The mercenary nature of the menacing tech CEO that Matt Ross plays on Silicon Valley is the polar opposite of the ethics supporting his recent Sundance hit and Cannes winner, Captain Fantastic. The film is about a survivalist, Swiss Family Robinson Crusoe-type dad who raises his children off the grid in the middle of a forest but must reintegrate in society after the death of the kids’ mother. Ross wrote and directed Captain Fantastic as the follow-up to his first feature, 28 Hotel Rooms, an indie starring Chris Messina.
Matt Ross is the guy you’ve seen in everything from American Psycho to Big Love, but he’s been directing for just as long as he’s been acting. Because there’s nothing quite like the intimacy of two good friends and colleagues discussing their lauded careers, we asked Ross’s pal and colleague Chris Messina to interview Ross about the making of Captain Fantastic and the labyrinthine passage to a directorial career.
CHRIS MESSINA: First let’s talk about acting. I want to take it back to Juilliard, which is how you got here. I’m curious, because before Juilliard you were doing plays.
MATT ROSS: I had fantasies about being a filmmaker as a kid but I grew up in rural Oregon and that wasn’t anything that sounded realistic. But there were theaters and you could actually go and audition for plays, and I got involved in theater as a kid.
I directed some short films and I went to Juilliard. Afterwards, I took some film classes at NYU, and with the money I made as an actor, I made more short films. So I had been filmmaking for a long time before 28 Hotel Rooms, which was my first feature film and which you starred in—I don’t know if you remember it, you were very drunk most of the time.
CM: Yes, yes I was. Did you know when you were done with Juilliard that you were going to go study film?
MR: No, I was very conflicted while I was there. I wasn’t sure what path I wanted to take. I really enjoyed acting, but I was also conflicted because I loved making films. I loved putting together all of the different elements. So when I graduated from Juilliard, I went to NYU for film school almost immediately.
CM: Making those 10 short films and then editing them must have helped you a lot as an actor.
MR: It does. But in terms of directing—It’s just like being in theater, you observe the other directors and actors and some of it’s just behavioral or managerial; this person manages their crew and cast with a gentle, loving, and collaborative hand and that’s what I want to do, and this person is a monster, and that’s not what I want to do when I get a chance. Some of it is human behavior and not necessarily technical.
When you and I worked together we talked about it a lot. We read about certain directors and the way they worked, and we wanted to try that out. What is it like if we do silent takes, change the blocking, shoot the scene a couple different ways? I worked with some directors that did things that were really helpful like that. It should be standard operating procedure, and shocks me that’s it’s not, for directors to invite actors to set and work on the scene internally, thematically, emotionally, technically before the crew is there. Otherwise, everyone’s waiting around. Doing that work before you send the actors to makeup will save everyone an enormous amount of time.
CM: The directing that I’ve done was born out of inspiration from great directors and frustration from bad ones. Many times, where you’re blocking and rehearsing and talking and getting inside of the scene, you’re doing it in front of the entire crew so not only are you wasting their time, but it’s also a very vulnerable position.
MR: Yeah, and how do you give an actor a note? Do you announce, ‘Hey Chris, can you attack her more, you’re not giving her much to work with?’ Do you do it that way or do you come up and whisper quietly? And if you whisper quietly, do I tell the other actors what you’re doing or is it just for you?
Additionally, I understand the reason you have Video Village. It’s so the gaffer, producers, the other department can see the frame, see what’s in the frame, know what needs to be adjusted, and know what you’re photographing. That’s the positive of Video Village. The negative of Video Village is that it’s exposing the intimacy of the actors’ work to everyone at all times, and I feel like it’s not conducive to intimacy, frankly. I love the idea that you’re revealing yourself only in front of the other actors and perhaps me and only whomever’s in the room with you.
What ends up happening a lot of time with Video Village, the bigger the film and the slower the machine moves, is that people are sitting around, gossiping, on their phones and iPads, and casually checking the frame every once in awhile.
CM: Like a hangout.
MR: Like a hangout. And I think that’s in fact detrimental to the intimacy that you’re trying to achieve.
CM: So really, you were conscious and clocking these things. I know I certainly was. You were collecting things you didn’t like…
MR: Oh, yes. I remember in American Psycho, Mary Harron would give the dailies to the actors to watch in their trailer. The idea being, ‘We’re all here together, we’re all doing our thing.’
CM: So then where do you go, you’re having this nice career as an actor; you’re working pretty steadily, and making these short films. How do you get to say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to make a feature film.’ How did you begin 28 Hotel Rooms?
MR: The origin of this was I had written a screenplay thinking of our friend Sam Rockwell, and the character was a guy in a midlife crisis— a formerly successful artist, now a drunk, and heavily self- medicating. But it had a comedic element, and then at the very end he pulls himself out, in the smallest of ways.
