Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Interview: Blackthorn Director, Mateo Gil
What becomes a legend most? When a fictional continuation of their true life story becomes an enormously entertaining western that is currently blazing across the screen of the Landmark La Jolla Village.
What would have happened to famed outlaw Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard), had he managed to make a life for himself after escaping the spray of bullets that claimed both his and the Sundance Kid's lives? (The role of the Sundance Kid substitute in Gil's buddy picture is played by Eduardo Noriega.) Gil's previous screenplays for Open Your Eyes, The Sea Inside, and particularly the Biblical epic, Agora had already left an impression. Anyone brave (crazy?) enough to create both a Biblical epic and a western in this day and age is someone I need speak with.
Far from a sequel to the gooey, Oscar-anointed western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Mateo Gil's Blackthorn is an intelligent examination of a legend past his prime. While my vernacular occasionally had to be translated for the Spanish filmmaker, one thing remained crystal clear: Mateo Gil honors westerns and in spite of all obstacles, he was going to make one.
Scott Marks: It’s 2011 and you made a western. Didn’t you get the memo?
Mateo Gil (Laughing): I know. It’s crazy to make a western nowadays. But I’m very crazy and my producer is even crazier than me, and my screenwriter is completely crazy. So here we are with a western made in Spain.
Spain isn’t that crazy a setting for western epics. Didn’t Samuel Bronston produce a few memorable ones there in the early ‘60s?
I know. Those were very different types of westerns. As you obviously know, westerns are very hard to finance now. Everyone would tell us that we’re crazy and didn’t know what we’re doing — this is suicide. I hate to say it, but the box office in Spain has been very bad. Let’s hope American people want to see it.
If you think making a western today is insane, you co-wrote the screenplay for the Biblical epic, Agora. Maybe you have lost your mind. If no one is going to finance a western, unless it’s based on a comic book, who in hell is going to give you money to make a Biblical picture? Are you single-handedly trying to resurrect the ‘50s? What’s next, a “Red Scare” melodrama?
(Laughing.) All I can tell you is [Agora co-writer and director] Alejandro [Amenabar] and I are talking about writing again, making something more commercial. The risks we are taking are too big. Maybe we have to slow down and think things over.
Where I come from, it’s impossible to convince me that a film like Agora isn’t commercial and entertaining. It didn’t run on for hours and it’s one of the most intelligently scripted Biblical epics since William Faulkner tried his hand on Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. This is the way I envision people talking in ancient times.
I don’t know the reason why this film wasn’t commercial. In Spain, it was a huge success. Outside of Spain it did not work so well. Maybe because it seems too sophisticated, too European, or too intellectualized. You know, these are hard times for cinema. These are difficult times.
You have also accomplished in Blackthorn what few in the motion picture industry have proven capable of doing. Road Warrior and Gremlins 2 come to mind, but there are not too many sequels that outclass the original. While it’s not an official sequel, for me, Blackthorn is a much better film than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Thank you very much, but I cannot say I think the same. For me, Butch Cassidy is a beautiful movie, very funny and enjoyable. They are very different movies. Blackthorn is a kind of homage to these old westerns that I miss a lot. It’s tone is very nostalgic and even melancholic. Butch Cassidy is almost a comedy. I don’t see [Blackthorn] as a continuation. It’s a completely fictional tale. No comparison is possible, but I am glad that you liked my movie more.
(Laughing.) “Butch Cassidy” plays like a western Hallmark Greeting Card. It’s an anti-western in the sense that all it does is prettify and add syrupy music. What other westerns did you bone up on while preparing for Blackthorn?
I wanted to give it a ‘70s style, because the script had this late-’60s, early-’70s political and ideological mood. When I was planning the shooting, I felt that the movie was asking me to look back at all the directors from classical times. In the end, I felt that [screenwriter Miguel Barros and I] found a way to mix the styles of the ‘70s and classical westerns. In terms of visual style, it’s a ‘50s or ‘60s movie. It’s a curious result, but I like it.
What westerns did you watch growing up? Who were your cowboy heroes?
When I was a child, I think I saw every western in history. Every Saturday between the ages of 3 and 16, there was a western on TV and I watched all of them. I think I’ve seen every western ever made. (Laughing.) As an adult, I’ve seen many of them again, but only the ones I can purchase in Spain on DVD. I’m not going to illegally download movies to watch on my computer.
