The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Captain Fantastic.
There was such incredible chemistry amongst the cast. How did you build that? What was the rehearsal process?
Viggo Mortensen: Early on, which was great and doesn’t always happen, Matt brought me into read with the last couple of kids we were casting. And the ones who couldn’t come we did the same thing but over Skype. That was great was that for Matt and for me, because it was free rehearsal time. I got to know the final candidates for each role. As a director, Matt did a wonderful thing for the actors, which was to give them many chances to do the scene. It wasn’t just one shot where maybe they come in cold, or have a bad day, a bad audition— maybe it’s just not your day. But Matt had them do it three of four times, and just loosen up… improvise so that you’re comfortable doing what you’re doing. It helped them relax and give their best. And he was also unfailingly polite throughout, even to the people who didn’t get the role, he made sure to talk to them and their parents. And unfortunately that’s not typical in the business, but he really took care of everyone and was a remarkably considerate director. So that was an early glimpse, during rehearsals, for Matt to see what the dynamic would be between the cast and myself and how we would sound as those characters. And a couple of weeks before shooting, we all started preparing the special skills we had to use in our scenes: martial arts classes and rock climbing… [Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler] had to go to a farm to learn how to butcher and skin animals… I had to learn a little bagpipe and guitar! One of the things that really helped us bond as a group were the things we did together. The climbing, the martial arts, and especially the music. I thought the music was particularly helpful for us as a cast. Two of the kids were already proficient at music: [George MacKay] could play the guitar already, and [Nicholas Hamilton] could play the drums. And we would get together, and you’d pick up any instrument even if you didn’t play— it didn’t matter, it was very much in the spirit of the film. So we’d be just playing together everyday to do the music, for an hour or half hour, and you’re not talking. You’re listening to each other. Which is the crucial thing that you want actors to do, you want them to listen before they react— the foundation of good acting is reacting. So by the time we got to the first day of shooting, having done all these things together, and we were a really tight group.
“Then she started saying things to me that were just too incredible. She made me cry.”
What was your inspiration for this story, and why did you want to tell it now?
Matt Ross: I wanted to tell it now, I think, because I’ve written a lot of screenplays— fifteen or sixteen. And I felt like it was the most personal, and I thought represented me, the closest. So for my first film (which four people saw), my joke while we were making it was that it was a ’70’s French movie in English (and you know how people run to see those!). Any way, I had written a bunch of stuff and I felt like this particular script captured me, and my sense of humor, and who I am… and out of all the things I’d written it seemed like I really needed to make it. But also because I’m a parent — I have two kids — when I wrote it, I was really grappling with what kind of father I wanted to be. As some point it occurred to me, I think, how briefly my children will actually be with in my house. My daughter just turned thirteen and I realized that she’s going to be in my house for five more years. Five! My friends were having children, and I was watching their parenting and sometimes being really inspired and sometimes being confused, and I think my wife and I were probably arguing a lot about what was important to us, and disagreeing a lot. So I had all these questions about what was important to me. What did I want to pass on? What was really important? What did I want to teach my children, at the end of the day? I think that we all want to protect our children, we want to prepare them to leave the nest, we want to show them our mistakes so that they don’t make them too. As my children were growing up, I kept going back to what are my values? What do I believe in that I want to teach them? And that got me thinking about how disconnected we are from the natural environment in our modern lives. How disconnected we are from our food source. Everything from, what do we teach them in school? It sounds ridiculous, but I thought about the fact that my children weren’t learning actually useful things. If my car breaks, I have no idea how to fix it! I would like my child to be able to repair the things they need for their lives. To repair their car. If they’re going to eat meat, I want them to really understand where it comes from. The point is, there were a thousand things I wanted to introduce them to and teach them, and I put a lot of them into this story. Some of them are questions about parenting, some of them are aspirational— as Vigo said, his character is an extreme example of conscious parenting, and I wanted to sort of explore if that’s really possible? Or is it insane? Insanely great? And I think I don’t necessarily know the answers to those questions, or that the film proposes all the answers. But I think it’s more interesting that way.
Did you find that your parenting changed as you wrote the script?
MR: No, because I feel like parenting is an hourly recalibration. As any parent knows, you try certain things and either it works, or maybe it doesn’t… You change, every day is different, every moment is different, every situation is different.
There are so many wonderful scenes in the film that it’s hard to choose just one to discuss. For you, though, were there any favorites?
VM: There were so many beautiful ones— there several small improvised moments that were totally unexpected. For instance Trin Miller, who plays my wife in the film, was only supposed to appear as a vision to me that didn’t really speak. It was just one moment in a dream sequence where we’re just supposed to see her and there’s music and it’s meant to evoke how a memory comes to you. That was it. And she came in after reading the script — she’s a Seattle based actress — not only did she look exactly right as far as being the mother of these kids, but she also turned out to be an incredible actress! So she started improvising lines. And we figured we’d record it but never end up using it. Then she started saying things to me that were just too incredible. She made me cry. It was very moving, and playful, and great. Then Matt said we needed to find another place to show that again. And I said to Matt, you know, you really ought to consider the scene in the bus where one of the kids puts their hand on the casket and says, “mommy is in there.” Which is very moving anyway. The family had this very natural relationship with their bodies, with death… they understand. And my character was open to that as well, it’s part of their family model. What if they decided to look at her in that moment? To take the lid off the casket? And that turned out to be such a powerful and unusual moment in the film. But there’s something really true, really organic, about them doing that. For me, that sequence always moves me. I love it, it’s so positive and moving and honest.