Anyway I had originally written that with Sam in mind and I gave it to him he said ‘Look, I just played three drunks in a row and I don’t want to do it again.’ He recommended you. At that point I only knew you socially, we had drinks with Sam a half dozen times, but I didn’t really know you. And I remember our first meetings, you were interested in it but you kind of wanted it to be a different movie than the one I wrote.
And so then we talked about other movies we might do together. So we pitched some ideas back and forth, and 28 Hotel Rooms came out of an idea I believe I had, and then I wrote the initial screenplay and we workshopped it for months and months and months and tried to do that Cassavetes thing where we basically rewrote the screenplay out of what came out of improvisation. Cassavetes and Peter Falk would do improv and then Cassavetes would write down what they said, and then that became the script.
CM: That was so fun. We did it in [Alex of] Venice and we’d take breaks, and the light would be incredible as we walked and talked more about what the movie could be. It was a great collaboration.
MR: We wanted to break down the walls of how films are traditionally made, which is you show up and you do this script, this coverage, and then you move on, and this is your mark, and this is your line. We were more interested in playing improvisational jazz rather than an orchestra where it’s all about precision. We weren’t interested in precision.
CM: Okay, so 28 Hotel Rooms—finally you finish the edit, and it goes to Sundance in 2012. Had you already started writing Captain Fantastic? When did that start?
MR: I wrote Captain Fantastic around the time of that long edit. I gave it to Lynette Howell Taylor (who produced both Captain Fantastic and 28 Hotel Rooms) when we came back from Sundance in January 2012.
CM: So she reads it and goes, I love it. And then what happened? Did you start thinking about actors? Viggo [Mortensen], I would imagine, was high on your list. Was he in your mind when writing it? Were you writing it for someone?
MR: No, I was not, because you never know who you’re going to have access to, and if you do have access to those people, who’s going to be available? I didn’t have anyone specific in mind while writing, but when it came time to figure out who we were going to go to, Viggo was my first choice.
CT: He’s fucking fantastic in the movie and just an incredible actor, and you can see why. Is his commitment how you got the financing for the film?
MR: Yeah. Anything that is financed with independent financing usually becomes about the foreign presales and that is based on the actor (or actors), the leads, and their perceived foreign value.
CM: Captain Fantastic is a totally different beast; you’re dealing with a lot more people, a lot more opinions, etc.
MR: It is, and in many ways that was the biggest challenge for me directorially— just the scope and size and dealing with all the different personalities and needs. I was used to shooting in a nimble way where you could spend a lot of time experimenting and that went away very quickly when you have so many people to photograph, so many children to be aware of, the hours they can work, locations in the middle of nowhere, stunts, musical numbers, different states, all that stuff gives you very little time to do the work that you’re trying to do.
CM: The kids in the movie are all so good, true, and funny. You fall in love with all those kids. Even the children with experience who hadn’t had THAT much experience [were] able to hold the scene with Viggo. I’ve seen the film eight times, and I still cry watching it. I’m still very moved and very surprised.
MR: Part of the issue with casting is having the time needed. We saw kids from all over the world. People would send in tapes from every English-speaking country. I watched all of them. You’re not looking for some kind of perfect performance; you’re looking for a spirit or an energy. An essence. Because really when you get down to it, every kid is special. It’s hard. I found it very difficult. It took a lot of time, and there were a lot of near misses. It could have gone a lot of ways for a lot of the roles where it would have been different, though perhaps not better or worse.
The second part of that is you don’t get a performance from them. So much of it is creating an environment, which is not dissimilar to what you do with professional grown up actors, where people are comfortable and they can explore and play. The kids show up to play. You create an environment where it’s playful and fun and you can experiment and explore, and kids do that naturally. They don’t show up thinking, ‘This has to be good, this is my career and life.’ They show up to play bank robbers and cops. They’re there to play, and it’s a matter of harnessing it and pushing it in different directions.
CM: Francis Ford Coppola once told me that a director doesn’t ‘get a performance.’ Instead, you set a tone or an atmosphere in which one can be free and safe to explore. You did that on our film, and you must have done that here because I’ve heard all those actors talk about how spoiled they are having worked for you because it’ll never be like that again.
MR: That’s lovely to hear but I don’t think it’s unique, what I do.
CM: IT’S FUCKING UNIQUE, WHAT YOU DO! No, it is unique. I don’t think you invented it, but it’s an unfortunately rare technique.
MR: Sometimes the endeavor became how to get them to say the line how I heard it in my head. I think that’s a more common thing that we’re asked to do as actors. I still think even within that framework of asking people to hit a specific sequence of words you’re still allowing them to interpret.
That’s really what it comes down to: actors are interpretive artists, just like the costume designer, DP, production designer is. You want to create an environment where people are allowed to contribute and interpret. The worst thing you can say to an actor when they come to set is exactly how they should do the scene before you’ve even seen what their ideas are. You’re negating their interpretation, and, oftentimes, their interpretation may be 40 times cleverer, deeper, and more imaginative than you’d ever dreamed.
