Viggo Mortensen’s Film Lessons From His Mom and David Lean

After 35 years in the industry, Viggo Mortensen makes his writing-directing debut with “Falling,” which has been on the festival circuit and is starting to make the rounds in Oscar season. It certainly merits awards consideration in multiple categories.

In his review from Sundance, Variety’s Peter Debruge wrote the film is “More deeply felt than your average American debut,” and praised Mortensen’s work as writer-director and actor. The film centers on a family dealing with the growing dementia of the patriarch. Debruge adds, “Lance Henriksen gives the performance of his career.”

Mortensen has been learning his job starting with his bigscreen acting debut in Peter Weir’s 1985 “Witness.” The list of world-class filmmakers he’s worked with includes Jane Campion (“Portrait of a Lady”), David Cronenberg (three pics, including “Eastern Promises”), Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), plus Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Gus Van Sant. That’s an impressive resume for any actor, but it’s also a fertile learning field for anyone who’s paying attention.

However, Mortensen tells Variety: “When it came to shooting ‘Falling,’ I never thought about anybody else’s style. As an actor, I always do a load of research; I don’t want to leave anything unexamined. But then I put it to one side, so I can be open to what’s happening on the set. I’m the same as a director.”

Mortensen also speaks of two seminal influences: David Lean and his mother.

When he was 4 and living in Buenos Aires, his mom took him to see “Lawrence of Arabia.” He loved it and says, “At intermission, she talked to me about what was being shown and what they didn’t show us. We always had those conversations.”

Variety’s Dec. 19, 1962, review said the “Lawrence” screenplay “does not offer any opinion or theory about this man or his motivations … Nobody has been able to do more than guess.” So while the 228-minute “Lawrence” may seem unlikely fare for a 4-year-old, Mrs. Mortensen knew what she was doing.

“As an audience member,” the filmmaker says, “I didn’t want people to tell me what was going on; I wanted to talk about it and think about it.”

His instincts were affirmed when he met Agnès Varda shortly before she died. “I told her I was trying to direct a film. She said, ‘Don’t show the audience everything. Make them want to see things for themselves.’ She put into words what I’ve always wanted to do.”

On March 29, 2019, Debruge wrote a posthumous appreciation of Varda, including her “Vagabond,” saying, “The movie expresses no judgment, only curiosity and empathy, two words that define Varda’s approach.” That was her method to filmmaking, and it turned out to be Mortensen’s as well.

His saga about making “Falling” illustrates the state of indie films. “The first time I tried to make a movie was 24 years ago, with a completely different story. I’ve tried again repeatedly, and it took two or three tries to get ‘Falling’ started. Until two weeks into shooting, we didn’t have enough money to finish it. The shooting schedule went from seven weeks to five, which
is very little. But we were organized.

“Maybe the waiting was a good thing. I learned from those directors in terms of preparation — Campion, Cronenberg and the rest taught me that you can never prepare too much or too early for a shoot. By waiting, I probably was able to avoid a lot of beginner’s mistakes.

“On the first day, I told the cast and crew: ‘A good idea comes from anyone, anytime. We’ve got one shot to tell the story, so any idea helps; we’re all making this movie together.’ I learned that from the best directors I worked with. I’ve been very lucky.”

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