SIFF 2016: A Tribute to Viggo Mortensen

by Warren Cantrell on June 13, 2016

in Blogs,Features,General

After three weeks of the best and worst the independent film community has to offer, the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival comes to a close at last. For the fifth year in a row, Scene-Stealers has had the privilege of wading through a veritable ocean of cinema to pick through the vast ecosystem’s offerings, and has discovered no shortage of fare. And while the movies themselves have always been at the forefront of this coverage, SIFF’s special events, featuring luminaries of the film community in-person, consistently surprise and delight. Previous years have seen industry mainstays such as Sissy Spacek, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Bacon here in Seattle, and 2016 has been no different.

Although SIFF 2016 got off to a great start with an appearance by Molly Shannon, one of the final events enjoyed the company of one of Hollywood’s most elusive, talented, and thoughtful stars: Viggo Mortensen. He was in town this last weekend of the festival for a tribute event celebrating his career, which included a showing of Mr. Mortensen’s newest film, Captain Fantastic. And while the official closing night ceremony didn’t occur until the following night, Saturday’s tribute event for Mr. Mortensen acted as an unofficial high note for the festival’s conclusion.

And 2016 has been quite the festival! Although not stocked with as many jaw-dropping stand-outs as previous years, there have been several shockers. New documentaries like The Weekend Sailor and Bang! The Bert Berns Story told fascinating, original stories that weren’t weighed down by blind adoration, and features like Vanity and The Final Master surprised (both positively and negatively, respectfully). Others neither impressed nor disappointed, yet it all amounted to a varied, healthy film-going experience that spanned the expected gamut of quality (or lack thereof).

When Viggo Mortensen arrived at the Egyptian Theater in Seattle for Saturday’s event, the conversation turned to the actor’s selective nature when it comes to his projects. Although he’s been around Hollywood for a while, the guy broke out in a big way following the smashing success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet has been seemingly reluctant to jump into other franchises or high-visibility roles.

Scene-Stealers: Professionally speaking, what excites you? When you’re sitting down to debate whether or not you’re going to be involved in a project or a role, what is it about that that excites you, or charges you, and gets you to commit?

Viggo Mortensen: Well, first of all, if it is a well-written story, if the characters are well developed, which is harder than it seems. You know, when a movie works, or when a screenplay works really well, it flows, and you’re interested in all the characters, it seems easy: it seems effortless. Just like good acting, or good directing, it just seems like realistic behavior. But it’s a lot harder than it seems. You don’t come across scripts as good as Captain Fantastic very often. I guess I’m looking, first of all, is it really well-written? Second of all, the part, if I’m being offered the part, do I personally think I am the right guy for the job? It’s silly if you really know in your heart that you can’t do it. Though sometimes you do have doubts, and the director can convince you to take a chance. And thirdly, and just as important, is it something I haven’t tried before, and is it something I can learn something from?

S.S.: With Captain Fantastic, was there something in particular that you felt was new for you? Was it part of the script, or…?

V.M.: I thought it was incredibly original as a story. And without in any way being ideological or political, it touched on many things that are going on in the country right now. I mean, dealing with three kinds of family models in the story…like, ours, the sort of extreme, off the grid, me with six kids in the middle of the forest with no electricity or running water. And kids who have never…the youngest of them has never seen anything different. And there’s my sister’s family, Katheryn Hahn, she’s more of a suburban mom. And then there’s the grandparents, who are more conservative, with different values. But it basically talks about the problem of communication. What happens when people don’t communicate. Which is obviously something that’s very actual right now.

