TIFF 2023: The creative costume design process in Viggo Mortensen’s ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’

Viggo Mortensen’s film  “The Dead Don’t Hurt” centres around French-Canadian flower seller Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps) and Danish carpenter Holger Olsen (Mortensen), as they attempt to forge a new life as immigrants in a corrupt Nevada town. The couple is separated by Holger’s decision to fight for the Union in the burgeoning Civil War, leaving Vivienne to fend for herself in a place controlled by corrupt and violent men.

With the film premiering at TIFF this year, we were interested in chatting with Anne Dixon, Costume Designer to learn about her creative process and how she found ways to reflect each character’s personality.

She explains how costumes are depicted blending together the mayhem and lawlessness of traditional Westerns with the tenderness and moral integrity of a woman fighting for her life during this time period.

Anne Dixon - Costume Designer - The Dead Don't Hurt

How do you approach the research process for designing costumes for this film?

Dixon: After an initial conversation with the director/Viggo and reading the script in depth. I usually start with painters, artists of the time – it gives me a feel, a guttural sense of the pulse of the time – ie: Charles Christian Nahl, Winslow Homer, Mathew Brady photographer, Currier & Ives engravings, George Eldar Hicks painter. It gives me clues in texture, colours, body shapes etc. then I love diving head first into all the different worlds in the script. The Dead Don’t Hurt had many different worlds from the 1860s SanFrancisco high society, theatre, townspeople, carriages, art salons, waterfront docks, seamen, street markets, tradesmen, Chinatown to Old town Nevada saloons, cowboys, frontier folks, miners, Mexicans, Civil War uniform, Siuslaw Tribe to the 1830’s Coureur des Bois, settlers, British troops and even a knight in shining armour. I go through my extensive library of books then I plunge deeply into the web and find information, visuals and start compiling a visual bible, a lookbook for the film.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” is set in the 1860s Western frontier. What steps did you take to ensure the costumes accurately reflect the time period?

Dixon: To reflect the pulse of the story after the extensive research one does, then decompose the words, the scenes and try to visually help the story, the characters. Vivienne is determined to stand up for herself in an unforgiving world dominated by ruthless me – she is the heartbeat of the film so as a Young Vivienne we first see her in warm reds & terracottas then go into salmons and more saturated colours in San Francisco when we see her 30 years later and then when she ventures out into the Sierra Madre town, in Nevada she’s in softer colours and textures compare to the raw brutish world she’s living in.

We wanted honesty and were passionate in trying to make it as real as possible – it’s about the story, the reality of life, the reality of a woman, to have a voice, to have a choice and it happens to be set in the 1860’s – it could be now it could be then – we wanted honesty, we did not want it to be a big period costume fashion show – we wanted it to be real.

I completely dissected the world we are into to figure out the characters – Vivienne, on the horse she travels across the mountains to get to Elk Flat what does she bring of hers on the horse – does the town have a tailor, how often does the stage coat come to town – how often do they bring bolts of fabric in town, do they have a cobbler, how often did they wash, etc… – all these questions give you clues in designing and creating the characters. We have the “ceinture flèché” that follows Vivienne that becomes the thread in the film – we wanted to make sure of the authenticity and I got an artist from Quebec to traditionally weave 3 belts for the film.

The Dead Don't Hurt photo courtesy of TIFF
The Dead Don’t Hurt photo courtesy of TIFF

Costumes often play a crucial role in character development. How do you collaborate with directors and actors to create costumes that enhance the characters’ personalities and stories?

Dixon: Viggo is such a Renaissance man and has a great vocabulary in visuals & details. It’s the same creative team as in “Falling” therefore we have a shorthand together. Viggo has great respect for one’s craft – it is a seamless dialogue – it completely flows from a landscape to a tiny detail on a feather. We constantly share our thoughts, and ideals, our visuals keeping us all on the same pulse, and the same essence visually.

The actors often come later in the dialogue. I am often the first one to guide them into the world we are creating – my extensive lookbook helps them visualize when they arrive for their fittings. We then have discussions about their character and slowly layer upon layer I sculpt on them with the costume pieces until together we create the character and they become one – I love this process – it’s always exciting to visually see it realized. Vicky was amazing in the fitting as we discovered Vivienne – she’s extremely creative and authentic.

What is your process for selecting fabrics, colours, and textures that convey the mood and atmosphere of a Western film, and how do you incorporate these choices into your designs?

In this instance, it was important to have natural fabrics so we could overdye it and break it down properly. Again to make the costumes feel real and honest. The colours and textures -after the initial ideas we have ongoing discussions within the creative team as the locations are getting determined, the availability of light, the type of furniture and the casting of the actors etc. fluctuates and we adjust in keeping the essence of our concept.

The Dead Don’t Hurt was a passionate journey Viggo put together with the collaboration of incredible people from all over the world.

Viggo Morstensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt makes its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival

You can learn more about the film here: www.tiff.net


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