Lost in La Pampa

Source: So Film #10 (France)

We know that among other things he is an actor, photographer, poet and musician. We are meeting with Viggo Mortensen , during three weeks of filming with Lisandro Alonso, at the deep end of Argentina. Three weeks of wind, cold and strong liquor. Let´s go for a ride with a lover of "the great leap into the void."

Image Guadalupe Gaona.
© 4L Productions.
On the horizon, nothing. Or nothing much. A land flat and dry, hardly covered by a thin layer of vegetation where only snakes and cacti with sharp needles survive. On this April evening on Friday 12 to Saturday 13 the gusts of wind shake the tents and knock down the lamps that illuminate the first kilometres of the Argentine pampa with a white light. Clouds of smoke surround the twenty or so people who fight against the elements. Some are jumping up and down or wrapping themselves in blankets, others are drinking one maté after the other. Gathered around the fire, all of them are trying to hold on, drinking heartily from the whiskey bottles going round. This looks like a war, but it´s a film. After almost nine hours, the film crew are shivering with cold and doing one take after the other, while director Lisandro Alonso, hair in the wind and a thin parka covering his shoulders, runs from one place to the other. A hailstorm swoops down without warning. "That´s what the end of the world must look like," says Fabián Casas, writer and scriptwriter of the film, in a faint voice, sheltered at the back of a tent, wrapped in a woollen shawl. Then, out of nowhere, a man in pyjama bottoms and white open shirt emerges barefoot. Viggo Mortensen walks in the middle of the night, asks for "a cigarette" in French, bending down to light it from the embers. Waiting to enter the scene, he sways in the wind. "Viggo, be careful, you are going to hurt yourself; there´s cacti everywhere," Nicolás, the assistant director, tries to warn him. The actor hears but doesn´t listen. "Action." Mortensen runs, passing before the camera, rummages inside a tent, shouts in the night "Ingeborg! Ingeborg!," retraces his steps and goes off camera. Hands on his knees, he pants, regains his breath and suddenly he starts laughing loudly. On the set, eyes meet asking themselves what is it? Who is this guy?

The question is asked again somewhere on the dirt track on the way to La Lobería, a small place in the north of Patagonia, 13 hours away by bus from Buenos Aires. It´s not the world´s end, but almost: three inhabitants, three thousand sea lions, and two policemen in charge of keeping an eye on a gang of eight gay thieves who ransack the region. Without phone or internet, but with wind and cold. The steering wheel of his two door rented Chevrolet stuck between his knees, his foot hard on the gas pedal, Viggo Mortensen holds his MacBook in his right hand, the loudspeakers in the left one, and searches in his iTunes library. The car zigzags on the dirt track, without unsettling the driver who opens a pack of Gaulois blondes while Janis Joplin sounds on the loudspeakers. The ex-king of Lord of the Rings, drives full speed towards his latest challenge: three and a half weeks of shooting under precarious conditions, in a small Argentine production by Lisandro Alonso, a director who shoots in 35mm and makes films with sixty takes showing men who walk, cut trees, or go up the Paraná river in the middle of the virgin forest. In "this sort of fable that at present is without a title," as Lisandro Alonso says, Viggo Mortensen plays Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish soldier enrolled in the Argentinian army to take part in the "conquest of the desert" launched in 1879 by president Roca to unify the territory and, at the same time, massacre the Indians of the region. Arriving with his daughter in this hostile land, Gunnar loses track of her and the film slips into the irrational. For a long time the character wanders aimlessly, and without hope in the desert, forgetting, little by little, his own name and what he´s looking for. "Two years ago, when we began to talk about it, we thought it would become an experimental film," comments Lisandro Alonso. "The script is twenty pages long. We are making something new. New for me and, I hope, for some of the audience. Although, honestly, I´m not sure what it will look like. I hope it won´t ruin Viggo´s career," jokes the director.

A big coat and kilos of meat.

