Interview with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC writer/director Matt Ross
In the new film, “Captain Fantastic”, written and directed by Matt Ross, Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, a father who has chosen to live in (and off) the Pacific Northwest wilderness with his wife and their six children, home schooling them away from the corruptible ways of society, preparing their minds and bodies to fend for themselves. Although the film was awarded Best Director in the Un Certain Regards section at this years Cannes Film Festival, the response from U.S. critics has been polarizing.
Nevertheless, Ross is unfazed as he sat down with myself and two fellow colleagues, Patrick McDonald (of Hollywood Chicago.com) and Ian Simmons (of Kicking the Seat), at the Waldorf last month. Primarily known for his acting, Ross has worked in films directed by the likes of Terry Gilliam, John Woo, Martin Scorsese and George Clooney, and has also gained exposure on two HBO shows with memorable roles – as polygamist Alby Grant in “Big Love” and tech giant Gavin Belson in “Silicon Valley”.
Comfortable and easy-going, Ross engaged us in an open and in-depth manner as he talked about growing up in an off-the-grid commune, how he instills an environment of “play” on his set and why Viggo is the man to lead this clan….
Pat McDonald: What did you discover about living off the grid that surprised you, both in its ease and its difficulties?
Matt Ross: Well, I don’t live off the grid myself. I did as a child. I think one of the most difficult things is that if you don’t have running water and its winter and you have to go to the bathroom and it’s freezing – to go outside is difficulty. You know, we live very comfortable, all of use, no matter what your socio-economic level is – if you have electricity and running water, you live….
Pat McDonald: ….better than kings of the 16th century!
Matt Ross: ….we absolutely do. You know, if you go camping and you realize, “wow, it’s actually cold outside at night”. You know?
Pat McDonald: Did you have to research it?
Matt Ross: Well, yes I did. Like I said, my mother started a bunch of alternative living communities – I was say it’s reductive and inaccurate to call them hippy communes because it was the 80s. They were people that wanted to live outside of cities, who wanted to live in harmony with nature, who tended to be artisans of crafts people and in a couple places I lived in Oregon, they bought land communally and then each person had their house, like you lived way up there and I’d have to go up a path to get to your house or whatever. And some people had running water and electricity, some people didn’t.
So, I lived in that environment before – in the summers we slept in a teepee….uh, when I was home for Christmas, one of my close friends said, “What are you working on?” I told him about this movie and he said, “Oh! So-in-so lives this way.” And I said, “No. I hadn’t seen him since high school.” I called him. He built his house in Washington State. He home schools his kids and he suggested many books to read – many of them I already read, those books are available, if you just do your research and go to the library or just go to Amazon – you know, we live in a culture of a lot of information. It’s easily found. I did a lot of research.
My production designer, Russell Barnes and I – he grew up in New Zealand, in rural communities and off the grid – so, he brought lots to the table. He and I discussed a lot of it. Viggo was very adamant about making sure that everything was accurate. It’s a fully functioning homestead. When you live off the grid, you have certain questions….What’s your water source? That’s primary – shelter and water are of primary importance. So, how do you have clean water? We show that in the movie. Uh, whether you have a roof over your head, you got to get your shelter. How are you preserving your food? We show that – not only are they cooking venison, they’re smoking fish. They’re jarring and canning. Uh, you see an outhouse, you know, sanitation is a big one. You know, all these questions were adamant on answering, because the movie takes place in the real world, it’s not a fantasy.
David J. Fowlie: So, then with being off the grid and everything, the hard part is reintegration. That developed into the movie. Can you talk about where and how you wanted to introduce reintegration into your screenplay?
Matt Ross: Well, I’m not sure they reintegrate – well, without revealing the end of the movie – which we can talk about, but I’d prefer not to reveal any names….
David J. Fowlie: Of course. Well, they go on a journey….
