Are there chances in life for little dirt cowboys / Should I make my way out of my home in the woods – Elton John, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
“I swear it wasn’t made on a conscious level,” says director Matt Ross of his decision to title his sophomore film, Captain Fantastic, after Elton John’s ninth studio album, and the singer’s most non-commercial. “My mother had that LP and I think in my subconscious I knew of it. I wrote the movie, had the title, and only afterwards did I grapple with, ‘Oh, this is an Elton John thing.'”
While Sir Elton does bear a few similarities to Captain‘s paterfamilias, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), a sometimes-flamboyant iconoclast whose wardrobe includes a fire engine-red suit, the film itself is far from British in its sensibilities. Its subject is the push and pull of polarized modern-day America, and the increasingly narrow possibilities for healthy living that it offers.
Having moved his six children off the grid a decade earlier, into a Thoreau-esque existence in the Pacific Northwest, away from junk food and junk culture, Cash is living his idealized life at the outset, leading his charges through a daily routine of hunting, camp-style bonding activities and graduate-level reading, including the works of political theorist Noam Chomsky, whose birthday they celebrate as a holiday. (It’s a life not entirely dissimilar to Ross’ own childhood experiences living in communes with his family. He now lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and two kids.)
Despite the Olympian rigor of the family’s routine of daily mind and body nourishment—the kids are able to deconstruct Nabokov and have the muscle tone of athletes—tragedy finds them nonetheless with the death of the Cash matriarch, prompting a journey out of their enclave and back into contact with an extended family and the broader society they’d left behind.
In prepping for Captain‘s 39-day shoot, Ross decided to forgo extensive storyboards of the kind he’d utilized for his 2012 debut feature, 28 Hotel Rooms. “I realized after the first day on 28 I’d made a lovely graphic novel that had no bearing on the movie,” he jokes. Instead, Captain’s shoot would largely be a balance between the day’s shot lists and the instincts of Ross and the film’s César–winning DP, Stéphane Fontaine, known for his work with director Jacques Audiard.
Having previously relied on a Red Epic to shoot Audiard’s Rust and Bone, Fontaine employed an Arri Alexa this time to capture Captain’s outdoor locales, including a sprawling Cash family compound created by production designer Russell Barnes. Shooting digitally was deemed not only artistically preferable, but cost-efficient for what Fontaine describes as “an indie movie in all its glory.”
“Shooting film was not an option—even a Red Dragon would’ve been too expensive,” Fontaine says. “Luckily, we were able to use a set of Leica Summicron-C lenses and a short Optimo zoom. One of the main advantages of going digital was our ability to capture long takes involving a great number of actors.”
With the majority of those actors being children and thus only able to work six hours a day, digital was the ticket for capturing as much as possible. “I never wanted to turn the camera off,” says Ross, himself best known for his acting, from supporting roles in American Psycho and Good Night and Good Luck to a substantial TV career that includes Big Love, Silicon Valley and American Horror Story. “I wanted to shoot constantly. I also think people’s best work comes from relaxation. I like to allow the actors freedom to find their way, and not have marks.”
The Cash clan’s decision to trek southward to New Mexico in their family bus, nicknamed “Steve,” leads to an extended, scenery-rich road sequence that charts their reentry into the America of 2016, in all its dilapidated glory. The mounting of that multi-state sequence required innovative thinking in order to stay on budget.
“We had two ‘Steve’ buses, so we were able to do several B-unit days where a separate camera crew with actor doubles would go out and film the bus,” remembers producer Lynette Howell Taylor, who also produced 28 Hotel Rooms. “We also had the main crew travel across the state from one location to another, and had a crew helicopter film that drive.”
Reunited with their extended family, played by actors including Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn, the Cash children absorb the culture shock of video games, distracting gadgets and other temptations of modern life. Mortensen’s patriarch, meanwhile, comes in for harsh scrutiny due to his unorthodox parenting.
For a film that puts the modern American family under a microscope and invites the viewer to cast a skeptical eye on the narcotizing realities of suburbia, with its strip malls, convenience marts and secluded McMansions, shooting Captain abroad—say, Canada—would’ve been unthinkable, says Taylor. “Cheating America for somewhere else just wasn’t an option. Tax credits are vital, but it’s also important to retain elements of the story that shape the film. Location was one of those elements.”
The Cash’s forest home was shot in the wilds of Washington; to get intimately acquainted with the place, Mortensen spent some time living in the compound set prior to shooting.
Post was as bootstrap-minded as the shoot, with Captain being edited in a Venice apartment shared by Ross and editor Joseph Krings. Fontaine, meanwhile, worked with colorist Leandro Marini to protect the look he’d created on location.
“I’m a believer in whatever intentions you have needing to be on the negative, be it a proper negative or a digital one,” Fontaine says. “Marini understood the look I was after. The grading had to be subtle and light-handed, [unlike certain films] where you can’t tell if you’re watching a colorist or a DP’s work.”
MovieMaker spoke with Mortensen about playing this singular character, who in many ways shares the actor’s own political beliefs.
Ryan Stewart, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): There’s a palpable political undercurrent to this film. It’s pointing a finger at a well of discontent out there.
Viggo Mortensen (VM): There’s a real disquiet in the country and it’s been growing for the last decade or more. It’s come to a head largely because of a lot of tropes that are carelessly thrown around by politicians. I say careless because there are consequences, once you start throwing things around just to get elected or to get attention or to raise money. This has been done for a long time on the right, mostly, but also on the left, and it makes people angry and makes people polarized even more in society. In 2015 and 2016 we’ve seen this increasing polarization and you see it in the media, as well. It doesn’t always reflect what’s going on exactly, but there’s something happening in the U.S. which the movie, in an indirect way, touches on.