Good for you! It’s bad enough we have to watch films on a television screen. I don’t want to look at them on a computer, especially when it comes to a genre like the western whose landscapes alone demand a big screen presentation.
It did this old curmudgeon's heart good to see men on horseback galloping across the Panavision expanse.
People are now used to watching movies on small screens. We took many risks while making the movie and one of them was shooting in wide shots. I’m making a western. I can’t go to close-ups all the time. I can’t do it. I need to do these wide shots and use the beautiful landscapes in Bolivia. In some ways, these landscapes are going to help recover this old western spirit. That’s what I was trying to accomplish.
In any great western, the landscape acts as a character. I actually had a college film professor who encouraged students shooting with an anamorphic lens to move the characters to the middle of the frame so it would play better in a center-scan television presentation. Television should not dictate how a film appears on a theatre screen, yet with mental patients watching movies on their phones, it’s no wonder contemporary filmmakers shoot everything in closeup. Let’s talk about working with Sam Shepard, a formidable writer and western icon in his own right. Did he make any contributions to the dialog as you went along?
The surprising thing for me was that he was never Sam Shepard the writer. He always worked as an actor. He went straight to the work and tried to make the lines more natural and comprehensible, but never the literary aspect of the lines. He was just another actor which was very generous of him. He was a little bit...I don’t know how to say it...imposing, maybe. It was a big challenge to work such a figure as Sam Shepard.
How different would the film have been if you had done away with the flashbacks? If simplicity is essential to the western genre, wouldn’t it have been simpler just to tell what happened to Sundance and Etta trough a dialog scene?
I am aware that the flashbacks are a delicate issue in the movie. They were so important because they allow the audience to better understand the way the present day Butch Cassidy feels. It was important for us to talk about the special friendship they had in the past, and their ideological way of seeing life. In the first draft, and every draft since, the flashback were in the reverse order. They started with Sundance dying and went in reverse order to when they were young and happy. This added a very special feeling throughout the movie, but for reasons I cannot understand very well — I can understand them, but they are too complicated to explain — it didn’t work. In the end we changed the order of the flashbacks and it got a little bit weird and dysfunctional at times. I decided to keep the flashbacks. If you take them off, the movie would become simpler, and for a western that’s good. In this case, I think they help you understand the present character. I personally like the flashbacks, but I understand that they are kind of weird.
Would you advise people to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” before watching Blackthorn*?
Wow. That’s a strange question. Let me think.
I agree with you that this is not a sequel, continuation, or prequel officially sanctioned by 20th Century Fox. This is a work of fiction, but in a crazy way, the original Butch Cassidy helps to bring viewers up to speed when watching the flashback sequences in Blackthorn.
From the first draft, the possibility of the audience better understanding the flashbacks after having seen the other movie was there. I don’t know. I’m thinking it doesn’t matter if you see the other one or not. You should see it because it’s a beautiful, very funny movie, but for Blackthorn I don’t know that it’s important.
Even though I’m not a fan of the original, it’s still important for people to go back and watch the western films, especially those directed by John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and Sergio Leone. And while you’re at it, go back and look at Richard Lester’s Butch and Sundance: The Early Years.
Butch Cassidy was a fascinating character in real life. What’s very mysterious to me is why more American directors haven’t made more movies about this character. He didn’t rob only for the money. There was a strong ideological thing behind his robberies. He was always trying to avoid violence. He bragged that he never killed anyone.
You run a fine line. People who go to movies do not want stories about legends past their prime. They did it once before with another ideological folk hero, and Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian, as beautiful as it is, never found an audience.
Ah! This is a great movie. A huge movie.
I thought about Robin and Marian while watching Blackthorn because they are essentially both about what happens when a legend gets old and outlives his reputation.
What happens in old age is an important issue in both movies.
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. When I realized that the same mind behind Agora brought me Blackthorn, I immediately asked that an interview be arranged. Thanks for helping to keep genre films alive.
(Laughing.) Thank you very much. You are very nice.
That’s not what my friends tell me. Seriously, It’s films like yours that got me interested in going to movies in the first place. If you entertain me once, you have my attention. Entertain me twice, and it’s like pulling a thorn from my paw. Thanks for the lovely extraction.
Click to read David Elliott's **** review.
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