Interview: Matt Ross on His Passion for Directing 'Captain Fantastic'
by Alex Billington
July 6, 2016
"My goal was to create a movie that was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving." One of my favorite films of the year is called Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen as the father of a family he is raising to be "philosopher kings" without the toxic influences of modern society. I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival and flipped for it, calling it "profoundly intelligent" in my review and including it as one of my favorite films of that festival. The film later went on to play at the Cannes Film Festival, where I saw it again (I really, really love this film) and luckily had the chance to meet up with writer/director Matt Ross for an interview. Ross is most well known as an actor, appearing on "Silicon Valley" as Gavin Belson, but he's also a filmmaker - this is his second feature film (after 28 Hotel Rooms) and it's truly wonderful.
The moment the film ended, I knew I needed to talk to Matt Ross about Captain Fantastic. I felt so invigorated and inspired by the film, and I had to hear the story behind it and meet the person who came up with it. The film fights against the repetitive dullness and hypocrisy of modern society, and it couldn't be more timely with the state of affairs in the world. I wrote in my glowing review: "It gives me hope that it's possible to be an intellectual, to clash with the unenlightened citizens of this world, and to still have such a big heart. This is one of those cases when I think this film found me as much as I found it." I'm lucky I had the chance to ask Matt about making the film, and have him answer some of the questions I had about it. He's a talented filmmaker and I look forward to whatever he makes next. Until then, let's dive into this…
I saw this at Sundance originally (review) and again in Cannes. I never know because I'm so caught up in the film… Were there any changes or tweaks you made between then and now?
Matt Ross: No, no. We had a pretty long editing process. The film was ready a while ago, but because I was waiting on music… When you work with a band sometimes, in this case some of the guys from Sigur Ros, it's different than a composer, who just says, "well, I need two weeks". So we went back and forth with them. It was actually Jónsi and Alex, not Sigur Ros the proper complete band.
So there have been many, many versions of this movie. But from Sundance to Cannes, it is the same. There's two internal tweaks that I felt like we were missing a laugh because of how… there was a moment with Katherine Hahn that was immediately cut from her somewhere else and then cut back. And I thought we could get a laugh. Not in mercenary way. I just thought there was a missed opportunity there. You wouldn't notice it…
I'm glad you mention Sigur Ros because I kept thinking the whole time, "This is Sigur Ros, but it doesn't say Sigur Ros, is this really them?"
Matt: I don't know what I should say on the record and off the record. So I'll just tell you honestly because I don't know how else to say it. So I went to them… What I was told is that Sigur Ros as the band does not do [scores]…
Right. Usually it's just Jónsi or something…
Matt: Right. So it's Jónsi, but now Jónsi only wants to work with his boyfriend, who is Alex Somers, a really good composer himself. I went back and forth with them. Jónsi has a solo album. He does solo projects with Alex — Alex and Jónsi — and he does Sigur Ros. So he's very busy. So they went back and forth between saying when they could do it, how they could do it. At the last minute, Jónsi was overwhelmed and too busy. So Alex did the music. There are three Sigur Ros pieces in the movie. Then many of the pieces that Alex wrote, Jónsi sings on. So it's Sigur Ros-like, I would say.
I write a lot to Sigur Ros. I love their music. I really wanted them to be [involved in the film]. So we have kind of a combination of the elements and some of the people.
It's a beautiful feel. I think it compliments what you are seeing in a way where I wouldn't have expected it, but then every time I watch it get chills when I hear it because it adds so much to what's going on.
Matt: I'm glad you feel that way. To me, I always described their music… it's like fairy music. It has this other worldly quality. There's a group that's a choir called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares - The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices. They are these women… there's 50 people on stage singing in Bulgarian. And it sounds like alien music. It's beautiful.
But Sigur Ros has that same quality to me. Their music is very cinematic. It builds… the tempo of it is very moving. And also, I don't understand what he's saying. I think he's singing in Hopelandic, this fake Icelandic [language]. Sometimes he sings in Icelandic and sometimes it's not a real language. And so, when I'm writing I'm not distracted by [the music]…That, or classical music with no lyrics, obviously you can write to and it gives you a rhythm that kind of works on a subconscious level. So I'm a huge fan. Love it. Like on a cellular level, a molecular level I feel connected to it.
What brought to you this now? Why now? I don't watch "Silicon Valley", but everyone says, "Oh! That's the guy from Silicon Valley!" But now you're a director and I want to see your next film…
Matt: The truth is, in a way… I'm so lucky to be on "Silicon Valley". I think Mike Judge and Alec Berg are… I mean genius is a word that people throw around a lot, but I think that they are doing kind of comedic gymnastics of the highest order. I think they are extraordinarily talented guys and great guys. So I'm very fortunate to be on that show.
