there. Because to them, it was very immediate. In the audience, there were people saying, “I’m alone, my husband died last month,” or, “My husband, I don’t know when he’s coming back.” Or my boyfriend or my father or whatever. And: “I have a little Vincent [like Krieps’ character with her baby son in the film]. He also doesn’t have a father now.” So it was very immediate.

And they talked about it in a different way. It wasn’t like, “Well, imagine if there was a war.” It was like, “There is a war, and we are in this situation.” And it’s the women for the most part who are left, as always, when the men go off to do this — it’s mostly men, but women are going now too. Historically, it’s been that women keep the home together, keep society together, keep the kids fed and schooled and whatever, keep society functioning, while men are out destroying each other and the landscape. Generally, that’s been the history of human beings. And so that was very immediate and a different thing. I was very glad I went and also I thought they have this international film festival with films from the U.S. and different places in Europe and Asia, but there are no directors or actors going. I thought, well, it’d be nice for them to have a filmmaker there.

Viggo Mortensen at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival on Friday.

Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

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