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Matt Ross Captain Fantastic interview

The Writer/Director discusses his Oscar nominated movie & his acting role on Silicon Valley.

Matt Ross
Credit: Wilson Webb / Bleecker Street

Most people are quite surprised when they learn that Matt Ross, the genius who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated Captain Fantastic, is the same guy who plays the brilliant Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic is the uplifting and heart-warming story of family, love, and growing up.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a devoted father of six, dedicated himself to raising his children in an unconventional lifestyle that is far removed from society. When they are forced to leave their self-created paradise and drive across the country to reunite with family, both Ben and his children find themselves mystified and intrigued by the outside world. As Ben is forced to question what it means to be a parent, his children begin to discover a new and extraordinary world that they never knew existed.

EF caught up with Matt for the Blu-ray, DVD & Digital release of Captain Fantastic, which is available now, to discuss all things Captain Fantastic and Silicon Valley.

In an involving interview, Matt goes into great depth about his work processes for the film, his inspiration for the story, discusses his amazing cast & his involvement in their work and why the film resonates with audiences.

Captain Fantastic

Credit: Cathy Kanavy/Bleecker Street

First off Matt, congratulations, Captain Fantastic was a hugely captivating film with genuine heart. Where did the idea for the project first come from?

Captain Fantastic is about many things – parenting and parenthood, the many Americas within the United States of America – but at its core, it’s about the choices we make and how they impact those around us.

It’s the most personal story I’ve written. I have two kids and until they came into my life, I didn’t understand how deeply one could love another human being. I understood and had experienced romantic love, love between brothers, love for relatives, parents, friends. But until I had kids of my own, I had not experienced love that deep, selfless, or profound.

So really, the genesis of the film, and my first thoughts, were all the questions I had about parenting, about being a father, about my values and how I was passing my values to my children – or not.

I was – and am – very concerned with this idea: not just that all parents want to prevent their children from making the same mistakes in life that we have, but also, giving them the tools to navigate what really matters in life. Every parent defines that differently, of course.

We all experience such a huge pull between our professional and personal lives. There’s only so much time in a day and so many of us either feel like we’re failing at home – or feel like we’re failing at work. We curate our children’s lives – decide what they can and cannot eat, read, watch. We teach them – either directly or indirectly – how to interact with others, how to love, what to believe in – on and on. It’s a profound responsibility. And it all goes so fast. When I was writing the script, I realized that my daughter would only be in our house for another 8 years before it was time for university.

So I began to fantasize about devoting every waking moment to my kids and to their education. What would be an insane thing to do? Or would that be the greatest gift one could give?

I had many questions and put them into the form of a narrative. But I’m certainly not trying to deliver any kind of “message.”

I want to have an intellectual experience – I want to be challenged and I want what I see to provoke thought and reflection of my own life; and I want an emotional experience – I want to laugh or cry. Those are experiences I want when I see a film and that’s what I want the audience to have as well.

Captain Fantastic

Credit: Wilson Webb/Bleecker Street

Viggo Mortensen is sensational in the movie. What does he bring to the table and how impressed were you by his performance?

Viggo was my first choice for the role of Ben Cash and I was exceedingly fortunate that he agreed to come play in the mud with me. Aside from the superficial – he’s the correct age, for example – he has that rare combination of gravitas, intelligence, and emotional accessibility. He’s an exceptionally intelligent and well-read man, a complex artist (photographer, poet, painter, writer) in his own right and I wanted to work with that caliber of artist.

He brings his interpretation of the role of course, but also his taste, his wit, his soul, his profound work ethic, and his sensibility.

It was imperative that one believes that Ben Cash is a real human being and not some literary construct. I’ve known people like this, having grown up in similar situations, but I knew that for some, he might seem extreme. I wanted an actor who could manifest this character with humanity and depth and make him a three-dimensional and complex man. And I thought that Viggo, given his extraordinary work, was the ideal person to do this.

I don’t think it’s a question of whether or not I was impressed with his performance. Having seen almost every film he’s made, I had an idea of that which he’s capable. I had an idea of his depth and nuance.

And the “performance” happens incrementally, on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. First of all, acting is an interpretive art and I want to give every actor the room to interpret what I wrote. I want Viggo to have room to play and explore, to craft the part as he sees it.

And then, slowly, we collaborate on ideas, moments, scenes – we riff, like one does in jazz, playing off each other’s ideas.

Filmmaking is collaboration.

Viggo – along with the DOP Stéphane Fontaine, the editor Joe Krings, the creative producer Lynnette Howell-Taylor, the production designer Russell Barnes and the costume designer Courtney Hoffman – was a central collaborator.

Do you feel added pressure and responsibility when you write and direct a project? Was there any trepidation in tackling both and were you always going to direct this?