No need to worry. If Mortensen has come here, it is to do what he knows how to do best: go on an adventure. "The best things come to you when you jump off the cliff," says the actor while lighting a new cigarette. "Lisandro always takes a leap into the void. It´s what differentiates him from the average directors. Here we work without anybody having to get on their knees; we don´t copy other films. That suits me, because that´s what I look for, to leap into the void." True, Viggo Mortensen has never been a man to cautiously stand on the edge. At the end of the '70s, immediately after high school, he left the United States for the Denmark of his ancestors, to drive lorries and think about his future. "I was 20 years old, I was travelling in the north of Norway," he recalls, like an old war veteran. Trying to go "as far up as possible," young Mortensen got lost, survived by lighting a fire and being rescued by the inhabitants of the region, the Samis, a native people of Finno-Ougric descent. "They sheltered me in exchange for work. Afterwards they tried to convince me to spend the winter there. They offered me a big coat and kilos of meat. And when I said no, they offered me a small fat girl of about 16. Maybe I should have stayed. It would have been an interesting experience. A year later, the culture of these people was destroyed by Tchernobyl." The tattoo of a crow on his left shoulder [sic], a heart pierced by an arrow on the left and the letter "H" traced with dripping ink on the inside of his wrist. Viggo Mortensen´s arms tell a story of a gold-seeker. A seeker who ended up finding it, but this doesn´t mean he intends to stop. "Viggo is a guy who likes to do things which take him out of his armchair. He could tell himself, `I will happily continue to make films with Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg,´ but no, he would rather take a risk," considers Lisandro Alonso. "What is it that makes a life go forth and be successful? I don´t know. I think it depends on curiosity, the wish to understand cultures, languages. Opening yourself to the world," according to our main character. Apart from cinema, Mortensen writes poetry, paints, shoots non-stop with the Canon bridge he never leaves behind - not even on the tarmac of Viedma´s bus station - and publishes everything through his publishing house, Perceval Press. Among his own work, Linger, a series of landscape photos in black and white, and At All, a new age CD where he plays piano and guitar. Lately Viggo has played keyboard with Buckethead, the enigmatic guitar player famous for continually wearing a KFC bucket over his head. As for films, it´s as if his success in The Lord of the Rings, a movie seen by a quarter of the world's population, has not changed anything. Today, just like yesterday, Viggo Mortensen can throw himself into European productions - Alatriste, Good - and act in Hollywood at the same time. Accepting a film like The Road, where he is in almost every shot, and continue with The People Speak, a documentary on social change directed by historian Howard Zinn. The logic in all of this? Viggo adjusts his All Blacks woolly hat covering his salt and pepper hair, and thinks for a moment: "I don´t think one is responsible for anything. We can spend our whole life asking ourselves how we got here and where are we going. And this is not a bad thing. But in general, I prefer to enjoy being where I am, even if I never knew how I got there."

"I did a little ritual and I cut off his tail"