Matt Ross: Right. They go on a journey and in this case, I don’t believe he compensates any of his values. He’s just come to realize that his children need some socialization and you’ll see that in the narrative in a lot of ways. The journey in the movie, is not one about reintegration – it’s more that they’re unaccustomed to the outside world. They have some interaction with the local town, where they get their mail and I think it was a way of observing and commenting on the United States today through this family – as a way to kind of reflect on who we are, what our cultural is and what our values are, through this family.
Ian Simmons: Speaking about commenting on culture, there are many different ways to look at the voice that’s presented in the film. In some ways, Ben is seen as this hero father, teaching his family how to live in the wild and turn their back on everything that’s materialistic in society. But at the end, he perhaps doesn’t have everything together. So, it’s not black and white, there’s a lot of gray there. How important was it for you to infect that or is that something you discovered.
Matt Ross: That was vital to me. I think that we are all the heroes of our own story and in movies no one thinks they’re the bad guy and I think life is all shades of gray. Personally, I love movies that exist in shades of gray, where you think someone can behave heroically and villainously – if that’s even a word, I don’t think it is – in a villain-like manner. I think that, Viggo and I talked about this, Frank Langella and I talked about this, and I wrote Frank a letter, I said, “You’re not the villain in this movie. I don’t want to portray you that way. I think that he has a point of view of parenting and about our culture that’s based on economic and socio-economic level and his education. And I don’t think that he’s, he’s not the bad mean grandpa.
I also think that the movie portrays, I would say that there are many America’s within the United States of America. I think this movie shows three – it shows the rural America, which in this case is this family and there are many kinds of rural America, it shows suburban America, which is Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, which most of us exist because most of our country exists in the suburbs and then it portrays the Frank Langella and Anne Dowd characters, the grandparents, who are living in a gulf course culture or sort of gated community that tends to be a little bit conservative and sometimes religious.
My intention – to answer your question – is to portray them all with nuance. They all have positives and negatives. We are all flawed people. All the actors and I, tried to reflect what I felt was in the script. We’re not vilifying or demonizing anyone. And maybe, ideally, I hope, you follow this character thinking this is the hero and over time you start to question why is there.
Pat McDonald: So, the kid actors, of all ages, were quite remarkable and you had to ask them to pretend about a concept that would seem for most of them far outside their lives. What was the most interesting question you got from the actors about their characters and which needed the most help understanding the concepts?
Matt Ross: Wow, that’s a great question. I’m having to rack my brain to think about that. I think the surprising answer is that they did not have any problems with any of it, really. I don’t think they knew who Noam Chomsky was – part of it was that it was a slow educational process. We had a two-week boot camp or we sent them to a wilderness survival camp, where they learned to make a fire or how to build a shelter. They learned how to find edible plants. They slept under the stars. They learned to track. They all had to play musical instruments. The two young women – they were girls at the time – Sammi Isler and Annalise Basso butchered a sheep, because they dress a deer in the movie. They all learned knife skills. They all learned some combat skills. We really began to acclimate them. Ultimately, it’s for them to look like they know what they’re doing. You can’t learn German in two days, but you can memorize the lines with the right tone and intonations, so that the audience believes it.
But ultimately, what it’s about is bonding with Viggo – they also did tons of rock-climbing. because of the rock-climbing sequence – they bond with Viggo, so they can begin to look at him as their father and learn to trust him and to love him. They ended up calling him Summer Dad. But I also gave them books. I gave them Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: For Children – yes, there’s also a book for children. First they were like, “Really, dude? It’s summer and we have to read these fucking books?” (all laugh) C’mon guys! C’mon….
Ian Simmons: Were they reading them on their phones, so you could?….
Matt Ross: No, man. In fact I had them sign a contract – No phones, No iPads on Set.
David J. Fowlie: Wow.
Matt Ross: I can’t control what you do when you go home, but I want you to be present here. I don’t want you to be in-between takes checking out IMDb or US magazine or whatever – I want you to be present here. So, there’s no electronics on set. I made them sign a contract that they would eat well. I wanted them to at least experiment with not eating junk food. Um, you know, no coke, no candy. I want you to just, I told them these are all the things – and they took it seriously. They really took it seriously and they signed the contract and they said that the punishment was push-ups.
