Interview: Director Matt Ross Promotes ‘Captain Fantastic’

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CHICAGO – In this year of morally unique relationship films (“Swiss Army Man”), add the recently released “Captain Fantastic” to the mix. The film, written and directed by Matt Ross, is like a fable of unintended consequences, where a father raises his children to live off the ‘grid,’ away from typical 2016 civilization.

The father in the film is Viggo Mortensen (“Eastern Promises”), and the situation complicates itself when the mother of the six children dies, leaving the father no choice but to bring them back into “civilization” to attend the funeral. Writer/director Matt Ross – who as an actor also portrays Gavin Belson on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” – combines anarchist political philosophy with the extreme survival skills of the family to illustrate a point about our modern society, mostly in the sense that despite all our current abilities to technically communicate with one another, we still remain separated.

Matt Ross Directs a Scene in ‘Captain Fantastic’
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media interviewed Ross at a recent promotional tour of the film in Chicago. It was a roundtable discussion, with Ian Simmons of the Kicking the Seat website ( and David J. Fowlie of the Keeping It Reel site ( also participating. What did you discover about living off the grid that surprised you, both in its ease and its difficulties?

Matt Ross: Well, I don’t live off the grid myself, but I did it as a child. I think one of the most difficult things about the lifestyle is that when it’s winter, and there is no running water, you still have to go outside to use the bathroom. [laughs] You know, we all live very comfortable, no matter what socio-economic level we’re at – if you have electricity and running water, you live better than the kings of the 16th century. What kind of research did you have to do?

Ross: There was the research of my own life – my mother started a bunch of alternative living communities – I was say it’s reductive and inaccurate to call them hippy communes because it was the 1980s. My outside research included a friend from Washington State, he home-schooled his kids and suggested many books to read. Also my production designer, Russell Barnes, grew up in New Zealand in rural communities that were off the grid. He brought many ideas to the table. Did your lead actor Viggo Mortensen add any input?

Ross: Viggo was very adamant about making sure that everything was accurate. It’s a fully functioning homestead in the film. When you live off the grid, you have certain questions. For example, what’s your water source? Shelter and water are of primary importance, and we showed that in the movie. Another question is ‘how are you preserving your food?’ We showed that – not only are they cooking venison, they’re smoking fish and canning. Also, sanitation is a big issue, so we made sure we highlighted the outhouse. Viggo wanted all these situations addressed, because the movie takes place in the real world, it’s not a fantasy.

Keeping It Reel: A major plot point is re-integrating the family into our modern society. Can you talk about how you wanted to introduce re-integration into the story?

Ross: They go on a journey, and in this case, I don’t believe the father compromises any of his values. He’s just come to realize that his children need some socialization, and that’s in the narrative. The journey in the movie, and it’s not a journey about re-integration, it’s more that they’re unaccustomed to the outside world. I think it was a way of observing and commenting on today’s United States through this family – it reflects on who we are, in the sense of our cultures and values.

Kicking the Seat: Your story chooses not to have a ‘good or bad’ perspective regarding the father and his child-rearing philosophies, but presents many shades of gray. How important was it to balance those perspectives?

Ross: That was vital to me. I think that we are all the heroes of our own story, and I think life comes in all shades of gray. Personally, I love movies that exist like this, where you think someone can behave both heroically and like a villain.

When Frank Langella took the role of the father-in-law, and grandfather to the kids – who is against everything Viggo’s character stands for – I told him he was not the villain in this film. He has a point of view regarding parenting that is based on his socio-economic level and his education. He’s not the bad or mean grandfather.

Kicking the Seat: Symbolically, the story seems to go through many social conventions of the American experience. What were you hoping to define through these different circumstances?

Ross: I would say that there are many ‘Americas’ within the United States of America, and this movie shows three of them. Rural America is represented by the off-the-grid existence of the family. Suburban America is defined through Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn’s characters, where most of us are familiar. And then it portrays the Langella and Anne Dowd characters, the grandparents, who are living in gated community, which sometimes can be a bit isolated, conservative and religious.

My intention – to answer your question – is to portray them all with nuance. They all have positives and negatives. We are all flawed people. We’re not vilifying or demonizing any one in the story. Ideally, we follow Viggo’s character thinking he might be a hero, but in time realize that it’s not that simple.

Viggo Mortensen (Center) is the Family Man in ‘Captain Fantastic’
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media The child actors were remarkable, playing kids that for the most part had to be far outside their real lives. What was the most interesting question you got from any of the child actors regarding their characters?

Ross: I think the surprising answer is that they did not have any problems with any of the off-the-grid elements, although I don’t think any of them knew who [notable political philosopher] Noam Chomsky is, or what he stands for. [laughs] We had a two week boot camp in wilderness survival, where they learned to build a shelter, make a fire without matches, find edible plants and sleep under the stars. They also all had to play musical instruments.