10 o'clock, Thursday morning. Fifth day of shooting. Only a few hours after Lisandro Alonso has swallowed the last of a long series of Fernets with Coke, Viggo Mortensen, along with Fabián Casas, knocks at the director´s door. When the water for the maté is boiling in the kettle, the actor starts the conversation. Tonight Viggo has dreamt. "When the day is over, we talk about the film, then I think about it and I go to bed," he explains, dressed in a threadbare sweater with the colours of the national Danish team. "I dream a lot. Tonight for example, I dreamt about something that could later be useful for our story." Lisandro corroborates it: "He comes every morning before shooting and he tells me `Che, I thought of this for the film.´ He´s all the time thinking about what he can or can´t do, rather than coming to see me asking `What do you want me to do?´" The actor, who constantly carried his sword and slept in his cloak during the whole year that the Lord of the Rings shooting lasted, this time walks around covered with a hat and wearing the boots of his Danish military character. Every evening, at dinner time, he goes round the tables reciting the scenes for the next day. He repeats, his lines with the other actors from the film, once, twice, ten times. He goes to see art director, Sebastián Roses, to spin him some ideas. Or, sometimes, present him with a bit of a dead animal. "I saw a fox at the edge of the road and I wanted to cut off his tail to be used in Zuluaga´s hairstyle (Ed. note: a war chief who dresses up as a woman and leads a gang of robbers.) But I was in a hurry and I thought it was a lack of respect towards the animal to do it like that. So I waited and went back another day; I did a little ritual and cut off his tail while asking forgiveness." Surprising? "Let´s say it is not very common," admits Sebastián. "A lot of actors let the clothes create the character; Viggo, on the contrary, takes part in its creation. He is very involved in the styling, in the artistic choices." Julia Kovadloff, wardrobe assistant, confirms it. "It´s he who found most of his clothes. There was almost nothing else for us to do!" A total commitment, rather normal in the guy who, during the shooting of Lord of the Rings, faxed several pages to Peter Jackson every night to share his impressions. The one who, in order to prepare for Eastern Promises, travelled to Russia for a couple of weeks, between St Petersburg, Moscow and the Ural mountains. The one who, recently, went and bought William Burroughs' original typewriter and listened to every audio recording of the writer before playing Old Bull Lee, the Burroughs of On the Road. "They are recordings of him when he was thirty, They helped me to work with my voice and accent," he says. And all that for a sequence of several minutes lost in a film two hours and twenty minutes long.

For Alonso´s film, where he´s also co-producer, Viggo Mortensen - who is currently taking a course in Arabic for a film that will be an adaptation of a novel by Albert Camus in which he will also perform in French for the first time - has again given his all. "Before we began, I promised Lisandro I would bring him a Dane, veteran of two wars, who discovers a new country," he says as a justification. "Then I went to Denmark. I found a uniform from 1874. I found the medal for services given to those who fought in the war. The sabre is from the 1850s. I have also made sure to speak the Danish of the time, remembering how my grandparents spoke and reading books of that period. And this could have been a several million dollar production, with a lot of actors, a lot of dialogue, and it would have been the same thing." The anecdote does not surprise David Midthunder, who acted with him in Hidalgo, a 2004 film in which the Sioux people play an important role: "He spent a lot of time alone with his horse; he would go to sleep with him in the desert. He also spoke to him in Lakota, the Indian language." Like a return to the Actors Studio original method, which demands that the actor identifies himself, completely and permanently, physically and psychologically, with his character. "Viggo becomes a character in a way I´ve never seen in another actor," adds David Midthunder. Inevitably, this has born fruit for him: here is a man who wields a sword like nobody else, shoots a gun, speaks English, Spanish, Danish, French and sings in Quenya, the language invented by Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings. "And have you seen how he rides a horse?," asks Mariano Arce, a friend of Lisandro who has had his buttocks on a saddle since he was 13. "What a son of a bitch, a true gaucho! He does what he wants with the horse!"

Once on the set, Viggo is a machine ready to repeat takes without showing the least sign of weariness. He rewrites the dialogues with Lisandro and Fabián at two in the morning, in the freezing cold. And, also, he helps with directing the actors. "Viggo is a person who always thinks in terms of the scene," confirms Esteban Bigliardi, another actor in the film. "He pays a lot of attention to the take and to what goes on. He also thinks about the film from an outside point of view. It´s incredible how much work he does." Viggo Mortensen doesn´t think this is too crazy. "I´ve worked with a lot of actors, mainly from the theatre, and often British, who repeat in front of the mirror, who arrive very prepared, but who then don´t change much what they do. For me, it´s more fun to prepare everything well and let yourself go, improvising if necessary." And to blend with the group. "They often give prizes to the 'supporting' and 'leading' actors. But a good actor is always a 'supporting actor.' If the other actor plays well, the scene will work better and I will be better. I think our work improves that way," he says. In the past, some might have felt taken aback by this way of doing things. Last year, during the filming of Todos Tenemos Un Plan, his first feature film in Argentina, Viggo shared the bill with Sofía Gala, a sensitive heart but mentally fragile. "She always came stoned," explains a technician who was present on the set at the time. "And one day, before a scene, she was clicking away on her phone. Viggo took her by the arm, and I´m not telling you how he told her off!" Could it be that Aragorn is slightly obsessive? After all we are talking about a guy who asks to include in his contracts a clause to ensure he can supervise the dubbing in Spanish and the subtitles´ translation . "He doesn´t shirk. He works all the time," confirms Adrián Fondari, who shares several key scenes with Viggo and who between the gnocchi maison and the dessert is sought out by him to repeat and rework their dialogues. "Making films is not a question of life and death," retorted Viggo. "It´s the two things at the same time."

