Matt Ross’ survival mode
The Captain Fantastic director shares grueling stories on child labor laws, boot camp and Viggo Mortensen
Matt Ross is probably best known for his role as conniving weasel Gavin Belson on the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, or his turn as conniving weasel Alby Grant on Big Love, or for the many conniving weasels he’s played in films like American Psycho and Face/Off. Written and directed by Ross, the family drama Captain Fantastic is something else altogether—an empathetic meditation on parenting styles starring Viggo Mortensen as the patriarch of a Swiss Family Robinson-esque brood of survivalists getting its first taste of the grid. The Berkeley-based Ross recently talked to SN&R about winning the Best Director Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, the challenges of directing children and his roots as a juvenile auteur.
Congratulations on winning the award at Cannes. What was that experience like?
It’s strange and intense; it’s very formal, everyone’s in tuxedos and gowns, but objectively Cannes is also a pretty incredible place, because I feel like it’s a high temple of world art cinema. Everyone is dressed very formally but they’re all rushing to see these auteur films. Winning the award was sort of out of a bad romantic comedy. Once the screenings happen, everyone leaves. … I took my wife and my two kids, and we went to Paris. We had just walked into the Picasso museum, and we got a call saying, “Hey, we think you should come back, we think you’re up for something.” But they don’t tell you what award. They just said, “We asked Viggo to come back, and we’re asking you to come back.” I really thought if we had a chance to win something, it would be for Viggo. And then we had three hours to catch the flight. We raced to get a cab and then the cab went to the wrong airport. The traffic was so bad on the Croisette, the cars could not move, so we jumped out. We’re dodging through people and traffic, sweating. … We get to the ceremony and when they called my name, I think I started to cry. It was without a doubt the greatest honor of my life.
If people only know you from your acting roles, they might not expect you to make a film this empathetic. What inspired the script?
Of course, an actor is not the roles he or she plays, but I do understand your comment. I would say it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. The genesis was that I was thinking about being a father, and trying to be the best father I could be. I was really trying to figure out what my core values were, what I wanted to pass on to my children, the things I wanted to teach them about the world. I had a lot of questions about what might be the best way to do that, and I put it into a story that I suppose is partially aspirational.
You’ve basically been making films your entire life. What were some of those first childhood films like?
There were such fantastic opuses as Attack of the Killer Chairs—I don’t know if you saw that one. I was 12 years old, so at that point I didn’t even write things down. It was more like I had pictures in my head. I think there was one about some kind of ninja assassin who broke into our house and opened the safe and had to fight some people, and then escape through the roof, stuff like that. I would say they were universally terrible.
Your first feature 28 Hotel Rooms was very minimalist and interior, and Captain Fantastic is very expansive with a lot of exteriors. How did you adjust to the larger scale?
Poorly, very poorly. Every film has its challenges; Captain Fantastic is a film with six children in every scene, seven including Viggo. With child labor laws, the youngest ones have very truncated hours, so you have to shoot around them. Just covering seven people in every scene was a logistical challenge. We had two musical scenes and two stunt scenes, both of which involved children, we had a live animal and we shot in two states. The truth is that I was partly protected by my own inexperience, because if I had been more experienced, I may have known how daunting it would be.
There are some physically demanding scenes in the movie. How did you prepare the actors?
The children and Viggo were all brought for a preproduction boot camp in Washington. They were all rock-climbing every single day. When George MacKay was first cast, he started doing yoga three to four hours a day. The two teenage girls were taking Esperanto. They butchered a sheep, because they have some knife skills in the film. Everyone was doing musical rehearsals every day. We sent them on a wilderness skills and survival camp where they learned to make a fire and build a shelter and identify edible plants. They learned some basic hunting and tracking skills and slept under the stars. It’s a long process where you’re not expecting them to become an expert in anything. … What you’re really hoping is that they get to know each other, and look at Viggo as a mentor and a leader and a father.
The role of Ben seems tailor-made for Viggo Mortensen. What was he like to direct?
I didn’t have anyone in mind when I was writing it, but when it came time to cast and they asked me who I wanted, Viggo was my first choice. I think he’s a really amazing artist and one of the great American actors. In terms of working with him, he’s very specific, very hard-working and extremely dedicated. In the beginning, we had an email exchange that went on for months, where he sent me pages and pages of questions about almost every line, every moment. He was asking a lot of factual questions, wanting to make sure that things were authentic and credible. He was a central collaborator during production.