S.S.: Yeah, I was just about to say…

V.M.: Yeah, with the presidential campaign, it is just an echo of the ridiculous, the absurd, the absurdly polarizing rhetoric of our current presidential campaign, which is probably only gonna get worse, unfortunately. It is just a symptom of a real problem. I don’t think it’s just invented by the politicians, or the media, we have a communication problem in this country. And it should be addressed. Because, you know, fierce arguments and yelling matches, you know, as unpleasant as they are, at least there’s a conversation happening. If there’s no engagement, and people are just in their camps saying nasty things about each other, then there’s no real progress in terms of getting along, or the country being run better. I think there are some politicians who have done a decent job, I suppose, over the last couple of years. But in recent years, there seems to be more discord than ever; very little collaboration, very little responsible governing going on. And people see that, and kids see that, and kids who grow up and this is the only political situation they know, they think, “oh, that’s what the country is about. That’s the way it is supposed to be.” And it doesn’t have to be that way. So this movie, inadvertently I guess, in some way touches on that, on the communication problem, and on the need for self-reflection. When the movie starts out, when I start reading the script, I see that this guy is kinda crazy, he loves his kids but he’s a bit extreme, he’s one of these sort of a left-wing crazy, alternative lifestyle guys against the world. That’s the story. That could be interesting. And I suppose if you were a conservative viewer, and somehow you accidentally walked into the movie theater, you might go, “oh, Jesus. We gotta watch this now?” And then it turns out that it’s not what it seems like it’s gonna be. Because they’re not…they’re flawed. There are problems. There’s extreme behavior, and in the end, what’s great about it is that all the characters, not just mine, as the father, but there are several characters who stop and think and realize, you know, maybe I’ve gone too far. Maybe I can take in a little bit of what the grandparents say, or the more conservative values, and maybe there’s a balance, a new balance. And that’s what the movie is about, finding a new balance. And I hope, in some way, I hope the same can happen in the country.

S.S.: Sure, yeah, absolutely. That’s magnificent! Well, I appreciate you taking some time to chat with me, and it was just wonderful talking with you. Thank you!

Next up was the director of Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross, whose acting credits include supporting roles in films like Face/Off, The Aviator, American Psycho, and as I reminded him when we began speaking, P.C.U. (a personal favorite).

Scene-Stealers: So, I’m gonna dork out real quick. One of my favorite movies of all time is P.C.U., so this is sort of a dream come true for me, speaking to Raji.

Matt Ross: Oh, you always wanted to meet Raji? Aw, dude: that’s sad. [Laughing]

S.S.: I’m sorry, it’s true! [Laughing]

M.R.: Naw, I mean, the truth is at that time in my life, I was right out of school, and I was super happy to get that part, and it was a lot of fun.

S.S.: No, no, that’s awesome! Now, can I ask you about the jump from going from acting? Because, I know, for a lot of the 90s, I’m thinking of, like, Face/Off, American Psycho, what is it that compelled you to want to get behind the camera?

M.R.: The truth is, I was doing theater as a child, and at the same time I was making films, so at least privately, I was always doing both of them at the same time. And then I went to theater school, and then afterwards I went to film school for, literally, like a heartbeat. The first money I made as an actor I made short films. I made like, eight to ten short films, and acting has been the way I’ve paid the bills, sort of, but I’ve also had writing jobs professionally, I’ve been paid to write. So this is my second film [as a director], so I guess the transition…there was not a transition insofar as I just woke up one day and thought, “I admire directors, I want to make films.” I had been doing that my whole life. And as a child, you didn’t think, like, “I need know what screenwriting is.” I just got together with my friends, and I had storyboards in my head, and said, “let’s do this.” So I think I have really been doing it the whole time. And if people like yourself were aware of me on any level, you just happened to see me as an actor. But short films certainly don’t get this kind of attention. And I’ve had short films as far back as the 90s, like at Sundance, it just wasn’t on peoples’ radar.

S.S: As far as this picture, with Captain Fantastic, what did you find was the biggest challenge of this production? I’m maybe assuming here, but was this the largest production that you’ve helmed as far as a director?

M.R.: Yeah, absolutely.

S.S.: So what challenges did you find with this?

M.R.: Well, the central challenge is having six kids in every scene. With child labor laws, and I’m not bemoaning child labor laws, we do need them, but it made it very difficult, obviously, to shoot regular days. You know, they were very truncated days, and we shot in two different states, in the states of Washington and New Mexico, so there was a lot of travel. A lot of the movie takes place in very rural areas in the middle of forests, in the middle of nowhere, and so getting to those locations was challenging. We have two action sequences that dealt with kids, we have two musical numbers that deal with kids, and we’re a road movie, so every single day you’re somewhere else. So if you’re asking me what the challenges were, they were logistical.

S.S.: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, I appreciate you chatting with me. And it was wonderful meeting you!

A more formal on-stage Q&A with Viggo Mortensen followed the red carpet interviews, as did a screening of Captain Fantastic (a movie that, sadly, has a review embargo at SIFF). The sold-out event saw Mr. Mortensen receive his SIFF career achievement award as well, and amounted to a brilliant send-off to a festival that clearly saved the best for last. For those in attendance, it was a magnificent chance to watch a brand new film with the director and star in the room, and was yet another opportunity for Seattle’s true cinephiles to engage with films and filmmakers in a manner only the Seattle International Film Festival can offer in this small but vibrant corner of the country.

Photos by Ashley Roden

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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