"What the hell is this exactly?"

Can you really be a man like the others when you are ready to live 24 hours in the shoes of a wandering Danish cowboy in the 19th century Argentina? The answer is no. Often lost in his own thoughts, alone facing the ocean, Viggo wakes up early, skips breakfast with the crew and rides his horse to reach the 'cyber-café,' a hill where you can try to catch a signal from the outside world. "When I´m in a wild place like this one, with little traces of human civilization, I´m always happy. Here I can´t be sad or think I´m about to waste my time, as happens when I´m with people, in the cities." When he´s not filming, Mortensen lives outside the world he belongs to. Few or no festivals at all, neither parties nor cocktails. "I´m a little shy," he admits. The truth? Instead of a mundane life, Viggo prefers sports. On the first day of shooting - a scene at the edge of a cliff between Gunnar Dinesen and his daughter, the young Dutch [sic] actress Viilbjørk Mollie Malling - Viggo arrives walking and in costume, an old-style moustache crossing his face, and a plastic bag in his hand. Inside it, a pack of Marlboro and a bunch of flags he hangs on two spots with a smile on his lips. From left to right, we can recognise the emblems from Besiktas Istanbul, the Montreal Canadiens, San Lorenzo, Denmark and Real Madrid. And there´s also a clock from the Argentine River Plate club. "What the hell is this exactly?" asks one of the technicians, while Viggo kneels in front of the banners and has his picture taken, laughing, amused. "I always take them with me," admits the crazy one. "I´ve been doing it for years. During my last shoot, there were all the flags from the first and second division Argentinian soccer teams. A disaster." Viggo starts laughing. Fabián Casas, who knows of his unlimited love for the Buenos Aires San Lorenzo soccer club, tells us that "I believe it is in our childhood when we fill the petrol tank. Afterwards, you seldom refill it. Viggo filled with fuel here, in Buenos Aires, when he was eight. It was the moment of the Matadores that more or less were like today´s Barça. I think it reminds him of a time without cares, a time when his parents still lived together."

Born in New York of an American mother who met her Danish husband in the Norwegian sky slopes, Viggo Mortensen had a rather hectic childhood. In his first three years of life, he lived across three countries: the United States, Denmark and Venezuela. Later his parents settled in Argentina. They divorced. He went away again. In his heart, one single attachment: San Lorenzo´s soccer team. "I left Argentina when I was 11, and 25 years had passed before I could come back. Between 12 and 20, I lived in a city where no one spoke Spanish. There wasn´t any soccer or internet, hardly two TV channels. I listened to Radio Canada; that´s how I learned French. And I watched the Canadiens (Ed. note: hockey team). That, more or less, took the place of soccer," he tells us. Even today, lost at the doors of Patagonia, Viggo refuses to pose in any picture without wrapping himself with the red and blue colours of the club he goes to see at the stadium every time he can. "He´s nuts," concludes Esteban Bigliardi. "He carries car stickers from his club all the time and sticks them everywhere on the street." Last year Viggo Mortensen made the incident news because of his team. It was May 27, 2012. The actor had just crossed the security area at the Dulles airport in Washington. Waiting to board the plane, he turned on his laptop and opened a streaming of San Lorenzo v Newell´s, an Argentinian championship match; Viggo was stressed: San Lorenzo must win at all costs to stay in the first division. When the score is 2-2, Leandro "Pipi" Romagnoli, the actor´s hero, runs dribbling through the left side. Kicks, scores. Viggo tells what followed. "I cried Golaaaaazooo! And I started jumping in every sense between the passengers and their suitcases." It took a soldier from the American army and two policemen to return peace to the airport. Not having a country, would Viggo have a soccer team? Maybe. But according to him, it is better not to read too much into it. "Maybe it's that but it´s also a child´s whim."