I don’t feel any added pressure, being both the writer and the director. I could imagine that directing something one did not write might feel that way. One might feel the great responsibility of translating someone else’s story, the great responsibility of doing justice to what’s on the page.

But for me, the opposite is true, in fact. I write to direct. So I was always intending to direct Captain Fantastic. In a way, I write the notes – and then we all play them. So I feel that I am equipped, as much or more than anyone, to manifest the film that the script posits.

It’s not imperative by any means and certainly some of our very “best” directors never write what they direct, but – at least for now – it’s the only way I understand how to make a film.

Can you talk to us about the level of collaboration you had with the cast during filming?

Filmmaking is all about collaboration, as I said. In terms of the cast – every actor has a different process and one of the jobs of the director is to identify that process and create an environment where it can flourish. It’s more difficult with kids, obviously, because they may never have acted before. And even if they have, they may not know their “process,” or even have one.

It starts before we film. Viggo and I had talked about the script for many months, going back and forth about every detail. We’re dreaming together of what might be.

In terms of the children, we had a long audition and callback process, where I did improvisations and theatre games with them, had them sing, really allowed them to play and explore – so it starts there.

Then we brought everyone to Washington State weeks before shooting and had a “boot camp.” They all first attended a “Wilderness Skills and Survival Camp” where they learned to make shelters, make fires, track animals. Then we had everyone in class all day long for some weeks. They learned rock-climbing, did musical rehearsals, learned foreign languages, martial arts, yoga; the two teenage girls butchered a sheep (to learn knife skills, as they “dress” a deer in the film). Viggo did all this with them, including bagpipe lessons.

The point of all this training is not to hope to master these skills, which are impossible in such a short amount of time, but to introduce the actors to the world of the film. My hope was that they would bond as a group. And I hoped that the kids would begin to look at Viggo as a mentor, a trusted friend, and hopefully, as a father figure.

And it worked. They all ended up calling him “Summer Dad.”

On the first day of shooting, they were a cohesive group, already goofing around and very comfortable with each other.

And then as other cast members join, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathyrn Hahn, and Steve Zahn, you remain open to how they like to work. Some people like to discuss everything – from what kind of music I think they like, to what they might want to wear, to specific moments mentioned in the text – and some people prefer to discuss little and instead see what happens in the moment.

Each collaboration is slightly different.

Credit: Wilson Webb/Bleecker Street

You are working with some truly outstanding young talent in the film – how was it working with these actors?

We call the text in theatre a “play,” which obviously comes from the verb “to play.” And children come to play. They really do. They don’t have the same idea that this is a career or a job or that it “matters.” They show up and listen and work off whatever is happening in the scene and off the other people.

So it’s far easier than most people think.

The difficulty, if there is one, is logistical – more about managing their blood sugar levels, making sure everyone is getting enough to eat and drink, making sure that they’re resting when they’re tired. And sometime it’s about focus. Acting takes an enormous amount of concentration and for the younger ones that can be challenging. Their focus can drift.

But, along with the teacher/guardian whose job it is to manage the kids, each child also had a parent on set every day. These parents understood the film, loved it, and we could not have accomplished what we did without their constant and incredible help.

Is there room for much improvisation during scenes?

I don’t show up hoping to only film that I wrote. I would bring in ideas for each scene, some behavioural, some language, and the actors were encouraged to do that as well. There weren’t “marks” on the floor, we shot hand-held, and they were encouraged to try different things each take.

The most improvisation happened in the “dream” sequence, when Ben’s wife, Leslie (played by Trin Miller) appears. As written, she was to speak, but no audible dialogue would be heard. It was intended to be very brief – and opaque, gauzy, like a distant memory or a dream.  But Trin had read the script and so I had she and Viggo improvise for a few hours. Two sequences, both in the film, come out of those improvisations.

But improvisation doesn’t only happen in the way that most people imagine improvisation, especially given that these are hyper-articulate children and you can’t expect a 9 year old to improvise a line, like (from the film), “This house is a vulgar display of wealth and an unethical use of space.“

So, mainly, it’s behavioral: Nai picking his nose around the campfire, Rellian voicing his dissent by banging on a drum, etc. There are examples in every scene.

Having said that, the children did also add lines here and there, like when Charlie Shotwell (who plays Nai) says, “How did you kill these chickens? With an axe or a knife?”

I had nothing to do with that one.

Why do you think the idea of living a more nomadic lifestyle still resonates with audiences today?

I don’t think it’s the idea of a nomadic lifestyle, as much as it’s a lifestyle that promises a deeper connection to the natural environment and a life that’s less frenetic. I think these “alternative” lifestyles resonate because many people in the modern world – and here we’re mainly speaking of people that live in so-called “first world” countries – live in cities or suburban environments. And there is a feeling of disconnection that comes with that.

