Viggo Mortensen (‘Falling’) on how it was ‘difficult’ to direct his first film [Complete Interview Transcript]

Viggo Mortensen directed his first film this past year, “Falling,” about a middle-aged gay man dealing with his aging father. The actor also wrote, produced, composed music for and stars in the film.

Mortensen recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Rob Licuria about what inspired him to create “Falling,” how the story relates to his own life and the key argument scene towards the end of the film. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Viggo, remarkably, this is your first feature. I didn’t know that. I had to look it up. So much of the film, then, rests on your shoulders in terms of its success. What drove you to bring the story to life? 

Viggo Mortensen: Well, I’ve been trying to direct a movie from a script that I’ve written for many years. I’ve written several screenplays. The first time I tried to raise the money to direct a movie I’d written was about 25 years ago and I’ve tried repeatedly with different stories and almost raised the money, but not quite. That’s, over the years, been frustrating. But on the other hand, I do understand that especially with independent film, it’s difficult, and if they’re somewhat unorthodox stories or challenging stories that don’t resolve themselves in a neat package, that pose more questions than give answers, it’s difficult. And just because over the years, I’ve become a relatively familiar face to some people as an actor, that doesn’t mean that I can direct a movie. I mean, there’s no proof of it. I haven’t even directed a short before “Falling.” So I understand.

At the time I wrote “Falling,” it was right after my mother’s funeral and my mother had suffered from dementia for a few years and when she died, I was actually trying to raise the money for another screenplay, so I went to her funeral, and when someone dies that you’re close to, your mother, you look at all the images that you have. Everything is very present. All these memories, fragments of conversations, stories you remember about her, stories you share with your brothers in my case and others, and at the funeral, I heard different versions of these stories, which made me think how subjective memory is. The same people, the same moment, and yet, it’s a completely different version of it. And then new stories and met people I hadn’t known, older people who said they’d gone to school with her. So I wrote these things down. I just wanted to remember it.

When I looked at my notebook a little while later, I realized this could be the structure for a good story, maybe a novella or something, short story, and some days later, I read through it. I thought, “Well, I’ll look at this thing I wrote on the plane, flying all night because I couldn’t sleep. It’s probably not very good,” just like when you wake up in the middle of night, you scribble something in a notebook, a line that comes or something from a dream or a poem or something and you tend to read it the next day and go, “Eh, not so great. It’s not very original. It seems like just a scattered thought. It’s not really complete.” But in this case, the structure was basically there and I thought, “I can visualize,” especially these memories, these flashback scenes I’m describing. Maybe it’s a movie rather than a book. So I started writing that screenplay on the side while I was still trying to get the other movie made and eventually that other one fell apart, and so then I tried this. And it took me a few times.

I found Lance Henriksen, I had my cinematographer, Marcel Zyskind from Denmark, I had Carol Spier from Canada, production designer I’ve worked with a few times. She does all the [David] Cronenberg movies and I started working on it and even though it was frustrating, just as it has been for 25 years, to try to make a movie, it’s frustrating to have to wait several years to do “Falling” as well, I’d find most of the money, lose it, so forth, or have it taken away from us. It was good in a way, because I used that time to work with Lance on the script. It’s not because I’m a crazy egomaniac that I wore all those hats. It’s because I was on my own for quite a long time. So I used that time to not only work on the script and think about locations and what we’d do with the camera, but I also started working on the music, started to imagine not only what the movie would look like, but how it should sound and the casting initially and so forth. So it was just partly a function of being on my own and partly necessity, to be honest.

As we got closer and closer and I had already then finally decided, “OK, I’ll be in it as well. Maybe that’ll help,” it was just a unique situation where I had been on my own as the originating producer, writer, everything, so I had thought out a lot of stuff already, and frankly, if I put my producer hat on, it was handy. It was helpful to know that I wouldn’t have to pay the composer, I wouldn’t have to pay one of the main actors, I wouldn’t have to pay the writer, I wouldn’t have to pay the director, and I wouldn’t have to pay one of the producers, anything. I could put that money into the movie because once I finally found some partners, Canadian and British, I was told that I couldn’t, in fact, have seven weeks to shoot it, which is what I’d hoped for. I could have five. “That’s going to be tough. But we can do it. I just have to get organized,” with kids and their limited hours, shooting in the winter and limited hours, so forth. And a very ambitious story with different scenes in the past, the distant past, complex story.

But we organized ourselves really well and went for it. I didn’t want to have less than five weeks, so that’s why hiring someone who was free of charge… I mean, that wasn’t the reason. The reason was because I did have a specific idea. If we just talk about the music, which I can send you the score if you want. We just finished it and it’s longer versions of some of the pieces that you see in the movie, but just talking about that, I had such a clear idea of what it would be and had written some of it before we started, some more during the shoot and the rest during the editing. We didn’t have really any money left to go and spend weeks in a studio with an orchestra or something. We didn’t have to because we had worked it out. I had worked it out with Buckethead, the guitarist, and I knew what I wanted to do. We did it in two days. We recorded everything super fast. And that was just the way we made the movie. It was kind of nuts.

