Viggo Mortensen, Perceval Pictures

Premiere ECCLES THEATER

6:30 PM Friday 31 January

Park City, UTAH

FALLING

SYNOPSIS

 

John (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen), and their daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis), in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John's father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis’s mind is declining, so John brings him west, hoping that he and his sister, Sarah (Laura Linney), can help their father find a home closer to them. Their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s angry refusal to change his way of life in any way.

 

In his debut as a writer/director, Mortensen explores the fractures and contrasts of a contemporary family. Willis’s abrasive nature, by turns caustic and funny, is aggravated by memory loss, bringing past and present into conflict. He is in the early stages of dementia, and no longer seems able to handle the farm on his own. During his stay at John's California home, tension builds between Willis and the rest of the family. As he and John confront events that have torn them apart, including their differing recollections of John’s mother, Gwen (Hannah Gross), we embark on a journey from darkness to light, from rage and resentment to acceptance and hard-won grace.

 

The film stars three-time Golden Globe nominee Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Near Dark, Appaloosa), along with Mortensen, international star Sverrir Gudnason (2020 Sundance title Charter, The Girl in the Spider's Web, Borg vs. McEnroe), Hannah Gross (2020 Sundance title Tesla, Joker, “Mindhunter”), Terry Chen (“House of Cards”), and three-time Academy Award® nominee Laura Linney (“Ozark,” Savages, Kinsey, You Can Count on Me).

 

Production leads on the film include acclaimed cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, Country, Two Faces of January, Trishna, Mammut), award-winning production designer Carol Spier (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, The Kindness of Strangers) and award-winning editor Ronald Sanders (Eastern Promises, Maps to the Stars, Coraline).

 

FALLING is produced by Daniel Bekerman (The Witch, Percy) of Scythia Films and Chris Curling (The Bookshop, The Last Station) of Zephyr Films together with Mortensen, who previously produced Everyone Has a Plan, Far From Men and Jauja through Perceval Pictures. Executive producers are Peter Touche and Stephen Dailey for Ingenious Media, Danielle Virtue and Brian Hayes Currie and Norman Merry for Lip Sync Productions.

'Falling': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Lance Henriksen stars as Viggo Mortensen's difficult father in the latter's directing debut.

 

by John DeFore, © The Hollywood Reporter

 

Having quietly spent years augmenting his acting work with prodigious output in music, poetry and visual arts (not to mention founding a publishing house that champions other artists' work), Viggo Mortensen finally takes the director's chair in Falling, a masterful family drama taking a compassionate view of a father whose faults are impossible to ignore. Playing the son who must now care for him through bouts of dementia while absorbing his insults, Mortensen co-stars with Lance Henriksen, a beloved character actor who has almost certainly never had such a meaty part — with 250 roles on his IMDb page, one can't claim to have watched them all — and who undeniably rises to the occasion. Sundance attendees shouldn't read anything into programmers' placement of this artful film at the tail end of the schedule: This will be one of the fest's most assured directing debuts, and is sure to move viewers whether or not their own families contain a figure as problematic as Henriksen's Willis Petersen.

 

We see Willis first as a young man — played by Sverrir Gudnason (Borg vs. McEnroe), who both looks like he could've been Mortensen's father and, as the film weaves through its then-and-now storytelling, captures how genuine paternal pride and love for his wife are poisoned by fundamental emotional flaws. Bringing his wife Gwen (Hannah Gross) and newborn son home from the hospital, he stands in the kitchen, holds the baby still while Gwen fetches a clean diaper, and bends over to gently say, "I'm sorry I brought you into this world. To die."

 

Moving to the present, Willis has acknowledged (in an increasingly rare clear-headed moment) that he can no longer maintain the upstate New York farm where he lives alone, having chased two wives away. He's flying to California with his grown son John (we'll meet John's sister, played by Laura Linney, later), and is having a confused episode. Willis believes the plane is his old farmhouse; thinks Gwen is upstairs; and disturbs both passengers and crew. John does his best to calm him, and the film flashes back to one of the moments that cemented his sense of filial duty: Willis, out by a lake with the 4-year-old John (Grady McKenzie), patiently helping him shoot his first duck, then cheerfully allowing him to treat the dead bird like a pet until it's time to cook and eat it.

 

Mortensen (who also wrote the screenplay) moves back and forth like this throughout — both to gently illustrate Willis' failings as a husband and father, and to suggest how the old man is experiencing the world today. His confusion about facts is easy to understand, but Mortensen and editor Ronald Sanders use frequent glimpses of the outdoors to add dimension to the character's emotional life. There's nothing Malicky about Willis' connection to nature here, but his obvious affinity for its pleasures makes his inability to connect with humans who love him more poignant.

 

Willis is a homophobe whose son is gay. As he settles into the home John shares with his husband, Eric (Terry Chen), and daughter Monica (Gabby Velis), he relishes needling the two men, allowing himself to forget, say, that Eric's ancestry isn't Japanese. He speaks freely and loudly about sexuality, genially throwing slurs around in a museum or restaurant. He's also given to casually calling his ex-wives "whores." He sees betrayal everywhere; his fantasies of being cuckolded may have been self-fulfilling prophesies, and play out for him in an eternal present tense: Both women have died, but he rants as if they're quietly in the next room, cavorting with the mailman.

 

Despite his disregard for others' feelings, Willis is able to connect warmly with the couple's daughter, who overlooks his inappropriateness and calls him her friend. All these contradictions and more fit seamlessly into Henriksen's agile, engaging performance; few moviegoers who've enjoyed him over the years will be surprised, but many will resent that we, and he, have waited so long for a role like this.

 

Mortensen, who reportedly only agreed to act in his film to secure financing, makes John uncommon among the many adults we've watched cope with difficult parents in indie films. He's not self-righteous or comically exasperated, doesn't quietly complain to Eric about his plight, doesn't rise to the bait his father dangles in front of him. He has fought with him in the past, and grown. Now, he lets insults sail by and patiently adjusts plans to suit Willis' capriciousness. Clearly, this is because John is more decent than those of us who might cut our losses with a similar family member. But perhaps it's also because the past is as alive for him as for Willis: Maybe John is still the mop-headed kid who soaked up his father's approval when he aimed that rifle and shot, and whose father said there was no harm in letting him bathe that beautiful dead duck, dry it by the fire and keep it beside him in bed. Falling doesn't transform its emotional landscape into a simple question of rejection or forgiveness. It's comfortable knowing that meanness and affection can exist in the same person, and that tolerance, even when it only flows in one direction, benefits both giver and recipient.

Director’s Statement:

 

The idea for FALLING came to me as I was flying across the Atlantic after my mother’s funeral. I couldn’t sleep; my mind was flooded with echoes and images of her and our family at different stages of our shared lives. Feeling a need to describe them, I began to write down down a series of incidents and snippets of dialogue I recalled from my childhood. The more I wrote about my mother, the more I thought of my father. By the time we landed, the impressions I’d been writing down had evolved to include conversations and moments that had not actually happened, parallel story lines that felt right somehow, that widened my perspective. It seemed as though these invented sequences allowed me to get closer to the truth of my feelings for my mother and father than any straightforward enumeration of specific memories could. What I ended up with was a father-son story called “Falling”, about a fictional family that shares some traits with ours. I had the basic structure of what eventually became the present screenplay.

 

My father had been an overwhelming presence in my mother’s life, and their acrimonious separation when I was eleven years old, and my brothers were eight and six, changed the three of us profoundly. Our father's shadow hung over the new home we made with our mother for years after they'd both moved on and found other partners. He came to my mother's funeral in spite of having barely been on speaking terms with her for the previous forty-five years, and surprised me by coming to the reception and staying until most of the guests had left. He was in the early stages of dementia at that point, so I stayed close to him that day. My brothers did the same. We had put together a slide show of pictures representing various stages of our mother's life, and some of those included my father. He seemed very happy to see those faces and connections, and sat at the bar for a long while and watched the slide show repeatedly play out on the TV screen. At that time, he had already started to occasionally confuse me with his own father, slipping now and then into the distant past of his childhood and adolescence, speaking to me in Danish instead of English. While FALLING is not strictly an autobiographical story, some of its elements, including some of the flashbacks related to the childhood of John, the character I will be playing, are based on real events and conversations that I remember from my infancy.

 

In FALLING, Willis’ son John joins the Air Force and eventually settles down in Los Angeles with his partner Eric, where they adopt a little girl named Monica. The contrasts between John’s modern, urban family and Willis’ far more traditional lifestyle and nuclear family model are frequently extreme - and often a source of conflict and frustration for both of them. The dynamic of their relationship is driven by generational and geographical divides between a conservative, ageing farmer and what he views as his wayward, morally weak son. It is also a contrast between rural, heartland USA and West Coast urban progressive society. In the end, the damaged bonds of familial affection that once united them, and which the story visits through their differing subjective recollections, largely overcome the pain they have caused themselves and each other in the decades since John’s childhood. FALLING is, finally, a story about acceptance and forgiveness. A story about falling from grace and falling in love.

 

It is not my intention to draw parallels between the story’s father-son conflict and the current polarised state of affairs in US politics and society. That is, in part, why the story is set in the winter of 2009, long before the presidency of Donald Trump and the upsurge of socio-cultural divisiveness it has fuelled.

 

FALLING is structured with frequent looks at the past, often showing differing recollections of significant family events from Willis’ and John’s points of view. These contrasting glimpses of their shared history are to be filmed in colour, just as the present-day sequences will be. Although this is a story that focuses on intimate family scenes for the most part, our cinematographer Marcel Zyskind and I feel that the best way to take a clear and unflinching look at the father-son relationship at the heart of the story is by shooting widescreen, with the high resolution that anamorphic lenses provide. There are not going to be any visual “tricks” - any black and white photography, grainy or sepia-toned footage - to visually separate the flashback scenes from the actual winter that Willis and John are sharing. As happens sometimes with people who reach their seventies and eighties, Willis recalls the past as being simpler, easier, somehow more attractive. His memories mostly take place in summer and autumn months, and therefore those scenes will naturally look and feel more colourful and warmer than the bleak, wintry landscapes of late 2008. With the help of our gifted Production Designer Carol Spier, someone I got to know and admire on the three movie stories we worked together on with David Cronenberg, Marcel and I have already shot some of the summer and autumn material we need. Marcel has a wonderful eye for composition, and has connected strongly with the tone and rhythms of our story. We seem to be in sync visually, and I feel very fortunate to have him lighting our movie. We still have miles to go, of course, but I'm glad that we are well on our way.

 

The score, aside from the occasional radio or record player music described in the screenplay, will not seek to drive the emotional journeys of the characters in any obvious way. Ideally, any additional scoring will be sparse, closely linked to the landscapes the audience is exposed to, and supportive of the emotional through-lines of the principal characters, without calling undue attention to itself.

 

Lance Henriksen is an extraordinary actor, and his own life story - specifically his relationship with his father - in many ways mirrors our story’s father-son dynamic. He deeply understands and connects with the expectations, disappointments and stubborn optimism depicted in FALLING. I am very happy that he will be our ‘Willis’. To play the younger version of the character, we have enlisted a very fine actor, Sverrir Gudnason, who also feels a deep kinship with the character of ‘Willis’. With their help, our team of storytellers hopes to surprise and be surprised in the months of shooting to come.

 

Viggo Mortensen

 

© 2020 Perceval Pictures/Perceval Pictures ApS