Viggo Mortensen on ‘Jauja,’ Producing, Protecting Directors’ Visions

Lisandro Alonso’s latest film screens at Marrakech in the Viggo Mortensen tribute

Viggo Mortensen
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Viggo Mortensen received a career tribute at Morocco’s Marrakech Film Fest after receiving a similar trib at Argentina’s Mar del Plata two weeks earlier. Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” starring Mortensen, is now a highlight at the 4th Panama Festival.

In “Lord of the Rings,” he protected the Shire and the Fellowship of the Ring. These days, Mortensen is more likely protecting the original visions of some of the world’s most exciting – and challenging – young moviemakers, and bringing them to larger audiences.

Doing so, Mortensen, U.S. born, Argentina raised, New York-bred, of Danish descent, has leveraged wisely his star status and fanboy suzerainties, dazzled with his dominance of not only English and Spanish, but Danish, Amish and Lakota, and played some not exactly super-hero roles, characters who are ineffectual (Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” a Cannes winner), conflicted (David Oelhoffen’s “Far From Men,“ a Venice prize winner) or plain seedy (“Drive” screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial deb, “The Two Faces of January”); to all of whom Mortensen has brought not so much his good looks but a large humanity.

One case in point: Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja.” For an actor who has been the lead in one of the world’s biggest movie franchises, Mortensen hardly acts off-screen like a Hollywood super-star. He has a problem in Morocco, for instance, he confesses at Mar del Plata. Like Pope Francis, he supports Argentina’s San Lorenzo de Almagro. He’s also a fan of Real Madrid. The two faced off in the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, which took place in Morocco Dec. 10-20. For the first time, he said at Argentina’s Mar del Plata Festival last November, he was wishing that Real Madrid will lose.

A quick discussion of the improved defensive abilities of Spain’s Isco Alarcon and Colombia’s James Rodriguez, two world-class attacking mid-fielders, followed.

In “Jauja,” which is set in 1882, Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish surveyor brought in at the end of the Argentina’s Conquest of the Desert, a euphemism for its army’s wholesale slaughter of its native inhabitants.

On “Jauja,” Mortensen took a production credit – as on “Far From Men,” in a practice begun on Ana Piterberg’s 2012 “Everybody Has a Plan” – and arranged the (spare but important) score. He is also highly articulate – in this case in English – about what he wanted to achieve with both.

On and off screen, starring in and promoting “Jauja,” he goes against super-star type. In “Jauja,” Dinesen is sympathetic but positively uncharismatic, a flustered homesick Danish duck out of water, sitting literally on the outside of the group of fellow officers, without the authority to give an opinion, as they discuss pressing gossip. He fails to heed his teen daughter’s growing affinity for the Argentine wilderness, expressed in near sexual terms: “I love the desert, the way it fills me.” When she elopes with a soldier, he puts on dress uniform and sets off in hot pursuit into the desert. It is only when, addled by dehydration, having met a dog, or so he thinks, he encounters a silver-haired lady who lives in a cave with her books. Talking to her he attains lucidity in derangement, recognizing, near to death, what has hurt him most: Abandonment by his wife, then his daughter.

In a coda to “Jauja,” which has dumbfounded some critics, the action suddenly jumps to modern Denmark, where Viilbork Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, wakes up, and takes the same dog Dinesen followed through the desert, for a walk in the woods. There, she finds a wooden soldier similar to the one Dinesen’s daughter is given by her sweetheart.

For some, “Jauja” is this young girl’s dream, for other the story of a man who gets lost in a desert, and life, raving for much of the latter part of his search for his daughter.

Mortensen has even suggested that, in a time-loop, the old wise woman Dinesen meets could be his daughter. For others, these writers’ included, it is ultimately Alonso and fellow screenwriter Fabian Casas’ dream.

Alonso himself confesses he’s not sure why certain things occur in the film.

Mortensen’s presence will certainly mean more people get to see a movie, and a kind of cinema they would normally shun. “People trust in Viggo’s taste. They’re curious to see his latest work, and a film which might surprise or disappoint some people, but it will broaden, I hope, the range of people who see my films, compared to previous works,” Lisandro Alonso told Variety at Mar del Plata.

Moving into production, Mortensen is also helping to make intelligent films for adult audiences which rarely get made these days in the U.S., Paul Shrader reamrked at Mar del Plata.

Here, Mortensen talked last Novemeber about his producer’s role, providing music for “Jauja,” and bringing an unconventional film to wider audiences:

After Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” now in post, do you have any other new film lined up?

Since finishing “Captain Fantastic,” – we had four days to go – I had to go to Venice to present “Far From Men” and the day after we finished I was on a plane to Toronto and have not stopped doing press since the end of August. I’ve had a couple of interesting offers but I would have had to start right now, and I couldn’t betray “Jauja” or the French movie “Far From Men.” Your job as an actor is to speak to people like you – journalists – and try to help people be aware that the movie exists, especially if you feel good about it, as I do about “Jauja.”

You also produced “Jauja” and “Far From Men.” Is that something that you would like to do more, or was it just to help get the films made?

In the case of “Jauja,” it did help get the film made – the fact that I participated and was an investor in the movie. But in the case of “Far From Men,” it was more the normal thing: Being there as an actor helped raise the money. I wanted to be producer on it, as I had did for the first time with Ana Piterbarg’s “Everyone Has a Plan,” the first movie I did here in Argentina. If you are professionally responsible, then you work very hard preparing the movie because you’re only going to get one chance to shoot it. You just turn over every stone, even if there are things you don’t end up using. Just burn as much as you can, work as hard as you can during the shoot, then you go out and promote the movie. And that’s a long period. For movies like “Jauja,” or “Everybody Has a Plan,” or “Far From Men,” each of these movies, from the moment I said “yes” to our finishing shooting, that’s a couple years. This is three years. It takes time. So I’m awfully careful before committing.

