For Matt Ross, taking ”Captain Fantastic” into the prestigious Cannes Film Festival was a ‘surreal’ and rather overwhelming experience.
Ross and his cast, led by Viggo Mortensen, had a ten-minute standing ovation at the end of the Cannes premier and the buzz on what many critics declared to be one of the standout films of the festival went through the roof.
The judges agreed, awarding Ross the best director prize in the Un Certain Regard section. “It’s been overwhelming,” he says of the wild reception his film received.
“Actually, this is going to sound ungrateful, but I don’t like being waited on – like in a restaurant it makes me kind of uncomfortable – and it made me kind of uncomfortable.
“I’m incredibly grateful for it, but it just makes me uncomfortable because, I don’t know, I’m standing there and how many times can I say, ‘thank you’? I feel awkward.”
But he’s keen to stress that making his Cannes debut – with only his second feature – was a very special time. “Every year I read all the reviews that come out of Cannes, and I always see all of the movies that come out of this festival, because it represents the sort of pinnacle, artistically, of global cinema.
“When I was invited, I had to sit down. I was floored that we were invited. On some level, it was the greatest honour of my life, and then last night, it just didn’t feel real. It felt surreal. I’ve never been to Cannes before so I have nothing to compare it to. I was very nervous.”
Up to now, Ross has been best known as an actor – he’s worked on films including Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Goog Luck – and starred in numerous hit TV shows including Big Love, American Horror Story and Silicon Valley.
As a kid growing up in Connecticut, he acted and made his own short films, too. Directing was always there, he says.
“I went to Julliard, which is a theatre school in New York, and then at the same time I was making my own movies. As soon as I graduated I went to NYU film school for a few months, and then I dropped out, because I don’t come from money,” he says.
“With the first money I made as an actor, I made short films. I think the truth is, if I’m looking at it charitably, I would say that being an actor has enabled me to observe amazing directors, like Martin Scorsese, and to do great narratives. I’ve been on some great HBO shows and that’s been a joy for me, but I would say creatively and emotionally, I have wanted to really tell my own stories for a very long time.”
The idea for Captain Fantastic came to him when he was thinking about what it means to be a parent in today’s world. “I have two young kids and I think I was really asking myself – you know, there’s no guidebook to parenting – about what kind of father I want to be.
“I was seeing my friends have children and seeing the way they parent their children, and whether I agreed with it or disagreed. I think that before you have children, you’re living your life and making certain decisions based on maybe how you grew up or where you grew up, but once you start having children, you start curating someone else’s life.
“You’re responsible for them and you start thinking about, ‘why are we eating this way? What are my values? What do I want to pass on to them? What do I believe in?’
“I wanted to tell it as a film – it’s not a poem, or a painting, or a song – and so you have to find a way to structure it dramatically, to ask those questions. So it became a way to contextualise those questions I had about what it is to be a good parent, a good father, and really, if you extrapolate that idea, to be a good person.”
Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, an unconventional father of six extraordinary, much loved children. They live in the wilds in the Pacific Northwest where Ben is a demanding, inspiring teacher – his kids learn languages, read constantly, discuss and dissect topics ranging from the novels they are reading to the merits of capitalism (not many as far as Ben is concerned).
He also teaches them how to hunt, kill and prepare their own food – to survive in the wilds. It means, of course, that they have virtually no experience of the ‘real’ world where money is king, kids play ultra violent video games and eat too much junk food. Whilst some ‘survivalists’ are right wing, Ben is a progressive who believes in the community of the family – in sharing and taking care of one another, even if sometimes the lessons are tough love.
“I think there are just as many manifestations of people who live off the grid that are progressives – especially young people,” says Matt. “There’s a lot of people in their 20s in the United States who don’t want to live in the city, and they want to grow their own food.
“They probably don’t hunt for their own food, as much, because that’s more difficult, but they’re growing their own food and building their own homes. I have friends that do that in Oregon – it’s not that uncommon.
“It’s hard because you have to have some kind of income, whether you sell your goods at the farmer’s market, or whatever, but the Internet has enabled all of us to be connected from remote areas.”
When Ben learns that his wife, who was bipolar, has killed herself in the mental hospital where she was receiving treatment, the family set off for her funeral in New Mexico and en route the kids are exposed to the modern day America for the first time. And to Ben’s father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) who strongly disapproves of the way they live and tries to take the children away from their father.
Mortensen has won rave reviews as the idealistic, flawed but essentially loving Ben. “My first choice was Viggo. It was for a couple reasons. One, I’m a huge admirer of his work as an actor. The first movie I think I ever saw him do was Indian Runner, and there are so many iconic roles that he’s done – The Road, he’s amazing in, and A History of Violence and Eastern Promises – I just admire his work.
“I know him now a little bit and I didn’t before, but I admire him as a human being. He’s a writer and a poet and a photographer and a painter and he’s an amazing actor.
“The lead actor is the face of your movie, and is a statement of aspiration – ‘this is the kind of movie I want to make’. Also I think in life, with whom you choose to collaborate is of utmost importance.
“Film is a collaborative medium, and it was really important to me that the person that I was collaborating with on the movie would love it the way that I loved it and care about it the way that I cared about it.
“Everything I had read about him showed a rigorous pursuit of excellence, and I wanted someone who cared as much as I did, so that’s why I wanted him to play Ben.”
Casting the six young actors to play Ben’s children was crucial. George MacKay (who plays Bodevan), Charlie Shotwell (Nai), Nicholas Hamilton (Rellian), Shree Crooks (Zaja), Samantha Isler (Kielyr) and Annalise Basso (Vespyr) all deliver brilliant performances. They bonded long before the cameras rolled, when Matt sent them off to ‘boot camp’ to prepare.
“It happened when we had a two-week boot camp and they really bonded. We sent the kids to wilderness survival, and they learned to build shelters and fires, and how to survive in the wilderness. They loved that.
“Annalise [Basso] said that was like her favourite thing she’d ever done in her life. Annalise and Sammi [Isler], the two teenage girls, went and had a butchering class, so they learned how to dress a deer, and they actually butchered a sheep.
“They were rock climbing every day. They were doing the language they speak, Esperanto – those girls had to learn that. There was a lot of music, because there were two musical scenes in the movie.
“I’ve done Brazillian jiu-jitsu, and my wife and I had my coach come up from LA and do a training session with them. But that was all an excuse, in a way, for them just to bond. You want to be able to suspend your disbelief.
“It’s like, you can’t learn a foreign language in two weeks, but if you’re an actor and you have a coach, you can memorise those lines with the correct accent, and then in the movie, cut together, it sounds like, ‘oh, he speaks German.’
“But you can’t learn German in two weeks. It’s the same thing. We wanted to sort of acclimatise them, but then really the goal was for them to fall in love with Viggo [Mortensen] and trust Viggo. It’s really a bonding exercise. And that happened.”
Captain Fantastic is Ross’s second feature, following 2012’s 28 Hotel Rooms. We can rest assured that he will be directing again soon.
“Yeah, I have three stories that I’m in the process of working through. They’re wildly different ideas and I think my next movie will be wildly different than this. I’m not going to make a hopeful family drama.
“I don’t mean to be disparaging about this movie, but I don’t think I’m a filmmaker that makes the same movie over and over again. Some of our greatest filmmakers do that. I could name them, but we don’t need to – they make a version of the same story.
“There are only so many stories anyway, but I think I’m attracted to wildly different things. I want to make a science fiction movie. I’m attracted to genres. I think I have a western in me. I have a crime thriller in me.”
Available on Digital & DVD 4 January