Far from the Icon, Close to the Man
© One World Films.
by Ignacio Julia
He shows up on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, where the media have been scheduled for the promotional interviews of Far From Men, wearing the immortal t-shirt of his favourite team, San Lorenzo de Almagro, a fixation he carries from the childhood years he spent in Argentina. Hanging from his shoulder, a bag with a publicity logo of Brighton 66´s Modernista, a CD he says is "very good." His current partner, Ariadna Gil, sister of the founders of the Barcelona mod band, is the reason he knows the band.
Viggo Mortensen (New York, 1958) has the body of the classic man, rich in faculties: handsome and cultured, author of poetry books and musician of unclassified genre, photographer and painter, instinctive actor who resists vain stardom. He declined to appear in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit - with an indisputable reason, because Aragorn doesn´t appear in these books by Tolkien - and answered Tarantino, who wanted him for his new Western, with a firm refusal. He's passionate about anthropology and has specialised in the ethnography of South American natives. He publishes his literary work, and that of little known or polemic authors in his own publishing house, Perceval Press, founded in 2002.
On top of that, he is multilingual and an experienced rider... what more can you ask for in these times of brainless celebrities? An eloquent kindness that manifests itself as he answers the questions with a slight Argentinian accent because Spanish is the language he prefers. At times the interviewer believes himself to be in front of that man from many of his films, an apparently good man who hides a fatal inner conflict. He has worked for filmmakers as unique as David Cronenberg, Walter Salles, John Hillcoat or Gus Van Sant, and now he's supporting the French director, David Oelhoffen.
Oelhoffen´s second film, Far from Men, develops a story by Albert Camus written in 1954, at the beginning of the war in Algeria. Its subjects, a teacher who is the son of Andalusian emigrants and an Arab accused of homicide, are forced to journey in a savage land hounded by their enemies, exposed to crossfire. It's in that rugged landscape that both will have to open up, understand each other, become allies. One more time Mortensen breathed genuine humanity into an individual trapped between reason and violence.
We talked about Far from Men, but also about his many other facets. With pleasure...
What attracted you to the Daru character in Far From Men?
David Oelhoffen had written the script thinking about a kind of actor like the one I usually depict, with those characteristics, without imagining that I would end up doing the film because he was not aware that I spoke French. When my parents separated, in Argentina, we moved with my mother to the north of New York state, on the border with Canada. I learned it there, listening on the radio to the Montreal Canadiens games, who shared San Lorenzo's colours, my soccer team. They invited me to a celebration and I introduced one of their ice hockey stars in French. The producer saw that interview and asked me if I could do the film. I told him it wasn't impossible, although I would have to work on the Algerian accent. I had read Camus´ The Stranger, the play Caligula, but I had forgotten this story. Reading it, I remembered it immediately, and I loved the adaptation David had done. It was very true, not only to Camus´work, but to the author himself, his way of thinking, his humanism, paying a lot of attention to his time as a journalist in the Thirties, when while living in Algeria, he wrote articles about injustice toward the Arab people, the Berber population. I also had to learn Arabic. And Spanish with a certain accent, because Camus spoke it; his mother was from Minorca, although he refused to visit the country during the Franco period and then he could never do it. Camus said that Spain and the Civil War had taught him that those who are right can be defeated, and that courage is not always rewarded. He believed that Spain, France and Italy shouldn't have borders, that they were a common country.
In these times of conflicts over immigration, were you seeking to encourage a greater understanding of the reality in the Maghreb?
Not in a conscious way, although you can read that and other things [in it], the political and social conflicts. What I liked about the script and the story, the difference from other films about that war, its roots and consequences, is that it wasn't an ideological film. That context is taken into account, but the film is about dislocation, both of my character, Daru, and Mohammed, because both were born in the same area. At the beginning you think they are very different, that they can never be friends, but you gradually understand that they are not so different. It's an unexpected friendship, beautiful and believable, that blossoms in an organic way. This is unusual in the films about the Algerian war. There's a very nice dialogue towards the end, when he speaks about his childhood for the first time. When Mohammed tells Daru that he is French and Daru answers that his family immigrated from Andalusia. Working in the fields, doing the hardest jobs, they were seen by the French as Arabs, whereas now the Arabs take them to be French. We always come out losing, we don't have an identity, we aren't located in the country, in the landscape. The essence of the film is captured there, in that dislocation. Because Mohammed sees him as white and the oppressor, until he understands that they have something in common, since he's also been marginalized.
It's an intense story between two taciturn characters, confronted by a vast landscape, almost a Western…
The choice to photograph the landscapes in that way, so wide, gave an epic tone to the film, but it also makes us see the characters with new eyes; it makes them more fragile. You get to see how they come together, you want them to come together, because they need to come together, against their enemies who are stalking them and against the landscape that is tough, enormous.
