Good acting is seamless, right? That's why everyone thinks they can do it. Good acting should look absolutely seamless.
Twitter was all a buzz following the world premiere of Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic at Sundance earlier this year after receiving a crowd-pleasing reception. Now a Cannes Un Certain Regard selection, the film stars Viggo Mortensen as shaggy polymath Ben, the surviving half of a counter-culture couple living in a hand-built tepee out in the wilderness as a self-reliant family unit, far away from the consumer-driven modern world. So much so that it’s not until days later, once reunited with the nearest telephone line, that he receives an update about his bipolar wife Leslie who’d been away for several months to receive treatment. “She killed herself,” announces Ben to his children with his usual directness. “She finally did it.” This is where Ross’ family drama begins. Determined to cremate rather than bury Leslie to honor her last will and testament, Ben and his six home-schooled children—Bodevan, Nai, Rellian, Zaja, Kielyr, and Vespyr!—set out on the obligatory road trip to New Mexico in a hacked school bus named “Steve” to rescue her body.
Captain Fantastic marks Ross’ follow-up to the 2012 Sundance hit 28 Hotel Rooms. The writer-director is actually better known for his extensive acting background, having more recently appeared on TV shows like Silicon Valley and American Horror Story. This is entirely subject to change, of course, especially considering his back-to-back successes behind the camera. His films, and Captain Fantastic in particular, are meticulously wrought and peppered with big emotions.
As for Mortensen, he’s notoriously choosy with roles and projects, and so simply doesn’t appear in many films. This is telling: the actor had no credits to his name at all in 2013 and 2015. As you might’ve guessed, he shines in Captain Fantastic. As is often the case with Mortensen, every beat of his character is fine-tuned so effortlessly. He’s genuinely sincere and lovable, even if for much of the film you might find that his character’s approach to parenting is absolutely clinically insane.
The 69th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11 to May 22.
Q&A with Matt Ross
You had a very excitable crowd at the premiere last night from start to finish. How did the Cannes reception compare to the premiere at Sundance?
The reaction at Sundance was very positive. We got a standing ovation at almost every screening. Here, the standing ovation went on for ten minutes and that’s unique to Cannes. I know they boo here as well, but the length of the standing ovation was shocking and wonderful. I think maybe another difference is that it’s an American film so, culturally speaking, the French viewers’ reactions were European. It’s different insofar as they had the point of view of the protagonist reflecting on U.S. culture maybe more significantly than Americans do. Americans might see the movie and say, “That’s true about some things. There are some people who are very overweight in our culture and poorly educated,” or believe this or believe that or whatever. I think it addressed both the cultural stereotypes and cultural issues that other countries have with our country.
So you wrote Captain Fantastic around four years ago? Is that right?
I had a movie called 28 Hotel Rooms at Sundance in 2012, and I wrote this while we were editing that. I gave the script to Lynette Howell Taylor, my producer, so I guess I wrote it in 2011.
What was going on in your life when you wrote Captain Fantastic?
Yeah, sure. I’m the father of two kids. I was thinking about what kind of father I wanted to be, what my values are, and what values I wanted to pass onto my children. Do you have kids?
If you don’t have kids, your values are maybe based around your friends and parents. Whatever you do, like if you smoke and want to quit smoking, you think about yourself. I don’t mean selfishly, I just mean you’re thinking about yourself and maybe your partner. When you have kids, you start to curate someone else’s life. You start thinking about, well, what am I feeding them? And is it okay to be on the phone all day long? What are my kids watching? What are they eating? Should I be walking him to school as opposed to driving him? What am I teaching him? What am I passing on? The movie was a way to dramatize certain questions I was asking myself.
I loved 28 Hotel Rooms by the way. I have the poster with Marin Ireland’s signature on it.
Oh my god. I have to shake your hand again. You’re one of the six people who saw the movie.
I actually interviewed Marin and Chris Messina when they were promoting it. Working with two actors in contained spaces seems like a great place to start learning about directing.
Yes, yes. I made a bunch of short films before that. I also had a couple of projects that never got off the ground, but I got tired of that happening. Truly, I wanted to make a small relationship movie. I wanted to do something that’s all about a relationship and an affair was a prism through which to look at a particular relationship. But, yes, it was a smart thing to begin with because it was a series of rooms involving only two people. I could really concentrate on the filmmaking, what the camera was doing, and the acting. So much of filmmaking is about the logistics of getting from one place to another. If we were shooting a scene here right now and the next scene is you and I inside a bank over there, it takes three hours to move the crew, to break everything down and get it across town. But if we’re in this room all day and we just move over there, we have so much time to explore. I wanted to create an environment where the actors aren’t required to deliver a performance between “Action!” and “Cut!” We did a lot of exploring on that film and there was a lot of improvisation.