CM: When you locked the film, did you feel a sense of relief? Did you have a hard time stepping away from it? Did you feel relief in that, or were you blue?
MR: What was palpable was the feeling that I was unsure about whether I had made all the right choices. I was continuously haunted with the variations I had. Should I remove this scene? Do we need this moment?
We had a lot of material that was cut. Joe Krings’ [the editor] original cut was three and a half hours long and the final cut is about two hours. So, there’s an hour and a half of material that was shot that is not in the film. Some of those are full scenes, entire characters were cut out. A lot of the time, I was struggling with whether I made the right choices. The difficulty is that there’s a richer version of the movie but it’s not necessarily a better version.
CM: What do you mean “richer”?
MR: I mean I think there’s a more nuanced, much more complex version of the film that I had at maybe three hours, but it’s not better. It’s more like the film as miniseries in a way. You get to see things that maybe deepen your understanding of certain characters or moments, but as an experience that you watch over the course of one sitting, it taxes you, it’s exhausting. A lot of that information doesn’t create a more successful film viewing experience but it does deepen your understanding. And those are two different things, in a way, if that makes sense.
CT: So I’m curious, what do you do now? You have this movie that’s going around the world, and people are really loving it. What do you do now?
MR: Make a small movie that everyone hates and no one understands why I made it and it’s an utter failure?
I guess I’m searching for one of two things. One: I’ve read a lot of scripts to direct—scripts that I didn’t write—and a lot of them are excellent. Some of them feel relatively conventional or movies I’ve seen before, and I’d like to do something I haven’t necessarily seen before. Which makes me feel like I do have to write it myself. And the other thing is that it’s got to be meaningful or personal to me, and if you’re going to write that yourself, then it takes a long time to make a movie.
I just want to make something that’s worthy, worth two hours. So many things we watch and we’re like ‘Yeah, that was good,’ and we forget it. I want it to be worth the time and energy of everyone involved. So I’m trying to find that thing. I want to have an experience in the theater that’s both intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving and takes me to a world I don’t know.
CM: It takes a lot out of you to make a movie. It is a beating, I found. It’s beautiful, but it’s really fucking hard and whatever you’re committing to in this very moment to say ‘I’m making this movie,’ that’s your baby for awhile. This film is really being talked about and loved all around. If I told you that you were going to Cannes to win a directing award, would you believe it?
MR: No, I wouldn’t. I think it’s hard to see, when it’s your own life, I’m probably one of my biggest critics, I think everything I do is shit. I’m always trying to prove to myself that I’m not shit and so the only way to do that is to do more work and try and get better. I also want to learn to enjoy it while I’m doing it. Because you can’t really hold the perceived success or failure in your hands.
What I’m saying is, you have to get to a place where you’re satisfied. It’s like when you go on an audition as an actor. You go on an audition and even if they don’t choose you but you say, ‘Look, I was really prepared for that, I showed what I would do, I took some chances. I really took a lot of time and put my best foot forward.’ And you know when you did well. You know! And I feel that as a filmmaker too. When I get to the place where I feel that I’ve done the best that I could then there’s a satisfaction there.
CM: For me and the movie I directed, Alex of Venice, there was nothing that compared to fighting through a scene. That’s when I was most alive, most happy, I had purpose, we were all working as one, fighting for the same cause. Remind me of this when I’m bitching to you later about something else, that nothing quite compares to the actual moment of ‘yes, yes, let’s try that, let’s go there.’
MR: I always say the business of being an actor is very difficult but there’s great joy in actually doing the job. It’s so hard to get the job. The waiting in between is very difficult, and the jockeying for position is very difficult. How you’re perceived and how you want to be perceived is not always the same. There’s limited resources and too many people for those jobs. But when you’re actually doing it, and all systems are firing and you love working with the director and you love the script and love the other actors, it’s flow, pure flow, and you enjoy it. And you’re always searching for a way to go back to that place.
CM: I’m not alone here, I look forward to many more of your films, and I hope to audition for the waiter in the next one.
MR: Oh yes, there’s a great part. He doesn’t speak and he’s wearing a mask, actually a bag over his head…
CM: I want it. It’s mine. I’ll send you a tape tonight of myself, just so you can see me. With a bag over my head.
MR: Okay but we really do need you to audition—
CM: No, no, that’s fine!
MR: I’m going to send you about 12 scenes, they’re all about 20 pages, and I need you to be off-book. I just need to see some different things.
CM: Of course! And does it matter what kind of bag is over my head? Paper or plastic?
MR: Try a bunch of different ones. We just don’t know at this point.
CM: I appreciate you thinking of me for this.
MR: Once you deliver the audition, I’ll tell you we’ve cast someone else. The moment you send the tape, after you’ve spent a week on it—
CM:—then you’ll tell me Mark Ruffalo has the part?
MR: Yeah, or someone.
CM: At least for this week, I’ll have purpose. I love you Matt Ross.
MR: I love you Chris Messina. Thank you.
CM: Thank you.