Viggo Mortensen on Jauja
Mortensen plays a 19th century captain searching for his daughter, in what is referred to as ‘Patagonia’ in his latest big screen release. The great Dane (via Argentina and America) spoke to George Meixner about the new project.
The actor was ‘Man’ in The Road, was a man with a sword and a horse in the Lord of The Rings franchise, will star in Far From Man later this year and spends much of this film on horseback, with, yes, a sword. So what attracts this man to play these men and what makes him tick? The search for answers begins here. However, he probably posed more questions than he answered, such is the inquisitive nature of the… bloke.
Viggo was largely attracted to the film because of two of the main protagonists behind the camera. Of Lisandro Alonso, the director, he said that “I’d seen some of his movies before accepting the role and I thought that the ingredients of it, at least at the start – a father goes looking in Indian territory for his adolescent daughter – was a classic start to an adventure story.” Indeed his character is interminably scouting in this challenging movie. Shot in a 4:3 ratio with very static camerawork that accentuates the barren landscape it is not for the fainthearted, but definitely for the fascinated.
Of the input of cinematographer Timo Salminen he claimed “I knew it would have a special look and a very original treatment of the landscape and the people within it. So it just seemed like the kind of movie I’d go and see.”
Faced with a quotation from the director that “I wanted to pull you into a labyrinth that you couldn’t escape from”, Viggo replied that he didn’t really agree with it. Neither did he wholly endorse the questioner’s comparisons to the metaphors raised by Alonso’s earlier film Los Muertos.
In that film, the main character finds himself uncannily familiar with his surroundings despite a lengthy captivity in jail. He explained what he was drawn to: “I didn’t think of it that way. It’s not so much the landscape or the events that happen – the landscape is the landscape, the things that happen that my character can’t explain or can’t find a logical answer to, the way the movie veers out of linear time, the changes in landscapes, the mystery of where his daughter’s gone, some of the things he hears and sees“ were his primary interest. It was revealed that he likes to wake up questioning the universe, something that you might empathise with as you leave the cinema post-Jauja. “I’m drawn to stories that challenge your way of thinking, that make you wake up in the middle of the night and question everything, your preconceived ideas about how life works, how you behave, what your attitudes are about, everything, and that’s something that I really enjoyed, just in reading the script but also as we were doing it, I thought that was an important thing and if he’s imprisoned it’s not by exterior things, it’s by his own preconceived notions.”
Well at least the question was right, albeit for existential reasons rather than actual ones. Now you have started to see words like ‘existential’ pop up and phrases such as ‘question everything’ appear, you may start to realise what kind of film this is.
Aragorn (as I did not refer to him as) continued: “He puts on his uniform which always worked in Denmark, let’s say, that’s the way he would deal with the situation and he goes out looking and he’s always – even the first conversation you see him have with this Argentine military officer, he’s asking lots of questions, he wants to know what things are called, what is the sequence of events, when can I expect to see this happen. He has, I guess, a Northern European perspective or world view and he tries to impose that, even if it’s he’s not aware that he’s doing it all the time, he’s imposing that on him, in a place and in situations where it doesn’t really work. But he stubbornly keeps doing it, as we tend to do.”
On the subject of music it was clear there was a little edge to his voice that meant he was not just promoting his film in his answer. He was talking about his life, Viggo’s adventures. To answer the question about his input to the score, sparse as it may be, it was again in reference to Lisandro, who was breaking new ground in the way he makes his films, that the “music was something that he decided, ‘That transition is important, that night where he falls asleep under the stars, holding the daughter’s toy soldier because the next day he wakes up and the landscape, the weather, everything is changed, everything is different. More specifically “he thought it was important to help that transition with music, which surprised me, because I knew he didn’t usually do that. And I said, ‘Well, what kind of music? I mean we have limitations and we don’t have any budget – what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘Well, it doesn’t have to be period – I’d rather it wasn’t period specific music’, but he described something with guitar, something that was lyrical and had a certain feel… and so I said, ‘Well, I have worked with and known for many years a very good guitar player named Buckethead, he’s a genius really and we’d record a lot of things, sometimes they have a lyrical quality that sounds like what you’re describing, I can send you some of these tracks and see what you think’. Obviously it sparked something in the director and that particular section stands out all the more prominently for the surprising jolt of music that strikes the screen. “It was unexpected, I would have never imagined I was going to be providing music for a movie – music is something I do for fun. I mean, I take it seriously, but this was never something I would have thought of, especially on a movie like this.
As mentioned earlier, Viggo Mortensen is one curious man, who perhaps unconsciously sees this quality in his character Gunnar Dinesen. “As a photographer, I’m interested in what the cinematographer does, how he lights, how he frames shots. I’m interested in the director’s point of view. I’m trying to help him get across his vision, basically and I like to work with other actors and see what happens. I’m interested in the costumes, I’m interested in all aspects of it.”
Being relatively stranded in a desolate landscape didn’t seem to faze the Hollywood actor. Ironically, considering our plush hotel-based interview room, he commented that the main problem was probably “just comfort, but [for] the group of people that made this movie, including me, it wasn’t a big deal to not have internet or not have phone service, or in some cases a hotel or something. It was part of the story and we knew that going in because of the remote areas we were filming in. I mean, logistics (getting equipment to certain places) sometimes was tricky but we travelled light, we had one camera, I guess we had a small crew, so we made it work.”