What did you take away from 28 Hotel Rooms that maybe informed your second feature?
That directing is a moveable feast, if that’s a proper metaphor. The most telling antidote I’ve ever heard about directing is from James Gray, I think, in his talking about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and the famous scene with Luca Brasi. Apparently, the actor who played Luca Brasi was a professional wrestler who’d never acted before. He was so nervous to work with Marlon Brando that he kept on screwing up his lines. They shot like 30 takes and ran out of time and didn’t get the scene. Coppola yelled, “Cut! We got it,” and everyone’s like, “You don’t have it at all.” Coppola then shot a scene with Luca Brasi trying to memorize the lines that he would then go and fail to deliver. So he filmed the set-up after the scene. To be that nimble is part of directing. I read that Nicolas Winding Refn shoots in chronological order so he can constantly change the movement of the narrative if he needs to. You have to be open. I never pretend to have all the answers.
Shooting chronologically is such a rare opportunity, it’s like a fable.
Oh, it’s extremely rare. We couldn’t do that on Captain Fantastic.
If given the chance, would you be interested in exploring that?
I would like to try, sure! Every film dictates its own infrastructure. On this movie, I couldn’t do the same things I did on 28 Hotel Rooms because I have a bunch of kids. They could only work a certain amount of hours. Also, this was a more structured film and I labored a lot over the dialogue, and I thought it worked and I wanted to say most of it. It’s not that I wasn’t open to improv. I was just very specific. It was a very specific tone that I wanted to capture. This family speaks in a very specific way. They’re highly intelligent and very well read. It’s hard to improvise that.
I often ask actors what it’s like to work with directors with an acting background but, strangely, so seldom get to ask actor-turned-directors what it’s like to work with actors.
[Laughs] I think it makes them comfortable because I’m an actor. I think a lot of directors don’t understand the acting process. I think they feel alienated from it. They’re either overtly respectful or overtly disdainful of it, you know? It’s very hard! Good acting is seamless, right? That’s why everyone thinks they can do it. Good acting should look absolutely seamless. It’s like ducks: the feet are really moving under the water. I think I understand the process because I’ve been an actor my whole life. Truthfully, I love acting and I love actors. Not all directors do. I’ve worked with directors who know a lot about acting, but nothing about camera. I’ve worked with directors who know nothing about acting and all they care about is camera. I’ve worked with directors who know nothing about either and I don’t understand why the fuck they want to to be a director. And I’ve worked with a lot of directors who know a lot about both and, frankly, that’s your fucking job. You should be just as attentive to the camera department, the visuals, and the storytelling as you are with the acting. Most people go to the movies to have an experience through the actors. They don’t sit there going, “What a beautiful dolly shot.” They think, “Oh my god, look at how Viggo is revealing himself,” because that’s what it is. For me, there’s a great joy in working with actors and solving problems because every scene has problems. It’s a dance and I love that.
Actors often talk about how it’s difficult to watch their own performances. How does that compare to watching a film that you wrote and directed?
It’s actually more painful. It’s more painful because it’s more personal in a way. The truth is that, as an actor, I might not like the way I look and go, “I look like that?” We all feel that way. Someone takes a picture of you and you’re like, “Fuck! Can you take a better one?” We’re all human. Whether you’re narcissistic or not, we’re very vulnerable. The second thing is: did you do a good job? The worry is that you didn’t give it your all. When I watch myself as an actor, I just think, “I thought I was better than that.” But it’s not personal because I’m a dancer in someone else’s dance, you know what I mean? I didn’t write it. As a director, and for films that I’ve written myself, it’s very personal because it’s my take on the world. Every moment is crushingly vulnerable. I feel very vulnerable as a director, way more than I do as an actor. As an actor, I can always say, “Hey, I didn’t write it.” [Laughs] I’m doing the best I can, but I’m also just one part of the narrative.
Are you currently developing your third feature?
