10 Directors to Watch
Portrait: Courtesy of Phyllis Grant

Character actor turned helmer Matt Ross taps into Viggo Mortensen's back-to-nature spirit with fantastic family drama.

Before making his writing-directing debut at Sundance 2012 with the infidelity drama, “28 Hotel Rooms,” Matt Ross was already at work on his sophomore effort, “Captain Fantastic.”

Now he’s headed back to Park City to unveil the final product.

Ross has been ruminating for years over the story about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children, who live deep in a forest in the Pacific Northwest and their rocky adjustment to society after they are forced to leave paradise. However, while Ross grew up with a “hippie” mom, lived on a few communes and has slept in a teepee, he insists that the film is not autobiographical.

“It has less to do with the back-to-land movement and more to do with exploring what it means to be a parent,” the father of two says. “It’s much more about my personal grapplings with being a dad and my desire to be a good one.” Mortensen’s character, he says, is in some ways a fantasy version of himself. “We all straddle our professional and personal lives. I fantasize about being able to devote my entire existence to my kids.”

Even so, Ross, a veteran character actor with a resume that includes “American Horror Story,” “Big Love” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” insists that he never had any desire to cast himself in the film. Instead he waited two years for Mortensen’s schedule to clear.

“I write to direct, and Viggo was always my first choice,” insists Ross, who put off casting the child actors until he had his star. Still, backers were skeptical of the way he envisioned the role.

“The script read funnier,” Ross recalls. “So when I began showing the screenplay around, everyone was suggesting comedic names for the lead. I just kept thinking, That’s so wrong. (The father) doesn’t have to be funny. More than anything the audience has to believe that this guy lives (off the grid). And there was nothing that I could have thrown Viggo that he hasn’t done himself.”

Age: 45
Influences: Francis Ford Coppola
Agency: WME
Lawyer: Sloane Offer Weber & Dern

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