Viggo Mortensen is in San Sebastian this week with his directorial debut “Falling” to receive one of this year’s prestigious Donostia awards. On Thursday afternoon, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker held a press conference ahead of the evening’s award ceremony.
Admitting nervousness, the actor graciously thanked the festival for the double honor of the career achievement award and having his film included in the programming.
Asked about how his work as an actor affected his own filmmaking, he was surprised when a journalist pointed out that a horse in “Falling” shares a name used in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books, admitting that he had no idea.
“I wasn’t intentionally of copying anyone or anything, but I’m sure that when I wrote the script and told the story of the film, everything I’ve seen and lived influenced me,” he said.
Another “Lord of the Rings” connection was made by the assembled press when it was pointed out that director Peter Jackson appears in the end credits of “Falling.” When asked why, his response made it clear that his time spent working with the director had made a lasting impact.
“At that time New Zealand had a strong cinema history, but not making films like that,” he explained. “And perhaps nowhere in the world had a director confronted so many challenges. But he solved all the problems. It was like film school. We shot for a year and a half and then a bit more later and it was incredible to see how that crew and cast of learners turned into experts in so many things.”
Although he didn’t write the role of “Falling’s” John Peterson for himself, he agreed to fill the role to make the production possible.
“It wasn’t my idea to act initially, but it was necessary to finance the film,” he explained when asked about the difficulties of pulling double-duty as an actor and director on the same film. “But, we prepared so well early on that I knew what we were going do with the director of photography and the art director every day.”
“I was a bit more tired doing both,” he conceded, “but because of our preparation I could pay attention to what was going on in a scene and put my trust into my cast and crew while focusing on my role.”
Quick to change the subject away from his own on-screen contribution, he heaped praise on his critically acclaimed co-star Lance Henriksen.
“It’s a great performance from him, and I believe he deserves all the acclaim he gets, and I hope he receives more.”
Discussing what it takes for an actor to be a successful director, Mortensen speculated, “I think it depends what kind of actor you are. If you sit in a trailer reading lines all day, maybe you’ll be a fine actor, but being inflexible means you’ll miss out on things, you won’t learn things you need to know, at least from my point of view.”
Several questions were asked about the autobiographical nature of his screenplay, and how close events and characters in the film are to those from his own life. While he admitted that his own family history did influence the film, the script was entirely fiction.
“My father was American-Danish and lived through a great deal of oppression. He was country folk, five brothers, and that generation of men and their customs and family model affected how my father was with us,” he recalled. “So, he and Willis do have that in common.”
As for the future, Mortensen made it clear where his bread is buttered, while also expressing a desire to direct again.
“I want to keep directing, and I have to keep acting to make a living,” he explained. “’Falling’ isn’t going to make me a lot of money. It’s hard financing an independent film. But if people with money and influence like this one, maybe the next one will be easier. But I’m not counting on it.”
The day wrapped up with the filmmaker discussing parallels between the way the family in “Falling” deals with their abusive father, and trends he sees in global socio-political discourse.
“Answering toxic rhetoric with the same verbal violence might make you feel good in the moment, maybe you will even get approval from others or likes on social media, but then you’re using fire to fight fire. That doesn’t take us anywhere within a family or in society. A difficult thing the story deals with is the need to put in a maximum effort to try and communicate,” he explained.
“It’s not why I wanted to tell this story, but the family’s falling apart can be a microcosm of what is happening in the States or here in Spain. Politically and socially it’s even worse now during the pandemic. Politicians have flourished who play the double role of firefighters and arsonists.”
Not wanting to stop, or at least willing to keep going, Mortensen was forced to end the talk so the room could be sanitized before the day’s next event. Perhaps for the better, as the Donostia Award and a red carpet ceremony were waiting for him.