One day I went with the supporters to see an away match in Rosario. They scored two goals against us when there were only a few minutes left until the end. When the match was over, I remained sitting, head in hands. And this is dangerous when you are a visitor. The others were telling me: `We must leave now, Viggo.´ The rival supporters were throwing all sorts of things at us, bricks, coins, all sorts of things. When I started running, covering myself with my arms, one of them shouted at me: `Hey, you, lord of the rings, put your ring on and disappear!´ I found it so funny that I fell to the floor laughing. Next day, I went to the stadium with a friend, I got on his back and stuck San Lorenzo stickers everywhere. If I go back to Rosario, I´m a dead man." When Viggo describes this scene, he still has a mischievous smile on his face. "I go to the stadium to see the weird things people do there," he ends by saying, laughing loudly. More than soccer, more than films, Viggo loves to laugh. Madly. "I think that humour is everywhere," he says. "The fact that we are alive is in itself absurd enough. But above all, and maybe it´s my Danish side, I like irony and contrast." During The Lord of the Rings time, Mortensen enjoyed himself, over several weeks, by leaving foolish messages in a German military accent, all interspersed with hysterical laughter on Elijah Wood´s answering machine. "He has a very particular sense of humour," says Rex Peterson, who was the horse wrangler in Hidalgo. "Sometimes you only realise later that what he said was a joke, and actually really funny." Cleverly, the actor likes to slip a bit of that absurdity into his characters, whether they are On the Road´s Old Bull Lee or the methodical killer from A History of Violence. "For me, in all serious films, there are moments of humour." In that case, wouldn´t you like to play in a comedy? "I don´t think they would consider me for those kind of roles," says Viggo, almost regretfully. "I don´t know why, but they´ve never given me the chance."

When he was asked one day for his best joke, Mortensen, with a smile, answered "Me." And maybe that time he answered seriously. What is definite is that the actor always looks at Hollywood from a certain distance, with irony even. It is a fact that before his career took off, he had time to put things into perspective: minor roles in big films like Leatherface or Daylight, cut in the editing by Woody Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo) and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Mortensen only really managed to establish himself in films during the '90s, thanks to movies like Jane Campion´s Portrait of a Lady, and Sean Penn´s Indian Runner, where he plays a burnt out Vietnam veteran with crazy eyes and ironic smile, who spits out peas in his pregnant wife's face. Beaten at the Oscars in 2008 by the eternal winner Daniel Day-Lewis, on the way out, Viggo started an animated "losers dance" before the perplexed eyes of the other losers, with the exception of Michael Moore who also agreed to shake his rolls of fat. A way like any other to remind yourself that all this is not at all important. "People in the movies take themselves so seriously... Especially the men, often more than the women. They think too much about winning a prize or earning money. But for me prizes have nothing to do with my work." In this world of publicity spots and lavish celebrations, such an attitude is at best intriguing, or at worst unsettling. For Hollywood, Viggo Mortensen is the same character as the Aragorn of Lord of the Rings: a king who refuses his throne and who would rather go around the world in tatters. Fabián Casas, at whose place Viggo sleeps every time he passes through Buenos Aires, agrees, specifying that "He´s renounced any self-importance. He hasn´t got many clothes, he gives away everything he has. Everybody has their little ego and we often would like to get rid of it, but it´s impossible. He manages to do it. He´s the only person that I know in the world who has gotten rid of his ego completely." Lisandro Alonso, who up until now had never worked with a professional actor, chose Mortensen for that simplicity. "I have never been interested in actors," the director says. "It is the human side in people more than the professional that interests me. But I spoke with Fabián and other friends who had already worked with him and they all told me about the way he was. A guy who does the dishes, who hands out poetry books, who takes pictures... It´s not just a pose." Lisandro Alonso is not mistaken. The one who while shooting The Lord of the Rings was called "No Ego Viggo" blends perfectly with the landscape of this spartan, hard shoot, with gusts of wind, isolated from the world. "To take part in a low budget production in faraway places and in the open air is not a problem," says the star. "You have to learn to put up with a bit of everything, like in real life." And in fact, Mortensen uncorks bottles of wine, bangs his fists on the table to congratulate the cook of the evening, eats his asado with his hands, and climbs in the back of pickup trucks. Some evenings, while the others clink their ice cubes, he vanishes discreetly and goes to do the dishes. Chule, who has known him since Todos Tenemos Un Plan, concludes: "He is different. He´s always ready to help you, invariably asking whether it´s necessary for him to carry something. When we were returning from the shoot, he would invite the whole crew to the best restaurants. And the catering! I can´t even tell you! He would buy alfajores [Ed. note: Argentinian biscuits] in all kinds of flavours, Ferrero Rocher [tr. note: a brand of chocolates] chocolates. It was impossible to eat all that. We called that `la hora Viggo,´ The Viggo Hour."

