Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Viggo Mortensen: ‘Often people are desperate, so I do what needs to be done’

Viggo Mortensen is in his socks – he likes to go shoeless whenever he can – and is making a cup of tea. If this does not seem a thing of note, you’ve never watched Viggo brew. He carefully portions out green leaves from his own pouch into his personal silver vessel – a modern version of the South American mate gourd – then decants the water into a silver Thermos, adding the leaves to brew. “I’m ready to go,” he says, pulling his vessel close.
I mean, obviously he’d have been ready to go five minutes ago if he’d just dunked a tea bag in a cup with a slosh of milk like most of us do, but it’s clear Viggo likes to do things on his own terms and to his own very precise standards. You just have to look at his CV to see that. Viggo became an internationally fancied and bankable star as Aragorn, king of men, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy starting back in 2001. It’s a reputation he’s cemented over the years, in large part with another trio of films – A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method– all directed by David Cronenberg. Though he received an Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises in 2007, Viggo never capitalised on the earning potential the LOTR franchise offered. In fact, that idea is baffling to him. He says he only took the role of Aragorn to please his son, Henry, who was around 10 years old at the time.
Given the choice, what Viggo wants above all else is to tell a story he thinks is interesting. “I don’t really look for movies based on the budget or the nationality or the language,” he has said. “I just want to be in movies that I wouldn’t mind seeing 10 years from now.” Looking at the films he has been in since he made his name, it’s fair to say his vision of enduring storytelling is not one seen in the romcoms and blockbusters that typically make for box-office hits.
Jauja, the film we have met to discuss, is possibly one of his least commercial yet. It’s an Argentinian-Danish movie directed by Lisandro Alonso, an award-winning young director, and co-written by Alonso with Fabian Casas, an Argentinian poet. “Jauja” is a Spanish word with Arabic origins which roughly translates to Neverland. After he’s patiently clarified the pronunciation (“How as in how you doing? And huh as in uh-huh,”) Viggo explains that the promise of Jauja was used as propaganda by the Spaniards who conquered South America in the 16th century.
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings: Two Towers.
‘What else would I do?’: as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. Photograph: AP
“It was hard to convince people to go there. You’d either die on the way or die when you got there. You never got to go home. So they tried to make it sound like the ideal place. Something you’d dream about seeing or achieving. But you never really get what you’re looking for, do you?”
The film is about a Danish captain stationed in a remote Patagonian army outpost. He’s travelling with his 15-year-old daughter and when she vanishes into the pampas, he goes on a desperate quest to find her. Viggo stumbles and sweats through the unforgiving landscape and a series of surreal encounters. At one point he follows a dog through the mountains – chasing not his own tail, but someone else’s.
Viggo’s lack of physical vanity has become a recurring theme in his work. On film he’s been beaten up (Eastern Promises), starved (The Road) and kicked in the balls (A History of Violence), but he can’t imagine work being any other way. “What else would I do?” snorts the 56-year-old. “Those films where I’m the hero with a 20-year-old girlfriend? I go for what needs to be there. Often people are desperate or ridiculous rather than heroic, so I do what needs to be done.”
Jauja is a beautiful film – lit like a Technicolor classic and surprisingly funny – but also baffling. I went to the loo during the screening and, when I returned, for a moment I thought I’d walked into the wrong auditorium because the film had changed so completely. “It’s nonlinear,” agrees Viggo. “But even people who resisted it and didn’t think they liked it find there’s a resonance on an intellectual level. You can get existential about it. What’s it about? Well, you keep thinking about it. Most movies don’t do that.”
Viggo’s animation and enthusiasm as he talks about the film are contagious. He’s very smart and articulate and his intensity is interestingly at odds with his laidback appearance – his scruffy jeans and faded San Lorenzo football shirt (Viggo is a huge football fan and the Buenos Aires team was his first love), and the ratty friendship bracelets that slither up and down his arm as he drinks his tea.
Viggo Mortensen in The Road with Kodi Smit-McPhee.
In The Road with Kodi Smit-McPhee. Photograph: Allstar
Jauja is also a personal project for Viggo. Though he was born in New York, he grew up in Argentina with his American mother Grace, Danish father Viggo Sr, and younger brothers Walter and Charles. His father worked as an agricultural manager and, though they mainly lived in Buenos Aires, they also spent time in Chaco in the rural north. “We’d go on camping holidays over the Christmas holidays in the area where Jauja was shot, just our sleeping bags in the car,” he says. “It made me really happy to be on a horse in that landscape again.”
Viggo left South America aged 11, when his parents divorced and he moved to upstate New York with his mother and siblings. The move was a shock: to lose that Spanish culture, the TV, the football. He and his brothers mainly spoke Spanish, but then they were living near Quebec. He adapted – learned some French, started supporting the Montreal Canadiens hockey team – but it seems unsurprising that he now mainly lives in Madrid with his girlfriend, actor Ariadna Gil (best known here for the film Pan’s Labyrinth).
