It’s been over a year now since Viggo Mortensen embarked on the press circuit for Captain Fantastic, seeing Matt Ross’s second feature, Captain Fantastic, draw raves and a standing ovation at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Certainly, the year that followed has been just as welcoming. Repeatedly, Captain Fantastic has announced itself as this year’s little indie that could, netting a Cannes Directing Prize for Ross, an Outstanding Cast nomination from SAG, and various accolades at festivals, domestic and international.
Mortensen, meanwhile, scored SAG, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nominations on the road to his second Oscar nod—this time, for the role of a mourning father raising his children in the Pacific Northwest. Speaking with Deadline following the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, Mortensen discusses Ross’s strengths as a director, bonding with his young co-stars, and the aspects of the film that have kept it relevant throughout the entirety of awards season.
You’ve had quite the journey with Captain Fantastic, beginning at Sundance last year. How has the experience been for you?
We got a great reaction at Sundance—a long, standing ovation and very passionate response—and that’s what we got everywhere we’ve been in the United States, and in many other countries. Even though it won quite a few prizes—particularly, audience awards in Seattle, Rome, Deauville, in South America as well—it came out in the first week of July. That’s ancient history, the way these things go.
If you’d asked me back in Sundance a year ago whether I or anyone else from Captain Fantastic would be attending the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, I would have said, “That’s a really long shot, and not likely.” Not that I wouldn’t have thought then that we deserved it. I was very happy to represent Captain Fantastic today, and I have to say, a lot of people came up to me and said that they loved the movie, or they just watched it a couple days ago. I wish they had watched it months ago, because maybe we would have an Original Screenplay nomination and who knows what else, but I think it’s just difficult for a lot of movies, for them to slip in there.
But it’s been great. I honestly think that in a couple years from now, and even beyond that, of the movies of 2016 that were kind of in the mix, Captain Fantastic and Moonlight—I think those are two movies that will be remembered longer than some other ones. They’re movies that people will want to see more than once, you know? Which is kind of the mark, to some degree.
As a director, Matt Ross brings extensive experience as an actor to bear, but what do you see as the qualities that make him unique as a collaborator?
I remember seeing movies where he had small parts and speaking parts in the ‘90s and since then he’s obviously known to a lot of people from his work in Big Love, and Silicon Valley. He’s a very good actor, and he’s obviously learned well from the directors. I think his goal was to always direct—even when he was a kid, he was making Super 8 movies.
What distinguishes him, like the best directors I’ve worked with, is that he prepares meticulously and is a great listener. His ego doesn’t get in the way of making the most of each day of shooting. He’ll take suggestions from anyone, knowing that he is going to make the final painting. He’ll take everyone’s colors and considers them, and that’s the mark of an intelligent human being and a great listener. There was never any shouting on the set, or angry words.
He had a lot of pressure. It’s a relatively low-budget movie. There’s a lot of kids in it, a lot of multiple-actor scenes. The kids have limited working hours, and a lot of what we shot was outdoors, which is always risky when you’re on a tight schedule. We also had to move locations, almost on a daily basis. He always made us feel like we had plenty of time, and that it was play, which is the best possible thing you can do. But that shows you what a good actor he is, because obviously, you don’t have plenty of time. It’s an illusion he’s creating for everyone. It’s an atmosphere he’s creating on set.
Apart from having written one of the best original screenplays I’ve ever read, his ability to handle very different types of actors with wide range of experience, from zero to Frank Langella, and getting the most out of everyone. He was very helpful and made us all feel like we were a team from long before we started shooting.
Was it easy to find the rapport with the actors playing your children? What exercises did you go through to find that family chemistry on set?
When I read the script, I didn’t even make any notes. I just flipped through it, stopping once in a while in amazement, or just laughing out loud, or very surprised that I was so moved just reading a script.
As I said to Matt when I met him, I said, “Well, okay, this is really good. It’d be almost impossible to make anything short of a decent movie from this script, it’s that good. But to make a great one, you’re going to have to find remarkable young actors.” They have some challenging dialogue, and they have to physically do a lot of things. It’s a tall order. He included me in the final auditions, and all of them—even the ones that got close and didn’t get the part—were so good, so talented, that I just realized that we were going to be fine.