Cowboy hat and film-garage

On the other hand, Lisandro Alonso Hour arrives between the second and third glass of hard liquor. Waving his arms, his body disjointed, bristly beard, the director is a walking show. "Beeetoooo! Starkers, Beto! We want to see your tits, Beto!" yelps Lisandro in an already rusty voice. Beto is the owner of the only bar in the place, usually intended for summer holidaymakers, but open especially for the occasion. Every evening his empty tables and whitish neon lights see the majority of the crew arrive. This evening Lisandro is loaded. The bright eyes spinning in their orbs, he stands in front of a policeman who´s about to finish his dinner, and he starts dancing while yelling like an animal. "We are punks! We are going to smoke huge spliffs!" Around him, the crew are cracking up with laughter. The majority of the twenty people who are part of this are friends who have followed the director since his beginning, at the dawn of the 2000s. And who talk about previous films like veterans from old wars. The damp heat in La Libertad. The fear they had on the boat in which they went down the Paraná river for Los Muertos. And the bitter cold they experienced in Ushuaia during the filming of Liverpool, in 2008. "Do you remember when we climbed on the boat in high seas, in full storm?" recalls Juji Chechile, a camera assistant. "We had to climb a shitty little ladder, with all the equipment, still half drunk." In short, this gang makes films, but they live like a rock band. "To me, what they do is garage-film," is Fabián Casas' analysis. "Actually, Lisandro´s production company is in a parking lot." "We are a sort of circus," says Juji. "I would do anything for Lisandro." For his part, Viggo Mortensen doesn´t go shouting after Beto. He drinks like the good guys, sitting down, with no hurry. Red wine from the west of Argentina, while watching soccer matches, and dry Zubrowska, neat, after dinner. And what if he has come here, to the end of the world, with this gang of punks, to recover his youth, he who had a child with Exene Cervenka, singer and leader of X, iconic band in LA´s punk scene during the '80s? As much as the actor has vivid blue eyes and impressive musculature, his passport says 54 years old. Life goes by? Cowboy hat on his head, sabre in his belt, Viggo Mortensen lights one last cigarette while watching the last glow of the evening colouring the Argentinian desert. "Sometimes I think about death," he says, before getting on his horse for a last take. "I´m growing old, and probably I´m going towards that destiny. But it´s not scientifically certain. At present, nobody has been able to prove that I´m going to die some day."
Last edited: 18 April 2014 11:28:26
© So Film.