Working on Jauja made him think about his father a lot. “In the film I speak Spanish with a thick Danish accent, copying my father. I was raised there so there were connections for me in terms of culture, language and landscape. I knew those things would be assets for me and for Lisandro.” Did it make him think about his parents’ split? “Maybe subconsciously. I certainly thought a lot about our life there.”
Even without the personal connection, Viggo approaches each film as a learning experience. “Making a movie for me is not always about being paid, but it is a new university course. There’s no limit to what you can learn. I mean, it’s perfectly fine for an actor to say I’m just going to learn the lines and get on the horse, but I happen to enjoy digging deeper. In this case, I already knew about 19th- century Danish history and the wars the captain would have fought, so I went to Denmark and met with antiquarians and military historians. I found the uniform he would have worn and also picked out a medal. It was only given to soldiers who served in 1848-64 against the Prussians.”
Viggo Mortensen with his son Henry.
With his son Henry. Mortensen says he only took the role of Aragorn to please Henry who was 10 at the time. Photograph: Matt Baron/Rex
For Viggo, this research is pretty superficial. He slept outside in his costume for the first few days of the LOTR shoot. For the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road he went one further and slept outside in sub-zero temperatures wrapped in nothing but a tarpaulin and always made sure his shoes were soaking wet before filming, for added discomfort. While researching Good (2008), in which he plays a German professor working with the Nazis, he drove more than 1,000 miles around Germany and Poland visiting concentration camps. To get under Freud’s skin for A Dangerous Method, he not only learned to write like the psychoanalyst but also bought first editions of the books that the good doctor would have had on his study shelves.
“I just think,” explains Viggo, “that the more realistic and specific you are with the details, the more universal the story becomes.”
Much of Viggo’s LOTR money was sunk into Perceval Press, an independent publishing company (named after the knight who stars in his favourite part of the myth of the Holy Grail). Perceval produces albums, art books and poetry collections by obscure artists, and the company recently diversified into film with Jauja, the second film it has been involved in.
Viggo’s own art books, poetry and albums are also available on Perceval. He was a published poet before he set up the imprint and his art had already been shown around LA (you can see his paintings in the 1998 film A Perfect Murder. He played an artist and, of course, created the work for the film). Perceval’s biggest profits come from Viggo’s own artistic output – though whether that’s because his fans really love his spoken-word albums or because they fancy him and would buy anything he released is hard to tell. His latest album, Under The Weather, came out last month, dedicated to feminist author Ti-Grace Atkinson and Albert Camus.
Perceval Press’s website is interesting even if you’re not in the mood for buying a book of paintings of endangered species by an Iranian artist. It’s a repository for Viggo’s political and world views, too. He regularly posts features, news stories and poems which he thinks will interest visitors. Currently the home page is a jumble of pieces about Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election and climate change.
Viggo Mortensen in his latest film, Jauja.
‘The more realistic and specific you are with the details, the more universal the story becomes’: in his latest film, Jauja. Photograph: Rex
“Putting that stuff up there makes me pay attention,” he says. “I concentrate when I’m reading the newspaper in case there’s something I can take from it. It’s like having a camera. I’ve carried a camera since I was a teenager and whether you’re using it or not, it means you look at composition, think about what around you would work well in the frame. The pieces on Perceval are just things I think are interesting to read. I’ll put up pieces I don’t agree with – conservative, right wing – if I think they’re well written. I’m not saying what I think, I’m asking questions and giving you the opportunity to ask yourself how you relate to this.”
This is a nice idea, but not strictly true. Viggo has always been fairly outspoken: no one would be in any doubt about his left-wing political affiliations. “Yeah, I’ve been called antisemitic and I got so much shit for speaking out against the Iraq invasion, but it was a huge waste of material resources and manpower.”
One of my favourite stories about Viggo comes from 2005. He heard that Californian mother Cindy Sheehan had driven her motorhome to Texas and parked outside George Bush’s family home in the hope of talking to the president about her son, who had been killed in Iraq. Viggo decided to show his support, so he flew out of LA and turned up unannounced at her motorhome with fresh vegetables, mineral water and a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (to read, in case she had to wait around before meeting Bush). He only spoke to Sheehan for 20 minutes because he had to go back to LA to pick Henry up from school. Sheehan said she was a bit surprised when Aragorn turned up on her doorstep, but she appreciated the gesture. Viggo dedicated his next album, Intelligence Failure, to her.
You have to admire Viggo’s intentions, no matter what you think of the end results. Whether he’s stumbling through a desert looking for life’s answers, bringing his own tea set to an interview or flying across the country for a 20-minute chat, the man knows what he wants. As we finish, I tell him I think he has a pretty nice life – he basically gets to do all the things he enjoys. He shrugs: “Yeah, but if people weren’t interested in that stuff, I’d be doing it anyway. You just have to go ahead and do it, don’t you?”
Jauja is in cinemas now