David J. Fowlie: That’s funny, cuz I think you just answered my next question. I was wondering if you had a similar approach to directing as Viggo’s character does to parenting in the movie.
Matt Ross: I think my ultimate directorial style is “play”. You know, the word “play” in reference to theater, it’s called a play – I believe in that verb. We come to play. We come to explore. I don’t expect you to prop up this script like its a dead object. You know, we’ve all agreed on this text. We’ve all agreed on this narrative. You agreed to come do this. You’re not thinking James Bond movie (all laugh) – you’ve read the script, you know what part you’re playing and we agreed to do this and now let’s play and explore and there’s no right, there’s no wrong. Let’s just play. Let’s rehearse in front of the camera and let’s try a thousand different things.
And, you know, it’s something I talk about a lot and I really believe this – and this is to answer your question – is that, none of us in our lives, whatever our careers are, can control what other people think of our work. Once it’s done….they like your article or they don’t like it. They think you’re an idiot. They think you’re brilliant. Whatever. You can’t control that. What you can control is the joy in doing that….
Pat McDonald: ….is the work itself.
Matt Ross: ….is the work itself. So, on the day when we’re working, I try and create an atmosphere where we’re all enjoying the work. We work really hard. But that’s the only think you can hold on to. I think that’s true.
Ian Simmons: In terms of, the idea of “play”, which sounds great and really comes across in the film and how everyone is committed to being free…but there is a scene towards the beginning where Ben breaks some really bad news to his family. And that was a gut-wrenching scene, because of all the reactions to the children who were fantastic. It feels so genuine. How did you get them to that place?
Matt Ross: Some of it is time….you know, this gets to “play”. So, Viggo and I talked about it. The purpose of that scene for me was, as written, was that he doesn’t lie or sugar coat anything. We have all these euphemisms for death – “oh, so-in-so passed away”, “they’ve gone somewhere better” – and all these things. He just says, “She died”….
Pat McDonald: “She killed herself.”
Matt Ross: “She killed herself”. He tells them the absolute truth. He’s not to protect them – he’s trying to be honest. I mean, Kathryn Hahn’s character later on, his sister, says, “Protecting children from certain truths they’re too young to comprehend is not lying to them”. Well, he actually believes it is depending on the circumstance and in this case he wants to be honest with them.
To prepare them for it, I talked to each kid individually about it. George (McKay, who plays Viggo’s eldest son) and I had a very long talk about the death of someone he knew recently and how he wanted to express that feeling. Viggo had an idea – which went counter to the original scene, but we shot it anyway and it was a really good idea, which was that he would read a poem because he thought that, in some ways, in this family through literature they’d talk about things.
So, he read a poem – I can’t remember, I think it’s a Keats poem, I think The Mermaid, about a mermaid that, in her love for someone kills them and she brings them down to the depths, if I’m remembering correctly. And it’s this poem kind of about death and he reads the poem and all the kids are looking like “what is dad talking about?” and they kind of understand it, because they’re savvy, but they’re not really sure and then he just comes right out and tells them.
For a while, that was in the edit and that comes down to “play”, that was his idea. It’s a collaboration. We brought it in. I shot it. He’s great in it. It’s a beautiful idea, but ultimately, I cut it out because I thought that it was unnecessary – well, I shouldn’t say unnecessary – but I like the idea that he just comes in and says “I’m gonna tell the truth”. Really, it’s about talking. Talking, then discussing and playing. And the kids, you know, they all in their own ways, are emotionally connected children. And then, on some level, honestly, it’s craft and acting. I didn’t ask them “Is that a real tear or are you acting?” I didn’t intrude in that way, because acting is an interpretive art and it just took time, but I’m glad it seemed affective to you.
Pat McDonald: So, Gavin Belson is one of those big league capitalists that the family rails against….