I remember going back to Lance the third and final time the summer before we went and shot in the winter. I said, “Lance, we’re going to make the movie,” and I hadn’t talked to him for several months. “Now we’re really going to make the movie.” He goes, “Really? Oh, congratulations.” I said, “Do you still want to take part?” And he said, “Um… yeah, yeah, yeah.” I said, “Well, that didn’t sound very certain. It’s not forced labor. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to do it. It’s no problem.” And he said, “No, no, no, I want to do it. It’s great. It’s just going to be difficult.” I go, “Yeah, I know. It’s a lot of text and it’s more than you usually have to deal with. It’s a lot of emotional layers to this character, the dementia, everything else,” and he goes, “No, no, no, it’s not that. Although that is going to be tough. It’s just because I’m going to have to go to some dark places, because I don’t want to be caught acting. I want to do this for real and I’m going to have to go to places, my childhood in particular, and remember some not so pleasant things just to get this right.” I said, “Oh, I understand.”

And then he started telling me stories about his childhood and they were pretty harrowing. He was basically was raised on the streets. He didn’t really have proper schooling. He had an abusive mother and father, alcoholics, it was tough. It was something out of Dickens or something, and he was illiterate until he was 30 years old. He’s a self-made, self-educated person and when he would tell me these stories about his childhood, as I got to know him, he would be smiling, sometimes laughing at some horrible things. I said, “I can’t believe you’re so accepting of this.” And he said, “It took me decades. I finally came to the conclusion that I’ve already been through that crap. I don’t want to wallow in it. I don’t want to live in it, so I made a choice at one point to move past it and I want to have a different kind of life than I might if I stayed in that mindset. But I am going to go back there for this.” And he did, and that’s one of the reasons when I say it’s a layered, beautiful, memorable performance, it’s also a very brave performance and in part, that’s why. Because he did go there. Some difficult places. 

GD: We were saying offline how this film conjures up various emotions in people who watch it. It did for me and I’m looking at the John character, he is generally non-confrontational, reticent, contemplative. To me, that felt like his defense mechanism, and then on the other hand, you had Willis, who is emotionally absent, bitter, angry, and you had these little touches in there in both of your performances that really made it feel so authentic and very uncomfortable, but in a good way. And what I’m getting at is, how does the writing and directing a character who’s incapable of expressing any other emotion, apart from anger, which I think many of us know, how does that resonate with you personally? 

VM: Well, I mean, my dad wasn’t quite that way. We had a better relationship than Willis and John have, but my dad was, like many men of his generation, someone born during the Great Depression, raised during World War II, in his case, on a farm in Denmark during the German occupation, and ran away from home when he was 14, didn’t finish schooling, but later found a way to get a university degree when he moved to the United States and met my mother and so forth. He met her in Norway and then they moved to the United States and he made his way. That generation of men, they were self-reliant but not flexible. They weren’t prone to evolve in a relationship. In other words, they weren’t going to adapt to their partner or anyone else, you had to adapt to them. They certainly weren’t going to adapt to changing times when the 1960s came around, the 1970s. They were like, “What the hell is going on? This is bullshit.”

And so, it’s difficult for a relationship, and I think you see it in “Falling,” or you get a feel for that, the relationship between my mother and father in the story. She’s someone who’s trying to expand her horizons in small ways, music and art, and just trying to make a home that evolves and everybody’s taken care of, and he is not going to evolve with her. He’s not going to adapt to her as a woman who changes with time. Everybody has to adapt to him and his word is the final word. It’s my way or the highway. My dad had a little bit of that. So I understand that to some degree. But one of the things I wanted to explore is memory, how subjective memory is, and I think that in the story, it’s a story that’s about memory and about communication and how memory forms us. Because the present is confusing and it’s in flux, it’s not set in stone yet, it’s just evolving and the future is unknown, I think we’d like to think that the past is reliable. “Well, I know what happened before, at least, even if today is very confusing. I have photos. I have videos. I have diary entries. I have accounts of what happened, my own and others who were there with me.”

But all you have to do is have a conversation with someone you know about the same event, the same person, and you’re likely to have different versions of that. This was something I found when I went to my mom’s funeral, which is what stimulated writing the story. It was like, “Wow, that’s a completely different version of what I heard.” I was thinking about this thing of memory and how it affects, even though we try to control our past in a way subconsciously in order to feel comfortable in the present, I think it’s our past that definitely controls our present. How we choose to remember what happened to us in the past dictates how we behave towards others and how we react to our environment, but at the end, in this story, the broken bonds of affection, of family affection — you can see it in the flashbacks — that used to unite this family, this father and son, even the parents in the past, by visiting those memories of times where things were not as bad as they are now, even if they’re subjective, that can help them overcome a part of the pain that they have caused each other. 