And your reasons for producing….

The reason that I started doing that with Ana’s movie, and this movie and the French movie is to do what I do anyway: to help the director get his or her movie made the way they want to. I have the same function as an editor at Perceval Press, a company that I’ve been with since 2002: I like to help authors, and in the case of our press, poets, and photographers, to present their work the way they would like to, to contribute and give them my opinion and to make sure that it looks right, that it’s what they imagined. It’s something that they wouldn’t have got published that way somewhere else, if at all. And with a director like Lisandro, I just wanted to make sure that I had the authority, after the fact, when the movie is made, to make sure that the right skills are used, the ones he wants, that the title that he wants is respected in all territories, that the poster is right – you know all these things that you don’t think about when you watch the movie: On a movie like this, for example, because I speak and write Danish, to make sure that the subtitles are right, that the translations are right, the translations for Cannes, the French subtitles, and the ones in English. All these things, as a producer, you have a right to. It’s really your responsibility to make sure that it’s okay. As an actor I can give my opinion, but the producer might say: “O.K., but don’t butt in.” So it’s really to protect the vision of the director. That’s one of my main reasons for wanting to produce.

And you liked the idea of adding music…Lisandro doesn’t normally have music in his films…

Lisandro said to me: “I don’t usually do this, but I was thinking there are three or four moments of transition in this movie, where something happens in terms of linear time.” The first really important one in the movie is when Captain Dinesen sleeps under the stars and the next day when he wakes up, the climate, the landscape, he himself, even though he doesn’t realize it, have changed. Everything’s different. And Lisandro felt that it would help that transition to have some music, something lyrical. But he said that we didn’t have any budget at all to go find what he was thinking about, so he needed somebody to propose something. And I said there is a guitar player named Buckethead whom I’ve known for years, I’ve done lots of records with him. A lot of the music is kinda strange, but some of it is pretty lyrical. It has a sort of circular quality that would suit the story. I sent Lisandro ten songs, and he picked the one you hear and I thought “great choice.” I wouldn’t have thought of it, but he could see that. It was one of those things that happen.

The transition is where Captain Dinesen wakes up, he might have fever, and meets an old woman in a cave. Or he might be totally deranged by then and imagining everything…

You don’t know. He sees a dog. Is this a real dog? Lisandro said something interesting at the Mar del Plata press conference, which was also a Q & A with the audience. So journalists had to sit there and wait while someone’s grandmother, from Mar del Plata, who had paid her money, and stood in line, asked their question. Then Lisandro turned the question round and said: “O.K., what do you guys think? The dog is real or not? Is the woman in the cave real or not?” And there were differences of opinion. It was very interesting and entertaining, and I think healthy.

I’ve heard people say: Clearly it’s a dream dreamt by a girl at the close of the 21st century, because you have the same dog in Dinesen’s story then in the modern part. I say, well, it’s just a dog you know. It could be a dream of a wooden soldier.

For some of the audience, it could have been one of the first times that they see a film with their friends and do not agree even about what’s happened in the film…

I know. You just can’t dismiss the movie on the grounds that it’s illogical, it makes no sense; you can’t say that. But people have a healthy debate. What I found presenting the movie in Cannes, Toronto and San Sebastian, New York and here, is that in all kinds of different audiences, Spanish, Anglo-Saxon, Canadian, Argentine, French, they all have different points of view. There are very few movies in the course of a festival that stay with you in a very clear way, where the next day, in the middle of all your responsibilities writing about other movies, and meeting your deadlines, there are very few movies that stay with you, where new questions come to you about the film you saw maybe a day or two ago. And that’s happened with “Jauja.” And that in itself is very valid. You could see that from the audience at Mar del Plata, from the questions, from the discussions that they were having amongst themselves.

Was that one reason why you wanted to do the movie, because of Lisandro’s vision, which does not impose a single “right” interpretation on a narrative? Rather like life in many ways, you’re not quite sure why people do things.

Not everything can be explained. And he doesn’t feel a need to impose any intellectual point of view. He really makes his own movie and there are lots of things that he does subconsciously. But he’s very clear at the same time, like with the music, also with the placements where he and Timo Salminen put the camera. Lisandro can choose for an editor to cut on a person when he’s speaking. But it works. It was perfect for this movie, perfect for the story he was telling. He’s extremely sensitive to realistic behavior, to the intangible. Very few directors could make the leaps that he makes in this movie, these transitions, without it seeming really awkward. The transitions in terms of the text, the poetic language…

Isn’t one of your roles as a producer on this film to allow that vision to be seen, which is a very different vision from most directors’?

That’s the effort. That’s why we’ve been traipsing around the globe since May in Cannes, and now I’m going down to Buenos Aires and other places. And it’s great. I’m really happy to be introducing people to his work. There are a lot of people, friends of mine, whom I invited to the screenings in Toronto, Los Angeles’ AFI, and I have been surprised at the number of people that I didn’t think would like it at all, who really did, and now want to see those other movies from him. I’m happy to have been in some way instrumental in that.

Corrections were made to the name of the lead character and his nationality, Nov. 26, 9:17 am