Much of the modern world is miraculous, of course: our homes are heated, we have clean water, we can get food when we need it, if we break a limb or get sick, we have hospitals that can provide medicine or treatment.

But there is also an intense yearning for a “slower” life, one with time to read, to contemplate, to play music, to connect with each other, for a life removed from the constant distraction and stimulation of the modern world. And I think there’s also a desire to feel a greater connection to the natural world, to the seasons, to be closer to our food sources, whether this is through hunting or gardening.

These feelings of disconnection are at the heart of why these themes resonate.

There are some wonderful locations featured in the movie – was it a challenge to shoot in some of these locales?

Shooting in forest locations is mainly a logistical challenge. It takes time to drive to these locations, time to drive into the deep forest and once at base camp, it takes time to load equipment and personnel to the actual set. We also shot in an ancient forest under the protection of the University of Washington, and a protected land preserve. Both locations required extra care not to disturb the vegetation.

Every film has its unique challenges and the specific challenges of Captain Fantastic were: 1) There are six children in every scene, so logistically, photographing every scene is complicated, especially if you want to have all line spoken on camera. 2) The children can only work so many hours a day because of child labor laws, so shooting days are short. 3) We’re a road movie, so we were in different locations every day, and frequently, those locations are deep in the woods and difficult to access. 4) The film has two stunt sequences with children and two musical numbers with children, both of which take a great deal of preparation. And finally, 5) We shot in two states, Washington and New Mexico.

Credit: Erik Simkins/Bleecker Street

What’s your favourite scene in the film – the one we keep revisiting is the dinner table conversation between Ben and his family and Harper & Dave’s family…

I don’t really have a favourite scene. I do love the one you mention, mainly because it strikes me as painful, true, and comedic – all at the same time.

I also love the “dream” sequences. For me they work as mysterious, intimate, and private moments. In the grand scheme of the film, they may not resonate for the audience as much as they resonate with me, but I love them, also because the actors were truly exploring in front of the camera. When we were filming, it was so alive and unexpected and what they were doing was so deeply felt. It had great truth.

We are huge fans of Silicon Valley – Gavin Belson must be a lot of fun to play. Where would you like to see his character go next season?

We’re shooting next season now, so I actually know where Gavin goes – but if I told you, I’d have to kill you!

Yes, Gavin is great fun. Hopefully, we’ll have a season 5 as well and I have full confidence in the show-runners to take Gavin to unexpected and unexplored places.

And that’s the heart of what I hope happens: I would just like to see the character continue to evolve and surprise us.

Many believe that we are in a golden age of TV, and that it’s overtaking Film. What do you think?

Much has been written about this and I think it’s absolutely true.

Part of this is economic. Generally speaking, US studios are no longer in the business of making “original” films, or even films for adults. They make far fewer than they used to and they concentrate on films based on pre-existing material. They are in the business of making films for the global market: blockbusters and franchises. Each film needs to make enormous amounts of money and therefore, they’re fairly conventional.

Independent film tends to explore more personal stories and thankfully, it’s still a healthy and vibrant ecosystem, but certainly doesn’t have the reach of the films that come out of the studios.

By no means do I believe that film is dead, but this has opened up a great opportunity to address a neglected and hungry audience and premium cable companies have rushed to fill the void. It’s an exploding market, for both film and for long-form narratives: limited and on-going series.

By very definition, however, TV is not film or “cinema.” Which is not a value judgement. A film can traffic in mood or tone, with very little in the way of plot, and sustain that for 90 minutes or two hours. TV, however, has a voracious appetite for plot.

Some of the most exciting storytelling is coming out of the premium cable companies and TV will redefine how we define “cinema.”

Captain Fantastic

Credit: Bleecker Street

How has the industry changed since you started? Do you think it’s easier to get started now?

I don’t think it’s ever been easy to break into filmmaking: producing, directing, writing, acting, design, cinematography – any of it.

The first big change, which we’ve just addressed, is that there has been an explosion of channels on television, many of which with incredibly exciting narratives. So there are more jobs. But the true seismic shift is that there is now the Internet, digital technology, and social media.  (As I was starting, so were the first two).

Today, there is simple no impediment to creating your own work. Digital technology puts the means of production into everyone’s hands, the Internet enables easy distribution, and social media serves as promotion. Getting people to care, to find the work, to watch it – and finally, to pay for it – these are still challenges. But the fact that anyone can create their own webisode or their own feature film, without waiting for permission, means that anyone can potentially make a career in a space that traditionally had many more barriers to entry.

Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

I’m currently writing three films and developing a few television shows. Whichever one sucks the least, that’s the one I’ll try to make next.

Captain Fantastic is available now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital

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