Why Viggo Mortensen wanted to explore dementia in directorial debut Falling
The Lord of the Rings actor's film is out this week.
Viggo Mortensen has watched people fade. The actor, known for starring in roles in The Lord of the Rings and Eastern Promises among other acclaimed films, releases his directorial debut Falling this week. The film also stars Mortensen as a middle-aged gay man trying to care for his dementia-addled father (Lance Henriksen), and is drawn from the actor-director's familial experience with the disease.
"It's a very personal story," Mortensen says. "When I started writing it, my mother had just passed away after she'd had dementia for a couple of years. I've seen it up close with quite a few people in my family. So I started writing down some stories I'd heard at her funeral. There were stories that were similar to ones I already knew, but some were the same story but told from a different point of view, which I thought was weird. How can people remember the same person, the same event, so differently?"
Mortensen continues, "it made me think about how subjective memory was. I thought that was interesting as a story, and then the way these events I was writing down in my notebook had to do with different time periods and points of view, I thought would make a good structure. I started writing it as a novella, and then I realized it was very visual, so maybe it should be a screenplay."
Mortensen said he's been trying to direct for years, but only now was he able to secure enough funding to get a film made. Even then, Falling went through a couple of stop-and-starts, where financial support would drop away at the last minute. Aside from Mortensen's own acting talent, this money crunch was a big reason why he appears in front of the camera as well as behind.
"Originally, it was not my idea to act in the movie. I had enough to do," Mortensen says. "But when I failed the first time to find the money and realized how difficult it was going to be, I thought, 'well I'm already working with Lance a lot, we already have a relationship of trust as actors.' And most of my character's scenes are with Lance. So I put on my producer hat like, 'well, Viggo is not going to cost us any money.'"
Mortensen continues, "it's years of work, so you want to cast it properly. We were very careful with all the casting and I thought I would be right for it. Selfishly speaking, I had the best seat in the house. I'm right there watching Lance build this crazy, beautiful, disturbing, upsetting rollercoaster of a performance."
The primary plot of Falling involves John (Mortensen) bringing his aging father Willis (Henriksen) out to his California home for medical check-ups and to scout possible homes for him to be closer to his family, which also includes John's husband Eric (Terry Chen) and sister Sarah (Laura Linney). But this storyline is intercut with flashbacks to earlier phases of their lives growing up on Willis' farm. It's pretty easy for the viewer to tell the difference, since Willis is portrayed by Sverrir Gudnason during these scenes and John by a trio of young actors, but the distinction is much less clear to Willis, who doesn't let dementia stop him from screaming at his family (often using homophobic or racist language) as if he's the only one who understands anything.
Dementia is certainly not untrodden territory for cinema. Julianne Moore won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2015 for her portrayal of an Alzheimer's patient in Still Alice, and just last year Josh Trank's Capone saw Tom Hardy portray the infamous gangster during his latter senile phase. But due to Mortensen's up-close-and-personal encounters with dementia, the director believes there are some important things films often get wrong about portraying the gradual memory loss.
"There have been other movies dealing with dementia over recent years, but in those, the person is often shown as being confused," Mortensen says. "But in my experience, they only get bent out of shape if you correct them. You're like, 'no Dad, you couldn't have had breakfast with Johnny, he died 35 years ago.' You do that and they're crushed, because that person dies for them anew. So I just wanted to show that what they're seeing and remembering is very real and very present to them, unless you mess with it."
Falling will be available for theatrical, digital, and on-demand viewing on Feb. 5.
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