Two of the young women actors, Sammi Isler and Annalise Basso, had to learn how to butcher a sheep, because they dress a deer in the movie, and all the kids learned knife and combat skills – we really tried to acclimate them. Ultimately, it was up to them to look like they knew what they were doing. They also bonded with Viggo, and began to look at him as their father – they ended up calling him Summer Dad.

Kicking the Seat: Did you try and keep modern technology off the set, to keep the cast focused?

Ross: Yes, in fact I had the kid actors sign a contract – no phones, computers or iPad-like screens on set. I couldn’t control what they did when they went home, but I wanted them to be present while we were shooting. Also, I encouraged them to eat better, and at least experiment with not eating junk food. They all took it seriously, and the punishment was more push-ups. [laughs]

Keeping It Reel: What was your directing style? Did you have a similar approach to directing as Viggo’s character had to parenting?

Ross: I think my ultimate directorial style is ‘play.’ In reference to theater, it’s called a play – I believe in that noun, and the verb that goes with it. We came to play and explore, and we don’t expect you to prop up this script like it’s a dead object. Everyone signed on because they connected to this story, so let’s just play with no pre-conceived notions of right or wrong. Let’s try some different things.

Essentially, no one can control what other people think of the final outcome. Once it’s done, the audience will like it or not, they may even think I’m an idiot. [laughs] They can also think I’m brilliant or whatever, I can’t control that. What I can control is the joy in putting it together, the process of the work itself. I try and create an atmosphere where we’re all enjoying the work. That’s the only thing you can hold on to, the only true thing.

Kicking the Seat: There is a scene early in the film where Viggo’s character has to give some very bad news, and the reactions of the kids were spot on, and gut wrenching. How did you get them to that place?

Ross: The purpose of that scene for me was, as written, was that he doesn’t lie or sugar coat anything. We have all these euphemisms for death – ‘oh, so-in-so passed away’ or ‘they’ve gone somewhere better.’ He just says, ‘She died.’ He tells them the absolute truth. He’s not trying to protect them – he’s trying to be honest.

To prepare them for it, I talked to each kid individually about it. George [MacKay, who plays Viggo’s eldest son] and I had a very long talk about the death of someone he knew recently and how he wanted to express that feeling. Viggo also had an idea – which went counter to the original scene, but we shot it anyway – which was that he would read a poem because he thought that, in some ways, in this family they’d talk about things through art.

Kicking the Seat: Since it didn’t end up in the film, what poem was it?

Matt Ross
Writer & Director Matt Ross in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Ross: It was a Alfred Lord Tennyson poem – “The Mermaid” – which is about a mermaid that, in her love for someone, kills him and brings him down to the depths. At the end of the reading, all the kids are reacting to ‘what is dad talking about?’ They are savvy, but they’re not really sure, so then he just comes right out and tells them the truth. I cut the poem out only because I didn’t think it was necessary to communicate the scene. The kid actors were all emotionally connected, and then it became about the craft of their acting.

Keeping It Reel: Obviously when you were writing the screenplay, the main role wasn’t cast. Did you have a particular actor type in mind to help you flesh the father character out, and what did Viggo Mortensen bring to the role that you didn’t expect?

Ross: I think I vaguely based him, because of my age, on Harrison Ford when he was in his forties. When I was in junior high, he was a huge star and I saw all those movies and there was something about him that was both masculine and vulnerable. I loved him in ‘Witness,’ and he had a similar father role in ‘Mosquito Coast.’

Viggo is a highly articulate and intelligent man, and I just bought the fact that he could convincingly live off the grid. He has a great knowledge of the environment – he’s hunted, fished and has existed in harmony with nature. For example, he planted the garden that is shown in the film, so he understood the labor of it. All actors bring their own persona – I think Viggo made the father more centered, honest and a little more low-keyed than I originally wrote him.

Kicking the Seat: Since the film feels so personal, what did you learn about yourself in producing it?

Ross: That’s always a hard question. One of the great ironies of this movie is that it’s about a parent trying to do his best by being with his kids constantly, yet I have two kids and my wife raises them while I’m out making this film. I think being a good parent means that every day is a different challenge. It’s about mindfulness and trying to be present. I think life goes really quickly and it’s very easy to be tuned out, and not be present. That is what I’ve learned in my parenting experience, and I continue to be mindful of it. A quick career-based question. You portray Gavin Belson on ‘Silicon Valley,’ and he seems like just the type of capitalist the family would rail against. How do you think Gavin would counter that criticism, since you know him pretty well by now?

Ross: [Laughs] I think Gavin would cry and be very upset, because I think he sees himself as a man of the people in every way. He’d probably think, ‘You know what, I’m going to buy that family a fleet of Teslas.’ He’d want to bribe them for their affection.

David J. Fowlie of transcribed this interview, edited by Patrick McDonald of

“Captain Fantastic” is in theaters now. Featuring Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Anne Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso. Written and directed by Matt Ross. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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