Viggo Mortensen found himself surrounded by a new cinematic family in the comedy drama, Captain Fantastic (which screens at The Sydney Film Festival), directed by Matt Ross.
© Bleecker Street.
by Christine Westwood
There was a lot of love in the room after the screening of Matt Ross' inspired and heartfelt comedy, Captain Fantastic, at this year's Sundance Film Festival, not least from Viggo Mortensen, who plays the lead role of a father bringing up six kids in the wilderness. All the children have been raised to grow food and hunt, they're philosophers who live without modern technology, and they've all been educated to be super smart. "It was one of the best scripts that I've ever read," says Mortensen. "What you see on the screen is pretty close to what I read the first time. I knew that I was right for it, but I was afraid of it somehow. There were health things going on with my family, and it took me a while to jump in, but Matt was very stubborn about it, which I'll forever be grateful to him for. Sometimes there are things that you know that you can do, but you're afraid of it. As a general rule, those are the things that I remember fondly…those are the things that you have to go after."
Matt Ross (the director of 28 Hotel Rooms, and an actor in many TV series, including Big Love, Magic City, and American Horror Story) said that he didn't write the story with Mortensen in mind. "Maybe Harrison Ford when he was about 40," he jokes. "I didn't really think about it until it came time for casting, and then as soon as I thought of Viggo, it was never a question of anyone else. Doesn't everybody want to be Viggo Mortensen? I do!" Ross is only partly joking. Apart from his talents as a poet, musician, photographer, and painter, Mortensen's acting career has garnered critical respect as well as Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. The star of The Lord Of The Rings, A History Of Violence, Far From Men, and The Road is also known for his unselfish approach to filmmaking, and is known to help the director tell the story by working in collaboration with the camera team and everyone involved.
Captain Fantastic's children, aged six to seventeen, are wonderful, with their vitality and family bond at the heart of the film, while Mortensen is totally believable as the strong, intelligent, loving father, as complete a man as it's possible to imagine, a "Captain Fantastic" indeed. The story turns as the family have to leave the forest and go into the city. There is a culture shock that raises many questions and comments about modern culture as well as providing shocking and funny moments. The father comes to realise that he hasn't prepared his children for the wider world, and he also has to come to terms with his own need to grow and change.
Matt Ross wrote and directed the film, and explained to the audience at the film's after-screening Q&A at Sundance that the story "is not autobiographical, but I did live in a bunch of hippie communes as a kid in California and Oregon. My mother started one. We used to sleep in a tepee, and there were no cell phones, but for me it wasn't biographical as much as aspirational. I have two kids, and I think it was me grappling with being a parent and thinking of what kind of father I wanted to be within the context of the United States. For me, the movie is very much about our country."
Earlier at Sundance, Ross spoke to FilmInk about his choices for the aesthetic of the film. "When people looked at the script, they weren't sure of the visual tone because the script had a lot of comedy in it. There's also a level of realism, so I chose to shoot hand held. I was after a combination of average and also beautiful photography. It didn't feel haphazard. It was like we were actually crafting an image. I adore the work of French cinematographer, Stephane Fontaine, who did A Prophet and Rust And Bone, and I was inspired by him. In casting, I always believed that we would find the right kids. It just took time and patience. We did a rigorous audition process. We saw kids from every English speaking country in the world. It was a long audition and call back process. There were special skills required. We needed kids that were physically strong and active, and who could say the sophisticated language. They had to sound like they knew what they were talking about, and could play instruments. There were all these requirements, and it's a tall order. Ultimately, I cast the kids that I thought were the best actors for the part. Most great film moments are emotional moments, and I needed that from them."
Teenager, Nicholas Hamilton (Strangerland), is from Byron Bay, and plays the second son, Rellian. "I'm sort of the rebel in the family," he told FilmInk at Sundance. "He doesn't believe in his father's virtues and him trying to make us child geniuses living in the forest. He likes some of the things in society, like the technology part of it, but there's a plot twist that I can't talk about. Viggo is just the most kind, generous, giving person that you've ever met. He came on set every day with a book for each of the kids, so by the end, I had about ten books to read. Seeing such a great actor be a lovely person, and so humble and down to earth…well, I've definitely taken that away from the experience.
Eldest son, Bodevan, is played by English actor, George Mackay (Pride). He talked about some of the preparation that they had to do for the role. "We did a bunch of training and a survival course for two days and a night where we learned to track," the actor reveals. "We built a tent, and it was a bonding experience. It was genuinely the most satisfying thing that I've ever done in my life. Building a fire from scratch gave me a great sense of satisfaction."
At the Sundance Q&A, Annalise Basso (Oculus) who plays daughter, Kielyr, spoke emotionally of Ross's script choices. "I'm so grateful that he made us smart because people won't do that a lot for kids," she said. "It's incredible, and I appreciate it so much because as a 17year-old girl, I don't get auditions like this." Shree Crooks, at 8-years-old playing the second youngest child, adds confidently: "We did rock climbing and bow and arrow lessons and yoga. We had a long time to prepare for it. We climbed a mountain in one scene, but we weren't really that high.
"It was high enough for me, though!" Mortensen laughs. "I was the biggest chicken shit of everybody! But I must say that I've worked with good young actors, but never like this. Kids can get bored, but I've never worked with a team of actors anywhere on any movie that's been so committed, prepared and so on top of it. The best directors hopefully do a great job of casting, and then they let you do your thing. On set, they watch everything and they can sense even before you do when you're getting in trouble and not sure what's going on, and then they help you solve problems. With Matt, the bond that he inspired by having us there early, by doing all this training, was amazing. It was an awesome family of actors. I was so happy watching this movie with all of us together." Mortensen gestures at the cast, and at the screen that has just delivered a beautiful filmic experience. "I just love this family!" he says.