Dead Butch? Mateo Gil Talks Up Blackthorn

At the memorable end of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Yankee bank robbers Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) face off against scores of sharp-shooting lawmen and soldiers in Bolivia. After Butch informs Sundance that the bandit duo should consider Australia with its beautiful beaches and easy banks their next stop, they run out of the alcove where they are hiding, pistols in hand, where they are greeted by hails of bullets as the picture freeze-frames on the outlaws. The color fades to sepia tone as the gunfire continues. The End.

Or is it? Not according to Blackthorn, a new film that proposes that Butch Cassidy survived the ordeal, and lived a good 20-plus years beyond that altercation in the guise of Bolivian farmer James Blackthorn.

The film is an old fashioned western, actually shot in Bolivia, filled with wide open spaces, gorgeous, rugged scenery, and an interesting take on the Butch and Sundance legend. In many ways, it is the opposite of George Roy Hill’s box-office smash. The pace is leisurely, the film has a solemn tone and there are no raindrops falling on anybody’s head to keep the non-western fans entertained. Instead, we get a meditative work, more in tune with such elegiac sagebrushers of the Butch Cassidy era as Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand or Frank Perry’s Doc.

Here, Sam Shepard plays the elderly Butch—er, James Blackthorn—who, after all those years in South America, decides it’s time to return to the States. Putting a crimp in his plan is an encounter with Eduardo Apodaca (Carlos star Eduardo Noriega), a Spanish scalawag who has robbed a load of cash from a mine. He promises Blackthorn half of the loot if he agrees to help him, but it turns out there is more to Apodaca’s story than he first lets on. Meanwhile, Blackthorn recalls his earlier days with the Sundance Kid and Etta Place and gets a visit from a former Pinkerton detective (Stephen Rea) who was once in hot pursuit of him.

Blackthorn was helmed by Mateo Gil, the celebrated Spanish screenwriter directing his second feature. Gil is best-known for penning several acclaimed films for Alejandro Amenabar, including 1997’s Open Your Eyes (which Cameron Crowe remade as Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise), 2005’s Oscar-winning The Sea Inside with Javier Bardem, and 2008’s Agora.

MovieFanFare recently spoke to Gill, 38, from New York, where his film was about to open in theaters.

MovieFanFare: One would imagine getting a western off the ground isn’t the easiest thing these days. Did Blackthorn take a long time to put together?

Mateo Gil: A few years. The longest part was to get the money. I think we started in 2007. Westerns have problems in North America, and to get them released in Spain it’s a bigger problem. Old people like westerns, and they don’t go to theaters. And young people don’t seem to like them anymore.

MFF: Whose idea was it to cast Sam Shepard in the lead?

MG: Sam Shepard was my idea. When we were preparing the movie, we didn’t think an American actor would be interested. A week after sending it to him he said yes, no questions asked.

MFF: Did you have rehearsals?

MG: We had readings in Bolivia which we started nine days before shooting. Fortunately, all the actors are great. It was an important element that they knew perfectly well what to do. They were all fond of westerns and the crew was, too. This is useful for me. You can understand everyone better when it’s a well defined genre.

MFF: We would guess you have to be a western fan to make a film like this.

MG: Of course! I love Sergio Leone and I’m a fan of Peckinpah and many others. In my mind, they were all in this in some way. I felt this energy. This was a difficult thing to film, on location in Bolivia, and we stressed all the days. But everyone was happier because we were making a western.

MFF: What was the most difficult aspect of shooting Blackthorn?

MG: It was difficult for me to work with the actors because of my English being not so good. We had some problems because I couldn’t explain myself well enough. Sam (Shepard), Stephen (Rea) and the others were clever and did perfectly well with the script and paying attention. If I had to do another movie in English, I would improve my English first.

MFF: Sam Shepard actually sings on the soundtrack to your film. How did that occur?

MG: I didn’t know he could sing so well. I wanted traditional American songs, but to buy them was so expensive. We didn’t have the money. When we went into shooting, Sam and I discussed this. He said if you want, you can take some traditional American films and I will sing them.

MFF: Can you compare your film to the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

MG: There is a big difference because of tone. The original, it’s a masterpiece. People in America love this movie and it is very risky to make this continuation. My main intention to make it was to do it in a very ‘70s mood. Our intention was to make a homage, but it is melancholic and different. I wasn’t trying to do a true continuation. Psychologically and ideologically, it’s closer to the ‘70s style and a little bit like a movie of the ‘80s and ‘50s.

MFF: We know there have been things written questioning the ending of the original film—that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid only faced a few people as opposed to the legions of soldiers the 1969 film depicts. But is there anything written to suggest that Butch lived for years later?

MG: There are historic doubts whether he died in Bolivia then. But everything is fictional (in Blackthorn) and everything pretends to be just a tale.

MFF: Do you plan to do more directing or will you continue working as a screenwriter with Alejandro Amenabar?

MG: I would like to direct again, and I would like to write with him again. We are going to work together again soon.