Interview With Viggo Mortensen On The Shooting Of Todos Tenemos Un Plan
The car trip is taking us further and further from the city by the hour, until we leave it far behind, like a distant point that the eyes cannot make out. Then the boat, moving slowly along the river till reaching the island - unpleasant, desolated, dried up. The freezing cold that makes everything gloomy, spectral, covering all. Wind and more wind. There, at the end, behind some demolished shacks and some half put up tents, in a small clearing among dry leaves covering almost everything, a group of men, dressed in white from head to toe, are gathered in a cluster, close together. Survivors from a plague? Astronauts? Science-fiction characters?
The location of Todos tenemos un plan has something of fiction in itself. The heavy cables intermingle with the garbage on the ground and in a big metal drum a log is burning, letting out smoke and sparks and heat. People speak little - they seem tired, dirty - and look at the visitor with a certain scorn, like looking at a strange character approaching a group of survivors. It could be a scene from The Road, in which Viggo Mortensen himself acted. Or an unreleased and wintry episode from Lost. Or a frame from Tarkovsky´s Stalker, waiting to be filmed.
The men in white are not astronauts, of course. They are Mortensen himself, Sofía Gala, the director Ana Piterbarg and part of the technical crew who have to film a complicated scene involving the handling of dangerous bees. The thing is no easy matter. In addition to the scene´s own mechanics - which involves story-telling matters not convenient to reveal - they have to deal with the whims of the insects and the rigors of the weather. Although there are two cameras covering everything, it has to be repeated again and again.
During a break in the shooting, while the elements are being readied, Mortensen, without the hood that covers his face, looks with the reporter for a comfortable place to talk and chooses a shack that takes the place of an improvised trailer, possibly one of the most depressing in the history of cinema. "With the cold, bees don´t come out, they don´t want to come out", he says, explaining an unexpected complication in the scene while he sits down on... something.
It´s already known. At this stage it is not surprising to speak with Mortensen as you would do with a neighbour and begin the chat talking about River´s drop, the riots at the exit, whether the public should have attended and whether he remembers when San Lorenzo dropped. Neither are his drinking mate and his thermos bearing the cuervo emblem that goes with him everywhere. In the midst of the bleak landscape that the area of Dique Luján is near several private neighbourhoods and country clubs but so distant as to seem another planet - his calm presence and his soft, relaxed voice, are familiar, almost calming.
In the first Argentinian film of his career - of his life - the actor from A History of Violence puts himself in the skin of twin brothers, Agustín and Pedro. The former is a man who has moved to Buenos Aires and who seems to live a quiet, though somewhat frustrating, life until he finds out about the death of his brother, who lived in Tigre, where the two of them grew up. Agustín goes there and ends up taking on the identity of his brother, unaware that Pedro was involved in a criminal world and that his life, peaceful until now, will begin to be in danger.
"These are themes that came up in the first two films I made with Cronenberg," says Viggo, referring to A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and excluding A Dangerous Method, in which he plays Sigmund Freud and which will have its world premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival. "The question of identity, of how we present ourselves to our family, friends, whatever. Although the difference is slight, you present a different personality to each person, depending on what you feel or what you want. It's natural to change how you present yourself a little. Even children learn to do it."
In your case, it must be even more so, since there's Viggo the Argentinian, the American, the Dane, the famous actor...
And yes, each time I return here I think about things from my childhood. Now that I've been working with Argentinians every day for quite a while, suddenly I'll see something and I'll remember things, ways of doing or saying things. This is the personal side that he also has when he goes back to Tigre: being able to relive that. Although you can't go back, you´ll remember.
That one brother has to be the other is, for an actor, like doubling your work. Being someone who is being someone else.
What Agustín does, trying to take his brother's place, is an actor's job. Noticing that he's trying to be the other one, paying more attention. For example, if I have to play you, I observe you more thoroughly than usual: how you speak, how you feel, how you walk, how you put on clothes, those things. Although this brother can see how the other puts on his clothes and knows some of his gestures, he's not an actor. And even if he were a much better actor, when someone who knows the other one sees him it's hard, harder than you'd think. And that makes him nervous...
Who are you now? (Laughter)
Now I'm playing the other, Pedro, but seventy, eighty percent of the time I'm Agustín trying to be Pedro. And in general it's going well. It's not only doing it well; it's that you have doubts about many other things. When that guy looks at you, does he know you or is he just looking at you? The way they treat you at the store. That dog that waits at the pier, is he mine? I don't know. At the same time, pretending so much, making the effort to literally get into the shoes of the other, you are beginning to understand him better. And also, you are getting to know more about yourself. At one point, he ceases to be nervous and cares less; he begins to like it....
Although it was not, it seems to be a movie made for you, because you have a person who goes away from where he lives , like you left Argentina.
Yes, he went away from this area with his brother when he was eleven. His brother returned of his own accord and there wasn't a good relationship between them. He gets to know his brother better after he dies. When he was alive he didn't know him well; he didn't know much about him. It's the same with me; my relationship with Argentina settles down as I stay here longer. I'm here, working; it's normal. I'm living nearby and we filmed a bit in Buenos Aires.
You have two younger brothers (he has two, Walter and Charles). Do they remember anything about being here?
