Viggo Mortensen on real-life dementia experience behind directorial debut Falling
Falling is a semi-autobiographical film by Viggo Mortensen. Georgia Humphreys hears how he – and co-star Lance Henriksen – brought the story to life
VIGGO Mortensen has had plenty of success as an actor. The 62-year-old Danish-American played Aragorn in the epic fantasy adventure trilogy The Lord of The Rings, received critical acclaim for his role in crime drama Eastern Promise, and had a leading role in 2018's Green Book, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year.
But getting his own movies made has been more of a struggle (he first wrote a screenplay around 24 years ago, he says, but never managed to get the financing together).
Until Falling, that is. His directorial debut, which he has also written and stars in, is a powerful, sensitive and complex story that explores universal themes of loss, pain, and the need to connect.
The feature follows John Petersen – played by Mortensen – as he confronts the strained relationship that he has with his father Willis (Lance Henriksen), who now has dementia.
John lives in Southern California with his partner Eric, and their adopted daughter Monica, while Willis is a farmer whose attitudes and behaviour belong to a far more traditional era and family model.
Over the past 40 years, events have torn the father and son apart – but the film sees their two very different worlds colliding when Willis travels to John's house for an indefinite stay.
The impact of dementia can be so painful to witness – as many viewers will sadly know all too well.
How emotional was it for Mortensen to explore on screen?
“Well, I had a lot of experience with it in my family; both of my parents, three of my four grandparents, aunts, uncles, my stepfather,” reflects the star, who is married to Spanish actress Ariadna Gil.
“And in some cases, like my stepfather and both my mother and father, I was up close and constantly there – and sometimes even in a care-giving role. And that helped me to write the character and to write the relationships; the template for what we were going to tell.”
He wanted to create a different depiction of dementia than what we usually see on screen, one closer to what he's experienced, he notes thoughtfully – and through not just acting, but also “the use of images, in terms of memories, sound and where sound is placed and mixed”.
Of the character of Willis, Mortensen says: “That's not a confused person, that's a person who is actually seeing and feeling these things.
“The confused ones are the observers, usually, in my experience.”
Meanwhile, 80-year-old Henriksen – known for Alien vs Predator and The Terminator – speaks movingly of how he approached playing Lance.
“I felt that because of the subject matter – the unsaid, unspoken subject matter, which is dementia – I was searching for what it is, and never found it, because I think if I had found it, I would have just shut down,” he said.
“But I felt that we were on a journey of discovery because it took so many forms. It took forms of fighting and affection and all of these wonderful things that humans are capable of; the good things and the bad things.”
Recalling personal experiences he drew on for the role, the New Yorker adds: “I had been, in my life and in my youth, surrounded by people that were absolutely unrestrainable and so I had the elements as an experience.
“I used that source because I didn't want to get caught acting, I wanted to live it.”
Henriksen and Mortensen worked together before on a movie called Appaloosa, and “there's a great affection” there.
“We hit it off there, and then when we started [Falling], we were able to be super honest with each other, all along the journey,” continues Henriksen.
“And so that's a big deal; that's maybe everything when it comes to telling a story.”
How well they collaborated was a refreshing experience, they both agree.
“I've learned from the many fine actors I've worked with – but especially the really good directors I've worked with – that communication is everything, you know, for not only putting the crew and the cast at ease and creating a positive, collaborative atmosphere on the set, but also just to get the most out of your story,” muses Mortensen.
“I've realised, watching the best directors, that they always make it clear that they are aware of the fact that a good idea can come from anyone at any time.”
Therefore, he made sure to keep an open mind throughout the whole process and encouraged people to ask questions and make suggestions.
Even the crew would come up to him and share personal feelings and experiences from their own family, and he believes it helped in them being honest in their performances (something which genuinely comes across when watching this film – the characters completely draw you in).
Henriksen brings up a very short, but very memorable line in the film, which is said by the young Willis (played by Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason) to John as a baby: “I'm sorry I brought you into this world so you could die.”
He reveals this was something he actually said in real life – when his daughter was born, and he was alone with her for the first time.
“What I meant to say to her was, ‘I'll be there for you no matter what' – so you can see that my life has been a little skewed…” he quips.
Mortensen jumps in here, explaining how Henriksen told him about this line, which comes early in the movie, during a conversation they had prior to shooting the film.
“He was trying to express something that's difficult to express; the intensity of love that one has for one's child,” suggests Mortensen.
He admits that, while he understood that what Henriksen was saying was coming from love – the idea that he was so moved and full of joy and responsibility for this human being – out of context, and without knowing the actor, the line is “terrible”, in a way.
He decided to ask Henriksen if he could use it in the script for the movie because it “lays down a marker”.
“It says, ‘OK, he [Willis] is not like most men, even at a young age – and this is not a movie story that's going to be told in a conventional way.”
:: Falling is in cinemas now