Parental control
Total Film|December 2020
For his intense directorial debut Falling, multihyphenate Viggo Mortensen has drawn inspiration from his own tough-love upbringing. He sits down with Total Film to get up close and personal…
JAMIE GRAHAM

Given that three times, Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen is also a poet, a painter, a photographer, a musician, an author, and a producer, you might wonder why he waited to the age of 62 to add ‘director’ to the list. Truth is, he didn’t – Mortensen’s been trying to get a film financed for 24 years, and not even the stardom afforded by playing Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy quite got him over the line.

“I had a screenplay that I wanted to direct in Scandinavia,” he says, turning his mind back to Before Middle-earth, to the land of the mid-’90s. He smokes as he talks, sitting comfortably in his home in Madrid. If anything, his Nordic features are even more handsome on Zoom than in the movies, and he could pass as a man in his early forties. “I raised some of the money in Denmark, but not enough. It didn’t happen. Over the years, I’ve tried several times with different screenplays, including Falling a couple of times.”

It seems fitting that Falling is the project that finally made it to our screens, helped on its journey by squeezing the planned seven-week shoot down to five, and by Mortensen, who initially wished only to direct, conceding to play one of the two lead roles. It is a deeply personal film, as directorial debuts so often are – the tale of a middle-aged son, John (Mortensen), aiding his octogenarian father Willis (Lance Henriksen) in moving from his rural farm in upstate New York to Los Angeles so that they might be close. Willis’s dementia is worsening. John tries to stay calm and empathetic, but it’s hard to stay patient when Willis is refusing to demonstrate any love in return, and instead clouds the air with his rampant homophobia and xenophobia (John’s husband Eric is Chinese-Hawaiian). He’s a misogynist, too, referring to his late first wife Gwen (Hannah Gross), John’s mother, as “a whore.”

Contrasting realities

“I got this idea from my mother’s funeral,” recalls Mortensen, “because I was thinking back, as one does, about all the things that I remembered about her on that day, and hearing stories from other people who cared about her, and family and friends. I just wanted to write down these ideas and these fragments of conversation, and I made a short story. But the short story quickly evolved into fiction – a fictional family. Falling, as a movie, was mostly made up, but the foundation was feelings I have for my parents, and, I guess, what I’ve learned from them, exploring that – good things, bad things, and things in between.”

John is not Viggo and Willis is not Mortenson’s late Danish father Viggo Peter Mortensen Sr., who stayed in Argentina when he and his American wife Grace (née Atkinson) divorced, while she returned to the state of New York with Viggo and his two younger brothers Walter and Charles, to whom Falling is dedicated. But there is overlap.

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