For his second feature as director, Matt Ross reinvents the family drama with Viggo Mortensen as a father determined not to bow to conventions. It’s fresh, smart and rewarding.
What was the initial impulse behind making the film?
For me it was entirely about parenting. I have two kids and I was grappling with it a lot. Being a parent can be terrifying and confusing, and I was thinking about the fact that our children are in our homes for a very brief time. My daughter is 13, so that’s only another five years. I was questioning what was important to me and what I wanted to pass to her, and I tried to put all those thoughts on being present and conscious parenting into the script.
Viggo Mortensen’s character Ben has a distaste for many aspects of contemporary life, especially the constant distraction of phones and screens. How much do you relate to that idea?
I don’t think you can live in the modern world and not feel that way. I’m addicted to my phone as much as anyone else, and it’s an incredible tool, but it’s just that – a tool. We don’t need to build our lives around them. When you go off into the woods and there’s no signal and you can’t get on the internet, you’re reminded of how tied we are to these devices. For Ben, living in the middle of nowhere means he’s not confronted with some of the parenting issues that come up. All of my children’s friends play video games and have phones and tablets. What are you going to do about that? Are you going to say they can’t join in the world? I chose to allow my 9-year-old to play video games because I believe that it can be a fun medium that offers him imaginative worlds and beautiful images. He also does martial arts and is a voracious reader and rides his bike all the time. It’s a balancing act. We’re teaching our kids essentially how to navigate their lives, and if there is any secret sauce it’s about moderation.
A lot of telling character details come through in the production design: at one point Ben wears an old “Jesse Jackson ’88” tee-shirt, which seems like exactly the presidential campaign he might have supported when he was younger. How much of that was in the script and how much came together during the production process?
It was a bit of both. There were a lot of references to what characters were wearing and what was on the set, but then you hire really talented people and they’ll have better suggestions. The shirt you mentioned was actually Viggo’s idea, for instance. Film-making is a collaborative art and you bring in all these people, whether it’s the actors, the production designer or the costume designer and they look at this document and reflect on it. My job in many ways is simply to be open to ideas and try and parse whether an idea is superior and either reject or accept it.
What do you think those details add to the film?
They’re storytelling devices. The production manager Russell Barnes built the compound that the family live in, and I wanted to portray that world as accurately as possible. Even if we didn’t directly explain it, there had to be concrete answers for what their shelter was, where they got water from, how they prepared food, what their sanitation was like. They have an outhouse which is in the movie but in the background, so we talked a lot about outhouse technology: the old way of building one was that you dug a pit, and now there are all sorts of systems that use chemicals or don’t use chemicals. We went through all these options and made choices that seemed right for the characters. There’s no scene where any of that is discussed, but it’s there.
Do you think the family’s existence needs to be believable to the audience, even if only on an unconscious level?
That’s right. It was very important to Viggo too. He actually planted the entire garden that you see in the film. He arrived early and did that himself. We talked a lot about what would grow in the state of Washington during these months and what stage they would be at. For me it’s important to do that so it’s a credible world, and for him it’s important because he wants to make it real to him, so he was active in the creation of it.
Does being open to that sort of approach come from your experience as an actor? In addition to directing you’ve acted for 25 years – is it helpful to have that perspective on what performers need?
I think so. I’ve worked with many excellent directors who aren’t actors so it’s certainly no prerequisite. Being an actor helps because actors trust that I understand their process, and also I can communicate about the mechanics of their job. A lot of directors look at actors as a necessary and aggravating evil that gets in the way of what they want to do, and actors can probably sense that I don’t feel that way. I made short films from the age of 12 so I’m a camera geek and love the technical aspects of film-making, but I’ve come to the conclusion that most if not all iconic film moments are acting moments. I don’t say that as an actor, I say that as an audience member. We show up in these dark theatres not to watch spectacle: the things that we remember tend to be human beings revealing themselves. It can be something very simple that moves us on some deep level, and I love working with actors to bring that out.
The story is told from the perspective of Ben and his six children. How did your directing methods differ when working with young actors?
The answer is that there are as many different kinds of actors as there are people, so every actor has their own process. As a director it is your job to identify what every actor needs and create an environment where their needs can be met. Some actors like to talk about things a lot before they do a scene, other actors just want to do it. With regard to children, the biggest difference is that some of them are not even professional actors, meaning they have no prior experience. They don’t have a process that they can identify or skills they’re aware of, so sometimes you have to break film-making down for them into chunks. What I do is convince them that they don’t have to say the lines in the way they think I want them to. They can play around with it. I tell them that there’s no right way to act, and there’s no wrong way either: let’s just explore.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine issue 58.