Viggo Mortensen: "The first thing I think about when I wake up is death"
© James Rajotte.
by Borja Hermoso
That microwave morning in July, Viggo Peter Mortensen (New York, 61) arrived at a patio in the centre of Madrid in boots, jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and began to prepare maté. He sat down, scrutinized the place and stole some mint leaves that he saw on the table of the owner of the premises, who had lent his small study for the interview and who is the author of the portraits that illustrate these pages.
Then from the black backpack with the emblem of the San Lorenzo de Almagro Athletic Club, his beloved CASLA soccer team, he took out Lo que no se puede escribir (What Cannot Be Written), a book of poems written by him, with photos taken by him. The truth is that with Viggo Mortensen you get the feeling that he does almost everything.
In addition to being a planetary star since he was Aragorn in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, dazzling as Agustín Díaz Yanes's Captain Alatriste and in David Cronenberg films such as A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, having been nominated three times for an Oscar (the last one for his role in Green Book) and to be distinguished with the Donostia Prize at the San Sebastián Festival — which he will receive in a matter of a few days — Mortensen writes, takes photographs, paints abstract works, composes and publishes jazz music and has a publishing house in California (Perceval Press). In Falling, he's also done almost everything. One of the two leading roles, the production and the script are his. The music is his and - for the first time in his career - the directing of the film, which will be screened in San Sebastían although under the label "Cannes 2020," since it was the French festival that selected it for its official section, but this year is not being held in person.
He lives in Madrid, next to the Gran Vía, with his partner, the actress Ariadna Gil. He walks his dog, reads, drinks mate, watches soccer and, at times, makes movies. Now he is preparing a western. He speaks English, Danish, French, Spanish with an exquisite Porteño accent (he lived in Argentina as a boy), Arabic and Italian and has a smattering of Russian, German and Catalán. His days have 24 hours like everyone else's.
"I'm sorry I brought you into this world so that you have to die." A man says this to his newborn son. It's in the opening of your film and it's tremendous.
The truth is that that scene came later, but I thought that it was better to begin there. I like the sentence. I'm sure that father says it with all possible love. But it sounds brutal. I put it in the trailer. And some film distributors told me, "Noooo!" But that sentence is the film. With it, everything else makes sense.
Well, it's an eternal theme, isn't it, that reflection on whether life deserves to be lived or not. Many philosophers and writers have considered it to the full. Your admired Camus, for example…
He was always questioning himself about it.
And you? Is that question always present in your mind?
What, the one about life and death?
Well, first, there's no other option. Second, for me, the first thing that I remember as a concept from my childhood, and as happens to all children, was seeing a dog, a cat, a horse die. I was brooding about that. And I asked my mother, "If the horse dies...are you going to die too? And am I going to die?" And she's, "Weeeelll, that happens, but calm down. It doesn't happen a lot." And I insisted, "But, me, I'm going to die? And she said, "Not for a long time, don't worry." And finally, she eventually told me yes. And it was what I wanted to know. I mean I already knew it, but that's how I ended up verifying it. It didn't frighten me, but I was angry. And since then - I think that's a subconscious theme, when I wake up, whether I've slept for eight hours or I've slept for two, the first thing that I think about is death.
Yeah, and from childhood that's given me the impetus to get out of bed and start doing things. And I'm still like that. And I think that Camus was the same way. But it can also be that you do lots of things, even to the point of exhaustion, desperately, and basically you're doing nothing. You're not listening to anyone. And that's a problem. You have to be still, too. That's what time is for.
Still ... and quiet, right?
Of course...still, quiet... Well, so that's what I would tell the actors, that this film has to do with the subjectivity of memory and with the unreliability of perception. The thing is, let's see, that memory is a very strange thing, very fallible. It's a story that we tell ourselves. We all remember the same moments in a different way; you and I are now sitting here talking and in a few years I can say that we said this or that and you that, no, we did not, that [we said] something else, and I can say that the color of the wall was blue and you red ... And I believe that memory makes each one of us tell a story and that this has to do with wanting to control what happens around us.
Like wanting to shape life?
Yes, we choose what and how we want to remember, in order to control what happened. And what we are, I guess. And then, memory being so subjective, those memories that we have controlled define us, so that we become something based on those controlled and, in a way, false memories. And by wanting to control the past, a false memory of the past controls us. It's absurd.
Something like that happens with history, right? Exactly what must have happened in this or that battle of the Flanders Tercios is not the same as what each historian says happened, and how it happened.
Yes, that´s right.
It must have been complicated to explain all that during the shoot, where there's usually no time for great complexities.
It was my first film, we had a short shoot, I had seen how good directors do it, and well, especially how you don't have to do things. In my head it was clear what is essential above all is to prepare and prepare and prepare, as good filmmakers do. So instead of starting to prepare two months before, we started eight months before and went to look for the farm we wanted for the film. Sometimes you find an interior here, a location there, but not in this case. We didn't have time; we needed a farm that had everything. And we found the place. In pre-filming you have more time, then in the shoot you don´t, and you can't make big changes.
How much of your own family history is in this story, if any?
I have written several scripts. And I'd already tried 20 years ago. It didn't work out. 6 years ago, again, with another script. It didn't work out. I think things happen when they have to, and having had to wait until now to direct my first film has helped me, as I say, to observe and learn from those who do it well, and above all to learn what not to do . And prepare myself well and be ready. And be flexible. It's the most important thing in this business, I think. Actually, I was working to put together another movie, more complicated than this one, a period thing, quite big, a lot of horses, a story about indigenous people adapted from a book ..., and I was trying to raise money . But not being in English, not being able to include well-known actors ..., it was difficult. Also, in those years I wasn't working much as an actor because my mother was ill. She had spent years with her second husband who had senile dementia, which is something that´s happened a lot in my family, my uncle, my aunt, my grandfather ... I've lived close to this. And when she died and we went to the funeral, I was coming back on the plane at night and ...