The multi-lingual platform upon which the film is built, both on and off set also had some, if only a little, personal resonance. “Well I was raised in Argentina and some people there mistakenly think I’m an Argentine actor. I guess you could say I’m an Argentine actor – I’ve been in two Argentine movies, speaking Spanish, in this case with a Danish accent”. He says this in his slightly American accented voice, with just the odd splash of the Scandinavian descent that marks his surname. “I don’t know – I may be more drawn to stories that have to do with that, but I’m not conscious of it. I don’t look at the budget or the language or the nationality, or even the genre of the movie when I’m looking for work or hoping something finds me. It’s really if it’s a story I think is interesting… I [am] also in a movie that will be coming out soon called Far From Men, which is a movie that was shot in North Africa in French and Arabic and that’s not something I was setting out to do or would have ever expected I’d do but it’s a great story and I want to be part of it.”
In another interview (on camera) I had seen Viggo discuss Timo’s (the cinematographer) Finnish, and therefore also Scandinavian, sense of humour and how he added something different to the team. “I think that the crew, the first few days, they were not sure what to make of him and Lisandro even asked me, ‘Is there something wrong with him?… Why is he so sad?’ and I said, ‘He’s not sad, he’s just Finnish’. He was just, you know, standing by the sea, looking at the sky. I guess then I looked at it in terms of Argentines would more say what’s on their mind and there’s a different kind of energy and he was very still and very quiet. He [hardly spoke] at all. He’s very efficient, doing his job, but to me he was just a guy from Finland looking at the sea, waiting for the Argentines to get their shit together so he could shoot the scene.” However, as they grew to know each other “it was a great combination and it was great to see their interaction and what can happen when you have an open mind. Both on his side and on their side, it was a really good experience for everyone.”
On his reaction to the film’s initial critical praise “I thought it would be an interesting movie but it turned out better than I could have hoped. And the reception, the reaction to it, particularly from critics who usually would only write about more mainstream type movies, in North America and Europe and elsewhere, has been incredibly positive. I think it’s maybe the best, overall the best reviewed movie I’ve ever been in, including maybe even Lord of the Rings and the Cronenberg movies. It’s incredible. I’m really pleased, but I am, to be honest, surprised. I didn’t expect that…. They may just say, ‘Well, this is nonsense, I don’t know what’s going on here, I don’t understand anything, it’s too slow, etc, etc’. And that’s not been the case. Almost always it’s been well reviewed”.
Apparently his perception of the film hasn’t changed a great deal. Mostly because he never really knew what it was ‘about’ in the first place? It’s the not-knowing that he appears to revel in.” I’m still working it out. I’m still working out what the movie’s about [laughs]. And I like those kinds of stories. I like those kinds of directors who tell a story or make something that provokes questions but resists answering the questions. I think Cronenberg is that way as well. I like artists that do that, whether they be poets or painters or musicians or film directors. Each time I’ve seen the movie I’ve seen another layer, usually some other aspect to it. Usually having to do with dreams that start and end with sleep, one dream tying into another until you’re not sure who’s dream it really is. I mean that, you get the first time, but you get it in a more detailed way with each viewing, I find, at least that’s been my experience. I’ve been really pleased – it’s much richer than I expected”.
To compare Alonso and Cronenberg may seem whimsical but according to Mortensen “David Cronenberg, on a technical level and a story-telling level is doing something that’s different, but they’re very similar in the sense that they’re calm, friendly presences on the set, they’re not authoritarian, they’re not intolerant. They’re both very secure as people, so that you never get the sense from them that they have this insecure need to make sure everyone is aware at all times, especially in the media, but the crew as well, that every idea, everything that’s happening is their idea and they control all aspects of the storytelling. They’re more secure than most directors, they’re open to contributions, and they are open to chance playing a role they don’t need to claim authorship of every aspect of what’s going on during the shoot and in the final product. So I find them to be very similar in that regard.”
I had two quick fan questions; the first even quicker than I imagined. Someone wanted to know if he still had the horse that he had bought after Lord of the Rings. “I don’t have it physically, it’s with a friend of mine and she takes very good care of it.” The other question was to what extent he may have enjoyed the naked wrestling in Eastern Promises as much some of his audience did. “[Laughs] It was pretty uncomfortable, not just the idea of being naked, it was being thrown around on hard tiles. It would probably have been more comfortable if they could have had it be as warm as it should have been, because otherwise there would have been steam on the camera and we wouldn’t have been able to film very well. But no, it was just a scene that had particular physical challenges just to get through it and do the choreography right and obviously since there wasn’t clothing, you couldn’t wear padding and stuff that was just the nature of it. So it wasn’t enjoyable in that sense, what was enjoyable, like with any scene, is if the shots worked, and in that case of that particular scene, it was especially enjoyable if the shot worked, because it meant you don’t have to do it again [laughs]. Normally, I’ll do as many takes as you want, I like the process, but with that it was like, ‘Huh, I’m glad we got that, let’s move on’.“
In the words of his character, what is it that makes life function and move forward? “I don’t know [he shrugs smiling]. I don’t know and I don’t mind not knowing, but I’m still going to keep trying to find out.”
We were conducting the interview on April Fool’s Day, the same day in 2006 that Viggo released a spoken word album 3 Fools 4 April. So I wondered if it was a special date for him. He told me that “April 1st has two connotations for me and the one that you are probably are not aware of is more important to me than the actual April Fool’s idea. On April 1st 1908, a football club named San Lorenzo was established in Argentina and that’s the team I grew up with as a child. So April 1st, that’s what I think of first.”
Jauja is out in cinemas on 10 April. You can also read Ben McCarthy’s review of Jauja.