Monday, March 9, 2015

Holy help: what Octavia Spencer can learn from other movie Gods

This weekend saw the news that Oscar winner Octavia Spencer will be taking on one of the most powerful roles in Hollywood: God. The star of The Help has been attached to the adaptation of a best-selling Christian thriller called The Shack, about a man who receives a note from God concerning his missing daughter.
It’s a role that Spencer is already “daunted” by. The actress, next to be seen in this month’s dystopian sequel Insurgent, says she has “huge shoes to fill” and finds the opportunity “overwhelming”.
Physical godly manifestations have been thin on the ground in recent years, despite a huge uplift in the number of faith-based movies, such as Heaven Is for Real and Son of God, and even Ridley Scott’s big-budget epic Exodus: Gods and Kings used the voice of an 11-year-old boy rather than an on-screen actor.
Given the fervent fanbase for the book (it’s sold over 18 million copies worldwide) and the actors who have already inhabited the role (Morgan Freeman, John Huston, erm, will.i.am), she has reason to be nervous. But what can she learn from other movie portrayals of God?

The wisdom of Morgan Freeman

An almighty act to follow
An almighty act to follow
In Bruce Almighty, and less memorably Evan Almighty, Morgan Freeman’s take on the omnipotent creator was as Morgan Freeman-y as you’d expect, and for all the very best reasons. His commanding yet soothing voice and bottomless pot of charisma served the part well, and he was easily the best part of two comedies that deserve to be remembered for approximately nothing else. But while his performance might have gone down well with the masses, some Christians were less impressed, thanks to the film’s “unscrubbed framework” and “questionable content”. This should serve as a reminder for Spencer not to make any chocolate pies during production.

The helpfulness of Steve Coogan

Religious ecstasy
Religious ecstasy
While the appearance of God in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People might be another displeasing portrayal for many Christians, things could have been a lot worse, given what happens in the rest of the film. Steve Coogan takes on dual roles in the drug-fuelled Madchester biopic as Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson and God, seen by Wilson on a rooftop after a particularly strong joint. He offers a stream of pragmatic business advice and musical opinion, including praise for Shaun Ryder and the Smiths. Given the tortured protagonist of Octavia Spencer’s upcoming thriller, let’s hope she can provide some equally useful input, especially if it involves her calling Mick Hucknall’s music “rubbish” all over again.

The subtlety of Alanis Morissette

She's got the whole world in her pocket.
She’s got the whole world in her pocket. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Channel Four Films
When news hit that Kevin Smith’s Dogma would feature sweary female rocker Alanis Morissette in the role of God, there was an expectation, and an associated fear from Catholic groups, that the casting would result in offence. But the small role was surprisingly dialogue- and angst-free, and Morissette, after understandably killing Ben Affleck’s fallen angel, comes off as actually pretty charming. The decision to lose the booming voice so often seen in films such as The Ten Commandments made for a refreshing change, and although The Shack is mainly focused on the conversations with God, Spencer would be wise to avoid loud histrionics. Plus it never hurts to feature an exploding head.

