Sam Shepard plays an aging Butch Cassidy in Mateo Gil’s fanciful 2011 western.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Nearly two decades after secretly surviving the shootout that supposedly brought a bloody quietus to his outlaw career, Butch Cassidy is alive and well – but a great deal less than content – in Bolivia. That’s the provocative premise of Blackthorn, a handsomely produced and wistfully elegiac western starring a perfectly cast Sam Shepard as the long-retired bank robber.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Mateo Gil – arguably best known in the United States as the scriptwriter of Open Your Eyes (1997), a thriller remade (with Tom Cruise in the lead role) as Vanilla Sky (2001) — Blackthorn catches up with Butch in the Bolivian backwater where he’s long lived under an assumed name (James Blackthorn) as a horse rancher. Eager to return to the United States after his extended exile, he sets out on a homeward journey. Along the way, he loses his horse — and his savings — but gains a new partner in crime: Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), a novice thief who, if he lives long enough, could learn a lot from his cantankerous tutor.
Just before Blackthorn kicked off its U.S. theatrical run in 2011, we lassoed Mateo Gil to talk about his work as the ramrod on this project.
Cowboys & Indians: Mateo, you’ve been very active as a scriptwriter – and, more recently, as a director – in Spain. But there’s been nothing on your resume up until now that’s anything quite like Blackthorn. Is this movie yet more proof that, deep down, every director everywhere really wants to make a western?
Mateo Gil: [Laughs.] When I think about this movie, sometimes I think of it like a miracle. Because, really, it was difficult to get the money in Spain to make a western. Because in Spain, westerns are not very popular anymore. People aren’t used to seeing westerns anymore. Young people, I mean. When I was a child, I used to see a lot of westerns on television. And I learned my first lessons about cinema by watching westerns. But it’s not a favorite genre of young people right now. So, like I say, when the producer told me he raised the money –- not a lot of money, but some money – to make a western, I thought it was a kind of miracle.
C&I: Your film imagines that Butch Cassidy didn’t actually die in 1908 while tangling with the Bolivian military. But when you catch up with him years after that famous stand-off – he’s still in Bolivia, right?
Mateo: That’s true. And the fact that the movie was set in Bolivia was one of the factors that allowed us to do the movie. For two reasons. If this western would have been set in North America, maybe I would have been a little scared because I am a Spanish director. Maybe people would not have accepted this. But because this movie is in Bolivia, it’s like saying, “OK, this is not a pure Western, so please don’t get angry with us.” [Laughs.] And the other reason was, Bolivia is not an expensive country for moviemakers. And you have many places that have kept like they were a hundred years ago. So we didn’t have to spend too much money building cities or streets. We found almost everything we needed already there.
C&I: How did you get Sam Shepard to sign on to play Butch Cassidy?
Mateo: To be honest, we didn’t think any American actor would read our script. But we were very lucky with Sam Shepard. He didn’t know my name, or anything about me. But he liked the script very much, because he loves westerns. The good thing is, we had an English casting director, Jina Jay, who was very well connected to Hollywood. And she was able to get the script to Sam.
C&I: Have you always been an admirer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the 1969 Western that featured Paul Newman as Butch?
Mateo: I’m really a great fan of that movie. And I think our screenwriter and producer are fans, too. But we felt that movie could not be a direct reference for us. Obviously, they have a lot of elements in common. But our film is smaller, and our tone is more nostalgic. It’s kind of a homage to the old westerns.
C&I: Sam Shepard isn’t the only familiar face in the cast. You also have Irish actor Stephen Rea, who’s done everything from The Crying Game to Interview With the Vampire to V for Vendetta. He plays a Pinkerton agent who’s still hunting for Butch Cassidy. How did he get attached to the project?
Mateo: Stephen Rea has the same agent as Sam. So we were very, very lucky, because Stephen and Sam are very good friends. They admire each other. And Stephen has worked two or three times with Sam in the theater. And the very good thing is, Stephen was in my mind from the beginning. So, to me, this is another miracle.
Blackthorn currently is available for streaming on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and other platforms.