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Interview: Viggo Mortensen


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Though most well-known for his role as Aragorn in the Lord of The Rings trilogy, Viggo Mortensen also does a whole host of other stuff you may not know about, including being a musician, poet, photographer and producer.

He also recently starred in indie Danish-Argentinian drama film Jauja (see my review here), in which his character, Danish military Captain Gunnar Dinesen, is a far cry from any you may have seen him in before.

The Cannes-selected, internationally-acclaimed Western drama has divided opinions everywhere, so we spoke to Viggo in the hope of finding the answers to some of the many questions that the film left us with.

How did you get involved with the project?

I’d met Lisandro Alonso [Jauja director] at Toronto Film Festival in 2006 when he was presenting his third movie, this is his fifth, and I didn’t get to know him very well. When he proposed the basic story idea for Jauja it sounded really interesting, it sounded like, on some level, a conventional Western adventure story, but knowing his sensibility and his film-making style, those were very good ingredients possibly for a movie that I’d really want to go see. I talked to him about the Danish side of it and said ‘well how are you going to do that? do you want me to help you with translating the dialogue into Danish for the conversations between the father and daughter and the woman in the cave scene?’ and he said sure and we just got to work and we had a very good time making it.

How long was the process from proposal to presenting it at Cannes Film Festival?

It took time – these original sorts of movies do take time; it took us a couple of years before we got the money together and he found the locations he wanted and found the actress for my daughter and the actress for the woman in the cave.

Once we’d got it all together, shot it, and were ready to present at Cannes Film Festival, three years had gone by. These movies take a lot of loyalty and hard-work and a lot of sacrifice from people. From the credits, it looks like the same size crew as Star Wars but in reality there were never more than twenty and by the end when we were shooting the stuff in the cave, I think there were about ten or eleven people in the whole crew.

Over the lengthy time of your involvement in the project, how much did your character change?

Fabian Casas is not your conventional screenwriter. I think originally the story’s main character was a dog, which would have been fine... I would’ve been a supporting actor. I think their [Fabian and Lisandro] original idea for him was that he might be English but they felt that that was a more conventional approach. So he [Lisandro] thought it would be more unusual, but not implausible [to have the character be Danish]. In the northern part of Patagonia, there are towns that are largely made of Danes, immigrants that came in late 19th/early 20th century so it’s not impossible that that could have happened. The thing that evolved for my character was just the details of the uniform and all the things that have to do with the wars he would have been in in the 19th century in Denmark.

Were there many on-shoot changes made to the script?

The basic script was what we shot; we only came up with one scene during the shoot. It was a very collaborative effort, the sound-man was talking to Lisandro one day, our last day in that part of the country and the last day that the young actress playing my daughter was there... ‘I know that he’s desperate to find his daughter, I know that he really cares about her, but it would be nice to see some sort of affection between them before she takes off’, and then they brought this up to me and we talked about and we said ‘if we get the shot done that we have to get done today then we have time, and an hour of light left, and we can go up on that hill-top and we’ll try and get a shot, at least one take of something, what do you think it should be?’ I said ‘well let me write something down and I’ll go talk to the girl playing my daughter and her mom’ and so we wrote down on that piece of paper basically that scene and we talked about it and I went back to Lisandro, and I think he made one little change and then that’s basically what we shot.

We had two takes, the second take the light was already going, and I think we used the first take, and that was the only change, otherwise he stuck pretty much to it.

How do you invest yourself in the characters you play and the worlds they are within?

You only get one shot at making a movie, so you may as well get it right; the job's not worth doing if you’re not going to do it the best you can. It’s not just an unselfish desire to help the movie as a whole or help the director. It also helps me, that work that goes into preparation, learning things; by finding that uniform and talking to antique dealers and specialists in Denmark, I learnt things - ‘if the uniforms worn this way it means that, if it’s worn this way it means this’, I learned things that I didn’t know. That time of preparation is... you’re free, and you end up piling on the table a huge amount of things; objects, ideas, notes… but in the end, when they say action, you just have to react to what’s there.

