For those of you tired of the seemingly endless supply of children’s animated films and/or Marvel Comic spin-offs, two new movies for serious film buffs offer respite this summer season, and I highly recommend them both.
First (because I saw it first, in Chicago, with the director present) would be “Captain Fantastic,” and, no, it is NOT a Marvel picture. Ross even told the impressed audience who had just sat through the film, that he was unaware that there was a comic book movie of the same name, as well as an Elton John album, but that he likes “powerful titles.”
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has removed his children from society, living a seemingly idyllic life in the woods of Oregon. (Note: Director Matt Ross, himself, attended Julliard by way of Ashland, Oregon). The main character opts to educate his children on his own, but, as Matt Ross told “CineArts” magazine: “If we’re analyzing Ben’s faults, it is that he really hasn’t prepared them in terms of socialization to the world outside. He has this idea that, in order to really teach his children his values, he needs to take control of their education and their environment. In a larger case, that is true for everyone. We send our kids to school and hope that it’s the truth that they are being told and taught.”
After the showing of the film at the AMC Theater in Chicago (it opened July 13th), Ross answered questions for the audience, and many of them had to do with the casting process for the children and the lead, played by Viggo Mortensen.
First, let it be noted that this is a film about family and the other great film of the summer (so far), “The Infiltrator” with Bryan Cranston, is also a film about family. Said Ross: “I think all great dramas are about the family. Look at The Godfather. What is it really about? It’s about family. Tonally, it’s a very different movie, but about family.” A great line from “The Infiltrator is this one, articulated by Benjamin Bratt’s character: “Without family or friends, what kind of world would this be? There would be no reason to be alive.”
Ross—who has an impressive array of movie and television roles to his credit, including Alvy Grant in “Big Love,” as well as roles in “American Psycho” (2000), “Face/Off” (1997), and “The Aviator” (2004)—both wrote and directed “Captain Fantastic” and it won him the Best Director award at Cannes for new directors, something he admits pleased him immensely.
The writer/director was also able to draw on his own life experiences as the product of a mother who was active in the eighties in commune-type life in North Carolina and Oregon, explaining that his parents were “artisans who didn’t’ want to live in cities, but in harmony with nature. I also lived in London and some people had electricity and plumbing. Some did not. We celebrate Noam Chomsky Day (Dec. 7th) at my house.” (A recurring film point).
Ross also admits that becoming a father, himself (he has two children) was a factor in the film’s genesis, saying, “For me, personally, the reason I wanted to tell this story is because I have two kids and I was certainly thinking, ‘What are my values? What do I want to teach my children?’”
The conflict in the film comes when Matt Cash’s wife, who is bi-polar, dies. Matt (Viggo Mortensen) and his unorthodox family are not exactly welcome at the funeral being planned by her father and mother (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd). It is obvious that Claire’s father (Langella) may blame Ben for his daughter’s death, and they have no intention of honoring her wishes of having a Buddhist funeral, cremating her remains and scattering her ashes. It is this crusade on the part of her husband and children to honor her wishes in death that becomes a major plot point, as they drive to the funeral destination, cross-country, on their family bus.
One reviewer dissed this plot idea, but it serves the purpose of injecting even more conflict into the plot and making Ben Cash aware of how his own viewpoint about the world might not be the only point-of-view that his young children should be exposed to. In one of the most poignant scenes of the entire movie, Viggo is simply shown driving the bus, thinking that he has sacrificed his entire family to society (i.e., giving them up to his wife’s parents to raise) for their own good.
Mortensen displays why he is such a perfect choice for the role and what a great actor he is during that scene, which consisted of no dialogue at all, but simply his own communing with his thoughts as he drives.
Ross said, during the Q&A, that Viggo Mortensen was his first choice to play the role, and it is quite easy to understand why if you know anything about Mortensen’s somewhat unorthodox lifestyle. Aside from Gary Busey, I’ve not read more stories about a leading man who “lives off the land” and generally has unusual idiosyncrasies in his personal life. Said Ross during the Q&A of the film in Chicago: “Viggo is always very real and very simple. On paper, the main character was more of a playful father. Viggo had a bit more of a center for him. Any actor will make a part their own. With actors, you get to see their work habits. For most people, you are not cognizant of the mechanics. Great film moments are great acting moments. Some directors do not like actors, but I have acted and I don’t feel that way. The answer is that I believe that if you’re reading and playing instruments and you are intelligent, you are right for these parts.
Ross even shared that Viggo showed up early with definite ideas about Ben Cash’s character. Said Ross: “He (Mortensen) helped build the set. He came a couple of weeks early and slept in the tipi before and during the shoot. He built the garden by himself and made sure it was a functional garden that would sustain itself throughout the year. He showed up with a pick-up truck full of props and books. We had an excellent prop department on hand, but he felt very strongly about what kinds of books the characters might read. I wanted to cast someone I believed could really live in this environment an actually understands what he’s talking about.” Said Ross to “CineArts’ Frank Gonzales, “That’s a tall order. You need an actor who can portray someone who is well spoken, well read, and very intelligent. These are challenges you have to navigate with casting, but with Viggo you absolutely believe it!”
Q1: What about the children in the film? How were they cast?
A1: “It was a traditional casting process with Jean Carthy doing the casting. We cast in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. We had an extensive call-back process. I wanted kids who were fit, who could play musical instruments. All the goods are objectively good actors, but I made judgment calls based on their spirit. For some kids, there was only one choice. I wanted them to look like Viggo’s—that they could be from the same gene pool. We were in Washington state for two weeks. Then we sent the kids to a wilderness camp: rock climbing. Rehearing music. Esperanto. Two girls actually killed a deer. Yoga. Viggo was learning to play the bagpipes. Training changed their eating habits during the time of shooting. Ultimately, we wanted them all to fall in love with Viggo. (*The children were Bo: George McKay; Rellian: Nicholas Hamilton; Kielyr:Samantha Isler; Vespyr: Annalise Basso; Zaja: Shree Crooks; Nai; Charlie Showell).
Q2: Talk a little about your directing style.
A2: I went through the script, line-by-line, and talked them through it. The way I like to work is they have their lives and they could follow them and improvise. I’m not propping up a dead object, but creating a living, breathing thing. Charlie picking his nose around the fire because he forgot he was being filmed is an example of that. Film is a collaborative medium.
In this way, Ross’ words echo the sentiment expressed regarding “The Infiltrator” in Frank Gonzales’ “CineArts” summer film guide this way: “All great moments in sports, in moviemaking, and in life are not done alone and in a vacuum. Just as a pro-golfer or tennis player needs a coach to nurture and push their talents to championship levels, a great movie is usually the result of a team of actors and artists working together to reach unprecedented heights. And the coach that gets them there is the director.”
Q3: What’s the deal with the Noah Chomsky references recurring throughout the film?
A3: (*Noah Chomsky is an intellectual who is far, far left). For me, personally, I think he’s a brilliant human being, a great humanitarian. You’d have to ask him about making his birthday (December 7th) a holiday like Festivus. He’s still alive. He might be appalled.
Q4: Talk about the opening scene of the movie, shot in the wilderness and involving the death of a deer.
A4: There is a tradition of felling a deer with nothing but a knife. I think it is felt that, in that way, they honor the deer. (Masai tribesmen sent their young men out to kill a lion with just a spear.)
Q5: When you conceived the story, did you have the backstory of Viggo’s wife Claire being bi-polar?
Ross, when asked about how the family was able to survive in the wild (what about money?) said, “I purposely chose not to answer that. I think there are clues in the movie. She had a lucrative law career. I think they have savings and they are frugal.”
More about “The Infiltrator” momentarily.