I associate you with ambiguous characters, bad men that are good and vice versa, as in Good or A History of Violence. It's a quality that ultimately defines us all.
Yes, I think that everyone has internal conflicts, secrets. The palest, uninteresting nun has secrets, desires, a dark side, some conflict in her mind, her soul. When I read a script, and it's something that I've done since I began as an actor, the character doesn't matter to me. It can be written in a way, it can show up in a scene, a sentence, but it seems to define a particular kind of person. So, my first question is, "When is he not like that?" Looking for contradictions. In this script, they are obviously there; they emerge little by little, contradictions or secrets, reasons that explain the way he is. Why is he so terse? Why doesn't he speak or show his feelings? Why does he say nothing about his life? And the same thing could be said of Mohammed. They are two men who don't talk about their personal lives, much less what they feel. They do it little by little, in a fragmented way, but that's how the most solid friendships are forged, when it takes a lot to know someone. If he tells you about his life right after he meets you, just to get to know you, because he's drunk or whatever, friendship can also emerge, but it's most firmly fixed when there's difficulty. It's like with a dog or a horse. He resists, he won't let you, you have to give in, to give something in exchange. Respect, dignity, allowing him his space. Later, when the friendship solidifies, you can say to him, "Remember when we met five years ago? What a son of a bitch you were. You told me nothing."
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' soundtrack is organically integrated into the film. Their music avoids illustrating the images in order to penetrate into the very fabric of the story.
Like the music of The Road. Although there was a problem in that one. Recently I took part in a Q & A in Denmark with Warren Ellis; he was there on tour with Nick Cave. They told him that the screening ended at midnight and, when he found out that I was there, he came despite having to travel the next day. I arrived from the hotel and there he was. We sat in front of the audience and began talking about our things, a very interesting conversation about what the actor feels when finally listening to the soundtrack because he normally doesn't hear it during the shoot. I've made some films where they played the music while we were shooting, but it's not a normal thing, because, in general, it hasn't yet been composed or recorded. I answered that there are almost always moments, no matter how good the soundtrack is, where I wonder why they put music there. Don't they trust the viewer that they have to underline that - well now he´s sad, or now there´s danger or I don't know what else? It's excessive. And, to tell the truth, with Ellis and Cave's work, as much in The Road as in this one, I felt that the music, very subtle, was there when it was needed. It's integrated into the visual landscape of the film and the sound of the dialogue. It works very well; you are not conscious of it. And when it's playing, you appreciate it. Ellis told me that in The Road, they were pressured to give it a sentimental touch in the final scenes. I didn't like it, and he didn't either. Warren told me that working with David Oelhoffen was great, because he knew what he wanted and avoided exaggeration. He was pushing them towards what they were feeling. It was a good collaboration; it's a beautiful soundtrack. David didn't want anything topical, with Algerian instruments, which was also feasible. What Cave and Ellis did is something else, tonalities that could be from there, but with other instruments, other ideas. Something different that brings on the emotional journey.
You have recorded CDs on the piano, with the guitar player Buckethead, but your tastes are eclectic, from classical music to alternative rock. Do you still have those first LPs you bought as a young man, by Grand Funk Railroad and David Bowie?
Yes, yes, I´ve got them. And music is like cinema; I like a little bit of everything. The same happens with the scripts I read. I don't differentiate them by budget, nationality or genre; I look for stories that I'd like to see on the screen, projects where I can learn something. And the same with music. Like many people, I find links between classical and jazz, or blues, punk. There are links and they can be found; one can feel the same about two different kinds of music. And it happens that, some things from the past you didn't like or seemed superficial to you, now you enjoy them. In time that's what happens. Also with some films, because they are badly distributed or because they don't fit with the cultural moment and they don't work, they are not appreciated. But with time they become jewels; you even recall that you thought it was nothing special when you saw it, and now you see it in another context and it has value.
You are a poet, musician, photographer, publisher, actor, painter... Haven't you ever felt the impulse at some point to gather everything together and make a movie yourself?
Yes, yes... I've been thinking about it for a long time. Twenty years ago I wrote a script that takes place in Denmark. I managed to get a little money, but in the end, I didn't do it. A couple of months ago, I finished another script; I want to do it, and it seems that it´s possible. When I finished it, things happened in my family and to distract myself or to bear what I was living through, without planning to, I turned to writing one scene after another and it came out of me very quickly. In a few weeks, I had it ready. I think that I am going to direct that script. It's simpler, easier to do, less costly. But if I do it, I have to get completely involved in it. I've seen David Cronenberg work and other great directors that are great because they concentrate. I can wait a couple of years or more, re-write it, do the casting and find a good crew to shoot it reliably. At all times, you have to be very conscious of the project and what it requires. I can't keep up my pace. I publish books, do poetry lectures, record music; I am all over the place with my two families, my travels. So yeah, I'm going to direct; I like photography, actors, cinema.