There’s something slightly ridiculous, yet serious, about your character…

Totally ridiculous. The more he goes into the wilderness, into the desert, and certainly once he loses his horse, his rifle and his hat, you see him become a sort of Don Quixote figure. Like Don Quixote, he doesn’t think he’s ridiculous, or that it’s absurd the way he’s dressed for the place he’s in; he’s doing what he was trained to do, it just goes with his character. He’s looking for a rational explanation and he’s taking a logical approach, something that wouldn’t look strange in Denmark at the time if he was dressed that way, but when we see him stumbling around on that rocky ground in those leather soled boots with spurs, he becomes more and more absurd. The trick is to not play that, you just play the reality - well this is how he’s dressed and this is what I think I should be doing and it’s uncomfortable, it’s impractical but it’s who I am and it’s how I do it, he’s very stubborn about that.

Was it a conscious directorial decision to create a film which the audience would have to navigate their own way through?

It’s all out of insecurity I think, people [directors - unspecified] who feel the need to make sure the press knows and that the audience knows and often the crew and everyone involved in making the movie knows that every single idea, everything that you see, and hear, and feel, from a movie, was their idea and that they had planned it all along, and that’s not really possible even in the most controlled movie-making environment.

What’s great about an artist like Lisandro Alonso, is that he has no pretensions of controlling everything and knowing everything, he’s happy not to know certain things, he can live with that, and he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He’s happy to hand you the map or the compass and say ‘off you go’.

Was it refreshing to be involved in a non-English language movie?

It’s not the first time I’ve done a movie not in English and there’s many types of English as well. What was interesting in terms of the languages was that the way my character speaks Spanish in this movie, is as close as I could get to the way my father speaks Spanish. The first decade of my life I spent in Argentina; my father is Danish and that’s the way he sounds. The first scene we shot in which I speak Spanish, we finished this long take and I was laughing and Lisandro was worried. He said, ‘well there are moments of inadvertent humour I suppose, but why are you laughing?’ He seemed worried that I was laughing. I said I’m thinking about my brothers when they go see the movie, or the rest of my family.

In a way I was exploring my father, not just through the language but also his behaviour - not adapting, not being flexible, not being open to the environment and this new culture where he’s imposing his worldview on the landscape. I remember as a kid - my two brothers and I were raised there - we always thought it was funny the way that dad spoke Spanish and we also thought it was funny the way he would try to arrange to meet someone at let’s say 4pm or 4:15pm tomorrow and maybe those people would show up, maybe they wouldn’t or maybe show up at 6, we thought that was normal but he never gave up trying to make things work the way they might in Denmark. And then as I was playing this character I got a completely different look at my father.’

The choice of filming on 35mm film is interesting, given that a majority of what we see is vast, sweeping landscape - but this format shows more of a boxy, ’claustrophobic’, world…

That was another accident. Lisandro is someone who is open to chance; it goes with his not being arrogant, he’ll take a suggestion from someone, whether it’s just an accident in-terms of the weather, or the behaviour of one of the actors. He had intended to have a more panoramic look, and when he got the first footage back from the lab and wanted to start editing, he was just like ‘send it to me raw, I just wanna look at the whole thing so I can decide where to start and end this sequence.’ And then they sent that back and when he saw that format he said, that’s the movie. He was smart enough and open-minded enough to realise that even though that wasn’t his idea originally, that was perfect, that’s the way that the movie should look.

Does your upbringing and background influence the types of films you choose to be involved in?

I think anybody's upbringing influences everything they do. I am a product of my upbringing and I try to use everything I know; what I don’t know I try to learn by reading, travelling, listening to people. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel that everything you’re doing is wrong, I think that’s a positive event, it’s disconcerting but it forces you to consider the possibility of change. If you go through life feeling like everything you’re doing is right and that you’re justified in every idea and action, then you’re probably not going to learn much after a certain point.

One of the things I’m thankful for in terms of making movies is that, by telling stories, by learning about characters and portraying characters that take me out of my comfort zone, it keeps me doing what you do naturally as a child, which is to easily imagine being someone else, easily imagine having another point-of-view. As kid you can be the good guy, the bad guy, you can play the girl, the guy, explorer, scientist, doctor… dead person, anything and you don’t think about it. I don’t think kids under the age of say, seven, just to throw a number out, need a second take, or a director, to tell them ‘hmm that’s not quite credible.'

Jauja is released in UK cinemas on Friday 10th March. 

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