Viggo Mortensen on Family, Forgiveness, and Separating Fact From Fiction in Directing Debut ‘Falling’

Several years ago, Viggo Mortensen was in a plane high above the Atlantic, flying home from his mother’s funeral and struggling to sleep. He was overcome by a flood of emotions and echoes from the past, memories welling up from childhood that gave him the sudden urge to write. Over the course of a restless night, he began jotting down scattered conversations, images and events from different stages of his family life—memories that centered not only on his recently departed mother, but on a father whom he’s described as an “overwhelming presence” in her life.

By morning, the personal reminiscences had merged with imagined conversations and moments, somehow broadening his perspective of lived events and bringing him closer to deeper emotional truths than the simple process of remembrance alone. “I was not afraid to show or allude to anything that really happened in my life as I recall it, but simply felt I had more freedom to explore and expand on relationship dynamics and my own personal feelings about them through an invented family story,” Mortensen told Variety. “As the English philosopher Francis Bacon once said: ‘Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.’”

“Falling” is the directorial debut of the three-time Academy Award-nominated actor, best known for his work in films such as David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Peter Farrelly’s best picture Oscar winner “Green Book.” Starring Mortensen across from veteran actor Lance Henriksen, in what Variety’s chief critic Peter Debruge described as “the performance of his career,” the film is an emotional story of a domineering patriarch and his adult son struggling to reconcile the differences of their contentious relationship while the father grapples with the onset of dementia.

After premiering in Sundance, “Falling” has enjoyed a healthy festival run, garnering a Cannes 2020 label and screening this week at the Toronto Film Festival before heading to San Sebastian. “More deeply felt than your typical American debut, ‘Falling’ is unpretentious and perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences,” wrote Debruge in his Sundance review. “Mortensen’s patience, his way with actors and his trust in our intelligence are not unlike late-career Eastwood, which isn’t a bad place to be so early in one’s directing career.”

Ahead of its screening in Toronto, Mortensen spoke with Variety about the process of turning real-life events into fiction, the lessons he learned as a first-time director, and how he spent his time in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic.

You’ve described your father as an “overwhelming presence” in your mother’s life, and someone who cast a long shadow over the family after your parents’ acrimonious divorce. Was the process of writing the film’s script, and remembering and reappraising events from the past, somehow therapeutic in coming to terms with your own relationship with your father? Because “Falling,” in many ways, is a film about whether and how we can forgive those who have hurt us and the ones we love.
I suppose it was somewhat therapeutic and transformational to make the movie, and not just for me. For Lance and other members of our cast and crew, who shared their own personal connections to “Falling” and its characters, there also seemed to be a strong emotional connection to aspects of the story we were telling. It was often quite moving to sense the crew’s collective involvement in what was at stake for the actors in the filming of certain emotionally charged scenes. We felt encouraged by the fact that the whole team was palpably on our side.

We have also found this to be true for many audience members who have seen the finished movie. The difficulty of accepting and making peace with a person you have long been in conflict with, through a sincere effort to somehow connect with them in spite of the obstacles they might put up to open communication, is something that many people seem to be familiar with. It takes being as stubborn about wanting to communicate as the other person might be about not communicating at all. There is no guarantee that such an effort will pay off in a moment of grace and a shared point of human connection, but it certainly is not going to happen if you quit on that person and on yourself by completely severing the relationship.

The characters of John (Mortensen) and Willis (Henriksen) embody a very stark and recognizable divide in the U.S. today: the divide between urban and rural, between progressive and conservative. Along with presenting a very specific (and recognizable) story about a fractured family trying to be made whole, is “Falling” meant to be a commentary on these larger fractures in American society?
The metaphor for socio-political polarization in society at large is certainly available for consideration, but it was not the driving force that motivated the writing of the screenplay or making the movie. It seems the more specific one is in story-telling: the more detailed the regional details of certain time periods, places, decor, speech, dress, and behavior are, the more likely it is that the story will have universal resonance.

You somewhat reluctantly agreed to play the role of the adult son, John, in order to secure financing for the film. How much did that complicate the already difficult task of directing your first feature? For better or worse, what do you think “Falling” would have looked like with another actor playing John?
It’s hard to say if “Falling” would have worked better or worse if another actor had played John. In terms of Lance’s journey in creating his brave and complex performance, I do think that our close relationship, which was established long before the shoot, was made somewhat easier and safer. As worried as I was that acting in the movie would handicap me as a director, in terms of giving my full attention to the cast and crew in some scenes, the experience of playing opposite Lance Henriksen turned out to be a very rewarding and inspirational one. I had the best seat in the house to take in his extraordinary performance as it developed.

Along with your career as a three-time Oscar-nominated actor, you’re a painter, photographer, poet and musician (who speaks seven languages, as well). What was creatively distinctive for you about the act of directing a film? For someone who’s spent so many years on set, was it a huge departure from what you expected?
It was as difficult as I had expected it to be, and even more rewarding than I had hoped it might be. Because I have always been a fairly inquisitive actor, right from the beginning of my career—always interested in and asking questions about the camera work, the lighting, and how the sound recording, wardrobe choices, and, above all, the communication between the director and his team added up to the telling of a movie story—it did not feel that different to be interested in, as well as ultimately responsible for, the smooth interaction of all those factors. I really enjoyed the process, and am anxious to go through it again soon.

You’ve worked with directors ranging from David Cronenberg (“Eastern Promises,” “A History of Violence”) to Peter Farrelly (“Green Book”) to international auteurs such as Lisandro Alonso (“Jauja”) and David Oelhoffen (“Far From Men”). You also had a poignant, memorable conversation aboard a plane with the late Agnès Varda. What advice did you take away from them, and how did that influence who you would like to be as a director?
Agnès Varda, during our conversation, put into words what those other fine directors had shown me about directing. Roughly translated, this is what she said to me when I told her that I was going to direct a movie: “Don’t show anything to the audience. Instead, do your best to tell your story in such a way that you create a desire and a need in the audience to see things. To see things for themselves.”

What would you like your career to look like moving forward? Are there more projects you’d like to direct on the horizon?
During the lockdown resulting from the pandemic, I did a lot of writing, adding two more screenplays to the stories I have in my desk drawer. And I started writing another one last week. If it were possible, I would like to direct a movie from one of these screenplays immediately. However, as I learned during the years-long effort to raise the money to be able to shoot “Falling,” patience is required; it will probably be a while before I find myself on a set directing a new movie. But I am pretty stubborn, in my way, and will do my best to help make it happen.

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