When we left they were 8 and 6 years old. I was 11. They remember images. The middle one remembers more. But the youngest didn´t speak one word of English. He understood, but he spoke only Spanish and my parents were worried. I remember in the plane when we left, we spoke Spanish together. Afterwards we started speaking English and my younger brother, after a week, loosened up and completely forgot Spanish, forgot the vocabulary. When I came back, I recovered it all...
The plot looks as if it was a fictionalization of personal things: the different identities, the brothers who took different paths, leaving one place for another at eleven and, some time later, feeling at home when you come back.
There´s something of that. Making the film brings to me that thing about remembering my childhood. Speaking of brothers, there are photographs in the film that are of me with one of my brothers. There are things getting blended. When, as an adult, you go to the city, you lose things from childhood, you forget, and that cannot be recovered. There´s an inner world that has to do with the loss of innocence, with a certain inner, physical and mental thing. Agustín likes to see things as if they were new, to enjoy himself. He has done everything he had to do, lives in a nice apartment in Recoleta with his wife, is a doctor. Everything seems perfect, but he doesn´t feel that it belongs to him. And playing the other, his brother, he feels he´s becoming more himself. At first he is a bit clumsy with the motorboat, the bees, but he is learning, he is getting used to the silence. Being here he´s starting to remember: the house, the pier, the little river; the grandparents´ house where the children grew up until they were eleven. And I left when I was eleven. It´s very similar; you begin to remember things.
In Alatriste you speak Spanish, but you are doing an accent. This is the first role where you play a one hundred per cent Argentinian.
I did a small role in Ray Loriga´s La pistola de mi hermano, somewhere around 1996. It was one scene, an exiled Argentinian who lived in the country. There I spoke a little. Here there´s a difference between the brothers: one speaks more correctly and with another tone. He is a doctor, lives in Buenos Aires, speaks well. The other is a bit more islander and speaks like me, half "blahblahblah". It´s subtle, but it´s a difference.
About the way of working, do you feel it´s very different from the one you are used to in the United States?
No, it has something similar to the way of making independent cinema there. Obviously there´s a way of being, culturally, here and in Spain, which is different. But generally work is done equally well. The way you speak to each other changes; I like this kissing everybody you see in the morning...
How do you see Ana, doing such a complex first work, one that requires so much responsibility?
Rather self-assured. She must be feeling pressure, but it doesn´t show. She is very careful and doesn´t want to waste the chance. But the challenge is great, filming in the Delta, in winter. We respect the script she wrote very much. We look for things, too, we talk, we have a very good relationship. There are always changes, different things, but everything is very faithful to what she wrote.
Since you're hooked on young Argentinian literature, are you seeing national cinema as well?
A little more now. I saw some things in Spain, less in the United States. When I come, I buy films; I see what I can. There is much more here. Thinking about this film, I saw La León and it's beautiful. To see how the people of this area are - the islanders, the Paraguayans, the landscape. It's very good. I'd also read Haroldo Conti's Sudeste [Southeast], and I re-read it. Sudeste is a meditation and it also has a thriller aspect, and there are paragraphs, phrases from that book that helped me a lot. Another excellent book that was re-published and that touches on this subject is Enrique Wernicke's La Ribera [The River Bank] on the relationship between the man and Rosa (Sofía Gala's character). There are things in the film inspired by that novel.
Tell me about working with the Argentinian actors. How has it been so far?
With Soledad (Villamil), we did very difficult scenes and it went very well. She comes to let one brother know that the other has passed away. With (Daniel) Fanego too, we had a key scene and it was very good too. He has tremendous presence. And Sofía is great, too. We rehearse a lot, more than I'm used to doing, but I like it. And the ones that come from the theater like it a lot. All of us prepared the best we could, the actors, the director, the technicians, because once the thing gets going, everything is what you did before and you have to live with that...
What does your agent say when you show up with a project like this?
She wants to kill herself (Laughs) Why Alatriste, this one, theater? But it's what I like. Suddenly I received offers for a lot of bucks but, no, I'm doing this. I'm not refusing to do big films; I'm not doing only independent things. I do the things that I like. And above all, when I say that I'm going to do something, I do it. I know that there are actors that say, "Shit, if they are going to pay me a million dollars to do something else, I'm going." But no. If I'd have said "yes" to a studio film, and this script had arrived, I would have done the same thing.
But this can't be the first Argentinian script that's been given to you.
Whenever I come to visit, I take back several. Not only could I do Ana's but it interested me a lot. Others didn't interest me or I was doing other things and couldn't. I haven't been working as much lately. I was going to do theatre in Spain, but my mom got sick and my father had some problems and I had to leave several things to be with them. It's been a while since I filmed The Road. Those were two difficult years. Until six months ago, I'd been with my parents a lot. It was lucky that I could, but it took saying no to several things. In David Cronenberg's movie, I replaced someone else. He told me, "I know that you're with your parents, but you can do it all concentrated into one week and if you have to return, you return." I haven't seen the film, but I know of people who saw it and liked it. I did that and one very short role in Walter Salles' On the Road. I filmed in New Orleans, the part of Old Bull Lee, who is based on William Burroughs. We did it in a week. I haven't seen anything from the film yet.
And how about the cast reunion from The Lord of the Rings for The Hobbit? Are you going to participate in that?
They asked me if I was interested and if I was willing when The Road was released. The character isn't in The Hobbit, but they were thinking of creating a bridge between the two films. Now they are already making it and I still don't know anything. But if Aragorn is going to return, I prefer to be the one to do it.