The kindness of George Burns

Burns in heaven
Burns in heaven. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
At the age of 80, George Burns was an unlikely choice to play the almighty in the comedy Oh God! but his portrayal of God as a sweet-natured grandparent was a big success. It played into what people wanted to see – benevolent rather than destructive – and the film was followed by two sequels and rumours of a remake, with both Betty White and Ellen Degeneres attached. While a compassionate grandmother might be a bit more of a stretch, Spencer could easily pull off a loving aunt.

The otherworldliness of Val Kilmer

Talk like an Egyptian.
Talk like an Egyptian
While last year’s underwhelming epic Exodus: Gods and Kings might have given us a glossy three-dimensional take on the classic story, the tale had already been told with far more skill on a much smaller budget in 1998’s animated musical The Prince of Egypt. In the burning bush scene, the voice of God appears to Moses as a more ethereal version of his own voice, both originating from Val Kilmer. It’s a smart idea, as it helps to make the advice seem like it comes from Moses’s conscience. Kilmer manages to be commanding and godly yet still mysterious. Spencer’s soothing voice could suit this style rather well, although a lack of musical numbers would be a most welcome diversion.

So in summary...

Thou shalt be wise like Morgan Freeman
Thou shalt not indulge in potty humour
Thou shalt provide helpful advice about how terrible Mick Hucknall’s music is
Thou shalt not be shy about exploding at least one head
Thou shalt act like a kind, older relative
Thou shalt not allow any musical numbers involving Mariah Carey

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Astro Boy film in the works for makers of The Lego Movie

Astro Boy is about to be given a reboot by Australian animation studio Animal Logic.
The Australian animation studio Animal Logic is set to make a live-action superhero film, based on the popular manga character Astro Boy. The makers of past animated hits The Lego Movie and Happy Feet, have signed a deal with Japan’s Tezuka Productions.
Chief executive Zareh Nalbandian said the plan was to create a “Marvel-style” franchise that would be “at the very convergence of live-action, animation and visual effects”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
“There are very few characters in the entertainment world like Astro Boy that haven’t already been brought to the big screen in a live-action movie,” said Nalbandian.
Authored and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy was originally titled Mighty Atom, and was a popular Japanese manga series in the 1950s and 60s. The character found new life in the following decades as an animated television show.

The series is based on a robot boy modelled after the late son of his inventor Doctor Tenma, who passed away in a car accident. Astro Boy quickly proves to have special powers and skills that he uses to fight crime and injustice, often defending humans from other more maniacal robots.
A 2009 film adaption of the character was co-produced by American, Hong Kong and Chinese film companies. Called Astro Boy, it had a US$65m budget, featured the voices of Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell, but outside of China it did not fare well at the global box office.
Animal Logic is one of the world’s busiest animation and visual effects studios having won several awards for its work in The Lego Movie. Fans have suggested it was snubbed by the Oscars when the film failed to receive an Academy award nomination for best movie.
Founded by Nalbandian and Chris Godfrey in 1991, the company’s film credits include the Matrix series and, most recently, The Great Gatsby, Unbroken, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Rover.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Testament of Youth: battles of Brittain make for moving biopic

Testament of Youth (2014)
Director: James Kent
Entertainment grade: B
History grade: C-
Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences and losses in the first world war was published in 1933 as Testament of Youth. It became an instant bestseller and remains a classic.

Youth

Before the war, Vera’s main obstacles are parents and boredom. She is played brilliantly by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair). Her parents don’t like the idea of her going to university: they fear that if she becomes a bluestocking she will never find a husband. This is more or less accurate. Brittain was bored out of her mind during her girlhood in the beautiful but snobbish and conservative environs of Buxton. “Even at 18, a mentally voracious young woman cannot live entirely upon scenery,” she wrote, adding that she would have been in danger of “dying of spontaneous combustion” had she not had her diary to write and an interesting curate in a nearby village. The film’s screenplay might be accused of losing a little of Brittain’s wit in its translation from page to screen, but it captures her courage and sharpness well enough.
Testament of Youth
‘A mentally voracious young woman cannot live entirely upon scenery’ … Testament of Youth. Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films

