Captain Fantastic Director Matt Ross on the Power of Wilderness and Gardening With Viggo

A Cannes-winning film takes on the good and the bad of life off the grid.
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A Cannes-winning film takes on the good and the bad of life off the grid.
Viggo Mortensen Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen stars in Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic. (Photo by Courtesy)

In Captain Fantasticintellectual-turned-survivalist Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six wilderness-raised, homeschooled children are forced to reenter society to attend their wife and mother's funeral after she kills herself. The film, which presents a view of off-grid life that's by turns beautiful and cautionary, won writer and director Matt Ross the prize for best directing at Cannes's Un Certain Regard section.We caught up with Ross (better known for his acting work on shows like Silicon Valley and Big Love) ahead of the movie's release on July 8 to talk about how the cast trained for the shoot, and his own relationship with nature.

BACKPACKER: I found Ben–Viggo Mortensen’s character–fascinating. On one hand he’s fully committed to this lifestyle that a lot of people today hold as an ideal: Ditch the iPhone, reconnect with nature, simplify. But he can also be tremendously arrogant and short-sighted. What inspired you explore a character like that?

Matt Ross: Well, I think we are all smart, complex beings, and I like movies that show me multidimensional characters. He‘s a flawed guy. I think he’s trying to do the best he can. I think his intentions are entirely honorable but he’s an imperfect person. The journey, in some ways, is the journey of a man who’s out of balance and comes to find a degree of balance, which I can only hope for all of us in life.

It sounds like this is a personal film for you. You spent part of your childhood living on communes yourself, right?

I did, yeah.

What was that like? And how did it stack up to what you portray in the movie?

Well, the environment I lived in was not single family. My mom had bought land with some friends, and maybe once or twice we lived in other places where you just paid rent. Everyone had a different story but they were largely artisans or craftspeople, people that wanted to do their work and live in harmony with nature in some way. Some houses had plumbing and electricity and some didn’t.

They were very, very isolated. We were something like 7 miles from a cement road, and 40 minutes, from the general store, an hour away from a town in the south.

I understand that you sent your cast to a wilderness survival school before you started filming.

Yeah, we did. We brought everyone a lot of skills that I wanted them to be acquainted with. Viggo has great experience, personally, with a lot of things his character does, so he needed almost no introduction. But everyone was doing rock climbing every day. All the kids were doing musical instruments, they were doing martial arts. The two teenage girls took a butchering class—they butchered a sheep—because in the film they catch a deer.

We also sent them to a wilderness skills camp in Washington state, where they learned basic skills like how to build a fire, build a shelter, identify edible plants. They slept out under the stars. My intention was for the cast to have some time to get to bond, and the children to begin to look at Viggo as their father and to trust him, which worked.

It sounds like you took great pains to make this setting believable, down to the set design being really workable for people who would want to spend a winter out in the woods. Do you want to talk a little about that?

I always said the movie takes place in the real world. It’s not a fairytale. So, as Viggo says, it needs to be credible. I had lived in environments like this, so I knew they existed.

I was home for Christmas one year and I bumped into a friend of mine from high school, and I told him about the movie I was going to make, and he said, oh, you know [our mutual friend] lives like that. So I called the guy. He lives in Washington state, he built his house in this surreal environment, completely off the grid, and we talked a great deal about how he did it

When I hired Russell Barnes, the production designer, he and I spoke a great deal about making sure that everything was absolutely truthful and functional. The first thing’s obviously their shelter: it was out in the middle of nowhere, what are you living in? The second thing is fresh water. We show their filtration system, we show how they get water, and where they get their food. They walk by salmon being smoked in very similar ways to the way native people smoke salmon. You see them jarring and canning.

Viggo planted the garden. We were very specific about the plants that can be grown in that environment, in that season. So it was all done at a granular level, it was all utterly accurate.

There have been a few high-profile films about the outdoors in the past few years— the adaptations of Wild and A Walk in The Woods come to mind. Do you think there’s a reason that we as a country have such an interest in films about the outdoor experience right now?

Maybe! I’m certainly interested in it. I think for me, personally, it comes from the reality of our hyper-connected modern world where so many of us are continually pulled into our technology. How often have you been in a public place where someone is yammering loudly on their phone?

It’s hard for us to be present a lot of the time and I think we are all, I am, continuously pulled towards things we’ve lost. Most people are helpless. I think that people should know how to build their own fire. I think they should know how to hunt and fish.

We’re disconnected from the natural rhythms of the earth, and disconnected from the seasons. When I go into the forest I feel connected to being a human being on a primal level again. I love being deep in the forest, and, and spending time swimming in the rivers or hiking or camping. There’s a real peace and tranquility that comes with being connected.