MM: It’s a fortuitous time for it to arrive, in a highly contentious election season.
VM: The Bernie Sanders campaign has forced certain topics into the political conversation that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, like economic inequality and education and people having a real voice in the process of electing people. And Trump—to me he seems more like a very clever huckster, but he’s also put his finger on the pulse of a certain anger in society, whereas Sanders is going at it in a more forthright way. This has been going on for a while, whether you’re talking about racial issues or police brutality or controversy over the ways the police work in different parts of the country.
MM: People in society are talking past each other more, and the film seems to want to address that breakdown in communication.
VM: There’s a word that’s used a lot in the movie: discourse. “Let’s have a discourse.” It’s almost like a Platonic kind of society where people talk about stuff and come to a decision as a collective. That’s very much a part of the family and I think that’s healthy, as a model. It’s one thing to work hard and be a team player and all that, but what happens when you run into objections to the way you think? It’s all fine when you’re with your tribe, but what happens when you run into other tribes? That’s the polarization aspect of American society that this movie in some way reflects. You can get angry, you can have shouting matches and so forth, but in politics or in communities or in families, the harder thing to do is to try to listen to the other person.
MM: Is your character, Ben, a good listener? Is he a good father?
VM: I think he is doing the best he can. There’s a tug of war within him, a kind of push-pull. I think it’s healthy for individuals, and for society, to once in a while feel like everything they’re doing is wrong. “Am I doing my best? Am I involved? Do I care enough?” Raising a child, or six children in this story, is a commitment. There’s a responsibility there, and it’s yours to take on or not. My character Ben, or the mother or the grandparents—the other side of the equation—they’re doing their best; they care. They just have differences of opinions. The thing is to find a middle ground and co-exist. And that goes for a democracy, a marriage or a friendship.
MM: The script is meticulously balanced so all sides of Ben’s extended family seem to be coming from a reasonable place.
VM: The script, when I first read it—all the things we’re talking about were there. The characters were individuals, fully realized, and having amazing interactions. And I said to Matt that, if we have any luck with casting, we could tell a great story. As an audience member you can watch this movie and root for one side or the other, but it’s not really about that. There’s a lot of grey area and self-questioning. It’s not about winning or losing. American society is more about winning than any other society. And not just the sports, it’s in politics, and friendships, and on the job. There’s a lot of pressure of that kind, and I don’t think that’s what’s encouraged in this movie. I think, as with any good movie, this one leaves you with questions.
MM: When it comes to choosing roles is your calculus more or less the same as when you started out?
VM: When you first start out as an actor you’ll go to any kind of job, any audition or callback, and you’re lucky to be able to make any kind of living at it. But if you have any choices, if you have a little bit of a cushion, then you can wait a little bit for the right thing. There’s going to be temptation to do a job that is just for the money and not a great story or not really about anything. So it’s up to you: How much money do you need, and is that what you want? Why are you in this line of work? Do you want awards? Or do you want to tell stories that 10 or 20 years from now, you’ll still feel good about? Do you want to be challenged to learn new skills that will help you think in different ways?
MM: Challenging cinema is getting harder to come by at the multiplex, and smaller movie houses are shuttering. Is it harder these days just to do quality work?
VM: I don’t know if it’s harder now. I do think it’s harder for filmmakers like Matt to make movies like this. It’s a small miracle we got to shoot this movie, and in the way he wanted. That’s harder because, as you say, the independent movie houses that you used to see in small cities, they’ve largely gone out of business. They exist, but more and more the multiplexes have movies that cost a lot of money to make and advertise, and they bring in a lot, but they kind of exclude this sort of movie. I like the idea of a movie theater with people going in, giving their five, 10 bucks or whatever, and sitting down in the dark to watch a story on a big screen and commune with other strangers. I think that’s what movies should be, but increasingly it’s harder for a movie like this to be seen in those places.
MM: Appaloosa [directed by Ed Harris, starring Mortensen], which I loved, might have a harder time getting released today than it did in 2008.
VM: It didn’t get the run in theaters that I thought it could’ve had, but it did get some good reviews and I enjoyed that. The movie exists, it was made, and people can discover it again. Ed Harris did a great job; I thought he deserved more recognition at the time. And I could say the same about David Cronenberg’s movies, the three I’ve been in [A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method]—those will stand the test of time. And although Cronenberg has won lots of awards in Canada and honorary awards, he’s never even been nominated by the American Academy. I think what happens with movies that are subtle, Appaloosa included, is they take a while. People see them later, after the hype dies down, and then they go, ‘Wow.’ Certain movies hang in there.
Once in a while when I have a premiere or a situation where there are fans showing up, I gauge [my films’ popularity] by what people come with that they want me to sign. It’s not surprising when somebody shows up with Lord of the Rings stuff because that’s a phenomenon, but I do often see people come with Appaloosa photographs, which tells me that they liked the movie. I think it was a very, very good movie.
MM: The choice to end Captain Fantastic with an intimate rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was inspired, I thought.
VM: It was really fun, and amazing because [actress Samantha Isler] sang so well. There were things we did in rehearsal, from rock climbing to martial arts to field dressing animals, that pay off when you watch the film, because you believe the characters live this way. We had a couple of different songs—we weren’t sure which one it was going to be—so we were jamming and playing. We improvised, tried different instruments. Music is a great way to connect, and what was nice was that there was no judgment. Everybody was free to play anything, in the spirit of the family. And if somebody wanted to take a left turn people would follow as best they could. It was just nice jamming together.
MM: Axl Rose brings people together.
VM: [laughs] I hope he’ll be happy with that! I think he will. I think Guns N’ Roses will be pleasantly surprised with our take on it. MM
Captain Fantastic opens in theaters July 8, 2016, courtesy of Bleecker Street. All images courtesy of Bleecker Street.