The truth is that I grew up… I made short films as a kid. I was constantly making films. I acted in theatre. I didn't have a lot of confidence in my work when I was really young. What I should have done is written about being in high school or being in college. That's what I should have done. But I was performing in Shakespeare and Shaw and Chekov. And I just felt like Tony Kushner and other amazing writers… I just felt like my work is not substantive like theirs is.
So acting was something that I also loved. I loved telling stories that way. I went to Julliard and then afterwards I went to NYU film school for five seconds. The first money I made, I made as an actor. I made short films. I had a film at Sundance. And I just kept on making short films. And then I had some films that fell apart. And it just took me a long time to get here… I've been very, very fortunate because I got to work with people like Martin Scorsese [as an actor] and I've learned a great deal. But my heart and soul has been in writing and directing for a long time. And it's just really hard. It takes a long time.
I guess I'm only bummed when people think of me as an actor because I'm worried that it's going to poison their idea that I could actually be a filmmaker as well. Because people are…[sigh] It's hard to be accepted as doing more than one thing. So I'm grateful. I'm certainly grateful. But here's the thing. On some basic primal level, the joy I get on "Silicon Valley" is when Mike and Alec are happy as facilitators. If I've executed the scene to their liking, then I'm happy. That's not the same as having a personal investment in my own stories.
So, I enjoy it. And it's a good reminder of how incredibly difficult acting is. It's so hard. Good acting is seamless and it looks easy. And that's why everyone thinks they can fucking do it but they can't. It's extraordinarily difficult. So it's a good reminder. And I love actors. And I love acting. But… All my creative desires go towards writing and directing.
One of the reasons I love this film is because it connects very deeply with me. I believe in and support everything presented in it from Viggo's perspective. I've never seen a film presented in this way. Are those aspects of it a passion inside of you that you wanted to get out…?
Matt: Oh yeah…
Did you feel that now, in this climate, is the right time to bring it out?
Matt: Well… It wasn't that premeditated. I think really what it was, was that I had some questions I wanted to ask about being a father and a parent. And then I contextualized it or dramatized it in a way that I could ask those questions. And so, the family became the audience surrogate or the surrogate of me to reflect against our society, to reflect about our society, to say, well: "This is our culture today. What do I think of it?" In that sense it's very personal.
But it wasn't premeditated in the way that you phrase it.
Well, I wonder…
Matt: I'll tell you what was premeditated, is that I didn't want to create a movie that was… My goal was to create a movie that was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving and that was, on some sort of spiritual or psychic level, positive. It's very hard to do that without being trite. The classic Hollywood movie is a movie with the bullshit Hollywood ending that's completely false, but it's happy! It's happy! I wanted to create a movie that's hopeful. And I think I did that. I just was in the mood for that. I wanted that.
As a kid, I gravitated towards very dark stuff. I was really into punk. I was into… All the movies I liked were really dark and nihilistic. And I think when you are younger you think that anything that's hopeful is bullshit, that the world is a dark, fucked up place and the only thing that's true and authentic is dark and fucked up. And I like movies that are like that. I will probably make one like that because I do love them. I can name them and I love them.
Bu for this I wanted to create something that… I wanted to earn a quality… I guess I could say, a quality psychically or spiritually that was positive, that was hopeful.
Do you hope that it has an impact? Do you hope that someone sees it and says, "I'm going to raise my family differently now"?
Matt: It's not a polemic, so I don't want to say, "This is what you should do." But what I hope it does do is invite you to question yourself… Whether you are a parent or not. Yes, specifically if you are a parent - sure. But I think that if you extrapolate that idea - like: "Well, who are you as a person? What are your values? Who are you as a global citizen? How are you behaving with your fellow human beings?"
So, yes. I hope… I mean - don't you want that in a movie, too?
Matt: I'm always seeking a movie that… The Holy Grail for me is to go into a movie – it's a fever dream for me to go in and forget about my own bullshit for two hours and go into someone else's perspective. And I hope to have an experience that stimulates me intellectually, and I'm moved. So I hope people have that [watching Captain Fantastic]. And then, I hope it's something that they remember for five seconds. How often do we see movies and be like, "Hey, man, what have you seen that's good?" and you are like, "Uh… God. What did I see? Uh…" You, like me, probably see a movie a day. We consume so much narrative. It's insane how much narrative we consume.
So one of my goals would be just that it's good enough that it lasts for a moment to have an impact. By impact, I mean just so that they [the audience] reflects on their own lives.
That's what I think is so rare about this film, you handle the aspect of it so carefully. And I admire it so much for that. And I want it to get out there. I can't push people on it to say, "Oh, watch this to be changed." I can just push them to "see this movie and let it affect you."