When did she pass away?
In 2015. We had a lunch with friends and family. Very interesting, because you meet people that your mother knew and that you did not know, and each one tells you different versions of what she had told you. And I said: "I´m going to write down some of these phrases I'm hearing." And I started to put together a story with that. And writing that story, on the plane, at night, I began to invent more and more things. And that ended up being something that has nothing to do with it ...
But the seed did have something to do with it.
Yes, I suppose so - with knowing that I was going to make a film or anything - it was me wanting to have all of that. It was a story that had nothing to do with my parents, but that helped me remember them better. And some things were verified, others not, and some things that were in the film did happen, but the great majority didn't. The thing is that in the end, instead of writing a long story, I wrote a screenplay. I suppose that the impulse was wanting to explore what I feel about my parents. And I got financing from a French producer and that was it.
People who suffer from senile dementia they bewilder us and often drive us to despair, but the doubt always lingers whether we also bewilder them. Whether within their world there is also a coherence, no matter how chaotic it might be. What do you think?
I think there's a bit of truth in that. They come and go. They have moments, there are like clearings in the forest. But it is a disease in which there´s no improvement; everything goes down. I saw it with my mother. She had Parkinson's, had dementia, and was a very active person who ended up in a wheelchair, had to be fed, had no mobility. I started playing her music that I remembered she listened to when she was 30 years old. And her eyes would change. And she couldn't speak, but she kind of woke up and when the music played, she would squeeze my hand. In other words, something enters them. And with my father, the same. At the end he was lying in bed, with a look in his eyes, like he didn't see anything. And I spoke in Danish in his ear, because at the end of his life he only spoke Danish, but an old Danish, from the days of his childhood. And of course, the nurses would call me and tell me that they didn't understand him.
Do you think that this film about the elderly and senile dementia could make a different kind of sense after all that has happened with the pandemic and treatment that’s been given to many of them?
I hope so. The film deals with the theme of what we can do for the elderly, what we could do to protect them. Things totally unforeseen arrived with the pandemic: "I can’t see my father, what if he gets sick?" etc. Really, the pandemic has made something clear that's always been there: that the day to day of life is really something unknown. There's a lot of uncertainty. We want to control everything that happens, but we don't take into account fate, the unexpected, good luck, bad luck...In Europe there hasn't been a problem finding distributors for the film, but in the United States, I don't know what's going to happen. They see it and it seems very brutal to them; they say they're not sure what to do with it. This subject in the United States, with the health system there, well, you know... There are people who, when the elderly have senile dementia and you have to care for them, they have to sell their car, their home...
In Spain, it's terrible what's happened with the virus and the elderly in the hospitals ...
Yes, those instructions given by the Comunidad de Madrid [tr.note: the government of Madrid] are terrible, and it's also happened in Catalonia, and now in the United States with outbreaks in Florida and Texas, same thing. When these elderly patients arrive, those that have a couple years of life left at best, they put a very technical name on it to actually mean "Go home, you don't belong here." It's horrible. What's been done to the elderly during this pandemic seems like something the Nazis would have done. One line here, another there. "This one is weak, so he or she's disposable."
You've always defended the directors who let actors ask endless questions. But now it's been you who's had to answer them, right?
Yes, and also they aren't questions that you can answer with "Ok, I'll think about it at the hotel and tomorrow I'll answer you." No, you have to answer them now, right now, because you have to shoot. Especially when you have the producer there, saying to you, "You have three sequences left and you have an hour and a half."
"I try to be like children. Children don't need second takes." The phrase is yours. Did you achieve that?
Uuuh ... , yes, more or less. I had to trust myself. Especially because it was not my intention to act in the film, because I wanted to concentrate all my attention on directing the crew and the actors. But ultimately, to get the rest of the money we needed, although what was lacking was relatively small ...
You had to be an actor.
Yes, I said to myself, "Well, so I'll do it." With the obstacles, you have two possibilities: you could be bitter and be bitching at everybody all the time or you say, "Let's see, what's good about this?" You can be bitter or do useful things - keep quiet and listen to people, make a film, visit or call someone you’ve hated all your life... So I asked myself what would be good about doing this part. One good thing was that I would be close to the lead actor and I would be able to help him, and close to the director of photography, seeing if things were working.
You have to be a bit Jekyll and Hyde to play Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Captain Alatriste, the bodyguard of Russian mobsters in Eastern Promises and this son of a father with dementia in Falling. Or would you say that's just your job? Do you approach all roles in the same way?
What I do is, wherever I go, I always seek to compare, to establish points in common. And there’s a phrase that Aragorn says in The Two Towers which is "There is always hope." In the two cases there is one certainty: everything ends and we know nothing.
I meant that working in a multi-million dollar super-production like The Lord of the Rings or in a film the size of Falling must be different worlds, or maybe not?
For me, there's no difference in the preparation, or in the responsibility, or there shouldn't be. It doesn't matter whether it's a super-production with several film units and several cameras per unit or a movie filmed with one 35 millimeter camera using loose pieces of film. You use the time you have. There's no difference if there's one camera and you have to work with it. Of course there are superficial things that have to do with the budget, like the size of the crew, the number of cameras or the number of takes, those are definitely differences. But in essence, nothing changes.
And after Falling, what?
Well, during the shutdown, I finished writing another thing. It also has to do with memory. It's like a western, well, it is a western. We'll see.