Monday, October 3, 2011

Mateo Gil's BLACKTHORN brings back the western, while giving Sam Shepard one of his best roles; a chat with the filmmaker

Among its many other pleasures, BLACKTHORN -- written by Miguel Barros and directed by Mateo Gil -- finally gives us a "Butch and Sundance" movie worth seeing. Featuring nothing like the campy idiocy of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and none of the aren't-we-just-too-cute-to-bear simperings of its leading men and the limited acting ability of its leading lady, this new version boasts fine performances all 'round, as it combines past and present into a strong morality tale that probes everything from responsibility to colonialism, trust, friendship, death and love.

Mr. Gil (shown at right), for whom this film is only his second full-length directorial job, gets just about everything right -- from the swiftly-paced and always interes-ting 98-minute running-time to the glorious, on-location footage shot in Bolivia, from the expert handling of flashbacks to the smart blen-ding of identity and character to the events that deepen and enlarge the film. This is a melan-choly movie, dealing as it does with aging and sins past and present, and yet it does not dwell too heavily on any of this. There is plenty of action, some of it sudden and surprising, and even a little humor, also cropping up at oddly precise times.

Sam Shepard, above, has here one of, if not the best role of his career, and he fills out his "Butch" Blackthorn character splendidly.

In the chat with filmmaker at the end of this post, Gil notes that neither Shepard nor Stephen Rea (above, who plays his nemesis, Mackinley) needed direction. They took their characters and ran with them, and by now, their finely-honed ability to underplay needs little help.

In the roles of, respectively, the young Butch, Sundance and Etta, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (above), Padraic Delaney (below, left) and Dominique McElliigott (below, right) could hardly be better. These young actors bring awonderful sense of freshness and life to the proceedings that beautifully balances the old-timers, while demonstrating how the past is always buried in our present.

The icing on the cake, cast-wise is provided by two performances: One is from the notable Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega (Thesis, The Devil's Backbone), below, who has been so good is so many movies over the past decade. Here he plays the pivotal character of Apodaca, a thief on the run whose connection to Blackthorn proves a game-changer.

The other comes via that exotic and gorgeous Peruvian actress Magaly Solier, below, who has been seen in The Milk of Sorrow and Altiplano. Here, as a Blackthorn'e lovely mistress, she exudes intelligence, charm and beauty in equal measure and adds an intriguing depth of character to a role that could be mere decoration.

Filmmaker Gil uses his locations -- stand-outs all -- as more than mere scenery. Each place, from the salt flats
 to the distant mountains,
to the red rocks and river (below) to the verdant home is made to serve a dual purpose that enriches the movie.

Blackthorn should leave you, as the best westerns do, with the sense of having experienced something major and having wrestled, along with its characters, with right and wrong and a lot of things in between. After playing on VOD for the past month, it opens theatrically, via Magnolia Pictures, this Friday, October 7, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine and in several locations in the Los Angeles area.  Click here for a listing of cities, theaters and dates.


After spending half my day transcribing my interview with Mateo Gil, I managed to somehow delete it all in a single wrong combination of computer keys. As I have no more time to reconstruct, I must do this via memory. Apologies to Señor Gil, who proved a terrific interview, and a smart young man, whose command of English is very good indeed.

I first glimpsed Gil, along with Eduardo Noriega, when the duo appeared in 2000 at the FSLC with their 1999 movie Nobody Knows Anybody, which Gil adapted and directed and in which Noriega starred.  Gil told me how that project came about: A producer brought it to him, first to write, and then later, to direct -- a chance at which he jumped in with both feet. The film proved an enjoyable paranoid thriller, which also proved a good success in Spain. Though I tell the filmmaker that, on the basis of that first movie, I would never have imagined him directing an old-fashioned western like Blackthorn so very well.

This led us to a discussion of why Blackthorn was not a success in Spain, a fact that Gil attributes to Spanish audiences, who seem to reject out of hand most of their home-grown movies.  (This is a fact I have heard now from almost all the young Spanish directors whom I have interviewed and it is one that crops up almost yearly at the FLSC's annual Spanish Cinema Now series.) Gil also finds a political angle here, as he says that the Spanish government pushes Spanish television to support the film industry -- which Spanish TV prefers not to do, often calling Spanish cinema garbage -- even though, each year, one or two Spanish movies (last year it was Cell 211) proves a major hit. Blackthorn got its financing together several years ago, but Gil maintains that, were it to be filmed today, financing could never be raised.

Gil talked about his fears of directing actors such as Shepard and Rea, and how he worried about his ability to properly communicate.  But thanks to the professionalism of the two men, he need not have worried.  They knew their characters and needed very little direction,he explains.  Of the youthful cast members, who played the young Butch, Sundance and Etta, Gil has nothing but praise. When you see the movie, you'll understand why. The fact they these were all European actors (financially, the film was contracted to have only one American, Mr Shepard) meant that they had to come up with credible American accents -- which all of them managed quite nicely.  (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays the young Butch, is Danish! The other two are Irish.) Magaly Solier, a Peruvian actress, had to get her accent right, as well, since she is playing a Bolivian. And she did, Gil insists. (Not that you or I would be aware of this.)

We talked about some of the filmmaker's other films, for which he has written screenplays: the terrific little workplace thriller The Method, which TrustMovies found to be ahead of its time when it was releasedhere a few years ago. Gil seemed surprised by this reaction, but perhaps it hit Europe at precisely the right time, just after protests occurred regarding globalization.  Were The Method ever to be redone here in the USA, Gil, says he'd love to have a shot a rewriting it because he feels certain things were off in the original script.

Another of his screenplays is for the wonderful movie Agora, which though quite a hit in Sain, did not translate to box-office revenue elsewhere. It simply cost too much, the writer feels, and could not recoup  based only on its Spanish success.  "We have only 40 million people in Spain," he explains. He had his first experience directing in English with Agora, because Gil was an assistant director. "It was mostly technical stuff," he tells me, and it did not leave him feeling prepared to direct in English on the set of Blackthorne.

Regarding shooting in Bolivia, this was a very smart move, the filmmaker insists. Money goes much farther there, the locations seems new and novel, and -- when I ask if had had seen the Spanish film Even the Rain, also shot in Bolivia -- he says yes, and that his crew was very lucky to follow Rain's shoot by only a few months. "We learned a lot from their shoot, and we even used some of their crew on ours."

After a half an hour, our time is up and we thank Gil for his movie and his time with us. This is one Spanish filmmaker whom I hope will get behind a camera again soon. He will certainly continue screenwriting, but on the basis of Nobody Knows Anybody and Blackthorn, he has a good command of directing, as well.

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