Matt: Yeah, yeah. And hopefully it sparks a conversation with the people you see it with. I mean that's the most we can hope for. All good movies do that. If it's good it does that.
At what point did Viggo Mortensen get involved? He seems so essential to the movie.
Matt: When I was writing, I didn't have any specific actor in mind because I think that's a fool's error. I mean - because you may not get that person. When I started to analyze it, I think I had [originally thought of] Harrison Ford back in the day, like around Witness. Just because there's something about Harrison Ford when I was a kid. When I was in junior high, Harrison Ford was in his prime in like Blade Runner. There was something very… He's a man's man. You believe that he's an intelligent man. He's a capable man. And he's a vulnerable man. I loved his work.
So I think I had something like that and I was thinking about: who is that? And for me, Viggo was my first choice. And it happened in a traditional way. We gave it to the managers. And the managers and the agents are the gatekeepers. They have to like it for their client. And if they do, they pass it to them. Viggo read it very quickly. He was in Cannes, actually, at the time, and as soon as he got home he read it. And we met in LA. He lives in Spain. We met and had a five-hour talk. He's very committed to promotion, which is lovely. And he said, "Look. I'm busy. I can't do this." And he's too much of a gentleman to say, "Wait for me." He didn't say that. But that was his subtext.
And so, I went to talk to another actor for a little bit and then Viggo was available and we were good to go. So it happened in a traditional way.
He seems not only like the perfect father, but also representational of everything that you are trying to say with the film. I think that's why he is so essential to it.
Matt: He's essential also because I think that… My agents at the time had passed it around to executives in Los Angeles as a writing sample, and everyone was proposing comedians to me. I did not get as single decent suggestion for the actor. It was either based on someone who has great… You know, a foreign actor, or it was someone… because they read the script. It had a humorous tone that I think is there. They kept on thinking that the character had to be funny. And I was saying no, because the kids would be funny, but it's contextually funny. You don't need to have a comedian. He doesn't need to have a comedic vibe.
The biggest thing for me is that you have to be able to suspend your disbelief - because the family is living in a relatively extreme way. You have to be able to believe that this man is that well-read, that he's able to educate his children in this way, that he's that capable physically. You know, he's physically fit. He's teaching them martial arts. It's a very extreme… I try teaching my kids some things. But it's aspirational. So I needed someone who you believe could be that. And I think you do with him.
Because a lot of it is true with him. I mean, it's fiction. It's a part. He can't do all those things. But a lot of the props in the movie came from him. He built the garden. He completely built the garden. He is a Renaissance man. He's a poet, and a painter, and a photographer, and a writer. And he is all the things you think he might be. He is. He is. He's a superman. And he's a vulnerable and beautiful human being.
So I think that's one of the things… That was very important to me. He brings an authenticity for whatever reason. Maybe it's his work in the past. I don't know. But he doesn't have the baggage of other people that you think like, "Oh, that's so and so pretending to live in the forest." You believe it. And that's vital, I think.
Who are the filmmakers you admire the most and wish to model in your new career as a filmmaker?
Matt: I've thought about that a lot. Probably one of my single greatest heroes is Francis Ford Coppola.
Have you met him?
Matt: I haven't. Actually, a friend of mine has had lunch with him. I would love to sit down [with him]… I live in Berkeley. I think he lives in Sonoma. My fantasy would be to spend a day eating pasta and hanging out with him and talking about movies. His movies… You know, his movies mean probably more to me than any other filmmaker… But I have a lot of [favorite] filmmakers. I appreciate David Fincher. I love Steven Soderbergh. I love Soderbergh in the way that he's sort of in the model of like a John Huston. It's hard to identify what he brings. He brings intelligence and great filmmaking. He has a great eye. He doesn't tell the same movie over and over again. I admire that.
But there's a lot of people. I love Nicolas Winding Refn. I find his work really exciting and vibrant. So there's a lot of people… I guess I named Americans, but some of my favorite movies are [made by] foreign filmmakers. Denis Villeneuve is a really exciting filmmaker.
Refn is foreign though…
Matt: That's true, that's true. I mean some of my favorite movies… I love Force Majuere [made by Ruben Östlund]…
Force Majuere is great…!
Matt: I thought that was a great, great film. I see as many foreign films as… I probably see more foreign films in all. But I'm American, so… I think I gravitate to the films when I was a child that were meaningful to me. I used to be a huge… just because he was more prolific when I was younger, but I love Terry Gilliam.
Thank you to Matt Ross for his time, and to Obscured Pictures for coordinating the interview.
Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic first premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (read my review). The film arrives in select theaters starting July 8th this summer released by Bleecker Street Media. It's highly recommended to see this in theaters, one of the best films of the year so far. Watch the official trailer here.