Viggo Mortensen’s career path is pretty interesting, in that by the time he did The Lord of the Rings movies that made him an international star, he was already over 40. Now, this is interesting because Mortensen was in a lot of movies before The Lord of the Rings, which means there’s a good chance you can be watching any random ’90s movie and he might just show up. Almost like he traveled back in time and inserted himself in there. Since the pandemic started, with people watching all different sorts of movies, there’s a good chance this happened to you. Because it happened to me twice, with both Young Guns II and the Sylvester Stallone vehicle, Daylight. So, of course, I had to ask him about those two specific movies. (And his thoughts on the recently announced effort to make a Young Guns III.)
And now, 20 years after The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen has directed his first film, Falling, based on a screenplay he wrote. As he says, it’s been a struggle to get to this point: to actually get a movie he wrote and directed made. It debuted at Sundance last January to good reviews and Mortensen thought it was off to the races … and, then, well, we all know what happened next.
Mortensen also stars in Falling, a drama about a son (Mortensen) trying to reconnect with his somewhat estranged father who is suffering from dementia, played by Lance Henriksen, who also can be, to put it mildly, an ornery cuss. But, still, Mortensen seems optimistic that people might, now, finally get a chance to see his film. And he also seems optimistic that he’s going to be able to reunite with David Cronenberg for a fourth time, later in 2021.
Viggo Mortensen: Hi, Mike, How are you?
I never know how to answer that these days.
Why, because of the times we’re in?
Yes, because of the times we’re in.
You could say, “I feel great in spite of it all.”
That’s not bad.
“I feel good in spite of it all, and maybe this is a new beginning,” or something.
It’s starting to feel that way, so maybe that’s a good thing to say.
There you go.
Falling premiered a year ago at Sundance. Do you feel like you’ve been living with this movie for a year now?
I mean, in the industry, we started out with a bang. We got these stellar reviews. And I thought, oh, we’re on our way. And then we were invited to be in the official selection for Cannes Film Festival, which is a major achievement. So I was over the moon for the movie, for all of us who worked on it so hard. And then everything collapsed. And I was worried about North America, about the US and Canada, because of the pandemic situation. And I thought, “Oh, shit, people will not get to see this movie ever.” But it’s going to happen on the 5th of February. And in fact, it’s playing in one movie theater now in New York. New York state…
Ah, okay. I was going to say I’m in New York City and there’s no theater anywhere near me open right now, unfortunately.
Pleasantville, New York it’s playing, right? Virtually, yeah. I mean, it’s through them, we’re doing a Q & A. And then on the 5th of February, it’ll come out in a very few independent movie theaters that are open and available. But mostly people are going to see it pay-per-view, streaming, whatever. That’s just the way it is this year.
I’m actually surprised this is your first movie as a director. Why did it take this long?
Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The first time I actually tried to take an original script that I’d written, and turn it into a movie that I would direct, was 25 years ago. And since then I’ve written other scripts. And I’ve tried many times. And sometimes I’ve come close: raised some of the money, half the money, whatever, but never enough. And even with Falling, which I started writing in 2015, it took a few tries and four years before we actually were able to shoot. But, in a way, it was probably good I had to wait this long. Because I probably avoided a lot of beginner’s mistakes my first time out.
What would have been a beginner’s mistake you would have made?
Not preparing it. Taking it for granted. If someone tells you, “Oh, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to be present every day in the editing room. You don’t need to oversee all the pre-production yourself. You don’t have to do this, you don’t do that.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I mean, the things I’ve learned from the best directors I’ve worked with over the years, the two main things have been one: you can never prepare too much or too early for a shoot. And two: a good idea can come from anyone on your crew, or in your cast, at any time. And be open to it. Don’t feel like it’s threatening that they have a suggestion, or a question that you didn’t think of.
What director comes to mind that you learned from?
There have been many. I don’t want to single out one person, but, obviously, I’ve worked with David Cronenberg three times.
Right, well there you go…
I haven’t worked with a more intelligent, technically prepared, or a better communicator with crews and cast than him. But I’ve worked with a lot of women and men from different parts of the world who have different stylistic approaches, and different cultural backgrounds, and make different kinds of movies. But those two main things, I’ve learned that from all of them in different ways.
Also, Cronenberg’s DP, Peter Suschitzky, I just think is one of the best.
He’s wonderful! Yeah.
He shot The Empire Strikes Back. People don’t realize that, and that’s why that movie is so beautiful.
He’s terrific, and he shot some really good French movies. He’s really good. I’m hoping that we’ll be partnering again soon. This year, I hope.
With Cronenberg? That’s very exciting. I don’t know this news. Is that out there?
Well, no, not yet. I probably shouldn’t say anything more about it, but that’s the goal.
Well, we need good news right now.
So this sounds like great news.
Well, we’re going to give it our best shot. But the thing that I’ve never understood about Cronenberg is that he’s had almost a half a century of making movies, and many really good movies. He’s clearly one of the masters, right? Living masters.
And yet this is a man who, every time out, struggles for years, usually, to raise minimal financing for his movies. Which are never really expensive. He always comes in on or under budget, on or before time on shoots. He doesn’t waste money. His movies don’t lose money. Sometimes they make some money. He’s incredibly reliable, professionally and creatively. Why should it be so difficult? I don’t understand. Why has David Cronenberg never, ever been nominated by the Academy for writing or directing a movie? I mean, that’s inexplicable to me, but such is life.
Just in broad terms, with this newish world we’re living in where streamers are making so many movies, is there a chance that that opens up more opportunities in the future?
Opens up more what? More chances of movies getting made?
