Viggo Mortensen, a film of his own

Interview by © Jane Freebury

When is it a surprise to hear that Viggo Mortensen will appear in an intriguing role? Starring in The Lord of the Rings, The Road, A History of Violence and Green Book he is now the lead in an upcoming feature on the Thai cave rescue of 2018, as one of the two British cave divers who found the lost boys.

That Hollywood film will release to much fanfare in due course. After a day’s shoot on Queensland’s Gold Coast early this year Viggo Mortensen was free to field an interview on Falling. It’s a special project of his own making.

It has been a marathon. After its premiere at Sundance in January last year, the first film written and directed by Mortensen is finally due for release this month, nearly two years later. The chat with Mortensen this interview is based on a zoom call that took place in March.

Falling was well received at the Lumiere festival and invited to Cannes. “Then all the things that were supposed to happen, didn’t,” he recalls. Yet, it has picked up a best film award at San Sebastien, and there have been multiple nominations for the performances, cinematography, editing and costume and art design. All testimony to the collaborative production that Mortensen is clearly proud of.

“I said to members of my team on the first day of shooting ‘let’s tell this movie together’!”

The collaboration with the actors and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and editor Ronald Sanders, have brought about wonderful results in this intimate portrait of the relationship between father and son, told from different perspectives that drift across the sands of memory.

This is Mortensen’s directorial debut. It involved a brisk five-week shoot in which the writer-director elicited sensitive and persuasive performances from his actors, including the children. Reflecting the range of artistic sensibilities of the writer-director, also a poet and musician whose music we hear on the soundtrack.

Falling tells the story of John Peterson (Mortensen in more of a support role), a middle-aged gay man living with his partner and daughter. He sees that his father, Willis, is showing signs of dementia and unable to look after himself on the isolated farm in north-east US where John grew up. Some might say the irascible Willis, a cantankerous and aggressive man with views to offend many, doesn’t deserve help and care, but when he can’t look after himself anymore, John tries to convince his father to join him in California.

Your film is beautifully assembled and very fluent, I say. It must have been quite a challenge shaping the various points of view into a coherent narrative.

“Yeah, it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.  Going back and forth in time and all the storylines, but I liked the challenge.”

Was it a painful experience for you, writing it and revisiting the experiences that prompted you to make the film in the first place?

“Shooting it?”

No, writing it. Revisiting the experiences that brought it about.

“You know, the story’s a fiction. There are some elements based on memories from my early childhood. And the dynamic between the parents and the past was somewhat similar, but it’s different.”

“I’d say it’s 90 percent fictional. I’m one of three brothers, I don’t have a sister. But there are certain elements, yes.”

I wanted to keep my mother’s memory alive but Falling has as much to do with my father. It became revelatory

“I didn’t know what I intended it to be, I just started writing after my mom’s funeral. At the time of her death, the memories were very vivid.”

“I wanted to remember her, to keep her memory alive, and then I started exploring something else. Falling has as much to do with my father now. It was in a way revelatory.”

In Falling, the mother figure, Sarah, is played by Canadian actress Hannah Gross. Sarah is a person who is, “in a way, the conscience of the story”, whose two adult children, John and sister Gwen, want to protect her memory. “It really drives them crazy when Willis confuses her with his second wife.”

Inevitably, perhaps, Willis Peterson, a patriarch from another time and place who dominates all around him, becomes the centre of the story. Sverrir Gudnason and Lance Henriksen are both splendid in their respective roles as the younger and older man. It is an abrasive performance from Henriksen, and Gudnason, playing Willis from his 20s to his 40s, is also particularly good.

Willis is a bundle of outrageously racist, homophobic and sexist views that alienate him from many. Anthony Hopkins’ irascible titular character, an elderly man suffering dementia in The Father, has nothing on the father in Falling.

During the Q&As Mortensen did in Europe, the writer-director became aware of a polarisation between generations in the US that seemed to be everywhere.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s the divide between right/left, or gay/straight, or black/white, it’s the inability to communicate at all that is the problem. If you can argue then at least you’re talking.”

“The internet should have been a great means to connect us to see that we’re not so different, when actually it has become a tool to find out more information that suits our purposes.”

How did Willis become such an angry bigot? Was that the mystery that Mortensen wanted to unlock?

Viggo Mortensen in 2020

“Well, I don’t think a movie profits by trying to explain every single thing. In fact, I like movies that invite you in…by virtue of their qualities, to take part in the story-telling.”

Indeed, Falling maintains a subtle ambiguity. Avoiding giving answers to questions about John’s realisation he was gay, the detonating incident that made Willis and Gwen split up, or why Willis was the way he was.

“People in the US may say that Willis is too extreme, that there aren’t people like that…Well, there are a lot of people like that. It’s a generalization, that men of that generation, many of them, if they weren’t that way, were under pressure to be that way. The head of the house, the final arbiter about everything. It was a man’s role and Willis was part of that. He’s not such a freak, really.”

As a result of dementia in Mortensen’s family on both sides, the filmmaker has been care-giver on more than one occasion. His character John is all patience and forbearance. “That was part of it but it was also a practical thing. He also wants to help, and if he doesn’t help this guy, a mean bastard, then who will? Willis may not even accept help from anybody else.”

Agreed, the parent-child relationship can be incredibly complex, but there is the odd moment when Falling steps away from serious themes that I have to ask about. Canadian director, David Cronenberg, makes a surprise appearance as Willis’s proctologist, and then we hear Hank Snow’s rendition of I’ve Been Everywhere that was made into local versions and became hits overseas.

Originally written by an Australian and a hit here it then became a country music hit in America for country music singer, Hank Snow. Why did it get a run?

“Willis has been nowhere, and he doesn’t care to go anywhere. He has his big farm, his kingdom. And while he’s alone he can watch western movies and play his country music as loud as he wants.”

It’s another side of the man to appreciate in a multi-faceted, sensitive and complex film.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 December 2021. Jane’s film reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes