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Carving With Words: Matt Ross on “Captain Fantastic”

Matt Ross will never forget the time he met Roger Ebert. It was after a screening of his directorial debut, “28 Hotel Rooms,” at the 2012 Sundance film Festival. As a lifelong fan of “Siskel & Ebert,” Ross was starstruck when the legendary critic approached him and said “lovely things” about his movie. “He then told me that ‘if you believe in the good, you’ve got to believe in the bad,’ which was his way of saying, ‘It’s just my opinion, don’t take it too seriously,’” said Ross during a recent Chicago visit. It will be impossible for audiences to have an indifferent opinion regarding Ross’ sophomore effort, “Captain Fantastic,” a film that has earned major accolades—including the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival—despite garnering extremely divided reactions from critics.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben, a father who has chosen to raise his six children in the wilderness. The incredibly advanced home schooling they receive and the hard life lessons they learn comprise Ben and his wife’s view of paradise. Yet once his wife falls ill and must be treated far outside of their snug cocoon, the family is eventually forced to engage with the rest of civilization. Ross spoke with about the ways in which this film reflects his own approach to parenting, why he celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday with his family and why the word “interesting” is banned from his household.

Some people are going to see this family as a pure fantasy.

What I find is that truth is always stranger than fiction. After I wrote this script and started having friends read it, they’d send me articles about families that were even more extraordinary. One of the reasons why people may object to the basic premise or think that it’s false is the degree to which these kids are smart. But the truth is, if you do nothing all day but read and exercise, you are going to be very bright. Many of us spend our lives passively consuming narratives or material items. This film is about children who spend their time learning instruments, reading and debating very advanced texts and having a rigorous curriculum of classical education that is set forth by their parents.

Their complete self-reliance must also cultivate a primal intelligence.

I think so too. Many people in rural America grow up very close to their food source. If you live on a farm, slaughtering animals for food is just a part of your life. To most Americans, breaking a chicken’s neck and cutting off its head in order to make your food is a very strange concept. Our food often isn’t referred to by its proper name, it’s called a McNugget. We are completely detached from the living, breathing animal that served as the source of our meal. Ben is trying to bring his family closer to this reality. He and his wife were not emotionally or intellectually unprepared to live in the real world. They didn’t retreat from the so-called “real world” because they couldn’t function within it. They left the city because they wanted to live in harmony with nature, and though they brought some of the accoutrements of modern life along with them, they have rejected the elements that are unnecessary. This brings up many questions about whether that’s sustainable or even the right thing to do, or totally insane.

Considering the environmental crises facing our planet, “Captain Fantastic” felt less like a fantasy to me and more like a harbinger of things to come, much like Patricia Rozema’s “Into the Forest.”

We certainly are, as a culture, obsessed with post-apocalyptic narratives. Our resources and lifestyles are unsustainable and our science fiction addresses that frequently. I hope it’s not a harbinger of things to come. I don’t wish for the end of the world as we know it. Viggo was in “The Road,” which is a post-apocalyptic film where there are no zombies or monsters in the traditional sense. We are the monsters, and that sadly seems to be far more real and accurate than anything else.

In light of the tragedy in Orlando, there has been much discussion about ideologies that require their followers to disengage from others. This film argues that our beliefs must not alienate us from the surrounding world.

Yes, Viggo and I talked about that a lot. The film is not a diatribe or a polemic, and we do not have a political or ideological message that we are attempting to deliver. If anything, the movie is about balance and communication and tolerance. Here’s a man who is out of balance in certain ways, and each viewer will have their own opinion about what’s out of balance, and through his journey, he comes to a sort of balance in the end. We live in a very polarized world. There are some countries with highly functioning parliamentary democracies that have a fascist party, a far-right party and a Communist or Socialist party. Our country has a two-party democracy and we can debate about whether that functions or not, but presently, people are not speaking to each other across the aisle. There is no communication or compromise, and it’s a very scary and depressing time. Politicians used to speak to each other and work together for the benefit of all constituencies, not just their own. I just watched a bit of Obama’s speech [about the Orlando tragedy], and I found his humanistic tone and his cry for tolerance and understanding to be profoundly moving.

One of my favorite touches in the film is Noam Chomsky Day, the sole holiday celebrated by the family.

A lot of things in this film are autobiographical. Chomsky is a great American and one who I believe should be widely read. Most people don’t know who he is. In academia, he is known as a linguist. That is his job, but he also researches and speaks about contemporary politics. I learn a great deal about the way our government functions and does not function by reading him. I think he has a very non-biased view, and his analyses seem very accurate. I actually do celebrate Noam Chomsky Day with my family. I made up the holiday because I believe he is a man worthy of being celebrated, and I’m pretty sure we’re the only family that celebrates it. The kids get a piece of cake and a book, and we all sit around and read a couple quotes from Uncle Noam, as we call him. My nine-year-old could tell you that Noam Chomsky is a linguistics professor from MIT and could also quote certain things he has said. Just as this film doesn’t have an idealogical bent, I didn’t set out to educate America about who Noam Chomsky is. It’s more of a personal thing, but if people end up reading his work and discovering him because of the film, I would be so honored.

I was struck by how Ben doesn’t shelter his children from certain information and maintains an open line of communication with them. 

Ben’s views on parenting differ from those of his younger sister, played by Kathryn Hahn. She believes that protecting children from certain concepts that they are too young to understand is not the same as lying to them, whereas Ben favors full disclosure at all times. I feel that Ben introduced his children to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism and told them that they can either pick one or none of them. You can give a great gift to your children by exposing them to as many things as possible, while allowing them to choose what’s true and effective for them. The other day, my thirteen-year-old son asked me what sperm was. He heard someone say the word, and so I told him what it was. He wasn’t freaked out by it. I asked him, “You’ve heard about what sex is?” He said yes, and I said, “Well, it’s how a baby is made.” I explained that the woman has an egg and the man has a sperm—which is true of many animals, not just human beings—and that’s the way new life is created. I could’ve said, “Oh, you’re too young,” but why? 

The same is true about the way you deal with language. By the way, every parent has their own way of parenting. There is no guidebook, and I’m not saying my way is the right way. Everyone has to find something that is true for them. In my household, we swear. If you avoid swear words, you eroticize them and give them power. The way you take away their power is by using them, and then it’s not a big deal. I also teach my kids to not swear in school because it’s inappropriate. They’re also not allowed to swear around other grown-ups because they may be offended by it. But in our house, they are allowed to do it. Some gay men refer to themselves as “fags” because they’re trying to take the hate out of that word. It’s like the n-word, which I don’t feel comfortable saying because it has so much power, but in some parts of African-American culture, the intention behind using that word is to take the power out of it. 

If my kids ask me about sex, we talk about it. If they ask me about drugs, we talk about them. But again, what I’m hoping the movie shows you is three Americas represented by each family. You have Ben’s family, you have his sister’s family—which is a suburban family like most of America, and you have a wealthy enclave that tends to be politically conservative and very wealthy, with golf courses and gated communities. I like movies where there are no heroes or villains, and where everything exists in shades of grey, like real life does. I like movies that are intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving and ask a lot of questions without providing any answers. It allows you to read the film and be an active participant within it.

You’ve previously worked with Terry Gilliam, whose freewheeling spirit appears to have inspired this film. How has your directorial approach been impacted by your collaborations with filmmakers like him and Martin Scorsese?

That’s a good question. If people know me at all, they know me as an actor, but I’ve acted and directed my whole life. There was no transition from being an actor to a director. I grew up making short films at the same time I was acting in theater. Being an actor has enabled me to observe the working methods of other directors. There can only be one director onset, and that’s been an incredible experience. Scorsese and Terry Gilliam are both heroes of mine. I think there’s no secret sauce, everyone has their own methods that they develop. Both of those men that you mentioned are very inclusive, very collaborative and very open. Marty had everything sort of planned out and mapped out and was very specific about everything, but he then shows up to play and Terry does that as well. The objective is not to prop up this dead object. With this film, we talked a lot about what it could be prior to production, and once we shot the script, we played a lot. It’s about what can happen in the moment. We’ve all agreed to do this text, we know what the story is, we know what the scene is about and why it’s in the narrative. Then once you’re there, it’s about exploring and surprising yourself.

You’ve mentioned that Harrison Ford was an initial choice for Ben, which reminded me of the actor’s great performance in Peter Weir’s 1986 film, “The Mosquito Coast.” That film could be seen as a more pessimistic take on similar material.

That’s a good point. When I was writing, I vaguely had Harrison Ford in mind. This would’ve been Ford when he was in his early-to-mid 40s, and he is obviously too old to play the role now. When my brother read the script, it reminded him of “The Mosquito Coast” as well, and it’s true that there’s a highly intelligent, highly motivated, highly dogmatic father in that movie. I think that man is mentally ill, and I don’t think that’s the case with Ben. But he is a strong patriarchal figure who is raising his children in a very specific way.

After recently losing a loved one, I was deeply moved by Ben’s monologue during the funeral scene, which articulated so many of my own beliefs regarding such rituals.

We have a strange and cold way of dealing with death in our western culture. People are even afraid to say the word “death.” We say “passing” or “passed on.” We have these euphemisms for what it is. I’ve been to so many marriage ceremonies and so many funerals where I felt like the person doing the eulogies or marrying the couple had no idea about the people they were eulogizing or marrying. They had no concept of the individual, it was about something else—frequently God, but not about the people involved. Viggo’s family is celebrating life and community. In a way, this was my fantasy of how I want to see us honor our loved ones, as a celebration of the life cycle and a celebration of that person. When a loved one passes, you are celebrating who that person was and what he—or she—meant to you all. Of course, things get complicated by certain religious dogmas and rituals, but I like the idea that the family created their own ritual that’s personal to them.

I also like how Ben encourages his children to think critically and avoid using the word “interesting.”

That idea came from a teacher I had in high school. I described something as interesting and he asked, “Well, what does that mean?” I do that with my kids, too. Think about how many people say “interesting” throughout your daily life. Sometimes what they mean is, “it’s of interest,” but what do they mean by that? Almost invariably if you ask someone what they thought of a movie, they’ll say, “It was interesting.” Your response should be, “What about it was of interest?” and then you’ll have to start parsing through it. We have all fallen for this sort of lazy description, and I’m guilty of it too. It’s important to be specific.

Sometimes you just say the word because your mind hasn’t quite grappled yet with whatever you’re attempting to describe.

It’s the way we speak. We say a sentence, then we modify that sentence, and then we modify it again and again. We’re carving with words.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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