Then, Matt had a boot camp, where we got together, worked really hard on all the collective activities that you see in the movie—the rock climbing, the martial arts, the meditation—the music, especially. Annalise [Basso] and Sammy Isler had to go off and learn how to butcher and skin animals. I had to work on seeming like I could play the bagpipes—things like that. Everybody had their own task, and everybody had to be in good shape.
Everybody was ready, so when we got to those rehearsal weeks, we made the most of it. The best thing, in terms of the movie, being able to shoot it in a stress free way—we got to know each other and like each other, and knew each other’s rhythms on the first day, so Matt Ross was able to go pretty fast. We didn’t waste a lot of time. Even difficult scenes, like when I tell them that their mother is gone—that’s an intense scene, and that was on the third day of shooting.
I looked at Matt when we got the scene shot, which didn’t take that long, and said “Wow, we can do anything now. We’re there.”
A little research into your activities outside of acting suggests you have certain things in common with Ben Cash—a worldliness, a passion for literature. How much did you relate to the character, going in?
There’s bits and pieces, but they’re not all related, and they’re not things that I engage in on a daily basis, by any means. In terms of my whole life, things that I’ve been interested in—the types of poetry and different languages, philosophy, mythology, history, even a little bit of science—things that Matt and I discussed, and some of the political science or social commentary, writers, progressive social thinkers like Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. Those things, I had read. Most of those, I’m familiar with, but there were a couple things that I wasn’t familiar with— some of the high performance training for Olympic athletes, books that Matt sent me or told me about. I read those and found them to be enlightening.
While I agree with and identify with many aspects of the character’s approach to childrearing and society, I’m not extreme as him, and there’s certain things that work in the story, in terms of humor—and shock value, in some cases—but it’s entertaining.
The difference between me and him, for example, is that I didn’t speak to my kid when he was seven years old the way that Ben does to his seven-year-old. He doesn’t differentiate whether we’re talking about sex or death or mental illness, or anything else. He uses the same words to methodically explain things to a seven-year-old that he would to a 17-year-old, and it’s funny, and it works in the movie, but I obviously made adjustments, as my kid got older.
I don’t know of anyone who is as patient as Ben is, in many ways. When you think about a parent who’s a single parent now, in the absence of a wife, and who literally devotes every waking second of his life to help his kids have the best possible start, intellectually, physically, socially, in every way…Well, not socially, as it turns out, because he’s deprived them. He’s overlooked the fact that they’re inept.
He does make mistakes—he’s rigid sometimes. I like those contradictions, that he preaches one thing but at the end, he’s kind of like a benevolent dictator. What’s beautiful in the story is that he does eventually realize it, and he does try in his way to do something about it, which is commendable. I think that’s one of the things that made our movie such a word-of-mouth phenomenon—people could relate to that idea of finding new balance, of not quitting, and realizing that there’s a way out.
I have to say that post-election, that’s when things really started to pick up. I noticed in Q&A’s, for example, that people were starting to ask a lot more questions about society, not just relating personally, in terms of family, to the story—[about] some of the problems that we face as a nation and as a society, which is problems in communication.
The movie speaks to the benefits of making adjustments, rebalancing, listening to people who you normally wouldn’t listen to, or are different than you, or have different opinions, and probably always will. But maybe there’s something you can glean from another point of view. I think that in many ways, the movie has served as a post-election hangover antidote.
What do you think the movie has to say, viewing it from a post-election standpoint?
I think it’s a “Yes We Can” movie. Yes we can, individually, yes we can, as a family, yes we can, as a nation, find a way to listen to each other, and make compromises that we can all live with.
That’s not happening very much right now—there’s not a lot of cohesiveness in the country. You can either feel negatively about it, or you can look at the situation positively. I try to do that, you know? I don’t always succeed, but in the case of what’s going on in the country right now, I feel it’s really positive, because there’s a lot of people who are middle-of-the-road, or not prone to speak up in their communities. There’s a lot of middle-of-the road politicians, even on the more conservative side, who don’t normally stick their neck out, and I’m seeing more and more people of all stripes, politically, starting to speak out and go, “Wait a minute. Is this right? Is this really the United States of America that we aspire to be? Is it okay for our leaders to be telling lies on a daily basis, so many that you can almost not keep up with them?”
People are more socially engaged now with what’s happening than they have been in a long time, so I look at it as a positive thing. The possibilities for U.S. society are too positive, too beautiful, in terms of the most delicate balance that can be found, but you have to keep looking at it.