I think I’ll do something radically different. It’s like how no actor wants to play the same role over and over again. Captain Fantastic is a family drama that’s spiritually positive and now I want to make something very different. I heard that Tom Stoppard—and, please, I’m not comparing myself to Tom Stoppard—has ideas itch at him for a while before he puts the pieces together, and that rings very true to me. I have a couple of ideas for stories and they occupy wildly different genres.
Q&A with Viggo Mortensen
The audience last night was quite exuberant, even before the movie started. How did that compare to the experience that you had at Sundance?
On one level, they were similar in that they were positive, which is what you hope for. But you never know. Film festivals are strange things because they can go in many different ways. The kids in the movie are like, “I love Cannes! I’m coming back here!” and I told them, “First of all, getting invited to be a part of one of the competitions at Cannes is rarefied. Some really good actors never even get that opportunity. You’re lucky to even walk the red carpet. Not only that, it’s rare to get a long standing ovation for your work because that’s not always the case here. The normal thing is that they clap to be polite. Sometimes they boo or hiss, or leave even before the movie is over.” They’re like, “That’s so rude!” but that’s life. This is the big time as far as festivals go, you know?
You’re being real, which echoes your character’s parenting approach in Captain Fantastic.
Right. Sundance has a knowledgeable audience as they do at Cannes, which is very opinionated. It was pretty rapturous at Sundance, but there were some caveats I found. It was mostly a positive reaction, but maybe some people wanted quick-fix answers. Maybe it was too idealistic or extreme for some viewers. If you really watch the movie, there’s a lot more to it. Last night, I got the sense that people were going, “Oh my god! Who are these people? Is this the end of the world? That’s an extreme way of talking to your kids” and so forth. Then, all of a sudden, you realize that the characters aren’t taking themselves too seriously. The movie doesn’t either because there’s humor in it. There’s a lot going on and, ultimately, it’s not about these liberal, off-the-grid people you’re going to follow through thick and thin. On many levels, the film is about communication. It’s about being open to changing your mind about things and balancing things out as individuals. What does “Captain Fantastic” even mean? You might as well call it “The Perfect Dad.” It’s an ideal that you’re never going to achieve because it’s not possible. And yet, it doesn’t mean you don’t try.
Is this a message movie?
It’s not, but there are things you can take away. I like that it encourages the audience to think for themselves in the same sense that my character encourages his children to think for themselves. But that can also come back to bite you in the ass. When you get your kids to think for themselves, for instance, they’ll turn around and go, “I’ve been thinking and you’re full of shit, dad.” [Laughs] We might never agree on that point, but we can agree to disagree. At least we’ve engaged.
Do you think that we don’t think for ourselves as much as we should in general?
This makes up for much of the problem in our country right now. There’s a lot of polarization. There’s a lot of not listening at all. As usual, it’s the politicians who are the first to exploit that in the media for ideological reasons. I can get elected if I say, “Yes, I’m right and you’re wrong. Don’t listen to them. Don’t learn about that. Trust me. I’ll make it possible for you to continue ignoring everything. Don’t let them into the country. Don’t let them have the same voting rights as you do.” That’s dangerous and lazy. These are things that the movie addresses indirectly, which I like. I like it when movies make you think about your life’s big questions without being told to.
Have you gotten the chance to see this movie with your family?
My son saw it with me at Sundance. One of my brothers saw it there as well, and liked it and laughed. He recognized some of my eccentricities, particular phrases, and ways of doing things from our upbringing maybe. But that’s not to say that my brothers and I had an upbringing that’s close to what’s depicted in the movie. I will say that it was unlike my father who was always like, “I’ll work and then come back. I may see you before dinner, but maybe not. I may tuck you in, but maybe not.” Typical of his generation he said, “I’m there, but not there. I don’t have the time.”
Did that inform your own parenting skills?
Unlike my dad, I’m very hands-on. I’m interested in what my son is reading and watching, to the point of annoying him sometimes. I’m like, “Why are you reading this? What are you watching? That’s a terrible movie!” He’s like, “Dad, I’m just watching it. Leave me alone.”
How has fatherhood transformed your life? Was it scary?
You either do or you don’t. It’s like, “I’m going to stay up as long as I want and eat whatever I want.” You’re basically getting up early for breakfast for the kids and to take them to school. They get sick this week so I have to take them to the hospital. You have to forget what you were planning to do. Some people have a harder time adjusting. The trick is to make the transition seamless so that you’re not giving up your life. This is your life now. It doesn’t mean everything’s over in terms of what you’re used to. It’s an important addition and no one can make you do it.