Romance

Just as Vera is shouting at her father (Dominic West) that she doesn’t want a husband, in walks hunky young Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). “Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron. All these romantics aren’t good for you, you know,” he says, rather patronisingly, as he helps her collect the books she has hurled out of a window in a fit of teenage angst. The meeting seems contrived, and it is – the two really met at dinner, according to Brittain’s memoir, and there was no book-throwing rage or patronising putdown. Both Vera and Roland are due to go to Oxford, until Roland announces – when they meet on the station platform to go up together – that he’s joining the army instead. The film has, understandably, dramatised this moment, which in real life was communicated by letter. “I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation,” the real Roland Leighton wrote. “I feel that I am meant to take an active part in this war.”
Alicia Vikander with Kit Harington in Testament of Youth
‘All these romantics aren’t good for you, you know’ … Kit Harington as Roland Leighton with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain

More romance

The film’s recreation of Roland and Vera’s courtship is sweetly done, and the scene in which he leaves for the war – with a train full of desperate, heartbroken women saying goodbye to the men they love – is extremely moving. It is fictionalised, though. “We never kissed and never said a word,” wrote the real Brittain of seeing Leighton off for France.

Heartbreak

Vera cannot live a life of scholastic vegetation either, and leaves Oxford to become a nurse. Christmas approaches, and Roland gets leave to come home and marry her. Vera’s parents are with her at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and she is already wearing a white suit – “Just half an hour to go!” Then a telephone call comes through. She thinks it must be Roland, but it is his sobbing mother (Anna Chancellor), with the news that he is dead. In reality, there was no wedding scheduled – just a small reunion. The call from Roland’s mother came on the morning of 27 December 1915, as Vera was getting up.

War

The film misses out the real Brittain’s period of nursing in Malta, skipping to 1917 when she travelled to France to work in a field hospital. She is put to work nursing German prisoners of war. One day, a huge number of British casualties come in. As she walks out of the hospital hut, the camera pulls back to show rows of stretchered men laid out on the ground. It pulls back and back, showing more and more as Vera picks her way between them. This isn’t in Brittain’s book, though film buffs will recognise the shot from the famous moment when Scarlett O’Hara walks through lines of injured soldiers in Gone With the Wind. Told that her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), is among the wounded, she searches frantically for him among the bodies. She finds him, and carefully nurses him back to health. This is fictional. The real Edward Brittain was not wounded in France, nor was he nursed by his sister.
Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth.
Testament of Youth charts the origins of Brittain’s pacifism Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films

Verdict

A fine and moving film, if heavy-handed in places. The screen version of Testament of Youth gilds the lily of Vera Brittain’s memoir – though fans of the book may well feel it didn’t need so much extra adornment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

George Lucas: I haven't seen Force Awakens trailer

The teaser video for JJ Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is set to be the most-viewed trailer of all time, but George Lucas hasn’t seen it
from the upcoming film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," expected in theaters on Dec. 18, 2015from the upcoming film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," expected in theaters on Dec. 18, 2015
Lightsabers ain’t what they used to be … JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photograph: AP/LucasFilm/Disney

It is on course to be the most-viewed trailer of all time, with an estimated 52m views in its first four days online. But the man who created the long-running Star Wars space saga, George Lucas, has not yet taken the time to view the teaser for new entry The Force Awakens, reports pagesix.com.
Lucas told the site he would wait until JJ Abrams’ film hits cinemas. The film-maker, who sold all Star Wars rights to Disney in a $4.05bn deal in October 2012, said he was “not really” curious about the new movie.
“I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t seen it yet,” pagesix.com quoted Lucas saying. Asked why, he replied: “Because it’s not in the movie theatre. I like going to the movies and watching the whole thing there. I plan to see it when it’s released.”
The internet has not been kind to Lucas since the release of the trailer on 28 November. Wags immediately reimagined the teaser with incongruous CGI aliens, in a reference to the remastered Special Edition versions of the original Star Wars trilogy.
One Funny or Die video even speculated over the film-maker’s miserable reaction to Abrams’ take on his creation. In the spoof commentary, Lucas and the “force ghost” of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker lament the addition of a new, three-pronged lightsaber and complain about the absence of Jar Jar Binks’ race, the Gungans, in the teaser.