I suppose so. But that technology, it also has to do with there are cheaper ways to make movies that have a certain photographic quality now than there was before. There’s a lot of things that can happen. On the other hand, I don’t think that the pandemic will erase movie theater attendance.
I don’t either. I think you’re right.
I think there’s always going to be a market for that. I don’t think I’m the only person, or you are, that loves that experience. And it can’t really be replaced, no matter how good your sound system or your screen is at home. There’s something ritualistic that transports, ideally. There’s a hopeful exercise in just going to a movie house. And going in, and the lights go down, and you’re sitting there with strangers. A few, or by yourself.
You’re sitting in the dark in a place that’s not your home, and now let’s see what happens. Maybe, maybe what I see will take me somewhere to where I leave the movie theater for a few minutes, or a few hours, or for days feeling differently. Having a more ample view of myself and my place in the world. That’s what we crave, I think, and I don’t think that’s going to be erased. Movie theater chains are going out of business, some of them, independent theaters will struggle, but they will be replaced by others. I think they are always going to exist.
And I can’t imagine once this ends, hopefully sooner than later, that people are going to be going, “No, I want to stay in tonight.” I think people are going to want to go out again.
Oh yeah, I agree. Same with live music, same thing.
The thing I want to do more than anything in the world right now is go to a Bruce Springsteen concert. That’s what I want to do.
Well, it’ll happen. We just have to stay alive by being careful and taking the correct measures that have been on the table for a while. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of people in denial about that. Or people that have a vested interest in having people deny it. Fortunately, there’s a new page being turned now in the country, and I think we’re going to get serious about it finally.
So, since the pandemic started I’ve watched and re-watched a lot of movies and there are two I watched that I forgot you were in and I’m curious about your experience. The first one is Young Guns II.
I enjoyed that experience! Yeah, started shooting that in late ’89 and finished it in the beginning of 1990. There are two things that come to mind from that. One, when I was a little kid, I was raised around horses, but I hadn’t been around them for decades. And that movie gave me a chance to get reacquainted with horses, which I liked. I liked the Western genre. I liked being there in New Mexico, and in Arizona where we shot it. It was a good experience.
Were you a better rider than the other actors?
I was more comfortable on horses than some of them who hadn’t had that much experience, probably, I guess. I don’t know. I enjoyed it. I would go on my days off, I got to be friends with the wranglers, and I’d ask them if I could ride different horses. Because the more different kinds of horses you ride, the better rider you become. You adjust to different gaits, different types of temperaments, and all that. I mean, it was just wonderful. That was fun. And the landscapes were beautiful. The other thing that I think of when I think of that movie, when you bring it up, is that that’s when Sean Penn approached me to be in Indian Runner.
He flew out to Arizona to meet me after sending me the script, because he had seen me in a movie called Fresh Horses. I just had a small part, but there was something about that part that made him think I could be right for one of the roles in Indian Runner. So that’s what I think of right off the top of my head.
Did you see, like a week ago, they announced Young Guns III?
No, I didn’t see that. Who’s going to be in it?
Emilio had a statement, saying they found a place in Mexico where they’re going to shoot it.
Are they going to imply that Billy the Kid wasn’t shot?
I think so? In Young Guns II, they bookend it with him being an older guy telling people he’s Billy the Kid. Maybe they’re going to lean into that? That’s my guess.
Ah, that makes sense.
You can say what you want about the movie Daylight, but Roy Nord, that’s a character ahead of his time.
Yeah, he would have probably hobnobbed with Donald Trump, I suppose, in the early days. Who knows? I don’t know. Yeah, that was a strange story. It was interesting to get into that, learn something about climbing, and all these things. I mean, I’m not naturally disposed to be a very social person, or I’m not a speechmaker. I’m not an extrovert in that sense, which sounds weird coming from an actor, but you’ll find that’s true about a lot of actors.
At least in my experience you have never been at loss for something to say. You always have thoughts on things.
Well, but Roy Nord does, too, but he’s kind of a blowhard.
I guess what he is, he’s very confident in the way he expresses himself and promotes himself. And that was something that took me a little… I had to just dive in. And that was a bit of a challenge and I liked that. And we were shooting that in Italy, which was beautiful. I loved being there. And at the same, when I think about that movie, I also think about The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion’s movie.
What happened was that I’d got the role in Jane Campion’s movie. It’s not a big role, and it wasn’t a lot of pay, and it was spread over several months of that production. And if I had just done that movie, I would have been further in debt than I was before I started. So I had to find another movie. And I was lucky that Daylight was shooting, and I got that role and shot simultaneously. So it was kind of schizophrenic. While I was shooting Daylight, I would finish a day’s shooting, and then I would drive in a car to the other end of the country, in Italy. And put on a wig, and play Caspar Goodwood for Jane Campion for a couple of days. Then I’d go back down to Rome, and keep shooting at Cinecitta for Rob Cohen in Daylight.
Well, I am happy people are going to finally get to see Falling. You get your movie, and then the pandemic happens. But I think people will really enjoy it.
The one thing that really concerns me is that the actors get their due. From four-year-old Grady McKenzie, all the way up to 80-year-old Lance Henriksen.
Oh, Lance Henriksen is so great in this, yes.
But Lance especially, I think it’s a performance that will stand the test of time. It’s unlike anything anybody else has done this year, or for a long time. I think it’s just remarkable what he accomplished. And it’s disturbing, layered, it’s nuanced. It’s really a brave performance. And I want people to see the movie if, for nothing else, just so he gets his due.
‘Falling’ will be released on Feb. 5th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.