Viggo Mortensen, as a first-time director, sees himself as 'a movie story-teller'
Viggo Mortensen was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in 2018's "Green Book," but his long career includes Oscar nominated roles in 2017's "Captain Fantastic" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," (2007). Mortensen has been memorable in films as different as "A History of Violence" and "Crimson Tide," and then, of course, there's "Lord of the Rings."
His new film, "Falling," is a bit of a departure.
He wrote the screenplay, directed and stars as John, a man grappling with the care of his aged and bitter father who is battling dementia. It's Mortensen's directorial debut.
"I see myself, and always did, long before directing 'Falling,' as a movie story-teller," he wrote in an email.
The film is a precarious, yet often tender journey into the lives of a fractured upstate New York family.
Laura Linney co-stars as John's sister, Sarah; Lance Henriksen as his father, Willis; and Hannah Gross plays Gwen, John's mother. David Cronenberg, a noted film director, has a small cameo, as well.
"Falling" is available in theaters, on digital and on demand Feb. 5.
The story weaves back and forth from present day California, where John now lives, to pivotal moments from his past on the family farm told in flashbacks, including his parents' divorce and mother's death.
Mortensen's John is a steady, introspective father in a same-sex marriage that his father openly disdains. John works hard to find some common ground with Willis, who is not only homophobic, but racist, misogynistic and bitter about life. His rants are vitriolic and often vile.
Mortensen, who grew up in Watertown, New York, and now lives part of the year in Spain, says that while "Falling" is not autobiographical, he imbued it with details from his own upbringing, particularly his parents' divorce and dementia, which he has said runs in his family.
"Although the story of 'Falling' is a fiction," he wrote in an email, "using a few details I recalled from my childhood and adolescence – plus the evolution of dementia in my mother, father and other family members – its conscience or moral fulcrum is the character of Gwen, the character that stands in for my mother.
"I wanted to honour my memories of and feelings for my mother in particular," he said.
Mortensen spent several years writing the screenplay and said he had not intended to appear in the film but had a change of heart. "I'm glad it worked out," he said.
"Having rehearsed all the scenes that Lance (Henriksen) and I had together during that period of waiting for the financing to come together, did of course help me to be unusually well-prepared for our shoot."
Mortensen answered some additional questions about his film and the state of movie-going during a pandemic:
Q: As a first-time director, how were you able to draw the raw emotion you needed from all of your actors?
Viggo Mortensen: It is important to cast the roles in the movie in a way that best suits each actor to the type of person they are to play, not only in accordance with their abilities but also thinking about how each person might fit into the entire ensemble of actors. If you seriously miscast a role as important to your story as, say, Willis, you will struggle to make a decent movie regardless of how proactive and how good a communicator you are as a director.
I have learned from several gifted communicators that have directed me over the years that a good idea can come from anyone at any time. I tried to simply make the best use of the abilities and minds of all the people on our team in order to make the best possible movie we could.
Q: How is John so chill, considering what he has to endure?
VM: John, the character I play in the movie, is not passive because he is essentially a calm person. As he says to his father in a scene that happens about a third of the way through the movie, "I made myself a promise that I was not going to get into another big blowout with you. You can insult me all you want." In other words, he is making a conscious effort not to react to his father's homophobic, misogynistic and racist rants.
That is not to say that it comes naturally to him to be passive, that he is not often seething inside, struggling to resist the temptation to respond in kind to his father's hateful rhetoric. He knows he will have to keep a lid on his emotions if he hopes to help his old father, who, being in the early stages of dementia, clearly is beginning to need help physically and mentally.
Q: Your performance is so nuanced. How do you direct yourself?
VM: At my best and most focused as an actor, I am responding to other actors and to my environment. That is exactly what I am doing as a director. Good reacting – with the most relaxed possible awareness – is the foundation of both good acting and good directing.
It is not necessarily a difficult thing to do as long as your day's shoot has been well-planned and you have good communication with your crew. Everything within the frame of any given shot, and whatever you can take in beyond the frame, can and should be of interest to you as an actor or a director.
Q: Lance Henriksen, who plays Willis, was a marvel. I had to look him up and was shocked that he was Bishop in "Alien."
VM: Lance has played roles of all kinds in movies of all kinds during some 50 years. A total of almost 300 movies all told. No matter how unusual the genre or how brief his appearance in those movies, he is always credible somehow, has always drawn my attention and admiration. He is a hard-working, fully committed artist. With the role of Willis, he has been able to show the world what he has always been capable of as an actor. I believe that his brave, uncompromising, and beautifully-layered performance will long be remembered.
"Don't let me get caught acting," was his mantra. And I did not.
Q: There’s the whole thread of mortality in your film, starting with its first line, uttered by Willis to his infant son, "I'm sorry I brought you into world so you could die." Are we preoccupied with death?
VM: It is my impression that most people are not as preoccupied with death as they ought to be if their goal is to get the most out of life. With the advent of COVID pandemic, people seem generally to be more consciously aware of the fact that life is precious and fragile, which I think is a very good thing.
Q: The film comes at moment when we’ve seen hate speak and violence in the world – and you see some of that personified in Willis.
VM: Any story about a family can, of course, be seen as a reflection of general society at the time of its writing. As it turns out, our story could not be more timely, as polarization and poor communication seem to be at an all-time high in U.S. society at this moment, just when the movie is about to be released in North America.
Q: The film was set in New York; is that where you grew up?
VM: It is set in northern New York state, not very far from the Canadian border, the area my mother came from, which I know quite well from living there during my junior high school and high school years.
Q: You did a virtual screening and Q&A of "Falling" through the Jacob Burns Film Center which is still closed to in-person screenings. What are your thoughts on the current way we see films during the pandemic – on laptops, phones, projectors in our living rooms. Does it take something away from experiencing the story?
VM: There is little choice in North America at the moment, as very few movie houses are open in Canada and the United States. Streaming or links are not the ideal way to hear or see a movie, but it is certainly much better than the movie not being seen at all.
Q: Is it important to keep making and releasing films as the pandemic continues, even if we all have to forego watching in a theater for now?
VM: We always need stories that can remind us that we need not live alone, in terrible isolation, with our personal fears and doubts. We can share them, and others can share theirs with us, through stories we watch, hear or read alone and together.
Q: With this film, you're now an actor, writer, director, producer. What feels the most natural? What is coming for you after this film?
VM: All those jobs are connected. I see myself, and always did, long before directing "Falling," as a movie story-teller. The collective aspect of film-making has always interested me. This year I will act in two or three movies, depending on how the pandemic evolves, and in 2022 I plan to direct a second movie.
This interviewed has been edited and condensed.
Karen Croke is the features editor for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com. Find my stories here. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org