Matt Ross: Yes, indeed!
Pat McDonald: ….If that family were to speak up against Belson, how would Gavin fight back, based on how you know him by now?
Matt Ross: Oh, that’s a hilarious question. Um, I think Gavin would cry and be very upset, because I think he sees himself as a man of the people in every way and I think he would say, “You know what, I’m gonna buy you all Teslas”. He’d probably buy their affection.
David J. Fowlie: Can you talk about the casting of Viggo – cuz he’s just so brilliant in this. Is this your ideal Ben? Did you always have Viggo in mind? And once he was signed on, did he add any characterization of the role that maybe wasn’t in the script?
Matt Ross: So, yes, the first question is – when I was writing it, I did not have any specific actor in mind. I’ve said this many time, I think it’s a fool’s errand, you have no idea what people’s schedules are, you don’t know when people are available. You never know if you can get the script to them. I think I vaguely based, because of my age, I has sort of – Harrison Ford when he was in his forties, back in the day, because when I was in junior high, he was a huge star and I saw all those movies and there was something about him that was both masculine and vulnerable….
David J. Fowlie: “The Mosquito Coast” comes to mind….
Matt Ross: Yes, “Mosquito Coast” and “Witness” and I just love his persona as an actor, but Viggo was my first choice. My creative producer, Lynette Howell Taylor, said when it came time, “Who do you want to cast?” And I thought of Viggo and he’s just an actor I’ve come to admire over the years. I’ve come to know him. I didn’t know him before, but I needed someone who believed in what he said and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Viggo is a highly-articulated, highly-intelligent man. He’s physically fit, you need someone who’s fit. The truth is, with some of our movie stars, I just wouldn’t buy that they would convincingly live this way. And I feel like with Viggo, you do. I believe it and that may be based on what movies he’s been in or – the truth is, he’s a photographer and a writer and a painter – he’s a Renaissance man and he is all those things and I’ve gotten to know him and he’s built a home in a western state. I don’t know if he’d want me to reveal where it is, but he’ll say he’s not Ben, yet he has a great knowledge of the natural environment – he’s hunted and fished and lived in the forest and existed in harmony with nature and he knows this world – so he brought all that. A lot of the props in the movie are his, it’s a lot of his own stuff. He planted the garden. He understands how to plant a functioning vegetable garden.
As for the second part of your question, I think every actor changes the tone, right? If it were Viggo Mortensen, it’s be one thing. If it were Matt Damon, it’d be another thing – we could go through a list of actors and they’d all have their own tone. They all bring their own persona. I think that on the page, the character has a little more of a spark in his eye. A little more of a jokester. He was a little more playful and Viggo is a more centered, honest and his charisma is more low-key and he made his own Ben.
Ian Simmons: What did you learn about yourself, during the course of making this film, because it feels deeply personal?
Matt Ross: It is personal. That’s always a hard question. I think, one of the great ironies of this movie is that it’s a movie about a parent being the best he can be and yet I have two kids and my wife is raising my children in my stead – in my total absence. That’s nothing but ironic.
David J. Fowlie: Kudos to her.
Matt Ross: Indeed. Indeed. Uh, one of the things I’ve learned, cuz the movie has a lot to do with parenting, among many other things, is that it’s a day-to-day thing. You know, just being a good global citizen is a day-to-day judgement. I think being a good parent is and that every day is a different challenge. I think, really for me, it’s about mindfulness and trying to be present, which are Buddhist concepts and you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice those things, but I try and be as present as I can – with the people I’m talking to and the food I’m eating. I think life goes really quickly and it’s very easy to be tuned out and not present. That’s not to say that I don’t play video games with my son, because I also do that. But I think one of the things I learned and am striving to do is being mindful.
Ian Simmons: Well, thank you very much.
Matt Ross: Thank you, guys.
“Captain Fantastic” received a limited theatrical release on July 8, 2016 and opens in Chicago this Friday, July 15, 2016.