Mateo Gil takes on the western with ‘Blackthorn’

October 5, 2011

To writer-director Mateo Gil, the western is the essence of the movies. Which is why his film “Blackthorn” is, in his words, “a very personal statement.”

“I grew up watching westerns on TV,” Gil, 39, says, sitting in a lounge of a SoHo hotel in Manhattan. “To say ‘western’ is to say ‘cinema.’ It’s a very pure genre.

“It has action, suspense, the entertainment, the romanticism. More important, it is always based in the moral-political conflict. We sometimes forget that, but it’s very important for dramatic writing, this political-moral basis. It makes the western very useful. Historically, the western was the narrative of how a country was born and grew. So it’s logical that the western is political. It always deals with how the individual interacts with his environment and with other people.”

So Gil, a Spanish filmmaker who wrote “Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes),” “The Sea Inside” and “Agora,” teamed with pal Miguel Barros, who had written “Blackthorn,” to get the movie made. They got starting funds from Spanish public television – and then shot in Bolivia, where the movie is set, because it was much cheaper than Spain, and because the Bolivian landscape provided the perfect backdrop for the film.

“It was a very hard shoot – but, in Spain, we couldn’t have done it,” Gil says. “It’s a very small movie – only $3.5 million Euros. Even than, we had to cut a lot of things and make painful decisions. That’s something I’m still learning as a director: how to deal with the lack of money, how to present the essence of the story when you have to shoot in difficult circumstances. This is the hardest part – but the lack of money always exists.”

“Blackthorn” takes liberties with the lore surrounding American outlaw Butch Cassidy who, with his partner, the Sundance Kid, supposedly was killed in an ambush in Bolivia, after the pair relocated there in the early part of the 20th century. In Barros’ script, Cassidy escaped with his life and spent the next 20 years living a quiet life of solitude in Bolivia under the name James Blackthorn. But, as the film begins, he decides to return to the United States to see the son of Etta Place, who may or may not be his.

Though Gil considered a number of actors, his decision was made for him when Sam Shepard agreed to read the script – then jumped at the chance to play the role.

“Apart from Sam being a fan of westerns, and the fact that he really is a cowboy, there were some issues in the script that he was very interested in,” Gil says. “The loneliness of the character, thoughts about the past and coming back home – that was all important to him. And horses – that was one of the main reasons, that he got to ride horses.

“He liked the fact that it was about friendship and about the love between him, Sundance and Etta Place. He liked the political side of the movie, that we talked about the mines, the miners and the owners.”

For Gil, being a filmmaker was never a consideration when he was growing up in a poor area of Spain: “When I was a child, I didn’t even know there was a director,” he says. “I dreamed of being an actor. But at 13 or 14, I discovered who the director is and this was what I wanted to be. But where I came from, you didn’t think about things like this so I kept it a secret.”

He went to college in Madrid to study communications with the idea of being a journalist. But he met classmate Alejandro Amenabar and began making short films with him, a collaboration that led to their future work together.

“He was so talented and he gave me the opportunity to write for him,” Gil says. “I was really, really bad. But my experience working with him allowed me to learn a lot of things. Now they think I’m a good screenwriter.”

Gil and Amenabar are part of a Spanish film scene that is growing. But Gil finds that their films are more popular elsewhere than in his home country.

“My impression is that people like Spanish films more outside of the country than they do in Spain,” he says. “Spanish films have a bad image inside our country. It has to do with political and ideological reasons. Outside Spain, people respect them. We only have 40 million people in Spain so it’s very difficult to keep an industry going with such a small market. American films are what 90 percent of the screens have.

“As a result, more Spanish filmmakers are making films that feel more American, which seems dangerous to me. I feel happy when Pedro Almodovar makes his weird movies; they have such personality. Every country should maintain a national feeling. It makes the cinema more diverse and rich. Although I admit that ‘Blackthorn’ is a very American-like movie.”

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