GD: I wanna hear what you have to say very briefly about the pivotal scene towards the end, because the men explode at each other because all of that rage and pent up anxiety blows over and Lance told me how nervous he was about it, but how great you were and how the whole crew wanted to watch it. So very quickly tell us, I mean, that must have been a great highlight for us to helmer on the project. 

VM: Well, every scene, every moment in the movie we worked hard on and we prepared well and casting was important, and I’m really happy, from four-year-old Grady McKenzie, who’s the boy with the duck and all that, plays my character when he’s four, from him all the way up to Lance, who’s now 80 years old. For this particular story, that was for me, whether you know these actors or not, that was for me an all-star cast. It couldn’t be better. I mean, people obviously know Laura Linney and maybe some people know Lance but this was an amazing cast. That scene I knew was the turning point late in the story. It was what all this, maybe for some audience members, frustrating, just repetitive, abusive behavior, this psychological violence inflicted on John and other members of his family by Willis, Lance Henriksen’s character, for a long time, which was intentional.

I wanted to create a different kind of tension than you usually get in a drama which is usually about conflict, two forces hitting each other. One person’s attacking, the other person’s going, “No, no, no.” Not easy to do, but he’s consciously doing it because in the past, he’s fought his father and that ends up where you don’t talk for months or years so he wants to help this guy who definitely needs help mentally and physically and he’s made a choice to not react. He knows he’s going to have to take a lot of crap, but at a certain point, you can’t take it anymore. So it’s like we’re tensing the bow, pulling that string back and back and back until the end of the bow is going to break. You have to let it go. And then what happens, happens.

But that scene that you’re referring to was crucial because if that scene wasn’t disturbing somehow, uncomfortable to watch and listen to on some level for the audience, then we weren’t going to really earn what happens after that and towards the end of the movie. Not really, and as we were working on that scene, we started shooting it and the first sort of jousting, the little sparring that’s going on verbally, we took a break because we had to do fix something with a camera or change the lens, and Lance and I went outside and Lance said to me… usually we’d go outside and take a break and we’d talk about other things just to get away from the work for a few minutes. But he turned to me, he says, “How do you think it’s going?” I said, “It’s going OK. It’s correct. I mean, we’re hitting the right beats, but since you ask, I think that ‘OK’ is not good enough here. If we want the audience to feel uncomfortable, we have to be uncomfortable and I don’t know if we’re going to get there today.”

So I made a choice, even though we had a very limited schedule. I said, “I think you should go home and just rest. Take it easy. I’m going to direct some scenes. We’re going to do some flashback scenes where I don’t have to act, direct the kids and Hannah Gross, do some other stuff, and Sverrir Gudnason, some scenes with them and I said, “Let’s do that the rest of the day. You go home, rest, eat, do whatever you want. Think about the scene, don’t think about the scene and tomorrow I’m going to do the same thing and I’ll call you at the end of the day and then we’ll come in Friday and we’ll just go at it.” And I said to the first AD, “I know we have a limited schedule and we can’t really repeat scenes. I’m not asking to repeat. I just want to take a break and recharge because this is crucial, this scene.” And it was good we did that because when we came back, it was a whole different story and there was an intensity there and a no holds barred on the part of Lance, just a fearless kind of approach to the work that day and it was just stunning.

It was disturbing and uncomfortable and we just let it go and trusted each other and just went for it, and it was bitter and it was brutal and when we finished the scene, there was silence and I looked around and people were visibly moved and I didn’t go there, but Lance told me he went around the corner into the room where the two monitors were, the video village, because the whole crew had gathered in there, even people that were usually outside. They were all sitting there quietly because they wanted to see what happened with the scene. And he said they were weeping, men, women, and that was early in the shoot. It was a tough scene to have to do early on. It was just because of where the locations were and stuff. But that changed everything. Then people really started sharing their family stories and it became a very emotional and very satisfying journey, just as a collective, and that’s the thing.

I mean, I knew it would be difficult to direct a movie and especially this kind of story. To do it right, it would be difficult. But it was way more satisfying and rewarding, especially because of this collective way that we did the work than I dreamed it could be. I mean, it was just really extraordinary what happened and a lot of that started that day when we were working on that scene. That changed things. 

GD: Sounds amazing. Congratulations on a really great movie. It really affected me and I’m sure plenty of other people, and good luck this season. 

VM: Well, thank you. I’m just glad that people are finally going to see it. It’s been a long wait through this pandemic year. I’m sure you’ve heard the same from other directors and writers and actors. It’s frustrating. But hey, it took a long time. It took years to get it made. What’s another year to have to wait? It’s finally coming into harbor and on the 5th of February, everybody can see it. So I hope people will give it a chance, if only for Lance Henriksen’s unforgettable performance. 

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